Thursday 20 August 2015

Jack Benny Becomes Jack Benny

For years, Sunday night was Jack Benny night, first on radio, and then television. The Benny show was so seared into popular culture, references to a Maxwell, the age 39, and being cheap brought only one thing to mind--Jack Benny.

Benny’s traits, of course, were pure invention. But it wasn’t like a bunch of writers sat down and came up with them, ready to spring on audiences listening to the premiere on May 2, 1932. They evolved over a period of time. The same was true of Benny’s cast and secondary players. Characters were added and subtracted as the years went on; Benny’s wife Sadye had been a part of his vaudeville act so she appeared early on as fangirl Mary Livingstone. There was a bit of acrimony behind some of the changes (such as the departure of writer Harry Conn, who you see with Benny to the right) while others are shrouded in mystery.

A number of Benny biographies have been written over the years and you’d think since Benny has been dead for 41 years, there’d be little else to say. Ah, but you’d be wrong. Kathy Helgesen Fuller Seeley has been studying the evolution of Benny’s humour, looking at its origins and comparing it with the wider world of vaudeville and radio comedy at the time. A little taste of it has been posted HERE. It contains footnotes to provide assurances of the accuracy of the facts.

For much of his career, Benny appeared on the air on Sunday nights (while 7 p.m. is the popularly ascribed time of his show, that applied only to the East Coast). It’s the reason this blog has posted a Benny-related piece almost every Sunday. Over the course of the next few months, we’ll try to augment Kathy’s work with a yearly roundup of clippings from Variety. 1932 will be posted this week, the following two years are banked. We can’t guarantee anything after that as the hunt is still time consuming (especially because of OCR scanning errors), but Kathy has lent some assistance to make the task a little easier.

1 comment:

  1. The Jack Benny of the 1930's shows is quite different from the 40's and 50's incarnation that most of us fondly remember. He started out pretty brash, he talked faster, he was much more aggressive - sometimes shockingly so. He was also more of the emcee/master of ceremonies type - a role he carried over from vaudeville. And, of course, not too many age jokes back then... when really WAS 39.