...and the radio career of Jack Benny is born.
Talk to any old-time radio fan (but I should note that there's always a detractor in the crowd) about OTR comedy and you'll soon reach a consensus that The Jack Benny Program was the gold standard of radio comedy. The simplest explanation for this was, that it was falling-down funny--and its humor still remains timeless today. But what many people do not realize is that violin-playing funnyman who tenaciously clung to his assertion that he was perpetually 39 years old created--in a large sense--what we generally classify today as situation comedy.
Benny eschewed the prevalent radio comedy format of hoary vaudeville gags and sketches in favor of a program that placed its emphasis on both the personalities of its star and regulars and the wacky situations in which they found themselves. Benny's cast--Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Mary Livingstone (his wife in real-life), announcer Don Wilson, bandleader Phil Harris and singer Dennis Day--became so ingrained in the minds of the listening audience that much of the show's humor sprang from their distinct characterizations, and not any actual jokes. The fact that the supporting players on Benny's show got more laughs than the star (and oftentimes at his expense) was another unique break with comedy convention. Still another was Benny himself--he cloaked his persona in distinctively negative character traits such as parsimony and narcissism, and yet retained a lovable, Everyman quality that won him endless endearment from fans. "I take on the frailties of all men," Jack once remarked. "They accept my character as they would a character in a play."
Last night I listened to the
April 29, 1945 broadcast of The Jack Benny Program--an amusing outing that is notable for the first appearance of Jack's long-suffering violin teacher, Professor Andre LeBlanc:
JACK: Professor LeBlanc? I didn't hear him come in...
MARY: Say, Jack, is that the same violin teacher you had last year?
JACK: No, no, Mary...he gave me three lessons and was drafted...
The part of LeBlanc was created for supporting player/character actor/cartoon voice-man Mel Blanc, who began working for Benny in 1939 supplying the growls of
Carmichael--Jack's pet polar bear that guarded his famous vault. (To this day, no one really knows for sure if Carmichael ate the gas man or not.) Not long after this auspicious debut, Mel found himself promoted--providing the wheezing, coughing sounds of Jack's ancient Maxwell automobile when the soundman discovered shortly before the broadcast that he didn't have the necessary equipment. Finally, Blanc found the nerve to approach Benny to say "You know, Jack...I can talk, too." Benny encouraged his writers to find speaking roles for Mel--most of which were mainly one-shot appearances, but occasionally Blanc did characters that returned for repeat performances; two of which that come to mind were Polly, Jack's pet parrot, and the unforgettable train station PA announcer ("Train now leaving on Track Five for Anaheim, Azusa, and Cuc...amonga."). Jack's first encounter with his violin teacher is a bit milder than subsequent encounters, but it does contain this classic dialogue exchange:
BENNY: Okay, Professor, but tell me...do you think you can make a great violinist out of me?
LeBLANC: Well, I think I can do something for you--but it will take time. How old are you?
LeBLANC: How much time have we got left???
First-time listeners to Blanc in the role of the violin teacher will undoubtedly recognize that LeBlanc's Gallic tones were later adapted for the voice of Warner Brothers cartoon star Pepe Le Pew.
April 29, 1945 broadcast also spotlights a gag that would become a staple of subsequent Benny broadcasts--the bad-mouthing of Jack's then-current feature film release . Benny made this fantasy-comedy for Warner Brothers that same year, and the lukewarm reception to the film inspired the Benny writers (Sam Perrin, George Balzer, Milt Josefsberg and John Tackaberry) to use the cinematic flop as a springboard for endless deflating-Jack's-ego jokes. The movie received such a trashing on the program that curious listeners sought the film out in theaters (to see if it was as bad as Benny claimed it was) and the resulting box-office produced the necessary receipts for the film to break even. (For the record, it's not a classic--but it's certainly not a colossal turkey, either.) Whatever one's opinion of , it certainly provided the Benny scribes the necessary fodder for one of the program's more memorable running gags:
JACK: Take this magazine out and pin it up on the bulletin board in front of the house...
JACK: Put it right next to them...and while you're out there, throw those rocks back off the lawn.
The second half of the program finds Jack deserting his cast as he sneaks away for an appointment that he is determined to keep hush-hush:
DON: Say, Phil, it's been quite a while--I wonder where he went...
PHIL: Well, I don't know, Don, I'm sure...
MARY: And he took his violin with him...Do you believe what he said about taking it by the music store to have it fixed?
PHIL: Nah, the way he plays that thing how could he tell if it was busted?
MARY: Yeah, I guess you're right...
PHIL: Maybe he had an appointment with his dentist...
MARY: No...he could have sent those...
Turning on the radio for entertainment, they soon discover that Jack is being interviewed on a program sponsored for Sympathy Soothing Syrup--spelled backwards, that "Yhtapmys." (This brings on a musical jingle--"Yh-yh-yhtapmyps, yh-yh-yhtapmys, yh-yh-yhtapmys...and drive your blues awaaay..."--that would also be a running gag on later Benny broadcasts.) The highlight of this segment, though, is listening to Benny regular Frank Nelson portray the Sympathy Soothing Syrup announcer who finds himself driven to distraction by Benny's repeated attempts to play his violin. Benny fans will no doubt get a chuckle at this, seeing that in Nelson's case the shoe was usually on the other foot: no matter what his character's occupation--doctor, lawyer, Indian chief--Nelson for many years played the one individual who couldn't stand Jack Benny. His entrance on the show was as ritualized as a Kabuki play: Benny would attempt to get the attention of a waiter or ticket agent or whomever by saying "Mister...Mister..." prompting Nelson to respond with an obsequiously snotty "Yeeeesssss???" On these shows, you can hear the audience's anticipation--they knew what to expect and were rarely disappointed; ear-splitting laughter would be the reward. I guess that's as good a way as any to describe listening to The Jack Benny Program today.