Monday, November 29, 2010

The Scrounger’s Cheapjack Christmas Special! #17: Jack Benny pt. 1

Speaking of cheapJACK

Just Enough Slightly Less Than “Way Too Much” Information: The Jack Benny Program came to television with two decades of radio history standing behind it. Starting out life as a comedy-variety show in the early 1930s, by the middle 1940s the show had become more of a sitcom about putting on a comedy-variety show, which made the television version a perennial in the second-run market in the same way The Honeymooners was while Jackie Gleason’s variety shows came and went.

Jack Benny as an on-air character had a laundry list of character traits—his easily-wounded vanity, his pettiness, and his legendary cheapness being just a few—which, in lesser hands, could’ve been molded into a thoroughly unlikable character. Instead, Benny the performer and his writers infused Benny the character with a vulnerability which kept the program in the top 10 for years.

There was another element of Benny’s success, of course. One of the most remarkable things is that for a guy whose name was usually in the title for forty years, Benny didn’t feel compelled to hoard all of the good punchlines for himself, sensibly reasoning that if your name is in the title of the show, you can afford to let the rest of your cast shine, too. Either way, they passed or failed under the umbrella of The Jack Benny Program, so he still got a piece of the credit or blame regardless. Among broadcast comedians of the time, this wasn’t exactly a universally held truth, so it’s worth recognizing here, especially since the result was one of the best supporting casts in the history of the medium.

Also featured in this episode’s cast are long-term Benny regulars Don Wilson, tenor Dennis Day, and Eddie Anderson as Rochester, Jack’s valet. Mary Livingtone, Jack’s TV girlfriend/real-life wife and a part of the radio show from almost the beginning, turned up on TV occasionally, but not in this episode.

The New Year’s Episode: “Reminiscing About Last New Year's Eve”. Original Broadcast: December 27, 1953.

As the show opens, Jack is talking to a reporter about his New Year’s plans, and the topic comes around to how he spent last New Year’s Eve. And the flashback begins…

Jack had invited Don, Dennis, and members of the orchestra to his dressing room for a post-show cup of cheer before they took off for a New Year’s party at Don’s house. Dennis hasn’t gotten around to changing out of his costume for the last sketch.

“When I was walking down the hall, a woman picked me up and burped me!”

Dennis does a song later, and thankfully he’s changed into a suit by then. I love this show to death, but there are limits to even what I'll bear.

Jack’s entrance is delayed as well, but he has a different reason: he’s decked out in tux and top hat for a night on the town.

Sammy from the band takes one look at Jack in his first-nighter gear and blurts out “You look like the head pot-man at the mortuary flower shop!” Dennis, being a bit more polite (but also a bit more dense), simply says “Don’t tell me who it was. I want to have a good time tonight.”

That’s when Jack announces that he won’t be coming to Don’s party, as he has a swanky night on the town lined up with a hot number named Gloria. At least that’s the plan, but there’s a phone call in the hall for Mr. Benny, and it turns out Gloria can’t come. It’s not too late to join Don and company, but Don is so gracious in accepting Jack’s refusal that Jack doesn’t get a chance to take it back. So Jack finds himself—in a crowd but so alone—on the streets of Beverly Hills.

(By the way, THIS IS WHERE SPOILERS START…don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

Jack ducks into a diner to get a warm late dinner, and you can tell how down in the mouth he is when he turns down a free meal from the manager just for sitting at a window table. When the woman at the counter brings his soup over, she says “Gee, I’m sorry about tonight.” Jack answers “That’s okay, Gloria.”



Yes, that Gloria. It turns out she cancelled on Jack because she couldn’t get out of her shift.

When Jack makes it home, Rochester is preparing for his own night out, but when he sees his boss so down in the mouth, he decides to just stay in and ring in the new year with him instead.

“Reminiscing About Last New Year's Eve” is one of those classic episodes that Benny fans (guilty as charged) dote on, since it trades on years of familiarity with these characters. Again, nothing you need a storyline map and a compass to navigate, but it all means a lot more when you have a firm foundation in the way things usually go.

Our Holiday Lesson For Today: Make sure you submit your night-off requests in writing, but be prepared for last-minute disappointments.

Spot 'Em: You won't spot this one unless you know what to look for: the owner of the diner is played by Sam Hearn, who in the 1930s played the Jewish dialect character Schlepperman on the Jack Benny radio show. After Artie Auerbach took over that...um...designated position in the postwar era as Mr. Kitzel, Benny and company figured out other ways to use Hearn, mostly as a character called the Rube from Calabassas. He did play Schlepperman one last time on TV in 1963.

Reminder That You Only Paid $5 For This Set: At least on my copy, the sound and the picture were just a hair out of sync. (Anal retentive digital geegaw adjustment: -.3 seconds, if you can tweak it.)

But Don’t Take My Word For It: Veoh strikes again. Thank you, Veoh, for these unembeddable gifts we have received.

Next: Jack Benny’s Christmas show!

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