Jack Benny Program, The


The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents

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About

Jack Benny was among the most beloved American entertainers of the 20th century. He brought a relationship-oriented, humorously vain persona honed in vaudeville, radio, and film to television in 1950, starring in his own television series from that year until 1965.

The comedian grew up in Waukegan and went on the vaudeville stage in his early teens playing the violin. The instrument quickly turned into a mere prop, and his lack of musicianship became one of the staples of his act. Benny's first major success was on the radio. He starred in a regular radio program from 1932 to 1955, establishing the format and personality he would transfer almost intact to television. Most of his films capitalized on his radio fame (e.g., The Big Broadcast of 1937), although a couple of pictures, Charley's Aunt (1941) and To Be or Not to Be (1942) showed that he could play more than one character.

Benny's radio program spent most of its run on NBC. In 1948, the entertainer, who had just signed a deal with the Music Corporation of American (MCA) that allowed him to form a company to produce the program and thereby make more money on it, was lured to CBS, where he stayed through the remainder of his radio career and most of his television years.

His television program evolved slowly. Benny made only four television shows in his first season. By 1954-55, he was up to 20, and by 1960-61, 39. The format of The Jack Benny Show was flexible. Although each week's episode usually had a theme or starting premise, the actual playing out of that premise often devolved into a loose collection of skits.

Benny played a fictional version of himself, Jack Benny the television star, and the program often revolved around preparation for the next week's show--involving interactions between Benny and a regular stable of characters that included the program's announcer, Don Wilson, and its resident crooner, Dennis Day. Until her retirement in 1958, Benny's wife, Mary Livingstone, portrayed what her husband termed in his memoirs "a kind of heckler-secretary," a wise-cracking friend of the family and the television program.

The main point of these interactions was to show off Benny's onscreen character. The Jack Benny with whom viewers were familiar was a cheap, vain, insecure, untalented braggart who would never willingly enter his fifth decade. Despite his conceit and braggadocio, however, Jack Benny's video persona was uniquely endearing and even in many ways admirable. He possessed a vulnerability and a flexibility few male fictional characters have achieved.

His myriad shortcomings were mercilessly exposed every week by his supporting cast, yet those characters always forgave him. They knew that "Jack" was never violent and never intentionally cruel--and that he wanted nothing (not even money) so much as love. The interaction between this protagonist and his fellow cast members turned the Jack Benny Show into a forum for human absurdity and human affection.

"Human" is a key word, for the Benny persona defied sub-categorization. Benny had shed his Jewish identity along with his Jewish name on his way from vaudeville to radio. The character he and his writers sustained on the airwaves for four decades had no ethnicity or religion.

He had no strongly defined sexuality either, despite his boasts about mythical romantic success with glamorous female movie stars and his occasional brief dates with working-class women. In minimizing his ethnicity and sexuality, the Benny character managed to transcend those categories rather than deny them. Beneath his quickly lifted arrogant facade lurked an American Everyperson.

The Jack Benny Show further crossed boundaries by being the only program for decades that consistently portrayed Americans of mixed races living and working side by side. Jack Benny's ever-present butler/valet/nanny, Rochester (portrayed by Eddie Anderson), had first appeared on the Benny radio program as a Pullman porter but had pleased audiences so universally that he moved into Benny's fictional household. Unlike the popular African-American radio characters Amos and Andy, Rochester was portrayed by a Black actor, Eddie Anderson, rather than a white actor in blackface.

Rochester's characterization was not devoid of racism. As Benny's employee he was, after all, always in a nominally subservient position. Nevertheless, neither Rochester nor his relationship with his employer was defined or limited by race. Like the other characters on the program, Rochester viewed Benny with slightly condescending affection--and frequently got the better of his employer in arguments that were obviously battles between peers. He was, in fact, the closest thing the Benny character had to either a spouse or a best friend.

The complex relationship between the two was typical of the Benny persona and its fictional formula, which relied on character rather than jokes. Benny sustained the persona and the formula, in his regular half-hour program and in a series of one-hour specials, until both wore out in the mid-1960s. He returned to television from time to time thereafter to star in additional specials but never dominated American ratings as he had in the 1950s, when he spent several years in the Neilsen top-20s and garnered Emmy awards year after year.

