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By Phil Hall | July 20, 2013

Many comedians consider Jack Benny to be the greatest funnyman of all time, and anyone seeking confirmation of that opinion should check out this DVD anthology of 18 episodes from the comic’s classic TV show. These episodes, which have not been seen since their initial broadcasts in the late 1950s and early 1960s, brilliantly plumb Benny’s beloved persona of the vain skinflint who is endlessly exasperated by a boisterous world.

Benny’s zany stock company – Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, Dennis Day, Mel Blanc and Frank Nelson – keep him in near-constant comic aggravation with their putdowns on his alleged cheapness and terrible violin playing, while Hollywood royalty including Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Rock Hudson and Natalie Wood add glossy star power to the fun. There are several genuine surprises to be found here: Benny’s visit to Independence, Missouri, with Harry S. Truman at the latter’s presidential library; Billy Graham engaging in light comic banter with Benny (the evangelist claims he has larger audiences than Benny because he has “better writers”); and a brilliantly wicked parody of Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show,” complete with Benny offering a flawless imitation of Paar’s fidgety gestures and emotional delivery.

While the visual quality varies between episodes – the shows were preserved on 16mm kinescopes and were never intended for rebroadcast – they are consistent for maintaining an extraordinary level of priceless comedy. Special features in this DVD include several rare newsreel appearances by Benny, a number of late-career TV specials that Benny hosted during his later years, and interviews with director Norman Abbott and Harry Shearer, who appeared as a child actor on Benny’s show.

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