“Now cut that out!” James takes a look at this collection of ten episodes from one of America’s most popular post-war comedians, in a review that comes courtesy of DVD Pacific.
The most famous joke of Jack Benny’s career was one that summed up perfectly why he was one of America’s favourite funnymen. In an episode of his radio show broadcast in 1948 he is walking home one day when a mugger jumps out at him and yells “Your money or your life!” There’s no reply, just a long, pregnant pause. Eventually the robber can’t stand it any longer and repeats his demand, at which point Benny instantly snaps “I’m thinking it over!” Cue pandemonium in the audience as they fall about laughing for what seems an incredible length of time (it used to be said, incorrectly as it turned out, that it was the longest recorded laugh at a single joke in radio history). These days of course it’s an old gag, but even back then the reason it got the reaction it did was not only because it’s a good punchline but because it reflected so neatly Benny’s on-air miserly persona and was delivered with his immaculate comic timing. It was everything that his fans loved about him.
Looked at today, it might seem a little odd that he was so popular. Unlike his contemporaries, there was nothing special to distinguish him from other performers, not having, for example, the standout wit of Fred Allen, the iconography of Groucho Marx or the continuingly successful movie career of Bob Hope. On his radio and TV shows he surrounded himself with people who often as not got as many laughs as he did, while behind the scenes he employed a group of writers (admittedly common practice in those days) who were responsible for much of his material. His success came in the way he centred his entire act around how self-centred he was, and built a career on fashioning a character called Jack Benny that was very far from the real man. The Benny of radio and TV was a vain, pompous figure, one who continued to claim he was 39 long after the evidence said otherwise, and who was so mean with money that after working with him for twenty years one of his sidekicks had been able to save just enough money to buy a raffle ticket. When the audience laughed at the mugger joke above, it was from a familiarity built over the course of fifteen years of his mean alter ego.
Of course, it helped that he didn’t really fool anyone with this act. In real life Benny was an enormously generous, likeable man, a fact that comes across in every performance despite his best efforts. The very fact he made himself the butt of his career is a small example of this. He was intensely loyal to those around him, making household names of his co-stars and ensuring they got as much kudos as he did. He was a pioneer of race relations; at a time when Amos ‘n’ Andy were weekly mocking the African American community to an audience of millions he introduced Eddie Anderson as his butler Rochester, a character who swiftly became a Jeeves to his Wooster and who often stole the show from under his nose. He gave his wife Mary Livingstone a starring role in his show, and helped launch the career of no less a person than Mel Blanc, who can be seen popping up regularly on this DVD set, and Frank Nelson, who made a career out of the character he created on the Benny show. There was no ego about him (unlike his stage persona) which made him one of the most liked men in Hollywood even if, as he wasn’t shy of reminding everyone on stage, his movie career had been resolutely stillborn. In short, his popularity stemmed from a paradoxical combination of meanness that plainly wasn’t meant and vanity that was evidently anything but. His audience was in on the joke from the beginning, and it engendered huge affection for him over a career that lasted more than thirty years.
His radio show had remained at the top of the ratings for nearly two decades by the time television came along. As with many others, he made the transition to the new medium easily, bringing with him most of his writers, who often would adapt old radio scripts for the show. One example of this practice can be seen on this new collection of ten Benny shows. The Christmas Show was a Benny tradition from way back; every year he would go to a store to buy presents and drive a salesman, always played by Blanc, to distraction while he tried to work out the cheapest gifts he could get away with buying. The example on this set is a straight rewrite of the radio version broadcast in 1948, albeit with some extra visual gags along the way. It’s one of the best of the ten episodes featured on this collection, which appears to have been randomly put together rather than being a “Best of” collection or one with any particular theme. The other standout show is Reminiscing about Last New Year’s, a highly atypical episode which relies on pathos rather than jokes and ends with a surprisingly moving toast to the New Year between Benny and Rochester.
It’s so atypical because in general the series’s format and tone was essentially the same every week. Filmed before a live studio audience, Benny would sometimes come out and deliver a short monologue first before segueing into an extended sketch featuring the guest star, usually based around Benny’s own life. Although later episodes had a more formal, sitcom-style structure, they never get away from the vaudeville roots of Benny’s own past, with the performers regularly acknowledging the audience and breaking into song and dance routines for no particular reason. The main difference between the TV version and the radio is that not many of his wireless co-stars joined him in the new medium. Only Rochester and Don Wilson, his portly, jolly announcer are regulars; others, like band leader Phil Harris and crooner Dennis Day, were off doing their own thing and made only occasional appearances (Day appears in a couple of the episodes on this set; Harris not at all). Another radio regular who popped up only very rarely was Livingstone – although you wouldn’t know it listening to her performances, she suffered hugely from stage-fright, so much so that in the latter stages of the radio show she had to pre-record her segments to be edited in later. Nevertheless, and give her her due, she did make the effort to appear a few times on TV which must have been an absolute nightmare given her jitters, but the two episodes in which she features on these DVDs display no sign of her problem. The first, entitled How Jack Found Mary is another radio script rewritten, and appears to be somewhat based on the real life story of how the couple first hooked up in a department store. It’s a decent if not sterling episode, albeit probably not as funny as the audio version, and not as good as the other Livingstone episode on the set, 4 O’Clock in the Morning, in which she takes an exhausted Jack shopping for a new suit.
