Jack Benny and the Golden Age of American Radio Comedy

Jack Benny and the Golden Age of American Radio Comedy

by Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley

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The king of radio comedy from the Great Depression through the early 1950s, Jack Benny was one of the most influential entertainers in twentieth-century America. A master of comic timing and an innovative producer, Benny, with his radio writers, developed a weekly situation comedy to meet radio’s endless need for new material, at the same time integrating advertising into the show’s humor. Through the character of the vain, cheap everyman, Benny created a fall guy, whose frustrated struggles with his employees addressed midcentury America’s concerns with race, gender, commercialism, and sexual identity. Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley contextualizes her analysis of Jack Benny and his entourage with thoughtful insight into the intersections of competing entertainment industries and provides plenty of evidence that transmedia stardom, branded entertainment, and virality are not new phenomena but current iterations of key aspects in American commercial cultural history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520295056
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/10/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 392
Sales rank: 316,744
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley is Professor in the Radio-Television-Film department at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of, among other books, At the Picture Show: Small Town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture and the editor of Hollywood in the Neighborhood: Historical Case Studies of Local Moviegoing.

Read an Excerpt


Becoming Benny


Anticipation mixed with anxiety in the small, glass-enclosed broadcasting studio installed in the old roof garden situated atop Broadway's New Amsterdam Theater on Monday night, May 2, 1932. Beginning at 9:30 P.M. EST, the inaugural episode of Canada Dry Ginger Ale's half-hour radio program aired live, carried over a network of NBC Blue radio stations covering the eastern United States. The only audience members were representatives from the show's sponsor, advertising agency, and network. The program's concept and cast had been assembled for Canada Dry by NBC executive Bertha Brainard as a new direction in sponsorship for the company, which had previously underwritten a dramatic (and violent) adventure series set in the Canadian Rockies. Canada Dry's advertising agency N. W. Ayer & Son billed the new show as "30 minutes of music and quips" featuring six numbers played by New York bandleader George Olsen and his orchestra and sung by his spouse, Ziegfeld Follies star Ethel Shutta. Already widely familiar to radio listeners, they were considered to be the main attraction of the show. The music would be interspersed with brief monologue segments performed by thirty-eight-year-old vaudeville veteran Jack Benny, who was introduced as "that suave comedian, dry humorist and famous master of ceremonies." In his first performance for Canada Dry, Benny told a series of jokes drawn from his well-honed stage routine, offering informal and genially self-deprecating comments on personal experiences, such as his Hollywood adventures and the mediocrity of his girlfriend, who posed for the "before" in "before and after" photos. By the conclusion of his fourth biweekly episode, Benny queasily realized he had used up nearly every monologue he had perfected over fifteen years in vaudeville, and more broadcasts lay ahead of him.

The new Canada Dry show joined a rapidly increasing number of variety-comedy programs on primetime network radio. While music had been the dominant program form of the previous five years, the entertainment trade press noted that comedy was growing as a less expensive option for sponsors weary of paying for high-priced orchestras and temperamental crooners. New shows in the 1932 season featured not only newcomer Jack Benny but also other vaudevillians such as George Burns and Gracie Allen, George Jessel, Fred Allen, and Jack Pearl. Most, like Benny, were serving as "emcees" (short for M.C. or master of ceremonies) for programs that mixed music, comedy, and advertising messages. The new entrants joined such already-popular variety programs as those hosted by Rudy Vallee for Fleischmann's Yeast, Ed Wynn for Texaco, and Eddie Cantor for Chase and Sanborn Coffee.

