Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Jack Benny

I guess I was always amused by Jack Benny. Growing up, I'd watch the occasional television show or special, laugh at little, enjoy his guests, be entertained and move on. It never really occurred to me to consider him in the pantheon of show business greats. Not as bodacious as Gleason. Not as maniacally driven as Silvers. Not as relentlessly comic as Durante. Just a nice man who liked to put himself in the middle of crazy people and react.

Now, I think he's a genius.

Recently, I came upon a DVD (very cheap, not surprisingly) which featured about twenty of his half hour TV shows from the fifties and early sixties. A basic show would begin with a monologue, maybe some banter with announcer Don Wilson, maybe some silliness with singer Dennis Day, and then evolve into a sketch (appearing behind a proscenium, theatre-style curtain) in which we the audience would participate in some kind of pedestrian, typical Benny day. He rents his house. He goes to the supermarket. He shops for Christmas gifts. Ordinary stuff.

But Benny and his writers' grasp on the absurdity of the ordinary was epic. Every situation could be turned into something ridiculously outrageous because Benny attracted the loonies of the world to serve him in his daily routines. Frank Nelson always appeared as a hotel operator or concierge; Mel Blanc sold jewelry or whatever Benny happened to want to buy; Bea Benedaret would be a receptionist or telephone operator. And none would allow Benny to proceed with his life without some kind of comic blockade that would trigger his patented stare of disbelief.

And when the day ended, he'd go home to his "Man" Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, whom he treated as an equal, and who knew how to dish it out when Benny stepped a little out of bounds with an order or an attitude.

I'm going to continue to think about Benny, in hopes of putting him onstage again. Before somebody else does.

In the meantime, enjoy this CLIP as I have. It features Benny, on his TV show, with the young and talented Gisele MacKenzie. They play a violin duet. And it's the closest thing to comic perfection I have ever seen.

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