Radio: The Jack Benny Program

"Train leaving on track five for Anaheim, Azusa, and Cuc..."

Mugger: Your money or your life.
(long pause)
Mugger: Look, bud! I said your money or your life!
Jack: I'm thinking it over!

Comedian Jack Benny's Radio program made its debut in 1932 as The Canada Dry Program and ran until 1955 under various titles: The Chevrolet Program, The General Tire Revue, The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny, The Grape Nuts and Grape Nuts Flakes Program Starring Jack Benny, The Lucky Strike Program Starring Jack Benny, and, finally, The Jack Benny Program. The program was also adapted into an eponymous television show, which aired from 1950 to 1965.

Generally, The Jack Benny Program was a Sitcom about the production of The Jack Benny Program. Some of the action flashed back to what the cast had been up to that week, and some took place on the stage of the program, where Jack and the gang would try to put on plays and sketches, often taking the form of parodies of popular movies. Celebrity guests were not uncommon, and could be easily introduced as Jack's friends or neighbors in Hollywood. One long-term Running Gag was Jack's bitter "feud" with rival radio host Fred Allen.

Recurring characters included Jack's Closer to Earth co-star (and real-life wife) Mary Livingston; his long-suffering African-American valet Rochester; brash Southern bandleader Phil Harris; naïve boy tenor Dennis Day (and, beforehand, Kenny Baker in a similar role); and rotund announcer Don Wilson, who tended to turn the conversation or the sketch to a discussion of the sponsor's product. Jack himself, portrayed as notoriously cheap and self-aggrandizing, usually played the comic foil to the other characters: the real-life Benny is famous for noting, "I don't care who gets the laughs on my show, as long as the show is funny."

