EDDIE ANDERSON and JACK BENNY

EDDIE ANDERSON and JACK BENNY

My lack of interest in current television is at the point where I have a very limited diet. I’m not going to make an argument for the “golden age,” because I don’t think it’s valid. There have been many excellent shows since the 1950s. Still — and I’m willing to call this a matter of taste — I am attracted to early programming, and especially to situation comedies such as Make Room for Daddy, Burns and Allen, and the proto-sitcom, The Goldbergs. 

Thank heaven, then, for services like Netflix, which makes many of these shows available, including The Jack Benny Show. Benny is a favorite of mine, not only because he was such a unique character and was so skillful in portraying his fictional persona — the miser who wouldn’t admit to being older than 39 — but because of his place in American show business history.

A poster advertises a broadcast of Jack Benny's radio show on a station in Seattle. LSMFT, for the benefit of the younger crowd, stood for "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco."

A poster advertises a broadcast of Jack Benny’s radio show on a station in Seattle. LSMFT, for the benefit of the younger crowd, stood for “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.”

The production values of television shows in the 1950s do not compare favorably with what we have become used to sixty years later, but the era got its “golden age” reputation because of the cadre of writers and performers who had migrated to television on a path that led from vaudeville, burlesque, and the legitimate theater by way of radio. Jack Benny and many of his contemporaries had worked very hard to develop their sense of what audiences at the time thought was funny or dramatic, and to develop the timing and delivery that would work in the new medium. They learned their lessons well; Jack Benny’s slow burn is still funny, even when you can see it coming from a mile away.

An interesting aspect of Benny’s show was his relationship with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, a gravel-voiced black actor who was part of the Benny stock company which included, among others, announcer Don Wilson and Irish crooner Dennis Day.

EDDIE ANDERSON

EDDIE ANDERSON

Anderson who, like Benny, got his start in vaudeville, started working with Benny in radio in 1937, first in a few bit parts and then playing Benny’s valet. He played that role on radio and television until 1965. He was the first black performer to have a regular role on radio, but that meant that he was faced with what became a classic conundrum for black artists — the question of whether to play a subservient character or not work in movies, radio, or TV. It was a difficult question for the actors as well as for the black Americans who were being treated as second-class citizens if as citizens at all.

Given the racial climate at the time, The Jack Benny Show took an unusual approach by presenting Rochester as a quick-witted and sarcastic character who was always a little smarter than his boss. The approach was unusual also because this plot element juxtaposed two deadpan figures and the combination was hilarious and was sustained for nearly thirty years. At first, in radio, there was often a racial aspect to the humor surrounding Rochester, but after World War II, Benny — who took an unambiguous public stand in favor of racial harmony — insisted that all racial content be eliminated from his scripts.

Eddie Anderson was one of the most popular and highest-paid actors of his time. He appeared in many movies, including Green Pastures and Gone With the Wind. He handled his money wisely and was both wealthy and generous. Among other enterprises, he owned a company that manufactured parachutes for the American military during World War II.

You can see Jack Benny and Eddie Anderson in a typically funny scene by clicking here.

Eddie Anderson's home on a street named after him in the West Adams district of Los Angeles.

Eddie Anderson’s home on a street named after him in the West Adams district of Los Angeles.

BOB NEWHART

It’s always a pleasure when we watch a television program from several decades ago and find that it was as good as we remember. For us, that’s true of “The Bob Newhart Show,” which ran on CBS from 1972 to 1978. We rented from Netflix the first episodes in the series, and we were not disappointed. The later series, “Newhart,” was weak by comparison.

The tone of the series is set by Newhart’s mannerisms played out in psychologist Bob Hartley’s droll world view. Newhart is one of those  rare actors who gets laughs by being a straight man. The show succeeds because the writing, casting, and direction is all in harmony with Newhart’s low-key (below-key, if there is such a thing) personality. Even the more traditionally comic performances – Marcia Wallace as receptionist Carol Kester, Peter Bonerz as dentist Jerry Robinson, and Bill Dailey as neighbor/airline navigator Howard Borden, are relatively subdued so as to create a comfortable context for Newhart’s flat wave.

SUZANNE PLESHETTE

Although the series is built around Bob Newhart’s personality, an important part of its success  is Suzanne Pleshette’s performance as Bob Hartley’s seductive, wise-cracking wife, Emily. She was cast in the role in the first place after producers noticed the natural chemistry between her and Newhart on a 1971 broadcast of “The Tonight Show.” The producers weren’t imagining things. Pleshette and Newhart were a high point in television matchmaking.

We first became aware of Newhart when he was a stand-up comic; we still have his “Buttondown Mind” LP. His signature routine was the one-sided telephone conversation, a device that he took with him to the TV series. A lot of actors find themselves faking telephone calls, but Newhart perfected it. He was especially smooth in repeating the unheard half of the conversation — doing it so skillfully that it didn’t seem contrived.

Bob Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette

I don’t know how decisions are made about what shows get re-run on television, but I do know that there seem to be endless recyclings of series that weren’t very good to begin with, but no sign of “Taxi,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” or the first Newhart series.

Thank heaven for Netflix.