The Best Show Currently on Television Is “The Jack Benny Program.”

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.

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12 Comments on “The Best Show Currently on Television Is “The Jack Benny Program.””

  1. Neil Shapiro says:

    Ted:

    I have always loved Jack Benny, & the character ‘Jack Benny’ that he created. To me, meta comedy shows like Seinfeld are direct descendants of his TV show. By the way, that superb drawing of him in the title card for his show was done by an illustrator named Rene Bouche.

    Neil

  2. Ted Naron says:

    Apt comparison to the meta-comedy of Seinfeld! And thanks for pointing out the illustrator. I never knew that name (I’m going to go look him up now), but I agree, it’s a magnificent drawing.

    [Pause]

    Okay, I just looked up René Bouché. For those who are interested, a website for him exists at

    http://www.renebouche.com/artist/

    On it, I just learned that his portrait of Benny hangs in The National Portrait Gallery of The Smithsonian Institution!

  3. Neil Shapiro says:

    I’m not surprised that Bouche’s (I forgot how to make the accent mark) drawing is in the National Portrait Gallery.

    Do you remember that Jello sponsored Benny’s radio program? My mom was a huge Benny fan — when she was in the hospital for the last time, I’d sing the Jello song to her (‘Hey, it’s National Jello Week — tell everybody you know!…’). She loved hearing it, & I’ve always associated Jack Benny with her.

  4. Ted Naron says:

    This is pretty incredible. My mother loved Jack Benny, too, and I was thinking of writing in my post that one reason I love Jack Benny is that loving Jack Benny brings me closer to my mom. When I watch the show, I not only laugh, I imagine her laughing, and that makes me love it all the more. I associate Jack Benny with my mom the same way you do.

    Now I don’t have to put it in my post, because I put it in a comment.

    That’s a lovely memory about singing the Jello song to your mom. When is National Jello Week, by the way? We should celebrate it.

  5. Neil Shapiro says:

    How cool that your mom loved Jack Benny too! I have the same reaction to watching an early TV kinescope of a scene from Carousel, between Gordon Macrae & Jan Clayton (I think that’s who she is). I think it ran on the Ed Sullivan show. When I see it, I have an immediate sensory rush of my mother.

  6. jon says:

    I have stopped watching tv (basically). Having seen bits of older shows (including the likes Jack Benny and Steve Allen); it amazes me that despite a smaller quantity to chose from 50 years ago- the shows were relatively of higher quality back then (namely more vital and entertaining).

    Then again there is a silver lining in all this. As a result of all the trash on tv these days; I spend more time than ever with books.

  7. john p. says:

    jack benny is my favorite show i think ever!!!!! like you say when i watch it it makes feel good about things-temporarily i forget the nastyness of the world (and current tv shows) and traslates me to another world. i guess this is the delight of j.b. jack is a largely visual comedian which is why i think his tv show was so much better than his radio show. just one of his sidewise glances was enough to make me laugh like no other show or comedian. his timing was perfection!! i wish i could get the entire show on dvd. i would pay a small fortune to do so. these are true classics! watching his show is like looking through a window and seeing a much more innocent time. somewhat like the andy griffith show with don knotts. these are my anti-depressant shows-without the side effects of prozac!

  8. As a European it has been hard to get copies of the Jack Benny Show. Those that are out on dvd are so few that I had been lead to believe very few of them survived. I hope tis means a nice fat collection will be issued someday as well.

  9. Larf says:

    I am not ashamed to say I am completely in love with Jack Benny!
    I remember his t.v. show from when I was a kid, but I was too young to really understand what a genius he was. Discovering him now in midmlife is like finding buried treasure! Nobody can touch him.
    Recently I’ve been watching The Jack Benny Show alot. Every night I look forward to my ongoing love affair. It comes on here in NY at 2a.m. two episodes in a row on The Antenna Channel 22, right after Burns and Allen. It makes my whole day.
    Jack Benny is a comedy God as far as I’m concerned. I just lost both my parents this year and also quite recently a very close lifelong friend. I’ve been in a pea soup pool of depression and grief. And yet when Jack Benny comes on I sit here and I belly laugh right out loud. All I have to do is look at him and he tickles my funny bone. So I consider him therapy.

    Jack Benny is a completely adorable person. It’s the intelligence, his slow burn..the writing, the brilliant timing, his hilarious capers, the supporting cast – Esp Mel Blanc and Frank Nelson, Jimmy Stewart and all the wonderful guest stars. It’s the greatest, funniest show I’ve ever seen on television.
    I love Jack Benny. Truth be told, I have a little crush on him. When I think of him, I smile. Had I met him back in the day I know we would have had chemistry…;-)) And why not? Jack Benny loved women. Warm and touchy feely. He was a very generous performer, and by all accounts, a generous person on every way.
    Jack Benny was a gentleman and a gentle man. He was deeply loved by everyone who knew him and I like to think that now, long after he went to be with the angels, I count myself among them. Because every time I watch his show I see some new wonderfulness about him to delight in and I’m getting to know him more and more. I really have alot to look forward to because I haven’t even touched the radio programs yet!

    That Christmas shopping episode with Mel Blanc just unhinges me!

    So nice to know there are others out there right now who love him as I do, who GET IT – how great he was. For me, the timing could not be better. And it’s a nice connection to my parents and all my long gone relatives who loved him too. All in all, a very warm good feeling. A feeling of home that brngs me great comfort.

    God Bless you, Jack Benny! You were and still are in a class by yourself. Comic genius royalty, and a nice person too. It just doesn’t get better than that.

  10. Ted Naron says:

    Larf, my heart goes out to you for the losses you’ve endured. I’m glad Jack Benny is able to help you. Thank you for articulating your feelings about him.

    • Larf says:

      Thanks, Ted.

      It’s been a very difficult chapter.

      I was feeling pretty passionate about Jack Benny when I wrote that!
      Just the mention of him brings a smile to my face. I’m glad to find others who feel that way. We’re a special tribe.

      My name is actually Martha. When I was a little girl I couldn’t say “m’s” – so when I said my name ot came ” Larfa “. My mother called me Larf. It was something special that we shared.
      Thanks to everyone for the great comments about Jack Benny. He brings such comfort. And addition to the hilarity, I find watching him very restful by comparison with the insane stressful pace we’ve got going on here today not to mention the crapola we are subjected to on televison. Such a blessing.

  11. V.E.G. says:

    Al Gordon’s real family name was Gordetsky. He is a Hebrew.


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