The Best Show Currently on Television Is “The Jack Benny Program.”Posted: April 5, 2010
A channel in the Chicago area that devotes itself to “oldies” (WCIU, channel 23, which bills itself as “Me TV”) has been airing episodes of the old Jack Benny Program. The show is not on at the most convenient time — 2 in the morning, to be exact — but in this day of the DVR, that hardly matters.
I have my DVR set to capture every episode of The Jack Benny Program that airs. Do you have a “DVR backlog,” consisting of shows you’ve recorded but can’t seem to get around to watching? I have such a backlog — but The Jack Benny Program isn’t in it. I watch these shows as frequently as I record them.
All the episodes I’ve watched over the last few weeks, since discovering the show on the schedule, had original airdates between 1955 and 1960. So the most recent of them is 50 years old. If you think that makes them dated, you’re wrong. They’re fresher than anything else on television. Still.
In many ways, the show, which ran on TV for 15 seasons, was simply a visualization of Benny’s radio program which aired for 22 seasons (the last five of them concurrent with the first five of the television show). Central, of course, is the persona of Jack Benny. He embodies a fascinating contradiction. On the one hand, he is vain, pennypinching, narcissistic, hypersensitive, quick-tempered. We delight in seeing him get his comeuppance several times an episode. On the other hand, we adore him! He’s a doll, and somehow, we want things to turn out well for him. This is all going on at once, and the multi-layeredness accounts for the vividness of the character after all these years.
(Here’s a random fact: President Kennedy once said that despite being too busy to watch much television, he always found the time to watch The Jack Benny Program.)
I don’t know how Jack Benny made the audience love to hate him and just plain love him at the same time — it may be that not even he and his longtime writers (Sam Perrin, Hal Goldman, Al Gordon, George Balzer) knew exactly how they did it, because it could have been collectively instinctual — but I have a couple of guesses. One is that he embodies failings we recognize in ourselves; since he is our surrogate, ultimately we must root for him, if not to succeed, then at least to preserve some shred of his self-respect. (He’s locked in the same life-and-death struggle for respect in a disrespectful universe that each of us is.) My other guess is that the key is the sensitivity of the character. We detect, under the flaws, a man whose exquisite sensitivity causes him constantly to be hurt by the world. If his pain causes him to act out in unattractive and perfectly counter-productive ways, we get that it’s not because he wants to. In his lack of understanding the way the world works is a kind of innocence. We want to protect that innocence, and tell him it’s all going to be all right.
Another part of the genius of Benny — the real guy – was to recognize that if other characters on the show got the laughs, it only made his show, and him, more successful. And so he surrounded himself with a stock company of superb comic players. His servant Rochester, played by Eddie Anderson, got the laugh, and the better of Benny, in every encounter. Frank Nelson, the clerk who always turned around and said “YESSSS, CAN I HELP YOU????,” was a nemesis of awesome formidability in his sheer unhelpfulness. (See immediately below.)Vodpod videos no longer available.
In contrast, Mel Blanc often played a weak character driven crazy by Benny. Somehow, Blanc was even able to make suicide funny, as a department store clerk brought to nervous breakdown by Benny’s indecision. (An off-camera gunshot tells the story, and gets one of the biggest laughs ever earned by a sound effect.)Vodpod videos no longer available.
Not to be dismissed in all the analysis is that the level of execution in the show attains such heights. Not every episode I’ve seen is a gem. Some are duds, though even the duds have a wonderful moment or two. But at its best, the character writing by Balzer, Perrin, Goldman and Gordon approaches a level of wit equal to that in the great Greek and Roman comedies, and in the work of latter day humorists like Robert Benchley and George S. Kaufman. The timing in the comedic performances of Benny, Anderson, Nelson, Blanc, and Dennis Day (as the “stupid” boy singer) is incomparable. You can enjoy the program on any level, but with the best episodes, the greater your appreciation for sophistication in your entertainment, the more you’ll like them.
I watch Jack Benny, and The Jack Benny Program, and something more happens to me than mere laughter. I’m happy. There’s a smile on my face the whole time. I’m sharing deeply in the human experience. I’m feeling love, real love for the character and the man who portrays him, and for all the other comic actors on the show who seem in their various ways to be refractions of Benny, and who bring me so much pleasure. Today’s better comedies make me laugh. But The Jack Benny Program causes to me to enter an altered state I can only call delight. It’s a powerful drug. Maybe it’s good that you have to go out of your way to find it.