Fall Comedy Reads: ‘Jack Benny and the Golden Age of American Radio Comedy’

jack-benny

Welcome to our Fall Comedy Reads series, where we take a closer look at some of the newly released comedy-related books worth checking out this month.

In 1937, while visiting Los Angeles, British journalist Austin J. Putnam described the “Seven Wonders of Hollywood.” His list included restaurants, theaters, studios, and the live production of Jack Benny’s radio show. He effused, “It is positively amazing the hold this droll comedian has on the United States public…I enjoyed his show at the NBC studio more than any stage play I’ve ever seen in London or New York.” Explaining what made this show so amazing — and what gave it such a hold over the American public — was more difficult. Radio critic John Crosby, writing in 1947 (15 years into Benny’s roughly 23 starring on his own radio show), obsessed over what was so funny (to audiences as well as to himself) about Jack Benny. Printing a selection from the script of an episode he’d particularly enjoyed in the New York Herald Tribune, he noted, “Just how he manages to wrest so many laughs out of such harmless stuff is his own deep secret.” No longer.

In Jack Benny and the Golden Age of American Radio Comedy, UT Austin professor Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley provides the most detailed analysis and history of Jack Benny’s radio program available. Devoting time to Benny’s relationships with his writers, costars, sponsors, networks, and fans, Fuller-Seeley examines the impact on situation comedy that The Jack Benny Program (titled, at various times, The Chevrolet Program, The General Tire Revue, The Jell-O Program, The Grape Nuts Flakes Program, and The Lucky Strike Program) had, and its shadow looms large today — even as Benny’s iconic comic persona fades in the public consciousness.

Fuller-Seeley is attempting to keep that memory alive. A major reason why the once-enormously-famous Jack Benny is no longer a household name is that many of his programs, like so much significant content from the early days of radio and of television, have been destroyed, lost, or deteriorated beyond use. Even Benny’s own collection, donated in the 1960s to UCLA, contained a great deal of disintegrated data and unplayable audio. In her exhaustive research, Fuller-Seeley has compiled and archived episodes not heard since their original broadcasts decades ago. The book promises the files will be available on a promotional site, jackbennyradio.com (as of this writing that is not yet the case). As she notes, however, a great deal of archiving has been crowdsourced and can be found, for example, here.

This archiving that Fuller-Seeley has done is emblematic of the enormous research project that makes up this book. As her chapters on Eddie Anderson’s work on The Jack Benny Program demonstrate, ours is not quite the original thinkpiece generation. Indeed, the complicated, frustrating, and problematic racial dynamic between Jack Benny and Rochester (Anderson’s character) was a topic of hot debate, particularly in the Black newspapers at the time. Fuller-Seeley corrects the historical record, set askew by Benny’s own recounting of events in his posthumously-published memoir, Sunday Nights at Seven. There, Benny recalls how the character of Rochester evolved from an offensive Black stereotype to a more nuanced and powerful character (who was still a servant to Jack): “Everybody loved ethnic humor during vaudeville…During World War II, attitudes changed. Hitler’s ideology of Aryan supremacy put all ethnic humor in a bad light. … When the black man’s fight for equal rights and fair play became an issue after the war, I would no longer allow Rochester to say or do anything that an audience would consider degrading to the dignity of a modern Afro-American.” While any reader with a passing understanding of US history would know that Benny is full of it suggesting that the 1940s were the start of “the black man’s fight for equal rights and fair play,” Benny’s also giving himself far too much credit for putting the racist caricaturing to a stop. As Fuller-Seeley explains, the Black press, Black radio listeners, and the NAACP were vocally uncomfortable with the Benny-Rochester relationship as early as 1942, and it was a concerted years-long push for better representation that finally led to the show abandoning some of its worst stereotyping.

Eddie Anderson was still frequently misunderstood by fans to actually be Jack Benny’s servant Rochester, and the fact that he was credited as “Rochester” even in film roles didn’t help. The intermedia characterization of Jack Benny as a defined character named “Jack Benny” is a running theme throughout Fuller-Seeley’s book; as she explains in early chapters, the character of “Jack” (she uses Benny to describe the actual person and Jack to describe the character) was developed over the course of decades across vaudeville, radio, film, and television, and included borrowing heavily from the now-entirely-forgotten Frank Fay and working in collaboration with a series of writers (a version of this narrative was previously published here). By the 1940s, the character was so well-defined that in this famous 1948 gag, a thief demanding of Jack “Your money or your life!” got a huge laugh from the audience, who could anticipate that Jack’s famous parsimony would cause him to struggle with the right choice to make. For Benny’s wife, Sadye Marks, who played Jack’s on-again-off-again girlfriend Mary Livingstone, the divide between personality and persona blurred dramatically — she began going by “Mary” in her personal life, and her grave reads “Mary Benny.”

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Jack Benny was born Benjamin Kubelsky, and the way he straddled the line between Jewish and Gentile American identity is at least partly responsible for the way he played a “fall guy.” As Fuller-Seeley writes, “Benny internally defined his character [“Jack”] in terms of Jewish humor, but put him in an outwardly assimilationist package.” Fuller-Seeley details extensively the ways that Jack elided traditional gender roles, even including non-campy cross-dressing. In comparison to other comedians who performed in drag (like Milton Berle, Eddie Cantor, and Ken Murray), “Benny, on the other hand, created something that delighted some audience members by being so slyly accurate.” He wasn’t making a joke of dressing as a woman; he was dressing as a woman and making jokes. These kinds of transgressive identities were part of what made his long success so notable: he was a decidedly non-mainstream personality with broad mainstream appeal.

This book provides a thorough investigation of what made The Jack Benny Program, in its various incarnations, work. Fuller-Seeley addresses the many factors that went into the show, including the different relationships the sponsors had with the content over the course of its run. By discussing in depth the ways the show was and wasn’t distributed during and after its initial run (including the balance of radio stations carrying the show vs. TV stations carrying the show throughout the ‘50s), Fuller-Seeley makes the book itself an intermedia experience, encouraging readers to contribute to the vital work of media archiving. Addressing Benny’s later career, Fuller-Seeley summarizes a 1968 sketch Benny performed in, then notes, “you have just got to watch this, hopefully it is on YouTube.” It is. May the days ahead provide even more of this otherwise-lost content.

Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the web series Doing Good.

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