The Bootleg Files: Jack Benny’s First Farewell Special

BOOTLEG FILES 601: “Jack Benny’s First Farewell Special” (1973 television production featuring Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and Dean Martin).

LAST SEEN: It can be found on YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No one wants to put it out on commercial DVD.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: There is no great push to get this released.

I don’t know who came up with the term “special” to define the one-shot variety productions that pockmarked television broadcasting from the 1950s through the mid-1980s. For the most part, these offerings were anything but special – most were forgettable, some were dreadful, but only a handful possessed the emotional or artistic quality that truly deserved to be called special.

The 1973 effort “Jack Benny’s First Farewell Special” was among the laziest creations of this sector of the TV world. But it is unfair to blame Jack Benny for the sloppy nature of this particular outing – it seemed as if NBC yanked a number of its big-name stars into a quickie effort that could fill time during a dull stretch on the schedule. The comedy here is too easy, with the all-star cast cashing in on their too-familiar personas to get too-easy laughs.

The program starts with Johnny Carson paying a cockeyed tribute to Benny. Carson insists that Benny was his childhood idol and that his effort to imitate Benny’s prancing walk was “the only time in my life I’ve been arrested.” When Benny comes out, he expresses irritation that Carson imagines he is retiring. Says Carson in response: “If you’re not quitting, why am I working for free?” And Benny answers: “Because I’m your idol!”

Benny then visits the set of Dean Martin’s show, where a girl wearing a tiger costume is playing a piano that the allegedly inebriated singer is sitting atop. Martin feigns surprise that he has been booked to appear on Benny’s special. When informed that a rehearsal is approaching, Dino belches, “Rehearsal – what’s that?” (That, my friends, is an inside joke regarding Martin’s notorious refusal to rehearse his show.)

After this, Benny matches wits with singer/dancer/sometimes-actress Joey Heatherton…and wins. Heatherton complains about being cast in a British-based film where she is expected to run naked while nude in a field of flowers. Benny sheepishly asks, “Are the flowers high?” Heatherton then does a Vegas-style mangling of the Melanie pop tune “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma,” and provides irrefutable proof that she was among the least deserving entertainers to become blessed with stardom.

Just when things cannot get worse, they do: Bob Hope shows up, reading his wise-cracks off the cue cards with gusto. “Here I am, another Jack Benny special – and you thought smoking was a miserable habit,” declares Ol’ Ski Nose, who then calls Benny a “Stone Age Woody Allen.” Huh?

Benny then has to share the stage with golfer Lee Trevino, who emerges on the stage allegedly looking for a golf ball belonging to Vice President Spiro Agnew. (It seems that Agnew was an aggressively bad golfer, and his lack of athletic skills was a running gag back in the day.)

For sheer weirdness, Isaac Hayes arrives wearing no shirt, a huge gold necklace and large sunglasses while performing his Oscar-winning “Theme from Shaft.” Benny then shows up and tries to engage in humorous banter, but the old-school comedy and 70s funk styles never blend. In this case, ebony and ivory do not live together in harmony.

But keeping in an urban vibe, Benny is then teamed with Flip Wilson for a labored spoof of the Raymond Burr show “Ironsides,” only imagined as a radio play. Wilson is funny doing his jive-turkey act, but Benny never connects with his vibe and it feels like they are in parallel skits.

The show ends (finally!) with then-California Governor Ronald Reagan congratulating Benny on his retirement. Benny protests that he is not retiring, but Reagan interrupts him by presenting a going away gift of a new Rolls-Royce. Benny hesitates in correcting the governor, mulling the happiness of a free luxury car as the closing credits roll.

“Jack Benny’s First Farewell Special” was sponsored by RCA, which polluted the program with its commercials. A series of alleged RCA customers (including Willie Mays) trumpet the glory of the televisions from the company.

NBC dropped “Jack Benny’s First Farewell Special” on January 18, 1973, where it made little ratings impact. But since Benny was under contract to the network, a second “farewell special” was made for broadcast one year later. But that proved to be the genuine farewell to the beloved star – Benny died on December 26, 1974, after a courageous fight against pancreatic cancer.

“Jack Benny’s First Farewell Special,” not unlike many TV specials of that era, was never released in any commercial home entertainment format. A decent copy of the show, complete with the RCA commercials, is on YouTube and collector-to-collector video. But, seriously, there is no great reason to seek out this mediocre blip of a show.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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