When Jack Benny played the London Palladium in 1948, an audience member tapped a critic on the shoulder during one of the entertainer’s prolonged pauses and asked when the man on stage would actually do something. The critic later recalled: ”I explained that Jack Benny never did anything, which was his particular genius.”
That genius is often evident in The Jack Benny Program, Vols. 1-5 (1961-1964, MCA/Universal), a new video collection featuring two episodes per tape. A visual adaptation of the comedian’s hugely popular radio show (which began in 1932), the TV series was character comedy of a rarified form. In fact, Benny rarely said a gag line — his image as a vainglorious, untalented, short-fused miser was so thoroughly crafted and well-sustained that he got laughs with what he seemed to be thinking.
On his half-hour TV series — a strange, almost postmodern, hybrid of a variety show and a situation comedy about the star and his cohorts as they put together that show — Benny frequently let others have the funniest lines. In one of the best episodes, ”Jack Is Kidnapped” (Vol. 5), his announcer, Don Wilson, pitches an idea for a script in which Benny would play a triple role: ”a man, a boy, and a dog.” ”How can I play a dog?” asks Benny. ”You have to take your glasses off,” his eternally vague sidekick, singer Dennis Day, offers helpfully.
Johnny Carson — who adored the comedian and modeled his mannerisms, timing, and reactions on Benny’s style — makes an ideal guest star in a must-have episode from Vol. 1. In another, Raymond Burr sends up Perry Mason (complaining, as he loses the case, that Benny’s writers aren’t as good as his). But the episodes featuring Milton Berle, Carol Burnett, and Lucille Ball (on Vols. 3, 4, and 5, respectively) capture neither Benny nor the guests at their best; the sketches are contrived and obvious.
Although all five tapes offer rewards, they do not represent, as the company boasts, ”the best of The Jack Benny Program from the Golden Age of Television.” Benny’s TV shows ran from 1950 to 1965, but these episodes are all from the ’60s. They may have been chosen because of their prominent guest stars and superior visual quality (in the ’60s, Benny filmed his show; many of his earlier ones were kinescoped). But by the series’ end, Benny and his writers were growing a bit tired; the show no longer consistently made the top 10, as it had in the mid-’50s.
At 71, in his final season, Benny’s timing was still flawless, but he’d no longer punch home a line like ”Now cut that out!” the way he did in the classic 1958 episode ”The Railroad Station” (scheduled for rerelease as half of Vol. 6). That show didn’t need big-name guests; Benny’s regular ensemble cast — including Eddie ”Rochester” Anderson, Mel Blanc, Frank Nelson, and Mary Livingstone (all underrepresented in this new selection)— gave him all the support he needed. All volumes: B