Sunday 12 March 2023

Jack Benny Every Week

Leave it to George Burns to explain why his buddy Jack Benny changed his mind about television.

Benny was trepidatious about going into video, even in the 1930s, according to one article we’ve reprinted here. By the end of the ‘40s, television was inevitable. Jack started out slowly. Occasionally, he’d express a worry that a weekly show would overexpose him. But that changed in the 1960-61 TV season when he showed up on home screens every seven days.

This story in the Los Angeles Times tried to find out why.

All Work Is Really All Play to This Jack
LAKE TAHOE—Around the lake last week, the gag was that Jack Benny was fiddling while Tahoe burned.
It was an obvious gag because Jack opened his only night club engagement of the year at Bill Harrah's sumptuous South Shore club as the huge Donner Lake forest fire blacked out the lake resorts, Reno and much of northern Nevada. With emergency generators the opening went off as scheduled with Jack in his usual superb form, assisted by a sprightly Australian singing lass named Diana Trask and a lavish show built around Leighton Nobel's orchestra.
Well of Talent
Blackout or no, fire notwithstanding, the audience loved Jack onstage (he will be at Harrah's twice nightly through Sept. 7). And I among them, applauding as loud as any. But at the same time marveling.
Marveling at the enormous well of talent and energy that is Jack Benny.
At 66, he's at the top of his profession, one of the world's great funnymen, honored throughout the world. And he's working harder than any kid on a corner dancing for pennies.
As a matter of fact, this year Jack is taking on the biggest television assignment he's ever tried he's embarking on the perilous seas of doing a weekly comedy show.
While Jack did weekly comedy on radio for two decades, he's never tried it on television. Matter of fact, Jack has always treated TV tenderly.
He entered it in very easy stages, like a fat woman entering a swimming pool—first sticking a toe in to do four shows back in 1950, gradually increasing the load until he was doing a show every other week for the last few years (he alternated weekly with George Gobel last year).
And weekly television has been a graveyard for many a great comic. I flew here to find out from Benny why he wants to chance it, why he wants to work this hard.
I found him on the day before his opening bouncing through the crowded casino as happy as a teenager with a cut-down Ford.
"I went down in my dressing room," he said, "to try and learn my lines for the show. And what did I do? Practiced the fiddle the whole time I was down there."
"About the weekly show, Jack ..." I began.
"Practicing the fiddle for my concerts. Isn't that funny? Here I'm opening a show tonight. And I've got the TV show beginning in October. But what am I rehearsing for the symphony concerts?"
“The weekly . . .”
"I don't do the first till November. I'm doing four of them in November—Indianapolis, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Baltimore. They are my real kicks, you know. And for no money."
About That Show
"Jack," I said. "Television, Jack. The weekly TV show."
"What about it?" he said.
"You know, it's easier. It's actually easier. We put 10 of them in the can for next season. Filmed them before an audience at Desilu in the live manner, using three cameras. Did them back to back. And it was easier.
"Something happens doing a show a week. You get into a kind of groove. You develop a rhythm. You don't seem to be pressing so hard, not trying to make every show the greatest show you've ever done. And I think they're better shows."
"But a weekly show," I said, "is the toughest work in the world. Why take it on?"
"I had three choices," Jack said. "I could go on doing the show every other week. I could do six specials and let it go at that But I chose the weekly show ..."
Work Defined
Somebody said that Mr. Benny was wanted at rehearsals and Jack dashed away after his violin.
George Burns, Jack's great and good friend who was here for the opening, looked at me thoughtfully and murmured:
“This isn't work. The thing Jack's doing. It's not work. He loves it.
That's Work
"Work is sitting round Hillcrest flapping your arms wondering what to do till dinner. Work is haunting an agent's office, wondering when you'll get on a bill. Work is playing a split week in Schenectady for an audience that yawns at you.
That's work.
"The thing Jack's doing is something he loves to do for an audience that loves watching him do it.
“That’s not work—that's functioning in the world. That's living. That's what Jack's doing—living."

Benny and CBS president Jim Aubrey got into a disagreement in the 1963-64 season. Jack was upset Aubrey put Petticoat Junction as a lead-in to his show. Aubrey wasn’t going to let some old star tell him how to schedule the network. Benny moved to NBC where he was killed in the ratings by Gomer Pyle and was finally cancelled in 1965.

Jack went back to occasional specials—praising the concept of not being on every week—and appeared in them, to loads of good publicity, until he died.

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