Saturday, January 30, 2016

Cutting the Cable Cord, Part 4: Listening to Jack Benny

Jack Benny, Mary Livingstone,
and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson
Since cutting the cable cord, I’ve found numerous other avenues of entertainment. Earlier this week, a visiting friend from Mexico and I spent the entire evening watching GetTV’s variety Monday night including the legendary segment of the The Judy Garland Show with guest star Barbra Streisand and a surprise appearance by Ethel Merman; a Mitzi Gaynor special with fantastic dancing (I recognized several of the dancers from The Carol Burnett Show) and George Hamilton; and a Merv Griffin Show with Carol Channing walking from the St. James Theater where she was starring in Hello, Dolly! to the Little Theater (now the Helen Hayes) where Griffin filmed his talk show. She was leaving Dolly on Broadway to go on tour.

But I find myself most frequently listening to old broadcasts of Jack Benny on YouTube. Benny’s TV show was in daytime reruns when I was a kid. Today hardly anyone under 50 knows who he is and yet along with Bob Hope, he was probably the famous comedian in America. (Arthur Miller mentions him in Death of a Salesman, and Benny said that brief reference in the classic play would be his ticket to immortality. How right he was.) From 1932 to 1955, Benny did a weekly radio show (he started TV in 1950 and did both for five years.) I find it fascinating that an entertainer could have been so big and now only a small cultish figure in the public consciousness. 

I did watch the Benny TV show during the summer and on days when I was home sick from school when I was kid. Occasionally I got to stay up late and watch him in prime time (the weekly show lasted until 1965. Then he would do a few specials every year until his death in 1974.) 

A few months ago I discovered the Benny radio broadcasts on YouTube and I’ve been hooked ever since. I was first attracted to the idea of listening to what people heard every week from the Depression to World War II to the early 50s. I was familiar with the early TV shows like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners from endless reruns, but apart from movies on TCM, I had no idea about America’s pre-TV daily diet of pop culture. I’d come across Our Miss Brooks and Fred Allen’s show as well, but Benny’s provided a sense of continuity from his first broadcast in 1932 all the way to Richard Nixon’s presidency. It was like getting into a time machine and sitting with my grandparents in their living room, lounging around the huge RCA radio.

In the radio show—often named for the sponsor like Jello, Nut Flakes, or Lucky Strike cigarettes—Benny had a little family of regulars including his announcer Don Wilson, his wife Mary Livingstone playing a wisecracking version of herself, a goofy boy singer (either Kenny Baker or Dennis Day), his butler-chaffeur Rochester, and his bandleader Phil Harris whom I knew best from Harris’ work as a voice actor in Disney films, usually playing big friendly bears.

The show usually consisted of his cast members ribbing Benny about his cheapness or vanity. In this way, Benny kind of addressed the stereotype of Jewish frugality. He was Jewish but never made reference to his religion in his comedy, just like later comics such as Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner.

The radio shows were much funnier than the TV ones. The radio shows were recorded in front of a live audience and you had a sense of a community enjoying a half-hour of gentle humor. Some of the TV segments were on a sound stage with an audience, but most were filmed on location like movies had canned laughter (sometimes you can hear a goat’s bleat in the “sweetener” which I can remember from the recorded guffaws during Gilligan’s Island.) On radio, there were often descriptive sight jokes and your imagination had to fill in the blanks. On TV, everything was visual and explicitly spelled out for you, usually not as funny as what you would imagine. There was Jack’s underground vault with all his money, the broken down Maxwell (sound effects supplied by Mel Blanc), a pet polar bear and parrot (again voiced by Blanc), all just created by sound and the listener’s mind. There was also a lot of ad-libbing and live flubbed lines on the radio, totally absent from TV with its retakes and filmed-on-location style. On radio, Jack’s little company continued week to week. On TV, the sense of Jack’s family was not as strong. Mary only appeared occasionally, the band leader role and boy singer roles eventually diminished

There were many hilarious characters who appeared on both the radio and TV Benny programs including Mel Blanc as a variety of voices, Sheldon Leonard as a sleazy racetrack gambler, and Frank Nelson as the ubiquitous sales clerk (Yessss!) constantly aggravating Jack. But there were plenty of radio characters who did not make the transition to TV such as Jack’s eccentric border Mr. Billingsley, the telephone operators Gertrude and Mabel (one voiced by Bea Benederet, the future voice of Betty Rubble) and two Jewish types whose humor derived from their accents Mr. Kitzel and Schlepperman. 

Comparing the radio to TV versions of Jack Benny charts the beginning of a flattening of American pop culture. The radio shows were wild, boisterous and outrageous, yet still a community. On TV, Benny was tame, contained within the frame of the picture tube, suburban and safe. 

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