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Review – The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes


The media company known emphatically as Shout! Factory pre-released one of the most highly anticipated DVD sets for old-time radio fans on June 18th of this year—a three-disc collection entitled The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes.  Eighteen telecasts (restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive) from the comedian’s celebrated TV series (culled between 1956 and 1964) that in some instances have not been seen since their original broadcast, this release is a must-own item for any Benny fan frustrated by the dearth of good DVD collections spotlighting Jack’s fifteen-year reign on the cathode ray tube.


jackbennyprogram2Except for a few “public domain” sets containing often poorly duped kinescopes, Jack Benny is not well represented on digital versatile disc (DVD).  There are one or two factors that can explain this: first, Benny’s early appearances on TV could be charitably called “erratic”—he did only four telecasts during his inaugural season on the air, and his sophomore year numbered six installments.  (So hypothetically—a release of The Jack Benny Program: The Complete First Season wouldn’t take much more than one disc.)  Throughout the 1950s, The Jack Benny Show aired every other week, alternating with such sitcoms as Private Secretary and Bachelor Father.  Jack wouldn’t embrace the weekly show format until the 1960-61 season—his eleventh year on the air.


jackbennyprogram4Second, the majority of Jack’s telecasts were aired live; occasionally one of his shows would be filmed at a studio (usually Revue, the TV arm of Universal Studios) depending on scheduling conflicts or the technical demands of the episode, but as a rule Benny was a creature of live TV.  Many of those live shows, like many classic radio broadcasts, disappeared into the ether…and unlike radio broadcasts that were preserved through transcriptions, live TV broadcasts were usually saved via kinescope: a process where a camera was pointed at a television monitor while the show was broadcast.  The quality of these kinescopes often left a lot to be desired, which is why when the syndication package of episodes of The Jack Benny Show was put together the majority of episodes used were the higher quality studio productions (spanning from 1953 to 1965).


jackbennyprogram5One of Jack’s most popular telecasts was an October 18, 1959 program in which the comedian welcomed as his special guest former President Harry S Truman.  The linking segments of the show (featuring Jack interacting with his regulars and a few incidental characters) were shot at the CBS studio, while Jack’s visit with the President was videotaped (to give it, as some have suggested, a sort of cinema verite gravitas).  Because the end result wasn’t as slick or polished as some of the other Benny programs, this show (the highest-rated program on TV the week it aired) was left out of the syndication package…in fact, it was never even repeated.  Yet it’s one of the eighteen telecasts on the Shout! Factory set, and remains not only an entertaining half-hour but a fascinating curio—Jack Benny’s reputation was such that he was able to draw guests from all walks of life…some who might find the idea of appearing on a comedy program beneath them (one episode features the Reverend Billy Graham!).


jackbennyprogram6The first show of Jack’s now-weekly season is also among the materials on The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes—an October 16. 1960 telecast that starts out with a scene set against the background of a locker room at the Hillcrest Country Club…and features Jack’s longtime friend George Burns, Tony Curtis and Robert Wagner discussing Jack’s move to weekly television.  This powerhouse lineup of guests is soon joined by musician-composer Johnny Green and later in the broadcast, future newsman Mike Wallace.  Before Wallace went walking up driveways and knocking on doors to embarrass the powerful and privileged on 60 Minutes, he grilled celebrities on an interview program called Nightbeat…and Jack finds himself in the hot seat when he has a nightmare that Mike is interrogating him on that same show.  It is one of the funniest half-hours I’ve ever watched Jack do; I was familiar with the program but was positively giddy to be afforded the opportunity to watch it.


jackbennyprogram8There is a treasure trove of great entertainment in the shows collected on this three-disc set.  You have telecasts with big name stars, of course: George Gobel, Gary Cooper, Natalie Wood, Milton Berle and Dick Van Dyke, to name just a few.  But for some odd reason, the shows that always make me laugh the hardest—and prove that all that celebrity wattage wasn’t necessary for maximum mirth generation—are the ones that feature the familiar Benny cast of regulars: Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, Dennis Day and the Sportsmen Quartet.  There’s a wonderful Christmas-themed program from December 24, 1961 that features longtime Benny Show player Mel Blanc in one of his first televised venues since his near-fatal automobile accident in January of that same year; Mel turns the events surrounding the accident into a funny “Little Mexican” skit with Jack while also voicing Professor LeBlanc and Polly the parrot (plus “the English horse” Jack’s writers slipped into a script one day just to see if Mel could imitate it).  As riotous as the Blanc/Benny encounter is, I think Frank Nelson tops it: handed a “gift” by his boss, Frank promises he won’t give the game away by letting the audience know the boxes Jack has been handing out are empty.  Jack takes umbrage to this, and so Frank opens his to the audience to reveal the fraud.  “If he had anything in them he wouldn’t be able to pick them up!” Nelson crows gleefully.



