One of the great joys of oldies television networks such as METV and ANTENNA TV is classic television programs where younger persons can see the greatness of some of television’s great Jewish comedy pioneers such as Jack Benny, Phil Silvers, George Burns and others. Some like Jack Benny was the true master of the deadpan comedy style, while George Burn’s funny observations were a pioneering start for the later observational comics.
While some like Phil Silvers had their own shows, there were many Jewish bit player supporting actors who really made classic TV shine. Harvey Lembeck was a bit actor on THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW, but later the comic actor was featured as the comic biker leader in those Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello beach movies as Eric Von Zipper. And McHALES NAVY, which seemed much like the navyversion of the old Phil Silvers Show, featured two great Jewish comic actors. Carl Ballantine who played the wisecracking Lester Gruber was a real comedy anchor for the show, with his endless comic money-making schemes and attempts to sell war souvenirs to other sailors for a profit. Carl Ballantine had another act as a comedy magician whose tricks would go horribly wrong while he made comic wisecracks. Billy Sands was another Jewish cast member of both McHALES’S NAVY as well as THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW, who played the offbeat and goofy Harrison “Tinker” Bell.
Some early pioneering Jewish comedy show writers like Nat Hiken were real comic geniuses. Nat Hiken was the creator of CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU?, the outrageously funny comedy vehicle for Jewish comic actors Joe E. Ross as well as Al Lewis. THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW was another comedy gem for Nat Hiken who had his career sadly cut short with death from a massive heart attack at the young age of 54 in 1968.
GET SMART not only featured the half-Jewish comic actor Don Adams as the most outlandish secret agent ever, and the show was created by Jewish comedy giants Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. And, not to be forgotten was the huge contribution of Jewish TV pioneer, Milton Berle, who was even named “Mr. Television” by many along with Sid Caesar as another comedy pioneer giant.
The Jewish contributions to early television comedy sure cannot be discounted. Jewish humor was made mainstream with these pioneering shows, actors, writers and producers laying the cornerstone for other highly successful more modern shows with heavy Jewish themes such as SEINELD, FRIENDS, MAD ABOUT YOU, THE GOLDBERGS, THE NANNY and more.