The burgeoning popularity and financial success of commercial network radio was the one bright spot in an American economy sliding ever further into the Great Depression. The unemployment rate was nearly 25 percent, banks were closing left and right, and major industries had ground to a standstill. The entertainment world was hit especially hard. The majority of Broadway theaters were shuttered, major league baseball teams were playing in stadiums emptied of spectators, and vacation resorts appeared abandoned. Even the movie studios and picture palaces, which with the tremendous popularity of "talkies" had seemed immune to the economic crisis, now experienced a devastating downturn in business. The advertising business (also tremendously hard-hit) found that clients who promoted their products on radio programs (especially inexpensive consumer goods like tobacco, soap, and coffee) were seeing enormous sales gains. The speed and extent to which previously unknown performers like Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll had become nationally famous as "Amos 'n' Andy" astonished entertainment veterans like Benny (the duo hadn't paid their dues by honing their act for years in theaters in the hinterlands). The gloating of the Pepsodent company, whose toothpaste's previous meager sales skyrocketed when it began sponsoring the Amos 'n' Andy program in 1929 was impossible to ignore. The pull of this growing entertainment medium, coupled with the push of steeply declining opportunities on Broadway and in vaudeville due to the Depression, propelled the apprehensive Benny to try his hand in radio.

Facing the daunting challenge of filling radio's unprecedented, ferocious demand for new content, Jack Benny initially struggled, but ultimately thrived in the new medium by developing new approaches to comedy. Benny and scriptwriter Harry Conn began to craft a personality-based radio variety program, drawing on Benny's vaudeville style and exploring new (to them) comic constructions of what contemporary critics termed character comedy and comedy situations. Experimenting as the program progressed from week to week, Benny and Conn expanded the narrative world of the show. They began developing comic identities for the major performers (orchestra leader, vocalist, and announcer) who stood around the microphone. Framing the group as workers putting on a radio show, Benny and Conn developed a personality for each of them that blended reality and fiction. The cast became a stable of recognizable, quirky-yet-likeable continuing characters who could bounce off each other in informal exchanges in the studio or interact in situations from visiting the zoo or having dinner at a cast member's home to performing a parody of a popular new film. This variety greatly reduced Benny and Conn's reliance on pat monologues and standard joke telling. What they developed was a forerunner of the situation comedy, a genre that would become much more prominent only fifteen years later in radio and television broadcasting in response to changing industrial practices and cultural norms.

The duo could have created comic content for the program while leaving the emcee as the star, a dominant figure who was fed straight lines by subordinates, or by making him a pleasantly bland father figure who rode herd over his workplace family. Instead, over a three-to-four-year period, Benny and Conn gradually transformed the Jack Benny persona. Writer and performer transitioned the role from the vaudeville character of a suave but self-deprecating monologist (called by vaudeville critics the "sleekly bored joker") to that of a vainglorious, hapless Fall Guy, a "negative exemplar," in historian Steven Mintz's terms, roundly (and ritually) roasted by his stable of zany stooges. Benny and Conn turned the humor around. Benny the emcee became the butt, not the mouthpiece, of the acerbic comic lines. The "Jack Benny" character of radio fame was their greatest creation. Even when their partnership unraveled in 1936, they had solidified Benny's place as the premiere comedian in American radio broadcasting.


Jack Benny had already spent more than twenty years developing a vaudeville identity that brought him, if not immense stardom, solid success as a musician who had transitioned into a humorist who held a violin in one hand and a cigar in the other as he joked. Working as a "single" who occasionally interacted with an assistant or other acts on the bill, Benny joined the expanding group of informal, modern vaudeville hipsters whom we would know later as stand-up comics. Benny's twist to the genre involved creating a "middling" personality who was neither young nor old, wealthy nor poor. He was not loud or buffoonish, and he related to a homogenizing American audience as much more Anglo-American than Jewish or ethnic. He was a Midwestern variant of what vaudeville historians term "the Voice of the City." Variety critic Robert Landry later asserted that Jack Benny's stage manner had always seemed "big time," even as it was perfected in local theater orchestras, military camp shows, and small-time vaudeville in the 1910s and early 1920s:

[Benny's] style was subdued, his delivery one of the first examples of modern "throw away." He was poised, unhurried, seemingly effortless. ... He was not an ad libber, in the general sense. He prepared his stuff ahead but changed it frequently, infused it with topical allusions. But he sounded ad lib.

Landry acknowledged that Benny's appeal was nevertheless somewhat limited, because his act "demanded too much attention and quiet" to thrive either in noisy metropolitan night clubs or among the rough and tumble milieu of vaudeville comics in the hinterlands.

