Jack Benny got more laughs by playing the straight man who didn’t care if he was the butt of the jokes. He liked to portray himself as a skinflint, but his generosity as a comic allowed other characters to get their fair share of laughs…usually at his expense.
With his brilliant timing, smooth delivery, and trademark mannerisms, Benny was a huge influence on the development of the radio sitcom. References to Benny’s reputed stinginess, vanity, and infirmities were expected, and weekly running gags established the program’s memorable characters: Benny’s real-lfe wife, Mary, was his sarcastic female friend; Phil Harris, the brash bandleader; Dennis Day, the eager juvenile; Rochester, the loveable butler; and Don Wilson, the leather-lunged salesman.
Jack Benny was playing vaudeville to large audiences when, in 1932, Ed Sullivan invited him to be a guest on his radio show. After one appearance on the show, Canada Dry offered to sponsor Benny in his own series, and within a few years The Jack Benny Program was number one in the popularity polls.
The show’s highlights included the long-running feud (fictional, of course) with fellow comedian Fred Allen, gags featuring a pet polar bear named Carmichael, and material about Benny’s run-down Maxwell jalopy. Circa 1936, Benny had established a series of running jokes that contributed to his growing popularity. He always insisted he was never older than 39, was a skinflint, and had difficulty playing “Love in Bloom” (his theme song) on the violin.
A regular performer on NBC for more than a decade, Benny was offered a financial incentive to switch networks, according to Benny’s manager Irving Fine, and in late 1948 signed a contract with CBS. With television on the horizon, William S. Paley, president of CBS, had Jack Benny firmly in his grasp. Paley also had a hunch that where Jack Benny went, other big-name stars would follow. The CBS honcho turned out to be right — within two years of the CBS “talent raids,” NBC lost a number of top-rated acts to the competition, and the video-version of The Jack Benny Program on CBS lasted from 1949 until 1965.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons
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