Jack Benny (1894-1974)

Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, George Burns

It is a measure of how beloved Jack Benny is that 50 years after his last regular radio show (in a career that spanned 1932-1955 in radio alone), anonymous fans have made available on Internet nearly 400 MP3 files of his radio shows.  Many of these episodes are still very funny today, despite the mean spirited bickering between Jack and his cast, and the politically incorrect way that announcer Don Wilson was made the butt of every type of fat joke.  And despite the ethnic slurs that Rochester and his Central Avenue friends carried knives and spent their leisure time gambling and carousing.  And the canard perpetuated that the band members were all ex-cons, drunks and womanizers.

Jack Benny was perhaps unique among major radio stars in that he hardly had a funny line in most of his shows.  Some of his typical dialogue lines are "Huh?", "Good, good."  "Now, cut that out!" , "Well!" , "Wait a minute!", "Yipe!" and "Hmm".  Instead, he conspired with his writers to make his character the butt of jokes, giving all the funny lines to his long time supporting cast:  his wife, Sadie Marks, who became so identified with the character of Mary Livingstone that she had her name legally changed; bandleader Phil Harris, boy tenor Dennis Day and, last but not least, his valet and man of a thousand duties (butler, chauffeur, cook, gardener, valet, masseur, window washer and author of "What to Do In Your Spare Time"), Rochester, who was the only one of the cast never introduced by his real name, Eddie Anderson.   So strong was Jack's supporting cast, that three of them, Phil Harris, Dennis Day and Mel Blanc, also had radio shows of their own.  (I recently discovered  that a CBS radio show for Rochester entitled THE PRIVATE LIFE OF ROCHESTER VAN JONES was tested in 1950 but apparently it was never broadcast.)
The Jack Benny Radio Show featured the longest running "running gags" created by Jack and his writers, Harry Conn, Al Boasberg, Howard Snyder, Hugh Wedlock, Jr., Ed Beloin, Bill Morrow, Sam Perrin, Milt Josefsberg, John Tackaberry, George Balzer, Al Gordon and Hal Goldman.

You may find any one of the episodes below enjoyable, but the marvelous thing about Jack's radio series was that the set up for a running joke may have been planted YEARS before.  Because Jack had, you should pardon the expression, "so many strings to his bow" not every episode involved hammering home the same punchline, instead there were a series of wonderful running gags, including the dilapidated Maxwell, Jack's car whose coughing sputter was the product of Mel Blanc's amazing larynx; Polly, Jack's parrot (also Mel Blanc), Carmichael, Jack's polar bear (growls courtesy of Mel Blanc), Professor LeBlanc, Jack's long suffering violin teacher (also Mel Blanc), the train announcer ("Anaheim, Azusa and Cu--camonga") (also Mel Blanc), every snooty floor walker, waiter, doorman, information booth attendant and ticket seller (Frank Nelson of the drawn out "Yeeeessss"), the race track tout (Sheldon Leonard) who had no opinion on horses, but who used horse racing terms to try to steer Jack toward a particular elevator, restaurant table, railroad locomotive or vending machine candy.

Additional running jokes included Jack's cluelessness that his next door neighbors, Ronald and Bonita Colman, couldn't stand him (they even put up an electrified fence between their houses), his legendary stinginess, his vanity as far as refusing to age past 39, his baby blue eyes, his (fictional) toupees and (fictional) false teeth, his lousy violin playing, his extreme cowardice (Jack took novocaine to get a manicure!), his feud with Fred Allen, the dissipated lives of the orchestra on his show, particularly Frank Remley, Charlie Bagby and Sammy the (bald) drummer.  The way he drove the department store clerk (also Mel Blanc) nuts each Christmas buying the cheapest gift for Don Wilson, having it monogramed and gift wrapped and then changing his mind.   The telephone operators (no one ever seemed to dial direct back in those days) Mabel Flapsaddle and Gertrude Gearshift played by Bea Benedaret and Sara Berner, who sometimes dated Jack, and who constantly taunted and criticized him (and never seemed to connect him to his party).  That monosyllabic Mexican who said only "si" or "Cy" or "Sue" or "sew" (Mel Blanc at his most deadpan).  The vault beneath Jack's house, guarded by a moat, drawbridge, alligators and alarms, and Ed (Joseph Kearns), the guard who never saw the light of day.  Jack's many side businesses, including doing the laundry for his neighbors, selling sandwiches on cross country train trips, renting out his back yard as a parking lot, renting towels to people who use his pool, selling Christmas cards; and playing violin and parking cars at weddings.

