Jack Benny: Classic Radio Comedy

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Jack Benny: Classic Radio Comedy

Calling The Jack Benny Program a radio show is more than an understatement. It is considered by many to have been THE show (along with Fibber McGee and Molly and Amos ‘n Andy) that launched radio into its golden age.

Jack Benny started his career on the vaudeville circuit and, initially, had little interest in a radio career. However, the fame he achieved through his vaudeville performances led to his being asked to appear on Ed Sullivan’s gossip and interview show (a precursor to Sullivan’s television show).His appearance on this show led to Canada Dry offering him a show of his own which took to the airwaves in May 1932. This early show was largely musical, with Benny’s comedy skits providing breaks between musical numbers like Doin’ the Racoon and The Varsity Drag.

This early version of The Jack Benny Program was cancelled in 1933 after Benny began to poke fun at the sponsors. Although Canada Dry didn’t appreciate it, future incarnations of the show would continue this tradition. After being cut by Canada Dry, the show would quickly rebound with Chevrolet and then General Tire. Despite the difficulty retaining sponsors, its popularity continued to grow and, by 1937, the show’s cast had been stabilized.

The Cast of The Jack Benny Program

Although Jack Benny was the star of the show, he had a fine supporting cast that played off his character perfectly. Given the show’s longevity there was some turnover but many of the characters existed for much of the show’s run.

Sadye Marks played Mary Livingstone (and later took this name as her own). Livingstone was Benny’s wife and had been a part of Benny’s vaudeville routine for a number of years. Livingstone and Benny married after a series of chance meetings. On the show, Mary was initially a star-struck fan who recited poetry and read letters from her mother in Plainfield, New Jersey. As the character of Jack Benny developed, so to would Livingstone’s. As Benny adopted the persona of a cheapskate curmudgeon, Livingstone became the foil for these undesirable traits.

Eddie Anderson played Rochester. Rochester was Benny’s on-air valet (although some listeners assumed that this relationship carried on off-air as well) . Initially, Rochester’s character was typical of those given to African-American actors, that of a subservient butler. However, over the years, the dynamics of the relationship between Benny and Rochester changed considerably. Eventually, Rochester would make jokes at Benny’s expense and, in one episode, even struck Benny.

Eugene McNulty became Dennis Day, the show’s singer and resident dummy. Day’s “logical irrelevancies” revealed a character with “a head full of air”.

Phil Harris was the bandleader and, as a musician, it was assumed he was the cast drunk. A southerner for the purposes of the show, Harris demonstrated his reverence for the Southern US through repeated performances of That’s What I like About the South.

The show was rounded out by Don Wilson, the show’s announcer. Wilson often found himself involved in the antics of the rest of the cast, often due to his size. Although his height and weight were not behemoth, he did stand 6 feet tall and weighed around 220 pounds. His proportions provided ample opportunity for Benny and the other cast members.

Running Jokes on The Jack Benny Program

The biggest running gag on The Jack Benny Program was Jack Benny himself. Over the years, Benny’s persona developed a miserliness that was second to none. Benny never paid for anything if he could get someone else to cover his expenses. He would stay in the cheapest hotels and find an excuse to leave the restaurant table as soon as the the cheque was delivered. Benny’s tightfistedness came to a head on the March 28th, 1948 episode. Benny borrows Ronald Colman’s Oscar trophy and, on his way home, is mugged. The mugger demands “Your money or your life!”. Benny’s response is…silence. The mugger repeats his demand “Look, bud! I said your money or your life!” Benny responds quickly this time. In an exasperated voice, Benny exclaims “I’m thinking it over!” The resulting audience laughter is often claimed to be the longest ever recorded on radio.

A second running joke on the program was the on-air running feud between Benny and Fred Allen. Benny and Allen – friends in real-life – frequently exchanged barbs on their respective programs. Allen would make a joke about Benny’s violin playing and Benny would respond with a joke about Allen’s ratings.

The third running gag involved male pattern baldness. Although not bald, Benny and Rochester had frequent discussions about the location of Benny’s hair – it was often at the laundry or at the barber being trimmed.

The Legacy of The Jack Benny Program

The Jack Benny Program was, as John Dunning puts it, the “quintessential American radio comedy show.” It contained elements of vaudeville, situation comedy, musical performance and “heart”. Even though Benny was a miserly character, the fact that he cared for his co-stars still came through. Benny starred in a few films and took his program to television but his radio legacy is what he is best remembered for. There have been numerous references to Jack Benny in radio, television and film. On radio, Our Miss Brooks referenced Benny’s violin playing. On television, The Simpsons have Nelsom Muntz who may have taken his name from Frank Nelson (who also inspired the Simpson bit character of “The Yes Guy”).

Source:

  1. Dunning, John, On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, Oxford University Press, 1998. 355-363.