The Bootleg Files: Jack Benny in Australia

BOOTLEG FILES 776: “Jack Benny in Australia” (1964 television special from down under).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No perceived commercial value.


In early 1964, Jack Benny received an offer to do a series of shows in Australia, where his radio and television shows had been popular for years. The timing for the offer was serendipitous, as CBS unceremoniously axed Benny’s popular television program at the end of 1963 and he had no other engagements lined up.

Benny performed on stage in Melbourne and Sydney and taped a one-shot special for the Australian Television Network that encapsulated his stage offering. “Jack Benny in Australia” was never broadcast in the U.S. But, in a way, not having a U.S. broadcast wasn’t the worst thing because his Australian show replicated a great deal of his long-running CBS program.

“Jack Benny in Australia” opens in the same manner as his CBS shows, with the comic standing in front a curtain on a bare stage. He wisecracks that the rousing audience reaction makes him feel like the “fifth Beatle” and he serves up amusing observations on the local cultural scene. He remarks on the Sydney Opera House by noting “it won’t be ready to open for two, three months yet” – a reference to the notorious time- and cost-overruns on the project (the building wouldn’t open until 1973). He talks about local lifeguards warning swimmers against oncoming sharks by ringing a small bell and so plays a brief film clip about his taking up temporary residence at a fleabag hotel across from Sydney’s luxurious Menzies Hotel – Benny comments it was a better deal than “paying the Menzies’ prices to overlook the dump I’m living in.”

Benny’s opening monologue is followed by a juggling duo called the Rudenko Brothers, and Benny then returns to begin a long story about a panhandler who constantly winds up in court. But as Benny is winding up for the story’s punchline, the Rudenko Brothers come on stage and announce they forgot to do their act’s encore stunt, so they lasso a supposedly dumbfounded Benny into their routine. After the jugglers exit, Benny finishes his story’s punchline, admitting that “it goes over better when people don’t come in the middle of it.”

For the remainder of the show, Benny shares the stage with three musical performers, and it is here where the special gets a bit stale because he recycles similar material from his CBS show. Singer Lorrae Desmond does a song-and-dance number with two male dancers to “Great Day” and then engages in a lengthy conversation on Benny’s alleged bad luck about being a movie star. Desmond is pretty and an okay singer, but feeding straight lines to Benny was definitely not her forte. However, there is one very funny moment when Benny screws up the Australian slang “fair dinkum” and chastises himself for goofing up the phrase.

Johnny O’Keefe, who was sort of an Australian version of the Bobby Rydell or Fabian-type of pop singer who was in vogue in the early 60s, does a jazzed up version of “On the Street Where You Live” and then gives Benny “advice” on improving his act. (Benny did a version of this with Johnny Carson on CBS – O’Keefe was no Carson, but he did perform “She Wears My Ring” and that became a local hit tune.)

Benny then does a violin duet with teenage Cynthia O’Brien, replicating a routine around “Getting to Know You” that he did with Gisele McKenzie a few years earlier. Benny would acknowledge this was O’Brien’s first time performing on stage, which is obvious because her presence is stiff and uncertain.

Benny closes the show with a genuinely funny wisecrack that he deserves a medal for doing a show in Australia without making any reference to a kangaroo. He also mentions he is departing for home the next day – he never came back to Australia and it is not certain if he ever saw the finished special, which aired on the Australian Television Network in April 1964.

It is a shame that “Jack Benny in Australia” didn’t take a travelogue-with-comedy approach, with the funnyman observing Australia’s sites and interacting with its distinctive wildlife – that would have helped sell the production for a U.S. release. It is also a shame that his beloved ensemble including Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, Dennis Day, Mel Blanc and Frank Nelson didn’t come along – much of the fun in the Benny show came from his supporting players and the fun they would have at Benny’s exasperated expense.

But for Benny fans who are willing to accept even a lesser effort, “Jack Benny in Australia” can be found on YouTube.

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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