Preserving a departed comedian’s comedy heritage, past work and comedic style can be as problematical as perpetuating it beyond the comedian’s death because each passing generation increasing forgets the comedian and his/her work. And the work inevitably loses commercial value. But some comedy greats’ fans, heirs and admirers pull out all stops to make sure that it’s there for those who not only seek to watch it for nostalgic reasons, but for younger people who can LEARN FROM IT if they are aspiring comedians or comedy fans.
Late last week the International Jack Benny Fan Club got some very bad news: rather than allow the club with the Benny family’s enthusiastic blessing to digitally preserve some unreleased public domain Benny show masters that CBS has in its possession, the network is giving a thumbs down to the idea — thus sealing these shows’ fate so they will never be seen again. In effect, it’s a bullet through the head of this body of Benny work. And here is the most frustrating tidbit for comedy fans and those who study comedy: the Fan Club offered to do the preservation at no cost to CBS.
Why does this matter? Benny invented the situation comedy on radio in the 1930s, had perfect timing, assembled a cast of zany characters who poked fun at him, could extend a laugh by the way he slowly panned around the room after a punch line and influenced comedians such as Kelsey Grammer and Johnny Carson. In his final years, he could literally read a page out of the phone book and get laughs. His final weekly series went off the air in 1964 but he continued to do specials until he died in 1974. (Here is his Wikipedia bio) When he died I was then writing from New Delhi, India for the now defunct Chicago Daily News and they would cable me about my submissions that week with messages saying “SORRY TOO MUCH JACK BENNY” because their many stories about the beloved 20th century comedy icon who was a star of vaudeville, radio, movies and television took up pages in the paper the week of his death (there was a double tie in: he was born in nearby Waukegan.)
Some of his work is available on DVDs, but Fan Club President Laura Leff had felt the club discovered virtual buried comedy treasure. Now, reportedly, CBS is planning to BURY the treasure up so no one can see it.
Here is what she posted on the club’s website (full link is HERE):
CBS permanently seals Jack Benny television masters
In December 2008 when I was at CBS overseeing the color specials transfer, I was told that CBS had the Benny television program masters. I was breathless!
I got a listing of their holdings, and selected about 25 shows that are currently uncirculated and in the public domain. I sent the request for us to digitally preserve these shows, at the IJBFC’s cost, to Lorra-Lea Bartlett, the Manager of the CBS Contracts Rights and Clearances department.
This was followed by about nine months of waiting for the CBS New York legal department to respond to the request. On September 7th, I was asked to provide a letter from the Benny Estate requesting that the programs be released, and “that should get this unstuck.” The Estate happily provided the letter to CBS. I continued to follow up weekly for status.
Today I was informed by Peter Murray, Lorra-Lea’s assistant, that she had talked with CBS’ Vice President of Business Affairs, and “there are so many issues with those shows, that even if we took the time to figure it out, we still almost certainly wouldn’t do the deal.” So that’s it. Access to the Jack Benny television masters is sealed.
In 1964, James Aubrey told Jack Benny that his weekly television series was terminated with the words, “YOU’RE THROUGH, OLD MAN!” Sadly, 46 years later, CBS has repeated the sentiment by condemning these shows to permanent silence.
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If you go to the link, there’s a list of what CBS has.
Preserving the work of artists — musicians, actors, comedians, dangers, singers, rock stars and more — is vital. It’s a part of our cultural heritage.
The sad part here is: based on Leff’s account, the network that once made millions off of Benny just plans to put these masters away so no one can ever see them again — even if the family of Jack Benny would like his work to be available and even if the fan club offers to pay for the digital preservation itself.
There indeed could be some copyright and other issues. But is simply bottling up the masters and never letting them see the light of day an artistically laudable decision? Clearly, some Benny shows are on DVD via companies that use both public domain episodes and others that seem to be licensed.
FOOTNOTE: We’ve run some Benny You Tubes and always got enthusiastic emails, particularly from younger TMV readers who were seeing him for the first time. We will run some more soon since much of his work holds up quite well. And some of it — CBS has seemingly indicated — will never be seen again.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.