Jack Benny was one of the great comedians of radio and television, a star whose shows ranked high in the ratings for 30 years — no small feat. And many comedians who have followed sing Benny’s praises, expressing that they owe him a great debt for the comedy path he paved in the infancies of both radio and TV.
If you don’t know Benny or his work, now you can find out for yourself why he is so revered, with the DVD release this week of “The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes” (Shout! Factory, 1956-64, b/w, three discs, $29.93, 18 episodes, featurettes, excerpts from four 1969-74 color TV specials, 1935-45 newsreels; 20-page booklet).
What made Benny unique was that he surrounded himself with comedy talent and let each one shine while he merely reacted to them — ranging from a low-key, one-word miffed response, “Well!” to the more boisterous, “Now cut that out!” When he made the transition from radio to television, the show remained essentially the same. Benny simply added folding his arms or putting a hand to his cheek to make the reactions more visual.
Benny didn’t feel the need to be the funniest guy in the room, nor did he always have the best lines, and more often than not he was the butt of the joke. If the show got laughs, he felt he was a success. In the land of showbiz egos the size of Montana, this was a clever move on his part. And Benny’s co-stars — Eddie “Rochester” Anderson as his gravelly-voiced valet; Irish tenor Dennis Day as a dumb “kid”; overweight announcer Don Wilson; “Man of a Thousand Voices” Mel Blanc as a variety of characters; and Benny’s real-life wife, Mary Livingstone, who usually played his wisecracking girlfriend — were as beloved as Benny.
During his early years on radio Benny began developing a specific character or persona, one that became instantly recognizable to audiences. And it wasn’t long before every aspect of his personality became so well honed and so famous that he could make a guest appearance on someone else’s show and get laughs before he even came onstage, simply by allowing the host to make snide remarks about Benny’s lousy violin playing or his stinginess or his insistence that he was 39 decade after decade. (In point of fact, Benny was in his early 40s when he hit radio stardom in the mid-1930s and even older when he adopted 39 as his perennial age, and in real life he was both a talented violinist and by all accounts a very generous person.)
There are between 20 and 30 episodes of his TV show, “The Jack Benny Program,” that have been floating around in the public-domain universe for years, constantly being recycled on dozens of “budget” DVD labels — with varying degrees of quality — in box sets ranging from one or two episodes to all 20-something.
But until now there has never been an “official” DVD release. In fact, there are Internet arguments about how many episodes still exist. So kudos to Shout! Factory for pulling this set together, and for the transfers being so clean and crisp. It’s another notch in the belt of the DVD company that has successfully twisted the arms of various networks so it could release vintage shows the studios don’t want to bother with — “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” “McHale’s Navy,” “The Patty Duke Show,” the second season of “Police Woman,” Ernie Kovacs’ early programs, etc.
“The Lost Episodes” feature such guests as John Wayne, Natalie Wood, Rock Hudson, Gary Cooper, Tony Curtis, Mike Wallace, Spike Jones, George Burns and Ronald Colman. Excerpts from the color specials that came after Benny’s series ended feature Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Lucille Ball and, again, John Wayne and George Burns (although why the complete specials aren’t here is a mystery).
The early live shows are especially engaging, with genuine audience reactions and Benny occasionally cracking up, offering a window to another era of television. (In one such live episode, Benny loses his place in the script until Dennis Day helps him find it.)
One of the funniest episodes has Dick Van Dyke in his prime doing a quick-change act, playing many characters in a single skit. And another has Benny trading quips with President Harry S. Truman in a taped visit to the Truman Library in Independence, Mo. The latter is more than just another sitcom episode; it’s history.
And if you buy the “Lost Episodes” set directly from Shout! at www.shoutfactory.com, a bonus disc is included, featuring Benny’s appearance on a 1953 episode of “Omnibus,” a live anthology program. The episode is an abbreviated remake of his 1945 film “The Horn Blows at Midnight,” a movie flop he starred in that became a running gag on his show.
If you are unfamiliar with Jack Benny’s brand of comedy, you owe it to yourself to check out this DVD set. And if you are familiar with him, this is an opportunity to enjoy him again.
And here’s hoping “Lost Episodes, Volume 2” is in the works.