Jack Benny Says Goodbye, Sort Of
The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
During the golden age of radio, there was no one bigger than Jack Benny. How big was he? Well, his star power was so great that he was the first to convince Marilyn Monroe to do television. His is the only radio show to get a shout out in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Between radio and TV, he had a consistent regular series for thirty-three years. That’s how big Jack Benny was.
His program, which was probably one of the first “meta” shows in media, with many of its plots focusing on the making of The Jack Benny Program, started in 1932 on NBC, quickly became one of the top rated programs in radio and stayed that way until it ended its run on CBS in 1955, a full twenty-three years later. Though he took his time making his way over to the medium, when his television show began in 1950, it followed suit and was one of the highest-rated shows, and it ran until 1965 when it was eventually cancelled for not appealing to a younger demographic.
Benny continued to make the occasional television specials into the seventies, including the one that we will look at today, entitled Jack Benny’s First Farewell Special. (And if you’re curious, yes, there was a second, but it would prove to be Jack’s last before his death in 1974.) But, first, let’s talk a little bit about the character of Jack Benny, and just what made him so endearing.
Like Stephen Colbert after him, there were really two Jack Bennys. There was the real man, born Benjamin Kubelsky in 1894, and “Jack Benny” from the show. The character of Jack was the put-upon man, trapped in a circle of weirdos and back-talking employees who constantly teased and tested his patience. “Jack” was incredibly vain and self-centered, but his most famous characteristic was his intense thriftiness. The character was always looking to save or make money, whether it was by having the phone in his house be a payphone, or kept an enormous vault in his house, complete with a guard who hadn’t seen the light of day since the midst of the Civil War. Comedically, the most famous Benny trait, however, was his artful comedic pauses. Johnny Carson claims that his timing and mannerisms were all learned by watching Jack. Perhaps the most famous moment from the entire run of The Jack Benny Program came when a mugger cornered Jack and threatened, “Your money or your life.” Here, Jack took a long, slow pause before the impatient thief repeated his demand, to which Jack responded, “I’m thinking it over!” This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of running gags, however, which include Jack’s age perpetually being 39 (upon his death at the age of 80, several newspapers ran the headline “Jack Benny Dies at Age 39”), his terrible violin playing, and his refusal to upgrade his car, a 1916 Maxwell, made by a manufacturer that went out of business seven years before his show premiered. On the show, Jack never seemed to win and often that was because the things he wanted were so frequently selfish. In a way, Jack Benny was the precursor to the Larry David character on Curb Your Enthusiasm. We know that character is going to fail, but we see there’s an element of ourselves in there, too, so we can’t help but watch it unfold.
Jack Benny’s First Farewell Special aired on January 18, 1973, and reflected a different stage in Jack’s career. Gone were the plots, his butler Rochester, the trips to the studios. Instead, this special was a tribute to the end of a career, or as Jack keeps correcting his guests, the first in a series of specials leading up to the end. Basically, the hour-long special features Jack interacting with a wide variety of special guests who do sketches with him, or perform a song or two. We see singer/dancer Joey Heatherton get hit on by Jack before singing a really strange, really seventies song called “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma.” We see golfer Lee Trevino stop by, looking for Vice President Spiro Agnew’s errant golf ball. (It was the Dick Cheney hunting joke of its day)
Overall the special is fun and light, and in general feels like the original television show done alongside a younger cast of guest stars. Flip Wilson do an extended sketch in which they do the radio version of the then popular TV show “Ironside.” In it, Flip is constantly improvising, playing with the sound effects and ad libbing, and Benny seems to genuinely enjoy it, actually breaking here and there. Long-time friends Bob Hope and George Burns show up and get in a few jabs at their friend’s expense.
But then there are a few moments in the show where Jack just feels out of place. One such moment is when Jack meets Isaac Hayes after performing the “Theme from Shaft.” Now, nobody says anything cringe-inducing or anything like that, but there’s just something about this very unlikely pair sitting side-by-side that just seems so weird. But after a little bit, the awkwardness of the situation fades away, and you kind of get sucked into the absurdity of the whole thing. Why is this 89-year-old white guy and this big, shirtless young African-American guy perfoming this comedy bit together? And yeah, maybe Isaac Hayes doesn’t have the best comedic timing yet, but this kind of crazy culture clash just doesn’t get to be on TV anymore. Lucky for you, this segment has been preserved on YouTube.
The end of Jack Benny’s First Farewell Special continues the running joke of everyone thinking that Jack was officially retiring with an appearance of the then governor of California, Ronald Reagan, who presents Jack with a farewell gift: a specially built Rolls-Royce. Benny keeps trying to interrupt to tell him that he’s not really retiring, until he hears that it cost $48,000. Suddenly Jack shuts up, slowly walks to the front of the car, looks closely, shuffles over to the side, kicks the front tire, walks over to the driver-side door, which is encrusted with diamonds, spelling his name, and pulls out his jeweler’s loupe, before looking at the audience, flustered as the credits roll.
Jack Benny’s long career kept him as a beloved figure for decades in American pop culture. While many of the references are dated (to give an example, in one episode of his radio show he references Ghandi’s hunger strikes, which is all well and good to the modern listener, until they are shocked to realize that that was a contemporary reference) the majority of the shows are still entertaining to listen to. Luckily, many of these can be downloaded for free at archive.org. Benny’s first farewell special reflects the sunset of a performer who, even towards the end of his life, maintains his charm, charisma, but most importantly, his humor.