Even Jack's radio set was a running joke.  It was forever tuned to bizarre soap operas, featured commercials for a fictional product called Symmmmpathy Soothing Syrup that suspiciously seemed a parody of SERUTAN ("natures" spelled backwards) ("Yip Yip Yhtapmys, Yip Yip Yhtapmys, Yip Yip Yhtapmys, Drive your blues a-way") .  Jack's radio also blared out the constant caterwauls of a whiny girl singer (also Sara Berner).  Not to mention the clever musical commercials for Jello and Lucky Strikes with parody lyrics set to classical music or popular songs of the day.   The continuing stories of Buck Benny and Captain O'Benny, the world's most incompetent cop.  Mary's letters from her mama in Plainfield, NJ about the eccentric Livingstone family, particularly man-hunting sister Babe.  Dennis' butch mother (Verna Felton) always trying to undermine Jack's authority with Dennis.  The lousy song that Jack allegedly wrote, "When You Say 'I Beg Your Pardon', Then I'll Come Back to You".  References (obscure now) to appeasing Petrillo (According to SKYLARK, a 2003 biography of Johnny Mercer by Philip Furia, James Petrillo was head of the American Federation of Musicians).

Perhaps the most frequent running gag that showed up in nearly every radio episode were the interruptions; the phone was always ringing (usually this was Rochester reporting on some disaster at Jack's house); or there was a knock at the door, which was sometimes a messenger (doomed to a meagre tip) or heckler.  Jack's gang constantly interrupted him when he tried to talk, and he would often interrupt Dennis Day, who would arrive late and start in on some zany anecdote, only to be brought up short by Jack's "Hi, kid."

Not only are these radio shows funny but they are also a window into history, as presidents come and go, World War II starts and ends, rationing is imposed, lists are required to get new refrigerators, the public is urged not to drive (not because of a gasoline shortage but a rubber shortage), the atom bomb is tested, public service announcements urge people to be kind to each other and not let the enemy divide the country.  Another, kindlier era.

It was a surprise to me, who never heard any of these shows when they originally aired, to discover that Jack's theme song was actually a combination of LOVE IN BLOOM and YANKEE DOODLE DANDY!  (His end theme was HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD).  And also a surprise to learn that so many of the shows contained parodies of then current films in which Jack displayed some acting chops.  And that occasionally Jack would sing on the radio, generally a capella. And he could do a great impersonation of Fred Allen.

This is all great stuff, and we are so lucky that collectors have managed to preserve it for future generations.  And you are lucky that I have laid it all out for you in chronological order, because the more of this stuff you hear in the right order, the funnier it is.  Virtually every single radio show Jack Benny ever did is available in MP3 format on CD ROMs which you can purchase on eBay, so please do not contact me about where to get them!

Video files

Audio files 

Jack's Films

When you say "I beg your pardon", then I'll come back to you
When you ask me to forgive you, I'll return
Like the swallows at Sarano return to Capistrano
For you my heart will always, always yearn

When you say that you are sorry then I will understand
'Neath the harvest moon, we'll pledge our love anew
So, my darling, though we've parted, come back back to whence we started
And, sweetheart, I'll come back to you

Recommended Reading:  You can get hold of these books at the public library, abebooks.com, ebay.com 

Research and commentary by Judy Harris

email me at foosie@bestweb.net

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