The customer is always right, and this jerk is a customer

Jack Benny

Jack Benny

Legendary radio and television comedian Jack Benny has been on my ‘to do’ list of Idler topics for a little while, and what better time of year to highlight what is still the funniest Christmas TV show I have ever seen: the 1960 “Christmas Shopping” episode of The Jack Benny Program.

As a child I knew in a general-sort-of-way who Jack Benny was (because I was just that much of a dork), but I wasn’t really introduced to his work until I met my fiance, who listens to more old time radio than anyone else in this century. This has provided my crash-course in old-time radio and in the radio comedies, which ended up being the type of radio show I gravitated toward most. I don’t mean that all radio comedy is gold simply due to old-timey cred, because I discovered some that I can’t get into. The Great Gildersleeves is cute, but it’s not my thing. Fibber McGee and Molly kind of makes me want to put my eyes out like Oedipus Rex (or my ears, as it were, since this is radio). But with my fiance’s guidance in sifting through his OTR arsenal, I have come up with three programs that are as hilarious and engaging today as they were when they first aired: Baby Snooks, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, and The Jack Benny Program.

Benny and Blanc

Jack Benny and Mel Blanc

They’re the same shows that are many people’s favorites, with The Jack Benny Program heading up the pack as the most well-known, with amazingly high-quality, snappy, classic comedy writing that transcends time and is still funnier than most sitcoms being made today. The Jack Benny Program transcended the death of radio too, when the entire show first made the big jump to television in 1949.

And, with good reason, probably the most well-remembered episode of the TV show is the absolutely delightful “Christmas Shopping.” The premise for the episode saw previous incarnations in radio-format and in earlier in the TV show, building up to the 1960 television version that is the best-realized embodiment of the script. In all versions and and especially in the 1960 TV one, comic genius Mel Blanc completely steals the show as the unhinged, put-upon retail clerk who has the misfortune of having Jack as a customer, and whose gradual unravelling is the pinnacle and highlight of the episode.

cracking up

Benny, cracking up

Even if you think you don’t know who Mel Blanc is, you totally do: he was the voice of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester, Tweety, Barney Rubble and a veritable host of other cartoon characters. If there is such a thing as a cartoon voice-acting visionary it’s Blanc, who single-handedly pioneered the comedic voice style that still shapes cartoons as we know them today. Whether behind or in front of the camera it cannot be denied: he’s funny as hell. In “Christmas Shopping” you can clearly see Jack Benny covering his mouth as he tries not to laugh during Blanc’s abject sobbing. You can see also that Blanc sees this, and tries even harder to make his collaborator crack up.

Also in the episode is radio and classic-TV fan-favorite Frank Nelson, who is probably most-remembered now for many immortalizing parodies in old Looney Tunes cartoons, where cartoon-Nelsons utter his singular catch-phrase: “Yes?…” One word, and instantly recognizable.

Anderson and Benny

Eddie Anderson and Jack Benny

Also of course in the episode is the wonderful Eddie Anderson as Rochester. With a raspy voice due to vocal cords damaged as a child (from yelling loudly to sell newspapers), Anderson was the second-most popular character on The Jack Benny Program under Benny. Even though Anderson plays Benny’s valet, many consider the show advanced for its time in presenting Rochester as an intellectual equal to the other characters, and as more of a friend to Benny than an employee; both unusual things for an African American character in early television and radio. Benny and Anderson were close friends in real life and, particularly in the post-World War II world, Benny (who was Jewish) was extremely protective of Anderson, and fought against racist attitudes toward the actor on numerous occasions. Anderson became one of the highest-paid comedians at the time, black or white.

Benny himself, who was one of the early originators of self-deprecating humor, comes off as a much gentler comedian and man than many who worked in the same field. The son of Polish and Lithuanian immigrants, Jack Benny was born Born Benjamin Kubelsky and got his start in vaudeville like most everyone else at the time, later becoming a household name with one of the most popular radio/TV shows in history. The Jack Benny Program ran from 1932 – 1955 on radio and from 1949 – 1965 on television. When speaking of his fame, Benny once said, “Everything good that happened to me happened by accident. I was not filled with ambition nor fired by a drive toward a clear-cut goal.” Benny lived to be 80 even though his character never aged past 39. A generous man who played a miserly penny-pincher, Jack Benny arranged in his will for a single long-stemmed red rose to be delivered to his wife Mary Livingstone every day for the rest of her life.

Here in its entirety on youtube is the “Christmas Shopping” episode of The Jack Benny Program, which celebrated its 50th anniversary four days ago. Enjoy.

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