Hollywood Radio Legends: Jack Benny — Radio and TV’s Funniest Straight Man

Jack Benny’s radio program featured fake fights with Fred Allen, a polar bear named Carmichael, and a run-down Maxwell jalopy.

Jack Benny

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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.

Free Classic Radio Episode

The Saturday Evening Post and Carl Amari are offering a FREE digital download of the classic radio comedy series The Jack Benny Program starring Jack Benny. Log on to: www.hollywoodradiolegends.com for your free 30-minute classic radio episode.

Carl Amari is the host of the nationally-syndicated nostalgia radio series Hollywood 360. Amari is also the curator of The Classic Radio Club.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons

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Comments

  1. I remember Jack Benny from TV, not radio, and I love his shows. To me his show was the funniest ever. I have a number on DVD and they are as funny now as they were then.

  2. In my book, Jack Benny was the best! Not only was he the funniest man on TV, he was a very generous, kind man in real life outside the studios. Today’s talk show host comedians who are not funny whatsoever could perhaps take notes and improve themselves by watching Jack Benny perform. His shows are regularly shown on the Antenna TV Network. I still laugh my head off!

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