I Saw That!

One woman's opinions about popular entertainment.

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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

Amateur boxing coach, Christian (but not so heavenly-minded that I'm no earthly good) singer, writer, self-defense advocate, childfree. feminist www.smartwomenboxingtraining.org

Friday, January 11, 2013

"The Jack Benny Program" (1950-1965)

One night while dealing with the usual insomnia, I noticed that a local station was running reruns of "The Jack Benny Program" during the wee hours of the morning.  I remembered the comedian from when I was a kid, but I didn't get his humor back then.  I decided to familiarize myself with his sitcom, and I've been sitting up late watching it ever since.  Benny (1894-1974) was one of the few performers of the 20th century whose career spanned vaudeville, stage, radio, movies, and television.  His radio show had made a seamless transition to TV in the 1950's.  During the early days of its run, the show didn't appear every week, often alternating weeks with other sitcoms such as "Private Secretary". It was one of TV's longest running sitcoms, and it is often considered the model for other sitcoms that came after it. 

Similar to shows like "The Gary Shandling Show", "Seinfeld", and "The Bernie Mac Show", Jack Benny played a fictionalized version of himself.  On the show, Benny was a bachelor who fancied himself a ladies' man.  Benny's TV character, as on radio, was also vain (always claiming to be 39 years of age), cheap, and easily irritated and confused by those around him.  Some plots were shows-within-shows as Benny interacted with scores of guest stars -- a who's who of Hollywood, basically - who came to perform in stand alone segments and/or skits with him.  Other plots involved Benny dealing with various incidents that took place at his home and elsewhere. 

Benny was a master at timing.  Often, he didn't have to say anything.  A look of confusion or irritation, and a hand up to his cheek was enough to express the humor.  He knew exactly how long to draw out a joke for laughs.  Other staples of the show were Benny's catchphrases of "Well!" and "Now cut that out!"  He would often make references to the fact that he was from Waukegan, IL.  I notice in many episodes he would use the expression "lookit", to get someone's attention.  Only people from the Midwest say that.  Sometimes, guests on the show would make cracks about the mincing way that Benny walked.  "Walk like me," Benny told guest star Milton Berle in one episode.  "I would if I didn't think I would get arrested," Berle grinned.  Benny was also always looking for opportunities to play his violin, despite the fact that usually every wrong note was played.  However, in real life, Benny was a decent violin player.

What made this show particularly tight was how cohesive the cast - most of whom had been on Benny's popular radio show of the 1930's, 1940's, and early 1950's - worked together.  Mary Livingston (who was Benny's wife in real life), announcer Don Wilson, singer Dennis Day, singer/dancer/actor Eddie Anderson, and voice actor Mel Blanc dished out a lot of fun on the episodes.  Frank Nelson, Herb Vigran, Joe Besser, Sheldon Leonard, and Benny Rubin were a few others who helped provide the laughs. 

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