Nowadays of course, many of the early comedy shows can look quaint and even naïve. Even though Benny’s humour has aged far better than Allen’s or Hope’s more topical material, it’s still simple stuff that won’t have anyone today doubling over in paroxysm of mirth. Much of the pleasure to be gained from the show is down to Benny’s performance – in addition to his superb timing, the visual medium also utilised his expressive face and thus added an extra dimension to his comedy. One couldn’t call it versatile – his stock-in-trade expression is, when faced with an irritating and bizarre situation, to turn to the audience and give us an Oliver-Hardy-like look, as if to take “Can you believe this?” the visual version of his radio catchphrase “Now cut that out!” The other advantage the TV gave to him was to introduce a pleasingly surreal component, most notably seen on this set in The Honeymooner’s Show (which relies almost entirely on Jack’s taking the mickey out of Jackie Gleason’s series The Honeymooners), The Jam Session Show which has a running gag about Benny’s unusual furniture arrangement, and Goldie, Fields and Glides.
The latter two shows also provide another reason to watch the shows today, namely the guest stars. Benny’s popularity within the industry meant that he was able to persuade film stars who normally wouldn’t normally have touched the small screen with a ten foot pole to appear with him. Among others he provided the debut TV appearances of Marilyn Monroe (an episode sadly not on this collection) and Humphrey Bogart, which is. Indeed, it seems that all Benny DVD collections are duty bound to include the Bogey show, unsurprisingly given it’s an excellent episode and Bogart proves himself a good sport. The aforementioned Jam Session Show features a young Kirk Douglas on the banjo amongst others, while Goldie, Fields and Glides is perhaps the most star-studded, giving a starring role to George Burns (one of Benny’s closest friends), Bing Crosby and, very briefly, Bob Hope. As I’ve already said, Mel Blanc pops up regularly, giving his best performance on these DVDs in an episode entitled Talent Show, which also features a cameo from Jayne Mansfield, who appears to turn up solely so that Jack could tell her he loved The Girl Can’t Help It.
The one star who is missing, and without whom any Benny collection is inevitably lacking, is Fred Allen. Allen’s “feud” with Benny was one of the cornerstones of both of their careers, and led to one of Benny’s most celebrated adlibs – on being mocked by Allen on one of their radio shows, Benny retorted “You wouldn’t say that to me if my writers were here!” The Allen episode could easily have been substituted for The Honeymooner’s Show – I’m not sure how well remembered the Gleason vehicle is now in the States, other than for being the inspiration for The Flintstones and as much of the humour of the Benny spoof relies on knowing the show it could have been lost with no problems. The Allen episode, on the other hand, is great fun, even if it makes for slightly uncomfortable viewing today, based as it is around the fact that Benny’s sponsor was Lucky Strike, the cigarette manufacturers. That Benny spent a third of his career being supported by such a company is unfortunate, and it’s noticeable that the vast majority of episodes on this collection have little mention of that, as though the issue were being intentionally avoided, but as with his show as a whole one has to remember the time it was made in and make certain allowances to the performer, if not the company.
Looked at today, then, the shows are real historic artefacts rather than comedy shows which can necessarily be appreciated in the same way they were half a century ago. There is much pleasure still to be had from them, but perhaps only if one is minded to do so. While the odd gag is still funny many aren’t, and any writer who suggested most of the comic situations seen in this collection wouldn’t find himself making much of a career out of comedy, except perhaps as a writer on Chucklevision. But Benny himself is different; even when his material is weak he is funny, and watching him at work is to see a major craftsman at the top of his game. He’s far more likeable than Hope ever was and his persona has aged far better than Allen’s. One can imagine that had he been around today he would still have been able to make people laugh and, even though patience is demanded occasionally in sitting through his shows, he makes the effort worthwhile.
As the Jack Benny episodes are now in the Public Domain there have been many cheaply-thrown together DVDs of his show issued down the years. This particular compilation has a nice tin to hold the two discs in, embossed with a picture of Benny and containing two cases with details of the episodes, but otherwise contains few advantages to any other collection you can pick up.
I have yet to see a Jack Benny show with anything like a decent Video transfer and this set is no exception, with a large number of unsightly artefacts cropping up regularly, low definition images, quite a bit of blurring and encoding problems all over the place. That said, there are worse transfers out there – another Benny collection I’ve seen duplicates some of the episodes on this one and comparing the two transfers there is a marked improvement on this set. One episode in particular, The Honeymooners Show, is near-unwatchable on this other not-to-be-named collection whereas here it can be at least seen, and facial expressions discerned. As there appears to be no attempt at film restoration on the set I can only assume two different prints exist, so that’s one plus. But as you can see from the screenshots I’ve taken, they’re far from ideal.
The Audio is similar, quite muffled at times which occasionally makes dialogue difficult to hear. The Bogart episode also appears to be out of synch right near the end.
But the thing that annoys about these kinds of sets is that with a minimum of effort they could be really decent. Would it really have been so much trouble, say, to put the episodes in the order in which they were broadcast? Or, for that matter, include the original transmission date? The radio shows are public domain property too, so why not bung a couple on, especially those that are the original versions of How Jack Found Mary and The Christmas Show? Laziness is also shown with the fact there’s no Play All option (the Main Menu is a simple list of the show titles with a picture of the main himself and a short looping section of his theme music) and no subtitles or chapter stops.
That said, the tin is really nice. It’s just a shame about the contents. Given that it’s perfectly legal to spread these shows about the only real reason for anyone to buy a collection like this is if some extra thought is given to them, and frankly there’s nothing here worth shelling out for, besides the convenience. And the tin.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum