Sunday, 18 January 2015

Jack on TV

Television had been growing slowly in the U.S. during the first years after the war with few stations (mainly in the East) and rudimentary programming. Things changed in 1948. All four networks finally had programming six nights a week. TV sets began flooding the market after a manufacturing ban imposed during the war ended. And Milton Berle became an almost overnight sensation on the “Texaco Star Theater.” The question for network programmers—and the stars of radio—what do we do now?

A few of the stars evidently knew the answer, and the proof is in the longevity of their shows in the new medium. One was Jack Benny.

Here’s a guest column by Benny in the Buffalo Courier-Express of December 31, 1950. He demonstrates a remarkable and excellent grasp of not only the industry as it stood at that time, but its future. Amazingly, with the exception of Eddie Cantor, Benny names the others from radio who went on to lengthy careers on camera: the others who, too, understood how to use TV to entertain their formerly “sightless” fans.

Don Tranter Comment On

(Guest columnists fill this space while Don Tranter, Courier-Express radio editor, is on vacation.)
When asked to write an article on television, my first answer was no. I didn't know very much about this new medium of entertainment and I didn't think I was qualified to speak for or against it—much less about it. But after reading what so many others have said, I decided that I might as well speak my piece too. I loved Ed Wynn's wonderful line half-way through his first television show. "I know as much about television as anyone else," Wynn cracked. "I've been in it fifteen minutes already." Since I did my first television show on October 28th, I, too, can qualify as something of an authority.
Anything new is always the subject of gags, and at this time, television is taking a beating from the comedians. We got a tremendous yell from the studio audience last year when I had Jack Warner on our program as a guest. Speaking about The Horn Blows at Midnight, Mr. Warner explained that if it were a little better, he might have gotten his money back from the theaters, and if it were a little worse, it would have been a natural for television.
Along the same lines, on a broadcast discussing my appearance on television, we had Mary talk about getting three stations at the same time. She said that all night I kept shooting it out with Hop-A Long Cassidy to see who would marry Gorgeous George. Big laugh.
Naturally, it's very simple for me or any other comedian to get a laugh out of television. And after seeing some of the programs on video, I feel that much of this ribbing is well deserved. But this phase is only temporary. I'm convinced that eventually, television will become the greatest source of entertainment in the history of the world. When talking pictures came along in 1927, it took the same sort of ribbing that television is getting now. (I was just a kid at the time, but I remember it well.) The talkies stepped from a groping experimental beginning to become a great industry—and so will television. ● ● ●
The art of video has made great strides in the past year or two and will continue to improve rapidly from here on. Sports coverage is wonderful and spot news events wilt bring the dramatized headlines into millions of homes while they are being made, as in the Kathy Fiscus tragedy when television set owners in the Los Angeles area sat glued to their sets alt night watching the rescue attempt. Dramatic programs have improved tremendously, and eventually will be almost as exciting as an evening in the theater. I say almost because I don't think anything will ever replace the live theater for drama and pure enjoyment. The theater has survived the threat of silent and sound motion pictures and then radio—and will survive the threat of television. ● ● ●
I don't think anyone is very much interested in my opinions on sports, news events or the drama, but someone might want to know my views on comedy in television, so here goes.
Comedy is the great unknown quotient in TV. No one knows how the art of comedy will progress or what new ingredients will be injected into the laugh programs of the future. However, I do think that the things that were funny on the stage will be funny in television and that the great funny-men of the stage, radio and motion pictures, will be just as funny on TV. Fred Allen's definition of TV is "tired vaudeville," and he is right to a certain extent. But now that television can afford to hire the top comedians and entertainers to its fold, it will not be "tired vaudeville." Because very soon, television coverage will be so great, that sponsors will be able to bring to it the top writers and other creative talent from radio, motion pictures and the theater. And between the comedians, the writers, the producers and the directors, comedy programs will be taken out of the classification of vaudeville shows. What they will result in, I do not know, but the television comedy program of the future will probably be a blend of the stage, radio and the ingredients that the television medium itself will produce.
The greatest problem of comedy in television will be the search for good comedy talent. There is no question but that Bob Hope, Eddie Cantor, Burns and Allen, Red Skelton and all the other comedy greats will shine on television, too, just as they have on the stage and in radio. But where will the comedians to supplement and succeed these people come from? This has been the constant cry of radio these many years, and very few new comics have been developed in that medium. Since television requires a visual as well as a vocal comedian, the hunt for new talent should be even more difficult.

Nevertheless, new comic talent came that had no connection to radio. By 1960, TV shows starred Andy Griffith, Dick Van Dyke and Fred MacMurray. Granted, a few old-timers from the glory days of vaudeville were on the tube, too. Including Jack Benny.

1 comment:

  1. While new talent with no radio connections arrived by the end of the 1950s, most of the top radio writers -- including Jack's -- kept going in television into the early 1980s. A lot of the first-generation TV writers learned from them and from the shows the wrote for, while the current second- or third-generation TV writers viewers have now seem to mistake quirkiness for comedy too much of the time.