Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Jack Benny Program (1961)



In our post on the 1960 episodes of The Jack Benny Program, we discussed the ground-breaking formula the show created that has been adapted by many later comedians, including Garry Shandling, Jerry Seinfeld, and Larry David. Others have also credited Benny with essentially creating the modern sit-com format and influencing a host of other performers, from Johnny Carson to Kelsey Grammer. But the irony and genius of Benny's achievement is not only that he basically founded modern comedy but that he did it with a single comic trope that he repeated every week for over 30 years. And that trope--of Benny as the vain, self-absorbed miser who brings about his own misfortune--never grows stale, just like his claim that he was 39 years old. Each episode is merely an exercise in finding new ways to introduce the same old jokes into different situations. The audience knows the jokes are coming, and yet, like a dominant offensive line in football, there is no way to stop them from hitting paydirt.

We see the fictional Benny's inflated sense of self-worth on display in the very first 1961 episode, "Jack Casting for TV Special" (January 1, 1961). Jack has been allowed by the network to cast the actors for an upcoming special telling his life story. When it comes to casting the part of his boyhood girlfriend, Mildred Homquist, Jack selects an attractive, curvaceous, and flirtatious young actress to give the impression that he is such a good lover that he could win such a beauty. But this is undercut when he casts the part of his mother and the actress auditioning for the part is the matronly real Mildred Holmquist. After she leaves, Jack remarks, "She hasn't changed a bit." His cheapness is also shown when he tries to hire an experienced child actor to play him as a boy by bribing the boy with a large lollipop, only to learn that the child has an agent, who is also a child and who demands $2,000 for his client, threatening to walk out when Jack, as expected, refuses to pay so much. After seeing that he can't intimidate the young agent, Jack realizes that the uncompromising child agent should play him in the special rather than the child actor. This episode, like several aired in 1961, is actually a reworked version of an episode broadcast 7 years earlier, in this case "The Life of Jack Benny" from November 28, 1954. But because he doesn't rely solely on currently topical humor, Benny's jokes are timeless.

That's not to say that Benny doesn't also take a few jabs at current trends or other TV shows. In "Jack Goes on Trial for Murder" (November 5, 1961), Jack is served a summons after his neighbors file a complaint about his constantly crowing rooster. After unsuccessfully trying to hire a lawyer named Willoughby played by his nemesis Frank Nelson, who claims to have learned the practice of law from watching Perry Mason, Jack falls asleep and dreams he is being defended by Mason, played by Raymond Burr, from a charge of having murdered the rooster. Only the Mason in Jack's dream is completely incompetent and no match for the prosecutor, who, of course, turns out to be the nemesis Willoughby. When Jack asks Mason why he never loses on his own show but is getting butchered now, Mason replies, "Perhaps my writers are better than yours." Even if the viewer has never watched Perry Mason, the joke about the artificiality of television still works. Of course, it does help to have watched Perry Mason when Raymond Burr breaks down during his final summation to admit that he is the one who murdered the rooster.

Nor is Benny the only series regular whose character is depicted in unflattering terms. Announcer Don Wilson is the subject of continuous fat jokes. In "Don's Anniversary" (January 15, 1961) Benny celebrates Wilson's 27 years with his program by dressing him in a crown and robe and having him sit on a throne, only to have the seat of the throne collapse under Wilson's heft. And in "Jack Goes to the Cafeteria" (December 10, 1961) Benny comes out for the final monologue and reveals that all the food shown in the cafeteria sketch was real, listing off the vast amounts they used for each item. He then tells Wilson to be sure that all the leftover food is returned to the studio commissary so that he can get his deposit back, only to have Wilson say, "That food was supposed to go back?" and Benny reply, "I should have known" as Wilson pats his stomach.  It is only recently that people have begun to question whether making fun of weight problems might be cruel. In Benny's day the assumption was that weight was simply a reflection of willpower. Singer Dennis Day's simpleton character is also the butt of many jokes. In "Death Row Sketch" (February 5, 1961) Day plays Benny's son, to whom Benny must repeatedly explain what a cup, saucer, and knife are. In "Jack Is Followed Home" (December 3, 1961) Day stalks Benny to scare him in an act of revenge after Benny lets Bobby Rydell sing two songs on the program but doesn't allow Day to sing any. After the police catch Day and ask Benny if he wants to press charges, Benny declines but then takes Day across his knee and spanks him with a hairbrush, reinforcing the idea that Day is a child-like dimwit. There is never any indication that Day's character is somehow mentally deficient; he just doesn't seem to benefit from Benny's instruction. The only character who does not come off as flawed is Rochester, whom we described in our 1960 post as having been modified after Benny came under fire for racial stereotyping just after World War II. Rochester is depicted as his own man who knows his boundaries. In "Jack at the Supermarket" (January 22, 1961) Rochester outsmarts Benny in a game of gin rummy by cheating, forcing Benny to do all of his chores for the day in a maid's outfit, though Benny is then able to pull the same stunt on Don Wilson, who in turn pulls it on Dennis Day. On his day off, Rochester is not cowed into jumping up to answer the phone when Jack calls from the studio hoping to get a ride home, nor does he jump at Benny's subtle suggestion that he fix him something to eat, forcing Benny to cook his own omelet, though he needs Don Wilson to first crack the egg because he is too weak to do it himself. But Rochester shows his devotion to Jack in "New Year's Eve" (December 31, 1961) when he turns down an opportunity to go out on the town after Benny comes home early due to his girlfriend being unable to get off work. Rather than leaving Benny alone, Rochester decides to stay home with him and toast in the New Year with a bottle of champagne. In real life Benny had performed a similar, even larger friendly gesture during his touring days in refusing to stay in any hotel where Eddie Anderson was not welcome.