Reviews of Benny's routine in the early 1920s commended the "reserve, poise and personality" of the monologist. "Jack Benny with his slow, easy patter, gets his crowd before he is well under way," commented a typical critic, who also mentioned the mediocrity of Benny's jokes. When he appeared in 1925 at New York's Palace Theater, vaudeville's pinnacle, Billboard praised Benny's "droll delivery," but also labelled his routine as being "a cross between the Frank Fay and Ben Bernie styles." Initially, as Ben K. Benny (his early stage name), in his act Jack Benny had superficially resembled deep-voiced bandleader Ben Bernie, who grasped a fiddle and embellished the punch lines of his jokes with the catchphrase "yowza yowza!" Bernie pressured the younger Benny to further modify his stage name to widen the perceived differences between them. The comparisons with Frank Fay continued, however, as Jack Benny unabashedly modeled his act on that of the wellknown Irish-American comic. When Benny returned to the Palace in April 1926, Variety complimented his "excellent material and delivery" and his witty interplay with other performers: "Stanley and Birns [the next act] came out early and asked to tell a story in Benny's spot. Benny's comments on the story were real funny. It was likeable nonsense and a yell when Benny stopped [them] as he recognized it as a stag story." Benny regularly reenacted this routine with a female assistant whispering the salacious story in his ear, so that he could flirtatiously dance between polite and sexually suggestive humor. When he incorporated it into a 1928 Vitaphone talkie short, a reviewer snarkily noted its similarities to a Frank Fay routine —"They can fight out who did it first."

Frank Fay's urbane manner made him one of the most prominent and highest-paid performers in vaudeville. He was one of the first to enact the emcee role at the Palace and the nation's other top theaters. Emcees had existed previously in minstrel shows (where they were called interlocutors) and in British music halls (where they were called comperes), but Fay was said to have coined the term used in American vaudeville. The emcee role was an outgrowth of Fay's innovative monologue act. Fay was one of the first stage comedians to eschew outlandish costumes, makeup, props, and broad physical shtick. The debonair redheaded, blue-eyed Fay dressed with impeccable, aristocratic style and moved with a feminine grace. His timing and delivery were judged "masterly." He was a "boastful big city boulevardier" with a breezy delivery and relatively restrained, soft-spoken demeanor that covered a rapier wit. "Faysie" had a devastating ability to ad lib insults that could destroy any heckler in the audience. A Life Magazine profile described "his cockiness and his conceit, ... the gentle smile, the quizzical lift of the eyebrows, the sweet voice and then the dirty crack." Fay did not depend on strings of one-liners, but was a storyteller whose collection of whimsical and digressive tales were peopled with everyday individuals such as a family that obsessively saved string. Fay also sang stanzas of current songs like "Tea for Two," stopping to dissect the absurdities of the lyrics along the way. He was elegant, suave, and superior — and made sure the audience knew it, through his wicked repartee and stinging quips, perfecting what a critic called "an odd combination of humor and elegance." Fay's act was widely admired and copied by other comics, but offstage he was reviled for his bigotry, his alcoholism, and his massive ego (he called himself "Frank Fay, the World's Greatest Comedian"). Fellow comic Fred Allen once cracked, "The last time I saw Fay, he was walking down Lover's Lane holding his own hand."

Vaudeville acts had traditionally followed each other on stage in quick succession, identified in printed programs and by title cards placed on an easel at the side of the stage. But as attendance began to dwindle, vaudeville managers began to add an extra attraction — a headliner such as Fay, Jack Benny, Julius Tannen, or George Jessel to present the show. The lead comic would appear not only in his own spot, but also throughout the bill, introducing the acts, interacting with (or interrupting) other performers, ad libbing patter between the spots, and filling time if there were delays in the show. Some critics complained that this restructuring slowed the pace of the program, but the emcee's performance made the disparate parts of the program seem more interconnected. Benny approached the emcee role with a collaborative spirit, whereas Fay took the opportunity to turn the spotlight on himself and dominate the entire proceedings. Benny did borrow Fay's quiet charm, elegant manner, and womanly walk, but, lacking his quick and inventive tongue, replaced Fay's arrogance and ad-libbed putdowns with carefully crafted lines that sounded off-the-cuff, and included a subtle self-deprecation. "Benny's opening line, which he used for years, was celebrated," recalled vaudeville historian Maurice Zolotow. "He would casually lope toward the center of the stage, tuck his violin under his arm, brush his hair back with his left hand, and inquire of the maestro, 'How is the show?' 'Fine up to now,' the maestro would reply. 'I'll fix that!' Benny would say."