This work provides examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Phil Harris. Oy, the drunk jokes they did with Phil and his band flowed like wine. Lampshaded, even, when Phil's replacement, Bob Crosby, complained to Jack about how the writers kept trying to saddle him with drunk jokes. Eventually the writers settled on using the surplus drunk jokes on the band members, mainly Frankie Remley, Charlie Bagby, and "Sammy The Drummer" (real name: Sammy Weiss) that were also with Phil Harris. Bob Crosby's role became that of somewhat of a straight man to the gaggle of reprobates in the orchestra.
  • The Alleged Car: Jack's Maxwell.
  • All Jews Are Cheapskates: Jack Benny's birth name was "Benjamin Kubelsky". (In character, though, this was never alluded to as the reason for his stinginess.)
    • It should be noted that Mister Kitzel, a Recurring Character who was openly Jewish was never portrayed as being particularly tight-fisted or stingy.
  • Animated Adaptation: The 1959 Merrie Melodies short "The Mouse That Jack Built", a short that unintentionally served, years later, as many younger viewers' initial introduction to Jack Benny.
  • Annoying Laugh: Or, at any rate, a very distinctive laugh from Mary.
  • Arch-Enemy: Fred Allen, though only on the show.
  • As Himself: Future Barney Miller Detective Jack Soo made an appearence thanks to his appearing in the road company of Flower Drum Song. He's not quite a guest star in the usual sense - he first comes on pretending to be an agent for a fellow cast member when during negotiations with Jack, Jack says "Wait a minute....I know're Jack Soo, aren't you?"
    • Jimmy Stewart and his wife, as Jack's neighbors in the TV show. Ronald Colman and his wife performed a similar function on the radio show.
  • Aside Glance: Done to perfection by Jack on the TV version.
  • Bad Boss: A whole host of running gags revolved around how the cast, and Rochester, in particular, continually complained about how Jack was a stingy slave-driver who, besides being extraordinarily reluctant to pay his employees their salaries, would insert all sorts of weird and annoying obligations into their contracts, such as having Dennis mow his lawn, or having Mary help him out with his laundry business, or making his cast work odd jobs during February because it's the shortest month of the year.
  • Big Eater: Don Wilson.
  • Big "Shut Up!": There numerous, hilarious versions of this on the show. Many times, various people, often Mary Livingstone and Verna Felton (as Dennis Day's mother), would snap at Jack to shut up to keep him from making some corny joke. Sometimes, Jack would give it in response to someone either pointing out the obvious, or the flaw in a gag, or lancing his ego. Most of the time, though, it would be Jack hollering "Wait a minute!" at his quartet, the Sportsmen, in a futile attempt to stop them from going crazy with their latest wacky song.
  • Big "YES!": The usual opening for Frank Nelson.
  • Brooklyn Rage: One of Mel Blanc's characters was a surly gentleman who spoke in a Brooklyn accent, often giving Jack all sorts of grief. He was not given a name, but apparently had a wife named Mabel.
  • Brick Joke: ...amonga! This was a staple of the show, there would be a joke or some weird commentary made, and then 10, 20 minutes later, they would return to, or continue with that same gag.
  • Catch Phrase: "Well!" "Now cut that out!"
    • Whenever Jack implied that he might consider spending money or doing something generous, Rochester would reply "Oh, boss, come now!"
    • Jack's Aside Glance pretty much qualifies as a silent one.
    • Phil Harris' "Hiya, Jackson!" counts. As well as recurring guest star Ronald Coleman's "I'm in the library, Benita!" Dennis Day had a few, such as "Yes please?" and "OHHHH.....(fill in the blank)
  • Closer to Earth: Mary
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Dennis Day, and Jack's boarder, Mr. Billingsley.
  • Comic-Book Time: Jack claimed to be perpetually 39 years old. Gags about Jack's age began in the late 30s, but in the late 40s, he began a gag where a reporter doing a story on Jack asked him his age. When Jack claimed to be 36, the reporter was so disbelieving that he showed up to ask him about it for several weeks in a row as a running gag. For the next few years, Jack went from 37 to 38, finally settling on 39 perpetually in around 1950. For the record, Jack was born in 1894, making his real 39th birthday in 1933. The gag was carried on clear until his death, when newspapers reported that "Jack Benny dies at 39". It even carried on further when Jack was given a commemorative stamp...worth 39 cents!
  • Continuity Nod
  • Corpsing: There are many times when Jack tries and fails to not lose it during especially funny moments. More often than not he can thank Mel Blanc for making him lose it, particularly whenever they did the "Si Sy" routine. In addition to Jack, Don and Mary were also notorious for corpsing, especially when either of them flubbed their lines.
  • Cross Over: With The Burns And Allen Show. Jack and George Burns were lifelong friends and appeared on each others shows often. In one episode of his show George gets Jack on his special television which Jack lampshades with "You're not watching me on your silly TV are you? I'm not on until Sunday Night!". After Jack then starts to quote his appearence fee George shuts off the tv! In another episode George threatens his announcer Harry Von Zell by pondering, "I wonder what Don Wilson is doing next year..."
    • In the episode of Bachelor Father called "Pinch That Penny!", Rochester hires Lawyer Bently Gregg to renegotiate his 40 year contract with Jack. Impressed by Rochester's ecomomicly means of running the Benny household, Bently invites Rochester to live in a few weeks to help his houseboy Peter with his spendthrift ways. Jack isn't seen on camera, although Bently has a one way telephone conversation with him at the end.
      • Jack does appear in another Bachelor Father episode, in which Bentley's daughter - while a big fan of his - nevertheless keeps ditching him for other activities.
    • Amos and Andy crossed over to Jack's show, where they show Rochester is shown driving a cab for Amos Jones and Andy Brown's Fresh Air Cab Company before working for Jack.
    • When Eddie Anderson was a Mystery Guest for the Game Show What's My Line?, he was only refered to by the name Rochester by the panel and host.
