Sunday 18 September 2022

The Scoop on TV Benny

Television slowly but surely emerged in the U.S. after World War Two ended. More and more sets were made, more and more stations went on the air, more and more sponsors put their money into it, meaning more and more stars were dipping their toe in the TV pool and eventually, inevitably, plunging in.

People wanted television. And that’s what they were getting.

By fall 1948, the networks were still broadcasting a limited schedule in limited parts of the country, but the host of radio’s Texaco Star Theatre became a monster hit on the television version of the show. He was Milton Berle. Television never looked back. The question kept being raised—“when are the big radio stars going to have their own TV shows?”

At the time Jack Benny was at, or near, the top of the radio heap. But he kept being asked when he’d make the switch to the new medium. Into 1950 he was pretty much giving the same answer. He sums up his opinion at the time in Ben Gross’ column in the New York Daily News of February 20, 1950.

Jack Benny Talks TV . . . Although CBS' Jack Benny has no definite plans at this moment to enter television, when he does get into it, he will not appear on a weekly basis. "If I am still on radio at the time, I would do a special hour-long video show about four times a year. There is, however, a possibility I may do a couple of telecasts next year." These are the highlights of the latest and the only authoritative statement on this topic prepared by America's No. 1 radio comedian, EXCLUSIVELY for readers of The Sunday News. Millions of fans have been wondering when the Waukegan Wit would finally make the big plunge into video. All kinds of conjectures have been published: that he would start a regular weekly or twice-monthly series next Fall. . . that he would abandon his radio show to devote himself entirely to TV next season, etc., etc.
During his recent visit to New York to consult with CBS, Benny was besieged by newspaper and magazine writers, urging him to clear up the uncertainty. Nothing came from the comic save a few pleasant generalities. Finally, however, Jack made an agreement with Your Reporter: If we would send him a list of questions to which he could dictate his answers at leisure, he would finally consent to tell all. So the questionnaire went to him pronto and now, here, for the first time, are all of Jack's current thoughts on television:
Your Reporter—When do you expect to enter video on a regular basis? Benny—Only when my sponsor feels that television has over-shadowed radio. But I may do a couple of shows next year.
Y. R.—Do you expect to do a series of guest shots first? Benny—I do not expect to do any guest shots on TV until after I get started with my own show.
Y. R.—When you go before the camera, regularly, will it be on a weekly schedule? Benny—If I'm not on radio at the time, I would probably do a half hour show, twice a month. But if I am also on radio, I would only do a special big TV hour about four times a year.
Y. R.—What would be the format of your regular series? Benny—I probably would be the emcee, retaining my radio character, and there would be scenes similar to those on mv weekly broadcasts.
Y. R.—If you go into TV, will you be able to stay on radio? Benny—That all depends on how often I'd have to appear on television. I feel it's impossible to appear often in BOTH mediums and keep it good.
Y. R.—Will you incorporate your radio characters in your TV shows? Benny—Definitely, plus guests and any other new characters I could find.
Y. R.—Who will be your sponsor in video? Benny—I'm pretty sure it will be my present one, the American Tobacco Co. My association with it has been most pleasant.
Y. R.—When will you be ready to make a definite announcement about this and other matters? Benny—Probably within the next year?
Y. R.—What is your favorite TV show? Benny—There are many that I like, but I get a particular kick out of the warm humor of "The Goldbergs."
Y. R.—Who is your favorite video comedian? Benny—It's Ed Wynn. One of the reasons is that he has always been my favorite stage comedian. He is the kind of fellow that you like for himself alone. He is funny, warm and human.
Y. R.—What criticism, if any, have you to make of the current TV producing procedures? Have you any suggestions for improvement? Benny—It would be very difficult for me to make any suggestions for improvement in the technical end, because, after all, 1 know very little about it. However, I am sure that video will improve, just as the early motion pictures and radio did. But when I did my one television show on the Coast last year, even though the result was good, I thought some of the camera movements were unnecessary. I do not believe the technical part of video has to be quite as complicated as they think. I always feel that the camera should never know the joke.
Y. R.—Why should TV make you hesitant, considering your long professional experience? Benny—I'm not hesitant about entering TV. I merely feel it is impossible to do a really good radio show, plus a really good TV show during each and every week. I don't believe any individual is capable of it. Even if I felt it were possible, I wouldn't want to work seven days a week. I like to play golf once in a while.
Y. R.—Do you believe Jack Benny would have a greater appeal on TV than he does on radio? Benny—That's difficult to answer right I now. I would not, however, want to disappoint my fans by giving them the feeling that they were watching a different Jack Benny. I would try to keep my radio character as much as possible. I also believe that my many years of experience on the stage will be a great help.
Y. R.—In your opinion, would your video appearances decrease your movie appeal? Benny—Not if my TV shows were good.
Y. R.—Any other comments, Mr. B? Benny—Television will be the world's most wonderful medium of entertainment. However, 1 think that radio will go on and on. Whichever will offer the better program for a particular half hour will draw the most listeners for that period. Eventually, a good radio show will have a better chance than a mediocre TV one—and vice-versa.

Jack did what he said he’d do. He made four appearances on television in the 1950-51 season (the second one featured a long kiss by Frank Sinatra and Faye Emerson, sending some viewers into apoplexy). Percy Shain of the Boston Globe quoted Jack just days after his death:
“It took me about four shows to get into the swing of it,” he said. “And when they [the critics] jumped all over me on the first show, I was really nervous. Elsa Maxwell said, after the first show: ‘Jack, it stinks.’ But after the fourth one she said: ‘Jack, I was wrong.’”
Benny maintained his radio show through the 1954-55 season and was willing to continue, except he couldn’t find sponsorship money to pay for even a limited schedule of new programmes. It had gone into television.

It took until the end of the ‘50s before Jack went to a weekly schedule and after some bad experiences at CBS and a butt-kicking by Gomer Pyle when he moved to NBC, he went back to TV specials after the 1964-65. His Third Farewell Special was scheduled for January 23, 1975 with rehearsals after New Year’s Day. Pancreatic cancer got him before then. He kept his pledge never to quit show business. The Globe’s Shain quoted him: “I’m too old to retire. What have I got to retire to?”

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