The one area where Benny was perhaps behind the times was his selection of musical guest stars. In 1961 we hear performances from The Mills Brothers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Jane Morgan, Bobby Rydell, and Mamie Van Doren. Rydell may have been a teen idol in 1961, but he performs two Al Jolson songs, and Van Doren may have been a hot property at the time as an actress and pin-up girl, but she is teamed with traditional Irish tenor Dennis Day in a duet of the old standard "You Make Me Feel So Young." Benny makes a nod to the younger demographic in his TV special casting episode by saying that he had recommended that he be played by Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, or Fabian, but that these three entertainers had insisted that he be played by elderly Jewish violinist Jascha Heiftez. Benny knew he was old school and didn't try to go out of his comfort zone to "remain relevant," as did many singers, like Jane Morgan to name but one, who recorded lounge versions of rock 'n' roll hits that sound cheesy today. Despite being a one-joke pony who recycled old scripts, Benny's program still remained in the top 10 for the 1960-61 season, and despite falling out of the top 30 for 1961-62, it rebounded into the top 20 the following season and remained there during its tenure on CBS. As the saying goes, "If it ain't broke..."

As mentioned in the 1960 post for this series, there is a disorganized collection of various episodes from the show's 15 years issued by low-budget outfits like Alpha Video, Passport Video, and Echo Bridge in addition to a 3-disc "Lost Episodes" set released by Shout! Factory. From calendar year 1961, there are a total of 16 episodes available--15 on youtube.com and 1 in the "Lost Episodes" set.

The Actors

For the biographies for Jack Benny, Eddie Anderson, Don Nelson, Dennis Day, and Frank Nelson, see the post for The Jack Benny Program 1960.