Jack Benny rivaled Fay as one of the most frequent emcees at the Palace between 1927 and 1931. "Benny knows the Palace and its audiences there as few others do, knowing what else they like besides actor and show biz gags," noted a reviewer, who also voiced the concern mentioned by other critics, that Benny struggled to find enough new material to last through repeated viewings. In Chicago, "Jack Benny, who had acted as M.C. throughout the bill, was refreshingly humorous in his easy, graceful way, his chatter and violin playing both going over big." Vaudeville appeared increasingly unstable, however, so Benny experimented with other media. He appeared on Broadway in the 1927 Shubert Brothers' revue The Great Temptations, but felt that the predominance of "blue" humor did not complement his style. He also tried his hand at the movies, riding the wave of talent from vaudeville and the stage flowing to Hollywood with the coming of talkies. However, after playing a prominent role as the emcee of MGM's Hollywood Revue of1929, his subsequent film roles (and reviews of his performances) were lackluster. Nevertheless, Benny kept trying to play up his film connections.

In 1930 and 1931, Benny moved his act between films, vaudeville venues, and cavernous picture palaces, which began adding live stage acts to their movie shows to shore up attendance. Entertainment forms were converging, but Benny did not seem to fit comfortably into any of them. Playing the Palace, Benny asked to bebilled as "the cinemaster of ceremonies." Skeptical critics expressed concern that Benny's work was too quiet and low-key to take command of 5,000-seat auditoriums. Although he did moderately well, devising some punchy additions to enlarge the scale of his act (Zouave soldiers, Japanese acrobats, comeuppance from the abrupt start of the film program onscreen), a reviewer of his show at New York's Capital Theater was still unconvinced. "Benny is still the suave and clever emcee working all through the show to keep it pieced together effectively. His suaveness, then, tends to slowness, which hardly helps a presentation in a 'deluxer.' The type of entertainment that goes is that which is served speedily and peppily." Benny was at a career crossroads, as he wandered among various venues and media forms, trying to find the most advantageous platform for his particular skills. Worsening economic conditions of the early 1930s made the search more nerve wracking.

In 1932, radio and advertising executives like NBC's Brainard, scanning the horizon for talent that might best adapt to broadcasting's needs, considered Jack Benny, although they were not initially very enthusiastic about him. Neither network brass nor sponsor's agencies were certain what styles and types of performers would work on the radio — many preferred the loud brashness and quickness of other comics and the stentorian tones of tuxedoed announcers. NBC had actually approached literary humorist Irvin S. Cobb prior to contacting Benny, but Cobb's salary demands were too high. Executives probably noted the affinities Benny's stage act had with aural presentation — Benny produced most of his humor through low-key language and smooth, superbly timed delivery of his lines. He was not a primarily physical or visual comedian getting laughs through broad facial expressions, costume, or slapstick body movements. Benny engaged in quiet, intimate joking, confiding in the audience as if it were a small group, similar to the methods of the "crooning" singers like Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee who were becoming popular through radio appearances. On the other hand, Benny's droll stare at the stage audience, with hand to his cheek, which silently communicated his frustration and won viewers' sympathy, would be lost on radio listeners. It would only reemerge in the early 1950s to embellish his comedy routines on television.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1 • Becoming Benny: Th e Development of Jack Benny’s Character-Focused Comedy for Radio
2 • “What Are You Laughing at, Mary?” Mary Livingstone’s Comic Voice
3 • Masculine Gender Identity in Jack Benny’s Humor
4 • Eddie Anderson, Rochester, and Race in 1930s Radio and Film
5 • Rochester and the Revenge of Uncle Tom in the 1940s and 1950s
6 • Th e Commercial Imperative: Jack Benny, Advertising, and Radio Sponsors
7 • Jack Benny’s Intermedia Juggling of Radio and Film
8 • Benny at War with the Radio Critics
9 • Jack Benny’s Turn Towards Television


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