I became a Jack Benny fan in a strange way. I had heard of Jack Benny before of course, but I’d never seen his show. Then I saw the PBS Special Jack Benny: Comedy in Bloom and I was hooked. I’ve been listening to his radio show regularly on Sirius XM Classic Radio ever since. Before I hadn’t bothered because my mother doesn’t like his show, but I don’t understand why not, it’s great. However, I thought maybe an introduction would help other people enjoy it as much as I do. Be sure to read the comments, the one from Old Time Radio is especially important with a few corrections.
Things to know about Jack Benny and his show. Here are 20 things you ought to know, plus 4 links.
1. Jack’s theme song is Love in Bloom. Jack always thought it was stupid that it was, “what does my act have to do with that?” he asked on the biography program, but it had stuck.
2. Jack is always 39 years old. This is the source of a lot of humor on the show because even though the show was on the air approximately 30 years, he was 39 the entire run. Jack never let anyone say out right he wasn’t 39, but they got a lot of jokes out of implying it and his fixation with the number 39 shows up in various other ways in jokes over the years.
3. Jack is cheap. Probably in his funniest bit ever a robber asks Jack for “His money or his life?” when Jack doesn’t respond the robber repeats it, and Jack says “I’m thinking it over.” In fact many jokes don’t even have to have a punch line because just starting a joke that clearly is heading towards Jack’s cheapness had the audience laughing. In real life Jack was a very generous person, but that wasn’t funny.
4. Jack plays the violin badly. Although he could play better in real life than he does on the show, his ineptitude and insistence on playing anyway is a frequent topic for humor.
5. Jack’s show was a show within a show. While a frequent format in later years, and one that’s still used, Jack’s was an early example of the device. Sometimes audiences heard the “real” show that was going on the air, other times you heard the hijinks that accompanied the rehearsal or the entire cast was some place else, at the race track, on a train, or Christmas shopping, for example.
6. Jack parodied popular movies, radio shows, and books of the day. Again this device has been used frequently since, but he was an early adapter. He parodied everything from The Whistler radio show, to the latest movie, to fairy tales.
7. Radio show scripts were read, not memorized. This is not something unique to Jack at all. It was just how things were done, but it does explain sometimes when someone gets off and says the wrong thing. Often that is followed by a remark that they are on the wrong page or they skipped a page. That’s how it happened.
8. Jack’s real life wife appeared on the show as a member of the radio show’s cast/his general Girl Friday. Both the character and actress were credited as Mary Livingstone, her maiden name, on the show. They never acknowledged the marriage on the show which would have put a damper on Jack’s many skits that sets him up as a man who thinks he’s a ladies man when he clearly isn’t. The character of Jack often dates guest stars on the show, movie stars, and even the telephone operators who pop up to make comments every time he has to make a call.
9. Rochester is Jack Benny’s servant. Although often seen today at first glance as a stereotype, the character of Rochester Van Jones, played by African-American actor Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, generally got the best of Jack, getting him to do the household chores himself and generally getting the better of his boss in a genial way. Jack allowed Anderson to use the character other places off his show and even in a few movies. More importantly they were friends in real life and when the show traveled around the country if Anderson wasn’t welcome in a hotel, restaurant, etc. the entire cast would leave and go some place else.
10. Don Wilson is a BIG man. Don Wilson played the announcer on the show. While many radio shows made comments and jokes about big men that weren’t really that big, Wilson really was huge.
11. Phil Harris played the band leader during the first years of the show. Harris eventually spun off on his new show, including his wife Alice Faye, but even after that stayed with Benny too for awhile. Harris didn’t do any of the actual band leading, but was comedy relief both in the show proper and in his songs. He was known for comic songs, especially That’s What I Love About the South. He used typical 1940s slang “Jackson” and frequent jokes were made of his heavy drinking, and his “wolf” characteristics, despite his wife and daughters. Later he moved entirely to his own show and Jack got a new “band leader.” Most importantly from the perspective of a child of the 1970s he was the voice of Baloo the Bear in the Disney movie The Jungle Book.
12. Dennis Day was the boy singer. Day proved so popular he appeared on many records (as did Harris) and for awhile had his own radio show at the same time he was doing Jack’s (just like Harris). Unlike Harris though his character on the second show was only aspiring to be a radio singer and hadn’t made it yet, where Harris played the same characterization of himself that he used on Jack’s show on both programs and there was continuity between them. Towards the end Kenny Baker, doing his very best Dennis Day impersonation, filled that role.
13. Jack feuded with Fred Allen. While today Allen’s Alley is best known for having a character the Warner Brothers cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn was based on, back in the day it was extremely popular. Jack and Allen were friends in real life, but delighted in publicly “feuding” and the public tuned in to hear how they would seek to one up each other each week. As a result more people tuned into both shows. The feud was so good natured they would trade appearences on each other’s show to help keep it rolling along.
14. Jack means Jell-O. There were two long term sponsors of the show. The longer run was for Jell-O which was often worked into jokes about Jack’s sometimes cowardly behavoir and references to its 6 delicious flavors (all they offered at the time) also are written in very regularly. Less well integrated was when Lucky Strikes Cigarettes was his sponsor. They did initiate the phrase you sometimes still hear in other contexts, “so round, so firm, so fully packed.”
15. Jack has a pet polar bear named Carmichael. At one point during the run, Allen sent Jack a full grown polar bear. Jack named him Carmichael and the semi-animorphisized bear (he still just growled, but was in Jack’s other twin bed when they both had colds and he took a shower and toweled off in his very first appearence) would periodically show up the rest of the show.
16. Carmicheal, Jack’s old car he was too cheap to ever trade in, and assorted other characters and noises were done by the incomparable Mel Blanc.
17. Jack was from Waukegan, Illinois near Chicago and often referenced the fact. He never forgot his hometown and made many donations to its civic welfare. You can still see signs of Jack if you visit.
18. Jack bombed in the movies. While Bob Hope, another successful radio comedian who used a characterization of himself, was able to easily translate that into movies that were both popular and well received, Jack never did. Jack did appear in a number of motion pictures, none of which were a hit with either fans or critics. What critics view as the best of these was actually a fairly dramatic role in To Be or Not to Be (1942) that cast Jack as an actor in occuppied Poland. His last big movie The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945) was meant to be a feel good movie along the line of It’s a Wonderful Life, it never quite makes it, but is nowhere near as truly horrible as Jack himself makes it out to be forever after in references on his show.
19. Jack moved to television. While the Jack Benny program, in all its various forms was probably one of the longest running radio shows ever (even after he fully gave up making new episodes classic episodes continued to play as The Best of Benny), he eventually made the jump to television. At first he followed his radio format fairly closely, but eventually the TV version gained traction and went off in different directions and away from it’s initial focus on the same characters that had been the heart and soul of the radio series. The TV series also had a long run.
20. Jack has blue eyes. Many lines and gags are centered around Jack thinks he has the most beautiful blue eyes of anyone.
Bonus: Jack was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Carson often brought on comedians to his how, he gave many now big their first big break, but he didn’t forget the older greats. Jack was a frequent enough guest that it introduced an entire new generation to the Benny persona. This won’t help you enjoy the radio show more, but I thought it worth including.
Read more about Jack Benny’s impact from the Museum of Broadcast Communications:
Listen to some of Jack’s shows online:
Read more about the biography that got me hook and see a video preview:
Learn more about Sirius XM Classic Radio that I listen to them on here:
UPDATE: Read about Jack Benny’s movie career here: