Demise of TV Satire?

DATELINE:  Trump’s Attack on Humor

trumpet the New Archie Bunker?

President Trump wants to shut down Saturday Night Live because it is an “Enemy of the People.”

In his view, no views should be expressed on TV unless they are kind, balanced, and fair to him.

Of course, television has a long history of unpopular, brutal satire. The shows include That Was the Week That Was. TWTWTW, as it was known, or TW3 in some circles, was half-an hour of unremitting political jokes that skewed Republican Barry Goldwater during 1964. It was on in prime-time and was pre-empted every week, almost, by paid TV commercials from the GOP. They eventually saw it canceled.

The other shocker was The Smothers Brothers Hour, on Sunday nights that was sixty minutes of unremitting anti-Nixon, anti-Watergate cronies in the Roger Stone archetype.

It was so virulently anti-Nixon and his dirty-tricks-team that Nixon put it on the Enemies List and had his influential friends at the network cancel the show.

All in the Family started out as a brutal satire of crypto-Nazi bigotry in the Queens suburbs of New York. It was enormously popular during the 1970s, but its satiric bite was lessened sharply when Archie Bunker, the bigot, became a lovable American hero. Embraced as a delightful example of American parochialism, he flourished, a fan favorite of conservative America.

During the same years came SNL.  It was out of prime time, even reveling in the idea with the Not Ready for Prime Time players, a group of future movie stars who did satiric barbs.

SNL still lives, over forty years later, and has become nastier in its attacks on Trump, which incenses the President. He wants it investigated and stopped.

If there had been a radio show in Germany in the 1930s, Hitler would have had it raided and had its comedians sent to a concentration camp. Indeed, Jack Benny made a comedy movie about such an idea in his greatest film called To Be or Not To Be. ICE may yet raid SNL.

So Trump is in fine company as he awaits impeachment and prison for his dubious unconstitutional, uneducated, and anti-satire demands to close down freedom of speech.

Trumpet Blowing at Midnight

DATELINE: Blowhard Comedy

Bugs Benny

For most of his career, actor and comedian Jack Benny blamed a movie called The Horn Blows at Midnight for ruining his movie stardom. In fact, he never made another movie for decades, succeeding on a newer medium called TV.

In some ways he was a re-actor, mostly playing off situations and people. Having a personality with notable quirks; vanity, greed, among his most notorious deadly sins, he was mostly asexual and devoid of anger issues.

Here he is faced with irony after irony: he drinks Paradise Coffee that ‘helps you sleep’. He is too ineffective to start the doomsday scenario.

As a milquetoast, he was the antithesis of heroic post-World War II men–those tough guy approaches bordered on psychotic (all the major stars went from their usual roles to a more sinister version in the years after the war).

That bring us to Midnight: where and when Benny is a second-rate angel in heaven given the task of blowing Gabriel’s horn (Heaven’s real star’s too busy) at midnight in New York City to end the corrupt world of a small planet called Earth.

It is whimsy gone mad. Nearly every joke is told twice. It almost becomes a Warner Brothers Bugs Bunny cartoon. Yet, the film was directed by action  helmsman Raoul Walsh. It used fantasy special effects and had a cast to die for. Yes, that is the original pantywaist Franklin Pangborn, and yes, that is Margaret Dumont from the Marx Brothers. Oh, yes, that is Robert Blake as a kid. Yes, that is every notable second-banana in second-banana roles. They are wonderful to behold.

It is not much more than a mild, simple whimsical tale with a few digs. Worse yet, the gimmick of the movie is blatantly false, which undercuts its sharpness. We won’t tell you if Benny falls asleep too often.

It was not a bad film, but no one went to see it—and Jack took it personally. Of course, it does not help when Jack tells the audience that, if he saw this stuff in a movie, they would not believe it.  They didn’t.

Benny retired from movies. His last starring vehicle is a diversion for the cynical, harsh times that followed World War II and the burgeoning Cold War. It also fits for us today in a mad, mad, mad world of Trump daily crises.

Old-Time Screw-Ball Comedy from the Jack Benny Vault

DATELINE:  Lost Satire

Fred Allen

In the 1940s movies drew its fledgling stars from the ranks of radio comedians—like Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and in 1944, they called upon sharp satirist Fred Allen. Barely recalled nowadays, he came upon the movie world as an unlikely iconoclast, especially during the patriotic days of World War II.

Yes, in the world of major studios, to have someone biting the hand that feeds him was a rare event. It’s in the Bag was middle-aged, baggy-eyed Allen’s debut on the big screen.

Allen rakes American foibles over the coals with the best of them—and it was a strange treat to see small-time American business, intellectuals, politics, lawyers, police, hotels, and middle-class morality under siege.

Allen takes on greed in America as his main target. He plays a flea-circus owner whose grand-uncle leaves him millions in a last will and testament. Of course, his uncle’s corrupt lawyer (John Carradine) and business partners have swindled the old man out of the money—and have had him bumped off.

For odd reasons, it sends Fred Allen on a quest to recover money hidden in an old heirloom chair he has given away. In his travels he meets Jack Benny (playing a vain skinflint named Jack Benny).  He flatters Benny by telling him, based on Jack’s radio show jokes, he thought he was a much older man. Benny counters that he will be of voting age next year.

It’s in the Bag is cynical and sharp, dispatching opening movie credits by Allen as a bunch of names you’d find in a phone book, or hangers-on relatives of the movie’s producer. He yearns for the day when movies will dispatch opening credits completely.

It’s not a great movie, not even a great comedy, but it is an unusual gemstone that puts a timeless, irreverent, insouciant, iconoclastic spin on dumb-founded American culture. No wonder we were charmed by it.

 

 

 

 

Jack Benny Predates Westworld

DATELINE: Chicken or Egg and Jack Benny

jack-benny-westworld

Viewing Westworld, the new HBO series with its fascinating look at atomatons in an amusement park, we might be fooled into thinking how modern and futuristic the series is. But the possibilities were seen decades ago. Check this historical episode of the Benny series at the final 5 minute mark.

In the new Jonathan Nolan version of Michael Crichton’s Westworld novel, there are now technicians running the theme park, wearing hazmat suits. In the old story they just wore lab coats. But working with robots nowadays probably is more hazardous, with their strange bodily fluids.

We were reminded that in the early 1960s, this same science-fiction premise was displayed innocuously enough on the Jack Benny Program.

Yep, the notorious tightwad comedian tackled the subject a decade before Westworld even happened.

In a 1963 episode young newcomer to TV, Johnny Carson visits Jack Benny in his dressing room after the show. He tells Benny how impressed he is with his style, energy, and youth. This, of course, just utterly charms smarmy Jack.

Coy as always, Benny is self-effacing. Then Johnny Carson  asks him what the secret of his youth and vitality. It seems to bring Jack to a complete paralysis; he stares off into space. Johnny is alarmed as Benny never moves again.

Then a couple of technicians start to dismantle Jack, removing his head and arms and packing them away, putting his torso into the broom closet.

Johnny Carson is suitably shocked. He asks how long this has been going on.

The technicians shrug. They have no idea. “We started doing this 15 years ago.”