An exasperated Jack soon shouts back at him: “You really hate me, don’t you?”  “Oooooooooh…do I!” screams Frank and at that point, my falling-down-on-the-floor-in-hysterics woke everyone up in the house because I was watching this at five in the a.m.  The last program on the last disc, another Christmas program (this time from 1964), mines hilarity from a sublime visit from one of Jack’s favorite guests, singer Gisele McKenzie.  (And yes, they do their famous Getting to Know You violin duet: “Roses are red/Violets are blue/I’m beginning to sound like you,” she sings out at one point in the song.)


jackbennyprogram7The Shout! Factory collections are renowned for their bodacious extras, and The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes has some real treasures, including newsreel outtakes with Jack and Rochester, and an extended interview with comedian-satirist Harry Shearer (who appeared on the Benny radio and TV shows as a child actor, most notably in the programs featuring the Beverly Hills Beavers), show director Norman Abbott and longtime Benny personal secretary-assistant Dorothy Ohman.  The crème de la crème of the bonuses are some selected sketches from a few of Jack’s NBC specials (the ones he did after his weekly show came to an end in 1965)…but in a way these are disappointing because one wishes they could put together collections with the content of each of these specials in their entirety.  (One of the clips, from “Jack Benny’s New Look,” features George Burns hilariously heckling Jack from the audience; another, “Jack Benny’s 20th Anniversary Special,” offers a look at what Jack and his cast will look like in another 20 years…with an elderly Bob Hope and Dinah Shore tossed in for good measure.)


jackbennyprogram1This DVD set officially ships on July 23 of this year…but if you’d like to order it early, Radio Spirits has it available.  The joy generated by this set’s release is simply immeasurable, and if the sales are positive sources say there’s a good chance future collections will follow.  While some people in select TV markets are fortunate enough to sample the classic television goodies available on the cable channel Antenna TV (where Jack’s show is a staple, along with The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show) others in need of a Benny fix cannot deny that this is a must-purchase: a fitting video tribute to one of the true comedy legends from the Golden Age of Radio.


  1. Dan in Missouri says:

    I’ve ordered this set and I just can’t wait. Thanks for your wonderful piece. Dan in Missouri

  2. Hal says:

    I got in on a pre-order deal as part of the International Jack Benny Fan Club. The DVD set is as great as described in the review.

  3. Lee says:

    If you order the set directly from Shout! Factory, you get a bonus DVD: Jack performs “The Horn Blows At Midnight” from a 1950’s TV broadcast.

  4. Lee says:

    If you order the set directly from Shout! Factory, you get a bonus DVD not available otherwise: Jack performs “The Horn Blows At Midnight” from a 1950’s TV broadcast.

  5. Jeff Geller says:

    I can*t wait to show my BG (Beautiful Girlfriend) this unique collection. As with his radio shows, the humor of Mr. Benny has stood the test of time. Viewing these unique shows from the latter period of the Golden Age of Television will only confirm this. . . that is when I finished laughing.

  6. Robert Palmer says:

    I received the set along with the Horn Blows at Midnight disc. This collection is a wonderful treasure trove of Jack Benny material that I have never seen. Shout Factory did a wonderful job in its presentation of this product. I hope Shout makes more of The Jack Benny Program available to us in the future.

  7. Clark says:

    The whole point of Antenna TV is that it’s NOT a cable channel. It’s designed to be over the air, a subchannel of local channels. It’s carried on cable along with the other local channels, not as a cable channel in and of itself.

    If not for Antenna TV and MeTV, I wouldn’t be watching much television these days.

  8. carrico says:

    Wonder how Benny would react to all this talk about ‘cable.’ There would have to be his usual misunderstood attitude……then his indignation……a blunder………then, “Oh, never mind!”

  9. Alan Keeling says:

    10 episodes of The Jack Benny Program were filmed in England (Great Britain) during 1956, featuring British actors, including a young Sean Connery. I would really like to see these shows on DVD.

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