Notable Guest Stars

Season 11, Episode 11, "Jack Casting for TV Special": Mel Blanc (see the biography section for the 1960 post on The Flintstones) plays telegram delivery man Herman. Maudie Prickett (Cassie Murphy on Date With the Angels and Rosie on Hazel) plays Jack's secretary Miss Gordon. Dennis Holmes (Mike Williams on Laramie) plays child actor Jimmy Evans. Barry Gordon (shown on the left, played Dennis Whitehead on The New Dick Van Dyke Show, Charlie Harrison on Fish, Gary Rabinowitz on Archie Bunker's Place, Roger Hightower on A Family for Joe, and was the voice of Donatello on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) plays Jimmy's lawyer Harry Johnson.
Season 11, Episode 13, "Don's Anniversary": Howard McNear (shown on the right, played Floyd Lawson on The Andy Griffith Show and Jansen the Plumber on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show) plays radio network executive Mr. Willoughby. Nancy Kulp (Pamela Livingstone on The Bob Cummings Show, Jane Hathaway on The Beverly Hillbillies, Mrs. Gruber on The Brian Keith Show, and Mrs. Hopkins on Sanford and Son) plays an elocution teacher. Roy Rowan (announcer for I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, and Here's Lucy) plays himself. Bill Baldwin (was the announcer on The Bob Cummings Show, the narrator on Bat Masterson, and played a variety of announcers, newsmen, and emcees on a host of programs including Mister Ed, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Addams Family) plays himself. Leonid Kinskey (appeared in Duck Soup, Les Miserables (1935), Ball of Fire, Casablanca, and The Man With the Golden Arm and played Pierre Quincy on The People's Choice) plays ballet teacher Sergei Finskey.
Season 11, Episode 14, "Jack at the Supermarket": Flip Mark (Flip Rogers on Lassie, Brook Hooten on Guestward Ho!, and Larry Walker on Fair Exchange) plays Tommy, a boy seeking Jack's autograph. Herb Vigran (Judge Brooker on Gunsmoke) plays a butcher. 
Season 11, Episode 16, "Jack Goes to the Gym": Lisa Davis (Hula Hips Jenkins on The George Burns Show) plays the new studio receptionist. Alan Hale, Jr. (shown on the right, played Biff Baker on Biff Baker U.S.A., Casey Jones on Casey Jones, and The Skipper on Gilligan's Island) plays gym owner McGuire. Frank Gerstle (shown on the left, played Dirk Gird on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and voiced Raseem on The Banana Splits Adventure Hour) plays his assistant Larry Hawkins.  Norman Alden (Johnny Ringo on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Captain Horton on Rango, Grundy on Not for Hire, Tom Williams on My Three Sons, and Coach Leroy Fedders on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) plays a plumber. Richard Reeves (Murphy on Date With the Angels) plays a boxer.
Season 11, Episode 17, "Death Row Sketch": Mamie Van Doren (shown on the left, starred in Untamed Youth, High School Confidential!, The Beat Generation, Girls Town, and College Confidential) plays herself. Gerald Mohr (narrator on 19 episodes of The Lone Ranger, Christopher Storm on Foreign Intrigue, voice of Mr. Fantastic and Reed Richards on Fantastic 4) plays Harry the boarder. Alan Dexter (Frank Ferguson on Days of Our Lives) plays Jack's rehearsal manager. 
Season 11, Episode 19, "Jack Becomes a Surgeon": Mel Blanc (see "Jack Casting TV Special" above) plays Viennese Dr. Struneheimer. Claudie Barrett (starred in Robot Monster) plays a nurse. Tyler McVey (Gen. Maj. Norgath on Men Into Space) plays award presenter Mr. Harrison. 
Season 11, Episode 22, "Jack Goes to Las Vegas": The Mills Brothers (popular singing group) play themselves. Dabbs Greer (see the biography section for the 1960 post on Gunsmoke) plays Las Vegas Hotel head desk clerk. Olan Soule (Aristotle "Tut" Jones on Captain Midnight, Ray Pinker on Dragnet (1952-59), and Fred Springer on Arnie) plays a second desk clerk. Eddie Quillan (starred in The Grapes of Wrath, Mandarin Mystery, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Hi, Good Lookin'! and played Eddie Edson on Julia and Poco Loco on Hell Town) plays the bellboy. Richard Deacon (see the biography section for the 1961 post on The Dick Van Dyke Show) plays hotel General Manager Thomas. William Bakewell (starred in The Iron Mask, Playing Around, Guilty Hands, and The Fabulous Dorseys) plays hotel supervisor Hodges. 

