Bob Hope was the wisecracker. Milton Berle was a clown. George Burns and Gracie Allen were farceurs of domestic life. And Jack Benny was the “Everyman” comedian.
For nearly half-a-century, Benny kept audiences in stitches with his alter-ego of a vain penny-pincher who was forever 39 and delusional about his skill at playing the violin. His catchphrases — “well” (with a long pause) and “now cut that out” — were part of the pop culture landscape for decades.
FOR THE RECORD:
‘The Jack Benny Program’: The Classic Hollywood column in the July 22 Calendar section on the DVD release of ‘The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes’ misidentified the founder and president of the International Jack Benny Fan Club as Lauren Leff. Her name is Laura Leff.
Like so many of the comedians of the era, Benny began his career as a teenager in vaudeville and became a radio star in the early 1930s. After appearing in several features including the 1945 flop “The Horn Blows at Midnight,” he took his popular radio series “The Jack Benny Program” to television in 1950.
Benny kept active until his death in 1974 at age 80, headlining live concerts, doing TV specials and appearing on all the talk shows; he was a particular favorite of Johnny Carson’s. His peerless sense of timing has been used by countless comedians, though rarely as effectively as Benny.
“His comedy is character-based,” said Lauren Leff, founder and president of the International Jack Benny Fan Club. “Everybody has got to know somebody who is cheap. They have a friend or a relative who thinks they can play an instrument.”
Benny, said Leff, “was able to take the faults and frailties of mankind and put them in a singular character and yet make that character lovable. He is kind of like Charlie Brown. He has all of these weaknesses, but here is something about him that you just love.”
“I think he is the best comedian,” offered Dan Einstein, television archivist at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
“His comedic timing is just perfect,” said Einstein. “When he would turn to the audience and give them a look or wait a beat before he would say a retort, it was just right on the money. The whole persona that he built — the chintziness, the vainness, the 39 forever — it was really a fully realized character.”
And one, according to his only child, Joan Benny, that wasn’t the real Jack Benny, something audiences instinctively knew.
Her father, Joan Benny said, “was truly a nice man. He is probably the nicest man I’ve ever known. If I have a complaint, it is probably that he spoiled me. He probably could have been a little stricter. I was daddy’s little girl.”
Benny’s comic brilliance is on display in Shout! Factory’s new DVD set, “The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes,” which feature 18 episodes restored by the UCLA archive from his 1950-65 TV series that haven’t been seen since they first aired.
The episodes are just as funny now as they were 50 years ago. “There are really no topical shows,” said Einstein. “The situations and humor are timeless.”
Among the highlights of the set are a 1956 episode featuring Oscar-winning actor Ronald Colman and his wife, Benita Hume, as his neighbors who are shocked when Benny mistakenly shows up for dinner; a 1958 installment with special guest Gary Cooper that features Benny auditioning for the role of the actor’s twin brother on a sequel of “Man of the West”; and Benny turning into Cecil B. DeMille as he directs Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner in a “Playhouse 90" drama in a 1960 episode.
His best friend George Burns guests on a 1956 episode as the devil who promises Benny he’ll be a great concert artist if he signs a Faustian pact with him. Of course, it isn’t long before Burns cracks up Benny.
“George Burns didn’t have to do anything to make him laugh,” said Joan Benny. “He just had to look at him. They had a symbiotic relationship.”
Other guest stars on the set include Berle, Dick Van Dyke, John Wayne, Jack Paar and even former President Harry S. Truman and evangelist Billy Graham.
Benny said her dad was able to attract such superstars — Marilyn Monroe made her TV debut in his show in 1953 — “because they trusted him. They knew they would come off well.”
The series also boasted a crackerjack cast who supported him — first on radio and then on the TV series — including Eddie Anderson, who played Benny’s valet and chauffeur Rochester; Don Wilson, who opened the show and did the commercials; Dennis Day, a baby-faced tenor who always seemed stuck in his early 20s; Mary Livingstone, Jack’s real-life wife who played Mary, Benny’s friend and sometime romantic interest; and Mel Blanc of “Bugs Bunny” fame, who supplied various voices, including for Benny’s old Maxwell car, but also appeared in countless roles.
“He had the best cast of regulars,” said Einstein. “And he had the best writers. They wrote for that persona and they came up with great stuff.”