Nice Guys Last Fifteen Seasons: Jack Benny on Television, 1950-1965
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 30, Number 2, 2000
- pp. 29-40
- Additional Information
Television as Historian | Special In-Depth Section NICE GUYS LAST FIFTEEN SEASONS: JACK BENINY ON TELEVISION, 1950-19651 by James L Baughman, University of Wisconsin at Madison On Sunday evening, October 28, 1950, Jack Benny,America's most popular radio comedian, made his network television debut. People finally saw what most had only heard. For more than fifteen years, Benny had crafted a vain, insecure persona. And his very first line conveyed the pre-occupation with self: "I'd give a million dollars to know how I look!" And the anxiety: "If Fm a success tonight, all right. If not, I'll kill myself."2 Benny had no cause for concern. For the next fifteen seasons on network television, The JackBenny Show generally enjoyed good to excellent ratings. "The Rock of Radio," William Saroyan wrote in 1955, had become "the Tower ofTelevision."3 In the early 1960s, with the comedian approaching 39 plus 41 years of age, he still had his fans. The Jack Benny Show was one of the few weekly programs President Kennedy tried to watch.4 That Benny's show survived for so long is extraordinary. Of the hundreds of network TV series aired in evening prime time between 1947 and 1995, only 1 1 had longer runs than The Jack Benny Show.5 And he succeeded in a medium where most series failed — after short runs. Over a three-year period beginning with the 1952-53 season , Variety estimated, just over two-thirds of all TV programs left the air.6 "People get tired of you a lot quicker on TV than they do on the radio," the comedian Steve Allen wrote. " They pick you up faster, but they drop you faster, too."7 Benny's video durability has its scholarly uses. Generalizations about television's beginnings can be tested against one major player's history. From the vantage point of an individual performer, one observes a calculated transition from radio to television. Benny's status as a network radio star afforded him remarkable control over his initial television career. In that regard, the comedian proved both prescient and backward-lookUnlike many of his radio contemporaries, Jack Benny not only survived his transition to television, but flourished for 15 seasons. Here Benny is pictured in a skit with singer, Connie Francis, during an episode from the 1960's. ing. In some instances, he correctly anticipated what TV was to become; at other times, he held out, ultimately in vain, for other outcomes. All in all, by lasting so long, Benny's program provides a window on the great transformations of television, from thé first years of often awkward live telecasts to a period of relative product standardization . Finally, Benny's extended television career suggests, if only by comparison to the video fates of his peers, something about the advantages of his style of comedy as well as his long-nurtured public "personality ." Benny's program endured upheavals in how and where network TV programs were assembled. In June 1953, or two and half years after the comedian first appeared on CBS, some 81.5 percent of all network programming was telecast live. In mid-1965, that percentage had fallen to 25.2 percent .8 Virtually all network telecasts in 1950 originated fromNew York. By 1965, only ten of 96 network entertainment shows were produced there.9 The medium's changing look can be seen in the popularity ratings ofTV programs. The most watched series of the 1950-1951 season was The Texaco Star Theater. Hosted by Milton Berle, Star Theater commanded an extraordinary 61.6 rating. Two, hour-long programs offering original dramas, The Fireside Theater and Philco TV Playhouse, followed ; a pair of comedy revues, Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, and The Colgate Comedy Hour, with different hosts, placed fourth and fifth.10 All came from New York. Few in 1950 would have recognized the television and performers dominant the year The Jack Benny Show left the air. The five most watched programs in 1965 were a western, Bonanza, several situation comedies, and the action program, The Fugitive. All were filmed in southern California. The ratings leaders of 1950-51...