Offscreen, Benny was apparently ambivalent about television. In his memoirs, Sunday Nights at Seven, posthumously published with his daughter as co-author in 1990, he wrote, "By my second year in television, I saw that the camera was a man-eating monster. It gave a performer close-up exposure that, week after week, threatened his existence as an interesting entertainer." Despite this concern, Jack Benny and American television clearly did well by each other.

-Tinky "Dakota" Weisblat

 

JACK BENNY. Real name: Benjamin Kubelsky. Born 14 February 1894 in Weaukegan, Illinois. Married Mary Livingstone (real name: Sayde Marks), 1927. Served in navy, World War I. Worked in vaudeville as violinist in orchestra pit, 1909-14; after military service in World War I, 1914-18, returned to vaudeville, touring as comic and dancer under name Ben K. Benny; small-part actor in Broadway musicals during the 1920s; first film appearance, Bright Moments (short), 1928; role as the emcee in feature film The Hollywood Revue of 1929, 1929; on Broadway in successful The Earl Carroll Vanities, 1930; radio debut, The Ed Sullivan Show, 1932; own radio series, The Jack Benny Show 1933-41; starring film roles in Buck Benny Rides Again, 1940; Love Thy Neighbor, 1940; Charley's Aunt, 1941; especially notable performance in film To Be or Not to Be, 1942; television series The Jack Benny Show, 1950-64 (CBS), 1964-65 (NBC); later guest roles in films Who Was That Lady?, 1962; It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, 1967; A Guide for the Married Man, 1967; The Man, 1972. Died of stomach cancer in Beverly Hills, California, 26 December 1974.

TELEVISION SERIES
1950-64 The Jack Benny Show (CBS)
1964-65 The Jack Benny Show (NBC)

FILMS
Bright Moments (short), 1928; The Hollywood Revue of 1929, 1929; Chasing Rainbows, 1930; Medicine Man, 1930; Mr. Broadway, 1933; Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round, 1934; Broadway Melody of 1936, 1935; It's in the Air, 1935; The Big Broadcast of 1937, 1936; College Holiday, 1936; Artists and Models, 1937; Manhattan Merry-Go-Round, 1937; Artists and Models Abroad, 1938; Man About Town, 1939; Buck Benny Rides Again, 1940; Love Thy Neighbor, 1940; Charley's Aunt, 1941; To Be or Not to Be, 1942; George Washington Slept Here, 1942; The Meanest Man in the World; 1943; Hollywood Canteen, 1944; It's in the Bag, 1945; The Horn Blows at Midnight, 1945; Without Reservations, 1946; The Lucky Stiff, 1949; Somebody Loves Me, 1952; Who Was That Lady?, 1962; It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, 1967; A Guide for the Married Man, 1967; The Man, 1972.

RADIO
The Jack Benny Show, 1933-41.

STAGE
The Earl Carroll Vanities, 1930.

PUBLICATIONS
Sunday Nights at Seven: The Jack Benny Story, with Joan Benny. New York: Warner, 1990

FURTHER READING
Burns, George. "My Friend Jack Benny." Reader's Digest (Pleasantville, New York), February 1991.

Fein, Irving. Jack Benny: An Intimate Biography. New York: Putnam, 1976.

Jack Benny: The Radio and Television Work. Published in Conjunction with an Exhibition of the Same Title: Museum of Television and Radio, New York. New York: Harper-Perennial, 1991.

Josefsberg, Milt. The Jack Benny Show. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1977.

Marc, David. "Lending Character to American Comedy." Television Quarterly (New York), Winter 1992.

McFadden, Margaret T. "America's Boy Friend Who Can't Get a Date: Gender, Race, and the Cultural Work of the Jack Benny Program, 1932-1946." Journal of American History (Bloomington, Indiana), June 1993.

O'Connor, John J. "Jack Benny: Comedy in Bloom." New York Times, 5 October 1992.