  • Death by Materialism: Parodied with the famous "Your money or your life!" skit.
  • The Ditz: Dennis Day
  • Dreadful Musician: Jack and his violin.
    • Stylistic Suck: In Real Life, Benny was actually a competent violinist. Jascha Heifetz (who was a close friend of Benny's in real life) once stated that to play the way Benny did on the radio demanded a competent and skilled violinist. Anyone who was genuinely bad would be not funny, but ear-splittingly unlistenable.
    • Refuge in Audacity: To bring the world's greatest violinists like Jascha Heifetz and Isaac Stern on his program where he not only compares his skills with them, but also goes on to play duets for added effect, such as this one for USO troops in WorldWarII, is nothing short of pure hilarious audacity.
    Jack (after a round of playing with Heifetz): "Honest folks, can you tell the difference?" (Even announcer Edward Arnold is laughing in splits at this stage...)
    • One can not forget about the orchestra, a band of off-key, perpetually drunken criminals originally hired by Phil Harris, and whose status as human beings were sometimes called into question.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    Mel Look't what you made me do! You made me so nervous, I missed!!!
    • Professor LeBlanc, played by... guess who... was routinely driven to both suicide and homicide when he tried to teach Jack the rudiments of playing the violin and then had to beg & plead to get paid
  • Enforced Plug
  • The Eponymous Show
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Jack and his writers were always battling with the censors. Sometimes, it was for legitimate reasons. For example, one skit originally described a beautiful woman wearing 3 fraternity pins, and no sweater, but at the censors' insistence, the number of pins was bumped up to 300. Other times, for rather inane reasons. Like, when (in another skit) the censors insisted on removing a scene where Jack placates a horde of cannibals with a dirty limerick in a nonsense language.
    • Phil Harris said that his character used to refer to Jack Benny as 'Jackson' because it was the closest he could get to saying 'jackass' on the air without getting into trouble with the censors.
    • One time Jack called a Gym.
    Girl on Phone: McGuire's Gym. We make mountains out of molehills.
    Jack Benny: Hello, this is Jack Benny....
    Girl on Phone: Oh, Mr Benny! You'll want our male division...
  • Happily Married: Jack with Mary Livingstone. When he died, it was revealed in his will that he had provided for a long-stemmed red rose to be delivered to her, every day, until her own death.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Jack and Rochester in the later shows. In earlier shows, it is implied Rochester goes home to his own home. Later, Rochester lives at Jack's house. Jack scolds Rochester for being out too late, they squabble over what to fix for breakfast, whose turn it is to answer the doorbell or telephone, and Rochester hangs around the house even on his days off. Rochester stays home with Jack on New Year's Eve when Jack's date cancels and he has nowhere else to go.
    • Jack and George Burns, in real life. At Jack's funeral, George was going to deliver a eulogy but broke down crying and had to be helped back to his seat.
  • I'm Thinking It Over!: Trope Namer.
  • Incoming Ham: Two great ones. Phil Harris ("Hiya folks, your future looks bright because Harris is here and there's good news tonight! Oh, Harris, you've got your own teeth, but you're clicking all the time!") and Frank Nelson ("Yeeeeeesssss?")
  • Incredibly Lame Pun: The show was infested with puns. Most of the time, Jack would use them as a part of his Self-Depreciation schtick. In the very early (1932-1935) years they played an especially large part of the show and were played much more straight than was later the case.
    Sy (Mel Blanc): I was arrested for reheating the coffee. They got me for double perking.
  • It's a Wonderful Plot: The February 2, 1947 episode.
  • Jingle: If you want better taste from your cigarette, Lucky Strikes is the brand to get!
    • J-E-L-L-OOOOOOOOO!!!
  • Lampshade Hanging: There was so much hanging of lampshades everywhere, Jack's career could have doubled as a furniture store. One example, from the detective themed Bogart episode:
    Jack: I was typing out a report on Slim-Finger Sarah, when the door opened. And there were detectives Simmons and Ross. They had brought in a vicious gunman, a killer named Baby-Faced Bogart.
    [Humphrey Bogart enters to long applause from the audience]
    Jack: I didn't mind the applause he got on his entrance, but I resented the fact that Crosby and Wilson joined in.
  • Long Runners: 33 years on Radio and TV.
  • Mama Bear: Verna Felton played the part of Dennis Day's mother, a tough as nails, literally frightening woman who clashed with Jack on numerous occasions in order protect Dennis from being taken advantage of.
  • Mel Blanc: Did a number of minor voice-over and live-action roles, as well as some sound effects.
    • "Si."
      • "Sy."
  • Mr. Vice Guy: Benny's central character flaw is that he's a miserly self-promoter, but this never rises to the level of making him a bad person, or rather, never rises to the level of making him unsympathetic to the audience.
  • Officer O'Hara: In the "Captain O'Benny" sketches.
  • Offing the Offspring: Dennis Day drove everyone nuts, especially his parents. Apparently, according to the show, his childhood was riddled with Parental Abandonment situations, and his parents trying to kill him:
    Mrs. Day You know, Dennis, lots of people think you act strange, and I may be to blame. You see, when you were a baby, I dropped you on your head.
    Dennis That's okay, lots of mothers drop their babies on their heads.
    Mrs. Day Out of a 2 story window? Oh, I knew there was something wrong when you bounced right back up.
  • The Operators Must Be Crazy: Gertrude Gearshift and Mabel Flapsaddle, who are always too busy making wisecracks and infuriating Jack to put the call through.
  • Orson Welles: Guest-hosted for several 1943 episodes while Benny was ill with pneumonia.
  • Pretty in Mink: He went on a failed date with a girl who wore a fur wrap.
  • Product Placement: If Don Wilson is talking, prepare for Jell-O or Lucky Strike references soon.
