Notes on The Jack Benny Program

Fenster writes:

Let me put a plug in for the old Jack Benny Show. It had several incarnations on radio and TV but the basic structure and cast ran through them for the many years he was a favorite.

I didn’t have much familiarity with him growing up. His peak years were his first years on TV, as he was making the transition from his wildly successful radio show, and people were taken by the fact that unlike a lot of radio stars he made the leap to TV with ease. The long pauses, his deadpan delivery, his skinflint persona.

But that was when I was too young for much to register, and by the time I was settling in to TV comedy we were on to the Beverly Hillbillies, Andy Griffith, and Dick Van Dyke–true sitcoms, without the need for the vaudevillian trappings–the opening scene in front of the curtain, shenanigans out front before the sitcom kicks in, the incorporation of the advertiser right into the action.

So I watched a couple of early shows from I would guess 1954 or so. As Blowhard Esq. says “couldn’t do it today.”

Benny is clearly Jewish. His persona is that of cheapskate or skinflint but not in the Dickensian count-your-coins kind of way. He is clearly out to gain advantage over others and is not afraid to take unfair advantage of them in the process.

In the show I saw he is all worked up over the fact that he has snagged Johnnie Ray for his show the following week but has money concerns.

Remember Johnnie Ray? Me, just barely. He turns out to have been much more of a pivotal figure in pop music than I knew–halfway between a crooner and Elvis, just in that time slot. And he is recognized for that too. He has gone down the memory hole today but he was a big big deal in the early 50s.

And in a pre-Elvis way, too. As Benny’s sidekick Don Wilson reminds him girls go wild at a Johnnie Ray performance, hooting, hollering, crying and tearing their clothes off to throw on stage. Ray had that allure–he was it seems a wild man on stage, having spent time as a white kid from the Northwest in black churches and clubs.

But Benny cannot get over the fact that the draft contract he has been presented with puts a price tag of $10K on the performance. “Well . . . . (pause) . . . I’m just not going to pay that much and that’s all there is too it”. Wilson’s Don McMahon-like helpful but obsequious nudges to the star ( “but Jack he gets that in nightclubs”) are to no avail, and Benny decides to visit Ray at his apartment to get him to change his mind.

The first part of that scene–how can I put this?–emphasizes not just Benny’s cheapness but that he is a kind of a shyster. The tall gangly ultra-white Ray is naivete personified, and Benny tries one trick after another to get Ray to use the ridiculous contract Benny trots out. Ray does not know for negotiating–shucks, he just thinks his contract is fair is all.

So he asks Benny to bear with him while he sings the songs he plans to do on the show. Maybe that will persuade Benny to relent.

And so Ray breaks into song.

Now the weird part here is that Benny, whom I believe to have been straight, has more than a whiff of the gay about his demeanor. I think it is all unstated, unlike later comics like Paul Lynde who could be openly, flamboyantly, gay while still never saying so.

Odder still, Ray in real life was gay, or at least bi, and was arrested for male solicitation just before his career took off, and on at least one other occasion as well. His marriage is widely viewed as having been a sham, though many believe he fathered a child with close friend – the small world of the 50s –Dorothy Kilgallen, whose husband was himself gay.

Yeah yeah nothing ever happened in the 50s.

So as Ray belts out his tune, getting really into it, we see Benny start to melt. He goes cross-eyed like one of the “silly girls” who go nuts at Ray’s concerts. He musses his hair all up. He starts pawing at his clothes, ripping them off his body. When Ray stops and asks Benny what he thinks Benny makes a mad dash for the contract, rushing to sign it. We find out only later he agrees to pay Ray $15,000.

So you got the Jewish thing going and you got the gay thing going and . . . oh yes, there’s Benny’s black manservant Rochester. The show opens with Benny coming into his apartment to see Rochester sprawled out in the big living room chair, in an expensive robe and smoking a cigarette (Lucky Strike) through one of those high class cigarette holders.

Benny might like a bite to eat.

“Sorry boss, my day off.”

There’s a nice comic interchange with the hapless Benny off-screen in the kitchen trying to make a cheese omelette.

Benny: Rochester where are the eggs?
Rochester: Top shelf of the refrigerator, boss.
Benny: Ouch! You sure that’s right? This one’s warm.
Rochester: That’s the light bulb boss.

Don Wilson arrives and while Benny is in the kitchen Wilson asks Rochester for help working the Lucky Strike ad into the next show. Rochester suggests using “The Sunny Side of the Street”, and starts in Louis Armstrong style on a version that incorporates Luckies.

. . . on the Lucky side of the street . . .

Rochester gets up and does the old soft shoe and is soon joined by the very tall and portly Wilson, the last person you’d expect to get up and dance. But Rochester beguiles, and the two of them do a nice though not Astaire quality job. The audience applauds. Don Draper gets a bonus.

So there you have the black thing too–black, gay, Jewish–the whole megillah. Not a whole lot missing even by today’s standards. And it is all done with gentle good humor and sly innuendo. That’s what you can’t do today, goddammit, and the world is poorer for it.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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4 Responses to Notes on The Jack Benny Program

  1. Faze says:

    Fenster, I have watched that episode many times, and it never fails to blow my mind. Benny had been a household name for 25 years by that time. His audience would have been happy just to have him show up on their screens, he didn’t have to a bit that was that edgy, that physical, and took such risks with his image.

    Thanks for appreciating Jack Benny. Don’t think I’m nuts, but I have more than 300 Benny radio programs on MP3 and they are consistently entertaining. The writing was top quality – no other old time radio program comes close. And he had a great, hot house bands straight through the 40s.

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    • fenster says:

      I appreciate your comment. It has been years since I watched Benny and I must have guessed well in the roulette wheel of “seasons and episodes”. Nice to know I am not crazy in thinking something significant was going on. Pass along any episodes that you think I ought to pay attention to.

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      • Faze says:

        The TV shows are a fascinating time capsule, and kind of a museum of toupees, as Rochester, Benny, and sometimes guest George Burns all wore rugs (Benny’s toupee was a recurring joke as far back as the 30s.) There is a “film noir” episode of the Benny TV show, which takes place in a diner, whose tough guys are disturbingly brutal and sadistic. It’s another one that seems way outside the mainstream of 50s TV.

        The TV shows, however, are variable in quality compared to the radio shows, which were remarkable in their consistency from the 30s to the 50s (with only a little slip in quality late in WWII as all the talent went to war). Each decade has its own charms. I can only suggest that you find them on the Internet Archive, dig the byplay, the recurring characters, running jokes, and Benny’s remarkably generous persona.

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  2. gwbled says:

    Johnnie Ray and Dorothy Kilgallen? News to me, thanks for sharing, good piece.

    Like

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