Monday, September 5, 2011

Television: Jack Benny and Ernie Kovacs--Prisoners of the Future!

Okay, remember when I promised you "science fiction-related items from sources you might not expect"?  Well, here you go.  Were you expecting science fiction from The Jack Benny Program?

There are certain stories that open so many eyes so forcefully to a new kind of science fiction storytelling that they give their names to the subgenre.  After Stanley G. Weinbaum's "The Worlds of If" appeared in Wonder Stories in 1935, tales of alternative timelines were known as "Worlds of If stories."  Similarly, although extrapolating into the future a condition from the present was hardly a new idea when Robert A. Heinlein wrote his first novel in 1940, he did it memorably enough, with a title apposite enough, that such stories quickly became known as "If This Goes On stories."

Well, here's an "If This Goes On story" from The Jack Benny Program.  Extrapolating ideas to absurdity is, of course, one of the great tools of comedy, especially satire, so it's no surprise that satire and science fiction should come together as often as they do.  Or, more specifically, that Jack Benny's writers should look at the movement toward more humane treatment of prisoners, and think, "Where will this all end?  Why, if this goes on..."

So join Jack Benny and his guest star Ernie Kovacs in a satirical future of the past in an extract from the January 25, 1959 episode, as Benny the Louse and Killer Kovacs enjoy life behind bars in the prison of 1970.


0:21 "Oh, but yeah..."  This is coming right off a beatnik sketch, so Kovacs is still hip to the lingo.

1:21 You have to wonder what that long pause after "Ladies and gentlemen..." (and before, for that matter) was about.  Maybe behind the scenes, it was taking a little longer than they expected to get everything into position.

1:28 "Claremont Prison, typical of many institutions throughout the country, is located in Nob Hill in San Francisco, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge."  Obviously, they mean that it's typical for them to be in scenic places, but I enjoy the logical paradox that prisons can be located throughout the country, and yet all in the same city.

1:39 Prisons in the real 1970 weren't as cushy as this one, but they had done away with the black and white stripes.

2:50 "...or Blockhouse 90."  A joke on CBS' series of plays for television, Playhouse 90 (1957-60).  Although it wasn't a science fiction series, among the writers for the show were Leslie Stevens (creator of The Outer Limits) and Rod Serling.

4:45 "Clean the clubs or I'll call the governor."  Somehow, I don't think that would have done much good in the real 1970.  Ronald Reagan probably wasn't too concerned about convicts' sports equipment.

5:58 What they really needed, evidently, was a switch to wake up the lighting director.

7:24 Note Benny's choice of brand.  Lucky Strike was the program's sponsor.

9:17 Charlie Chaplin's Tramp character was reluctant to leave the comforts of prison in his 1931 film City Lights.  And that was a contemporaneous prison.

10:40 "I think the comic books beat us to it."  This was five years after Fredric Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent led to widespread concern that comic books promoted crime and other antisocial behavior.


Al Quagliata said...

We had a post about this sketch several years ago; it's in the form of a trivia contest that one of our readers submitted. Definitely a funny sketch from two comedy giants.

Al Quagliata

Ernie Kovacs Dot Net: A Tribute To Television's Original Genius

The Ernie Kovacs Blog

The Editor said...

I didn't know about the Kovacs blog. I read the post you linked to, and I'm sure the rest of the blog is going to claim a good chunk of my spare time in the near future. I'd had no idea the writers won an Emmy for this episode.

Thanks for the comment and the link.