What's a Kinescope?!
Our three comedians' best work was transmitted live. That these programs have survived in any form at all is thanks to a process called kinescoping.
Kinescopes were made essentially by pointing a motion picture camera (usually 16mm, sometimes 35) at a small studio monitor and filming the live broadcast as it went out. The resulting film might be of questionable quality, but it was very useful: Before shows from the East could be directly networked across the nation, kinescopes were the only way that far-flung localities could see those broadcasts at all. Indeed, even after instantaneous coast-to-coast transmission was possible, many local stations in between were still, in effect, off the grid. These outlets depended on kines to receive any network product at all.
As comedy writer David Pollock recalls: “Kinescoping was a process that they were more or less stuck with. Nobody really liked it.... The quality was never great... kines were always fuzzy....” He remembered what it was like to live in a kinescope-dependent area in California: “At the beginning, it seemed like everything was delayed by a week [or more], so shows would be seen on their regular night but you might have... Arthur Godfrey saying Merry Christmas the first week of July.... No thought was ever given to the West coast.... Everything was done for the Eastern time zone.... We just got used to it.” (At one point in Jack Benny's 1950 premiere telecast, which originated from New York, he explained, “This is a live show-- we only go as far as St. Louis or Kansas City.... This probably won't reach California for about two weeks.”)
Though the quality of kinescopes steadily improved over the years, they were always criticized. Their defects have caused most live shows to be essentially unknown to later generations. Comedians like Gleason, Benny, Burns and Allen and Lucille Ball put at least some of their input directly onto motion picture film. As a result, they enjoyed a long afterlife in syndication and can still have a toehold on the cultural landscape. As for performers on kine, David Pollock says, “The shame of it, really, was that all of these live shows like The George Gobel Show, The Martha Raye Show, Your Show of Shows etc. were done with no thought at the time really of them being rerun and so they were effectively lost.”
Or, as Mel Brooks purportedly put it, “On film, you live. On kinescope, you die.”