Highlights
Irving Fein on Jack Benny's radio/TV persona and real life personality
02:38
William Clotworthy on working on the premiere of The Jack Benny Program with Ben Hogan as guest
01:30
Harvey Korman on working with Jack Benny
02:13
Clint Walker on guest-starring on The Jack Benny Show
01:45
Ben Wolf on shooting The Jack Benny Program
04:30
Who talked about this show

Berle Adams

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Berle Adams on solving problems on the set of The Jack Benny Program
02:19
Berle Adams on negotiating Jack Benny's contract for The Jack Benny Program on CBS and bringing Rosemary Clooney on to tour with Benny
05:52
Berle Adams on working with Jack Benny on The Jack Benny Program
02:25

George Balzer

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George Balzer on his first meeting with Jack Benny
04:26
George Balzer on joining the radio version of The Jack Benny Program as a writer
03:16
George Balzer on a typical work week on The Jack Benny Program
04:12
George Balzer on Jack Benny's relationship and rapport with his writers on The Jack Benny Program
04:11
George Balzer on Jack Benny's wife Mary Livingstone on The Jack Benny Program
04:33
George Balzer on working with Eddie Anderson on The Jack Benny Program
03:09
George Balzer on working with Frank Nelson on The Jack Benny Program
01:33
George Balzer on working with Jack Benny Program ensemble player Mel Blanc
07:02
George Balzer on Dennis Day on The Jack Benny Program
02:47
George Balzer on Phil Harris on The Jack Benny Program
01:35
George Balzer on Jack Benny Program guest stars Ronald Coleman and Benita Coleman and coming up with bits for Jack Benny
07:08
George Balzer on Jack Benny's character traits on The Jack Benny Program including Jack being cheap
04:47
George Balzer on Jack Benny making the transition to television with The Jack Benny Program
03:24
George Balzer on doing Jack Benny's classic radio bits on television on The Jack Benny Program
02:55
George Balzer on some favorite Jack Benny Program episodes and guest stars
02:48

Sid Caesar

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Performer Sid Caesar on how Your Show of Show's parody of From Here to Eternity became the source of a lawsuit (and how it related to the Gaslight parody done on The Jack Benny Program)
01:17

William Clotworthy

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William Clotworthy on working on The Jack Benny Program
01:00
William Clotworthy on working on the premiere of The Jack Benny Program with Ben Hogan as guest
01:30

Fred De Cordova

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Fred de Cordova on how he came to produce The Jack Benny Program
00:59
Fred de Cordova on producing The Jack Benny Program and working with Jack Benny
04:05
Fred de Cordova on Jack Benny's wife Mary Livingston on The Jack Benny Program
00:57

Richard Dawson

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Richard Dawson on his first U.S. show, The Jack Benny Program
03:01

Irving Fein

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Irving Fein on Jack Benny's radio/TV persona and real life personality
02:38
Irving Fein on Jack Benny's wife, his radio-TV co-star Mary Livingstone
01:20
Irving Fein on Jack Benny's radio program 
00:41
Irving Fein on Jack Benny's guest appearance on The $64,000 Question (that led to a subsequent appearance of $64,000 Question host Hal March on The Jack Benny Program)
02:04
Irving Fein on Jack Benny's first television specials and getting a weekly show
15:56
Irving Fein on The Jack Benny Program on radio and television
22:33
Irving Fein on returning to work for The Jack Benny Program 
21:03
Irving Fein on President Harry Truman doing a special episode of The Jack Benny Program
02:20
Irving Fein on The Jack Benny Program becoming a weekly show and famous guests
08:18
Irving Fein on being surprised and unprepared for his Emmy win for producing The Jack Benny Program
01:24
Irving Fein on The Jack Benny Program going off the air after moving to NBC
03:59
Irving Fein on Sheldon Leonard's role on The Jack Benny Program
00:45

Harvey Korman

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Harvey Korman on working on The Jack Benny Program
02:13

Gene LeBell

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Gene LeBell on a stunt/dialogue scene he did on The Jack Benny Program with Count Billy Varga in 1962, and his experience working with Benny
02:45

John J. Lloyd

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John J. Lloyd on how he started working on The Jack Benny Program; on working with Jack Benny
03:08

Robert Mott

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Robert Mott on working on The Jack Benny Program
01:45

William Schallert

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William Schallert on working with Jack Benny
01:06

Abby Singer

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Abby Singer on assistant directing various shows
02:47

Nick Stewart

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Nick Stewart on auditioning for The Jack Benny Show on radio and Eddie Cantor liking his performance
01:29

William Tankersley

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William Tankersley on Jack Benny's TV show going over the allotted time and causing problems
02:31
William Tankersley on Jack Benny's show plugging various products
00:41

Clint Walker

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Clint Walker on guest-starring on The Jack Benny Show
01:45

Ben Wolf

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Ben Wolf on shooting The Jack Benny Program
03:31
Ben Wolf on shooting The Jack Benny Program
04:30

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