    • In fact, the show sold product a little too well during World War Two. General Foods was forced to take Benny off of promoting their Jell-O and move him to Grape Nuts — because Benny's show had created a tidal-wave of demand for Jell-O. Under normal circumstances, this would not be a problem. Except that this was circa 1943-44, when strict sugar rationing was in effect, and General Foods had absolutely no way to meet consumer demand for the dessert and still meet its obligations to the troops.
  • Reveal Shot, or the radio equivalent.
  • Rimshot: Whenever two characters had a corny rhyming exchange, a drum-and-cowbell roll inevitably followed as the actual punchline.
  • The Rival: Fred Allen, who was fond of Lampshade Hanging the various contrived ways scripts would bring the rivalry up. And cracking Jack up in the process.
  • Rule of Funny: This was the show's unspoken and spoken Madness Mantra EVERYTHING on the show was done to get laughs. Obviously, this fact was also repeatedly lampshaded both on and off the show.
    • In one episode, Don Wilson goes into a Dude, Where's My Respect? rant about how the only reason why he's such a Big Eater is to let Jack insult his girth, and then Phil Harris explains/complains how the only reason he's a womanizing drunkard is to stay in character for the show, whereupon Jack one-ups both them by complaining about how hard it is to be impossibly stingy.
    • During a rehearsal, a gag situation is explained to guest star Ronald Colman, who then asks "What's my motivation?" The writers then explain, "to get the biggest friggin' laugh possible." Ronald then asks again, "But what's my motivation?" His wife, Benita Humes, explained further, "To get the biggest friggin' laugh possible."
    • And when a Southern listener wrote in once irate that Benny let Rochester hit him while sparring, Benny repiled with something along the lines of "and it's funny if I hit Rochester, how, exactly?"
    • Benny once said "I don't care who gets the laughs on my show, as long as the show is funny."
  • Running Gag: So many... but above all, there is the truly epic feud with Fred Allen.
    • Also Benny's permanent age of 39, done best in an Imagine Spot sketch when Jack wonders what his show would be like after another 20-30 years. Of course, all of the regular players are old and feeble while Jack himself is still 39 and kicking.
    Rochester Whatever happened to the gasman???
  • The Scrooge: Before Jack Benny, all penny-pinching jokes were about the Scottish. After Jack Benny, most penny-pinching jokes were about Jack Benny.
  • Servile Snarker: Rochester
  • Show Within a Show: A frequent device was to transition Jack and other characters from "real life" to the show, and vice versa.
  • Sound to Screen Adaptation
  • Stealing from the Hotel: On an episode, Rochester and a friend are cleaning in Jack's house when the friend asks Rochester what Benny's name was before he changed it. Rochester says he's forgotten. The friend looks down at the towel he's holding and says, "It wasn't Conrad Hilton, was it?"
  • Straight Man: Jack
    • To elaborate, the underlying theme to pretty much the totality of Jack's schtick was that he was literally almost everybody's straightman.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Dennis Day started out as the same character as Kenny Baker, whom he replaced. Dennis Day was a good enough actor that his part was fleshed out as the years went on.
  • Take That: Most examples of this trope on Jack's radioshow were directed at Fred Allen, as a part of their ongoing "feud." Still, there have been numerous times where Jack took potshots at other comedians. Like for example, when his gueststar, Claude Rains repeated Allen's accusation that Jack is so uncreative that he had to steal jokes from infamous joke-thief, Milton Berle:
    Jack: Mr Rains, when you take a joke away from Berle, it's not called "stealing," it's called "repossessing."
  • Take Me Out At The Ballgame: A 1939 sketch featured "Murder on the Gridiron".
  • The Tape Knew You Would Say That: While waiting in an airport Jack had a variation with the Flight announcer.
    Don Wilson Well, Jack, at least you don't have to listen to that announcer they had here.
    Jack You're right! Remember him? Thank goodness he's no longer here.
    Announcer on Speaker Attention, attention ... flights now arriving from Anaheim, Azusa, and Cuc...
    Jack Oh, No!!!!
    Announcer on Speaker Oh, Yes! ...camunga.
  • Ted Baxter
  • Tenor Boy: Dennis (& Kenny before him, and before him Frank Parker). He once said he didn't have an opinion on an issue because "tenors are a dime a dozen."
  • Unfinished Business: When Jack and the boys hold a séance with Madame Zimba, the ghost of Dennis Day's great-grandfather appears, saying he's watched over him his entire life and has a message to give him. When Dennis leans in to hear it, the frustrated spirit slaps him in the face and disappears.note 
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Though combined with a very well-proportioned amount of Self-Deprecation.
  • You Wanna Buy A Watch?: "Psst. Hey. Buddy. Come here."
  • Who Writes This Crap?!: A running gag was that Benny's writers were a gaggle of semi-literate boobs (and a convict) who only got their jobs by blackmailing Jack. Another running gag was that virtually everything Jack said was written by his writers.
  • Why Do You Keep Changing Jobs?: Mr. Schlepperman, Mr. Kitzel, but especially Frank Nelson.
  • You Look Familiar: All of Mel Blanc's roles, lampshaded brutally and constantly.
    Polly Monsieur Benny, my money, please! *rawk*
    Jack Polly! You sounded just like Professor Le Blanc!
    Jack Come to think of it, you look just like Professor Le Blanc, too...
    • Frank Nelson's many appearances (the roles vary, the character remains constant) also qualify. One episode even has Jack visiting a shrink, convinced that he's losing his mind because he keeps seeing Nelson everywhere he goes!
      • At the end of that ep, Nelson shows up at the doctor's office, feeling the same thing about Jack and fleeing at the mere sight of him. This makes Jack feel better.
    • When Dick Van Dyke guest-starred on the show they did a skit involving a murder mystery. Jack was the inspector and Dick was everyone else.

Goodnight, folks. And I'll see you soon.