1 9 5 0 – 1 9 6 5 (USA)
343 x 30 minute episodes
The last great superstar of American radio to make the transition to television was Jack Benny, who proceeded cautiously, in an almost stingy manner – befitting his carefully cultured persona.
The Jack Benny Program dealt loosely with the domestic and professional tribulations of the star.
The show had thrived since 1932 on the radio before Benny finally made the transition to TV in October 1950 (for eight years, until 1958, his show was aired on both television and radio).
In the first few years, before her retirement, Benny’s wife Mary Livingstone played herself on the show. Otherwise, the series was a comedy-variety programme of skits, monologues and music, the foremost example of a series built on the personality of the star.
Part of Benny’s persona was the humiliation and insults he allowed himself to suffer at the hands of second bananas.
Together with his dozens of running schticks – being forever 39, keeping his hard-earned pennies in an impenetrable vault in the basement of his Beverly Hills home, his noisy Maxwell automobile, his vanity about blue eyes and his prowess on the violin – enabled a brilliant ensemble cast of supporting players to combine for the comfort of predictability and the freshness of variations.
Among the cast were Dennis Day, the daffy Irish tenor; Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, Benny’s sarcastic gravel-voiced black valet; the headstrong announcer Don Wilson (and his pampered son, also overweight, named Harlow); the impertinent store clerk Frank Nelson (“Yeeeeees?”), who surreally worked behind every store counter where Benny would shop (pictured below); and the Man of a Thousand Voices, Mel Blanc.
Blanc played several running characters on the show, including Professor LeBlanc, the weeping violin teacher who despaired of ever teaching Benny to play even adequately.
He also occasionally played a monosyllabic Mexican, engaged in the predictable exchange with Benny: “What’s your name?”. “Sy”. “Sy?”. “Si”. “And your sister?”. “Sue”. “What does she do?”. “Sew”. “Sew?”. “Si”.
Blanc was even the off-screen source of the inspired sound effects like the chugging, dilapidated Maxwell, and the creaking vault door. More than other comedians who made the switch from radio, stage and movies to television, Jack Benny had found his perfect medium.
Just as his character evolved from one of somewhat arrogant egotism to that of being eternally set-upon, so too did television provide the perfect frame for his style.
Benny’s classic pauses and comic timing were funny enough on radio – one famous routine had a robber approaching him demanding “Your money or your life!”, followed by a minute of silence and finally, Benny’s “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”.
But on television, these devices were supplemented by eye contact and droll mannerisms. No comedian crafted so finely such a large assortment of inflexions and routines central to his character, and so perfectly suited to the intimate small screen.
Among the famous performers who made their TV debuts on Benny’s show were Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, Claudette Colbert, Basil Rathbone, and a young comedian named Johnny Carson.
The show aired originally on CBS and later switched to NBC where it was known as The Jack Benny Show.
The legendary comedian died in August 1977.