Season 11, Episode 25, "Main Street Shelter": Grandon Rhodes (Mr. Vanderlip on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Dr. Stevens on Lassie, Dr. J.P. Martin on Bonanza, and the judge 16 times on Perry Mason) plays shelter donation coordinator Jim. Ralph Moody (shown on the right, see the biography section for the 1961 post on The Rifleman) plays shelter desk clerk Mr. Baker. Herb Vigran (see "Jack at the Supermarket" above) plays a drunk former lawyer. Gregory Irvin (Johnny Brady on Dennis the Menace) plays one of the Beverly Hills Beavers. Harry Tyler (Steve Rhodes on Black Saddle) plays a drunk at the shelter.
Season 12, Episode 3, "Jack Goes on Trial for Murder": Raymond Burr (shown on the right, appeared in M, A Place in the Sun, The Blue Gardenia, and Rear Window and played Perry Mason on Perry Mason and in 26 Perry Mason TV movies, Robert T. Ironside on Ironside, and R.B. Kingston on Kingston: Confidential) plays Perry Mason. Grandon Rhodes (see "Main Street Shelter" above) plays a process server.  Frank Wilcox (Henry Van Buren on Waterfront, Beecher Asbury on The Untouchables, Mr. Brewster on The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction, and the judge 8 times on Perry Mason) plays the court-room judge George.  George E. Stone (appeared in The Front Page, Little Caesar, Guys and Dolls, The Man With the Golden Arm, and Some Like It Hot, played The Runt in 10 Boston Blackie movies, and played the court clerk on Perry Mason) plays the court clerk.
Season 12, Episode 5, "Tennessee Ernie Ford Show": Tennessee Ernie Ford (shown on the right, popular singer and host of The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show) plays himself. Joe Besser (replaced Shemp Howard as the third of The Three Stooges and played Stinky Davis on The Abbott and Costello Show, Mr. Jillson on The Joey Bishop Show, and voiced Babu on Jeannie and Scare Bear on Yogi's Space Race) plays a broadcast engineer. Eddie Ryder (see the biography section for the 1961 post on Dr. Kildare) plays another broadcast engineer. Ross Elliott (Sheriff Abbott on The Virginian) plays Jack's director Fred.
Season 12, Episode 6, "Jack Plays Golf": Eric Monti (shown on the left, professional golfer and golf pro who gave lessons to Benny and other celebrities) plays himself. John Gallaudet (Chamberlain on Mayor of the Town, Judge Penner on Perry Mason, and Bob Anderson on My Three Sons) plays golfer George Simpson. Barry Kelley (starred in The Asphalt Jungle, The Manchurian Candidate, and The Love Bug and played Mr. Slocum on Pete and Gladys and Mr. Hergesheimer on Mister Ed) plays golfer Mr. Herbert. Hugh Sanders (starred in That's My Boy, The Pride of St. Louis, The Winning Team, and The Wild One) plays an unnamed golfer. Mel Blanc (see "Jack Casting TV Special" above) voices a talking squirrel. Bill McLean (Dave on The Jim Backus Show) plays Jack's caddie.
Season 12, Episode 7, "Jack Is Followed Home": Bobby Rydell (popular singer who starred in Bye Bye Birdie) plays himself. Robert Brubaker (Deputy Ed Blake on U.S. Marshal and Floyd on Gunsmoke) plays a police sergeant.
Season 12, Episode 8, "Jack Goes to the Cafeteria": Jane Morgan (shown on the right, popular singer) plays herself. Dave Willock (starred in Let's Face It, Pin Up Girl, and The Fabulous Dorseys and played Lt. Binning on Boots and Saddles, Harvey Clayton on Margie, and was the narrator on the animated Wacky Races) plays a bus passenger. Ross Elliott (see "Tennessee Ernie Ford Show´above) returns as Fred the director. Frank Gerstle (see "Jack Goes to the Gym" above) plays a cafeteria server. Shirley Mitchell (Yvonne Sharp on Sixpenny Corner, Kitty Devereaux on Bachelor Father, Janet Colton on Pete and Gladys, and Clara Appleby on The Red Skelton Hour) plays a cafeteria server. Robert Bice (Capt. Jim Johnson on The Untouchables) plays a cafeteria server. Victor Sen Yung (Jimmy Chan in 13 Charlie Chan movies, Cousin Charlie Fong on Bachelor Father, and Hop Sing on Bonanza) plays a cafeteria server serving Mexican food. Vito Scotti (Jose on The Deputy, Capt. Gaspar Fomento on The Flying Nun, Gino on To Rome With Love, and Mr. Velasquez on Barefoot in the Park) plays a cafeteria server serving Chinese food.
Season 12, Episode 9, "Jack Writes a Song": Dimitri Tiomkin (see the 1960 post on Rawhide for a biography) plays himself. Maudie Prickett (see "Jack Casting for TV Special" above) returns as Jack's secretary Miss Gordon. 
Season 12, Episode 10, "Christmas Party": Mel Blanc (see "Jack Casting TV Special" above) plays himself. Mary Lansing (Martha Clark on The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D.) plays herself.
Season 12, Episode 11, "New Year's Eve": Jill Jackson (Hollywood news reporter) plays herself. Charlie Bagby (Jack's pianist) plays himself. Frank Remley (Jack's guitarist) plays himself. Wayne Songer (Jack's clarinetist) plays himself. Sammy Weiss (Jack's drummer) plays himself. Shirley Mitchell (shown on the left, see "Jack Goes to the Cafeteria" above) plays Jack's girlfriend Gloria.

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