The character traits Jack Benny invented for himself became so well-known, many people feel he had them forever. But there was a time on the radio that Benny didn’t have a butler named Rochester, didn’t drive a Maxwell and wasn’t 39. In fact, Jack’s coming-of-age-39 was a comparatively late development on the show; he hung on to a few younger ages until the late ‘40s. But, as Jack put it, 39 is a funny number, and that’s the one people remember today. Few remember than Jack actually turned 40 on the air.
It’s likely the idea came from Benny’s writers, as news stories can be found during the 1950s where Jack himself resisted the idea of adding another year to his age. But they gave it a try on television in 1958. The fact that people still think of Benny as a perennial 39 shows how successful it was.
Benny’s writers probably could have built a whole show around the age change alone, but they decided to go for another gimmick instead. They brought back a bunch of people who had been associated with Jack over the years on radio. It would have been pure nostalgia in some cases; obscure nostalgia in a few. Likely none of his audience would get the connection between Benny and bandleaders George Olson or Ted Weems. The fact that one news stories had to explain the connection of George Hicks shows how little-known it was.
Let’s go back to February 13, 1958 and the United Press.
Jack Benny To Note “40th” Birthday
By VERNON SCOTT
UP Hollywood Correspondent
HOLLYWOOD (UP)—Jack Benny celebrates his 40th birthday on a TV spectacular tonight—24 years after the fact.
After eight years of being 39, Jack thought there might be a few yaks in his finally reaching 40, an age he doesn’t consider, as funny as 39.
“My real birthday is tomorrow, Valentine’s Day,” Jack said. “And because this show falls so close, I decided to celebrate on the air. Actually, I’ll be 64.”
Benny is as funny as a Kremlin purge offscreen. He seldom cracks a smile, refuses to tell jokes. He has an indifferent attitude that borders on boredom. “I’m only funny when I get paid,” he said.
Lunching in the dining room of the Hillcrest Country Club the comedian blinked his baby-blue eyes at leaden skies and debated as to whether he should play golf or return to his office He mumbled about it half a dozen times during an hour interview.
"This gag about .my age began back in 1944 on a radio show. The script called for Mary (Livingstone) to ask my age. When I said, ‘36,’ it got a big laugh. After that it took me six years to progress to 39. You might say aged gradually.”
In person Benny looks about 50.
As a birthday present to himself the comedian is holding a reunion party with many of the character actors and singers who helped build his show during the last 27 years.
Scheduled to be on hand for the CBS-TV “Shower of Stars” are announcers Paul Douglas and George Hicks, who preceded Don Wilson, Singers Frank Parker, Dennis Day, Larry Stevens and Jo Stafford will be there along with orchestra leaders Bob Crosby, Abe Lyman, Phil Harris, Ted Weems, Don Bestor, Johnny Green and George Olson, Mel Blanc, Andy Devine, the Sportsman Quartette and a score of other Benny regulars, past and present, will help cut the birthday cake.
How long will Jack remain 40?
“I’m not sure,” he said. "It depends on audience reaction. If it’s not funny I may become 41 next year.”
Benny generously credits his treatment of supporting players for much of his success. Through the years his show has been Valhalla to the “Little People” who earn their cakes and ale playing bit parts.
“I’ve always been careful how I handle guest stars and bit players,” Jack said thoughtfully.
“They usually bounce the funny lines off me while I play straight-man.”
But there was a bad omen reported that very same day. What may be remarkable to viewers in reading this today is that Jack’s show was to be done live. Of course, this wasn’t far removed from the network radio days where broadcasts were live for many years.
Rochester Fine After Collapse
HOLLYWOOD, Feb. 13 (AP) — Eddie Anderson, better known to Jack Benny fans as Rochester, collapsed during a television rehearsal Wednesday night.
A doctor said Anderson had suffered a stomach upset.
“He’s talking and he says he’s feeling fine,” the doctor reported after examining the 52-year-old actor.
Anderson fainted while rehearsing for a show he and Benny are scheduled to appear on tonight.
So, the 40th birthday party went on without Rochester. The New York Times wasn’t impressed with the whole proceedings. Here’s a review published the following day.
TV: Unhappy Birthday; Jack Benny, Finally at '40,' Worthy of More Fitting Party Than He Received
By JACK GOULD
JACK BENNY, who is 64 years old today, observed his “fortieth birthday” last night on the "Shower of Stars" program over Channel 2. The man who made a career of always being 39 on radio and television deserved a much more fitting party than he received.
Apart from the idea of having Mr. Benny age a year, the producers of the program were at a loss for anything to do. There were some nostalgic moments as colleagues of the comedian appeared briefly before the cameras, but there was no serious effort to organize any entertainment. The quips were labored, and on the home screen the element of sincerity seemed contrived and rehearsed.
At the instant when Mr. Benny started to respond to a mass singing of “Happy Birthday” he was cut off for a commercial. Rochester, Jack’s aide, was sick and unable to appear. Andy Devine did his best as a replacement. What so easily could have been a first-rate show was just uninspired television.
Whether Jack continued to try to pass himself off as 40 after this, or pretended that it never happened and went back to 39, I don’t know. I’m not familiar with the intricacies of his TV work. But, suffice it to say, the memory of it never stuck. Everyone thinks of Jack Benny as 39; his obituaries in 1974 all mentioned it and UPI’s wire story even deadpan-joked about it. Jack was right. The idea of a vain, aging man sticking to an age that he’s obviously passed long ago is good comedy. 39 is funny.