Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

"Well!" Jack Benny's Unperformative Performance in His Transition from Radio to Television

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

"Well!" Jack Benny's Unperformative Performance in His Transition from Radio to Television

Article excerpt

in the late 1940s, radio comedian Jack Benny nervously faced the prospect of adapting his iconic show The Jack Benny Program (1932-55) to the new medium of television. During more than fifteen years on the air, Benny and his writers, actors, and production staffhad crafted a superb comedic soundscape, perfecting a successful brand of "aural" situation comedy that blended the interactions of quirky characters into a richly developed narrative world colored by radio listeners' imaginations. Audiences in thirty million American homes reveled in the cacophony of Benny's ancient Maxwell automobile engine sputtering to life and the mysterious clangs and roars of the contraptions and beasts that guarded his subterranean vault. Listeners grew to love the familiar patois of the show's characters-from cement mixer-laden rejoinders of Benny's bumptious valet Rochester (played by Eddie Anderson) to the absurdities of the demented train announcer Mel Blanc, the pained embarrassment of his cultured neighbors Ronald and Benita Colman, the addlepated young tenor Dennis Day's non sequiturs, the jolly announcer Don Wilson's laugh, and acid-tongued Mary Livingstone's put-downs of Jack's egotism. Benny was the leading actor in this multilayered narrative world, who pulled the show together with his mild, Midwestern twang- tinged reactions to the chaos and insults that beset him on all sides. From his longtime informal greeting, "Jell-O again, folks," to the "Well . . ." that introduced his vainglorious lies and the "Hmm" in response to being caught-or the "But . . . but . . . but . . ." of despair as his sponsor berated him and the frustrated bleating of "Now cut that out!" and "Wait a minute, wait a minute!"-Benny had crafted his comic character and the award-winning show by orchestrating a symphony of aural humor with a deftsense of timing.

Now, competing demands from Jack Benny's sponsor, network, broadcast critics, and audiences buffeted him as he sought to transition his radio program to television. As an actor and show producer, Benny wrestled with obstacles thrown up by the technical, industrial, and aesthetic demands of the new medium. Although the full story involved intersecting factors playing out over five years, this article focuses on one aspect-Benny's struggles to crafta television performance style in the face of contentious critical reception of his early efforts.

Television critics' vehemently negative reactions to Jack Benny's initial television productions in 1950 and 1951 were humiliating to the veteran performer. Reviewers scornfully attacked Benny's aurally focused radio performance style as inadequate for the new medium's demands for visual spectacle and action. The New York World Telegram's acerbic radio/ television critic Harriet Van Horne pointed directly to the public reaction that Benny most feared:

Benny on video is in no sense as funny or as likeable as Benny on radio. When we hear the radio Benny our imagination comes nimbly to our assistance (and to his). Imagination supplies the missing picture. So it has that each of us has created a Jack Benny. We know the "character" so well that we can laugh at his smallest jests . . . In television we see something approximating the "real life" Jack Benny. A tired looking man in a well-cut suit who is neither mobile of feature nor flexible of body. He speaks with the slow, deliberate timing that proved a million dollar asset in radio. In television this same timing gives the script a curiously halting gait. The lines may be every bit as funny (and last night there were some excellent lines). But the laughter isn't as joyous or explosive. We realize, a little sadly, how generous have been our imaginations.

Benny and his production crew labored to balance critics' desires for substantial changes in the comic performance of his program with the competing expectations of the program's commercial sponsors and longtime fans that the show remain faithful to the characters and aural narrative landscape that Benny had perfected in radio. …

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