Netflix Update No. 80: “The Jack Benny Show”

August 22, 2013

EDDIE ANDERSON and JACK BENNY

EDDIE ANDERSON and JACK BENNY

My lack of interest in current television is at the point where I have a very limited diet. I’m not going to make an argument for the “golden age,” because I don’t think it’s valid. There have been many excellent shows since the 1950s. Still — and I’m willing to call this a matter of taste — I am attracted to early programming, and especially to situation comedies such as Make Room for Daddy, Burns and Allen, and the proto-sitcom, The Goldbergs. 

Thank heaven, then, for services like Netflix, which makes many of these shows available, including The Jack Benny Show. Benny is a favorite of mine, not only because he was such a unique character and was so skillful in portraying his fictional persona — the miser who wouldn’t admit to being older than 39 — but because of his place in American show business history.

A poster advertises a broadcast of Jack Benny's radio show on a station in Seattle. LSMFT, for the benefit of the younger crowd, stood for "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco."

A poster advertises a broadcast of Jack Benny’s radio show on a station in Seattle. LSMFT, for the benefit of the younger crowd, stood for “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.”

The production values of television shows in the 1950s do not compare favorably with what we have become used to sixty years later, but the era got its “golden age” reputation because of the cadre of writers and performers who had migrated to television on a path that led from vaudeville, burlesque, and the legitimate theater by way of radio. Jack Benny and many of his contemporaries had worked very hard to develop their sense of what audiences at the time thought was funny or dramatic, and to develop the timing and delivery that would work in the new medium. They learned their lessons well; Jack Benny’s slow burn is still funny, even when you can see it coming from a mile away.

An interesting aspect of Benny’s show was his relationship with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, a gravel-voiced black actor who was part of the Benny stock company which included, among others, announcer Don Wilson and Irish crooner Dennis Day.

EDDIE ANDERSON

EDDIE ANDERSON

Anderson who, like Benny, got his start in vaudeville, started working with Benny in radio in 1937, first in a few bit parts and then playing Benny’s valet. He played that role on radio and television until 1965. He was the first black performer to have a regular role on radio, but that meant that he was faced with what became a classic conundrum for black artists — the question of whether to play a subservient character or not work in movies, radio, or TV. It was a difficult question for the actors as well as for the black Americans who were being treated as second-class citizens if as citizens at all.

Given the racial climate at the time, The Jack Benny Show took an unusual approach by presenting Rochester as a quick-witted and sarcastic character who was always a little smarter than his boss. The approach was unusual also because this plot element juxtaposed two deadpan figures and the combination was hilarious and was sustained for nearly thirty years. At first, in radio, there was often a racial aspect to the humor surrounding Rochester, but after World War II, Benny — who took an unambiguous public stand in favor of racial harmony — insisted that all racial content be eliminated from his scripts.

Eddie Anderson was one of the most popular and highest-paid actors of his time. He appeared in many movies, including Green Pastures and Gone With the Wind. He handled his money wisely and was both wealthy and generous. Among other enterprises, he owned a company that manufactured parachutes for the American military during World War II.

You can see Jack Benny and Eddie Anderson in a typically funny scene by clicking here.

Eddie Anderson's home on a street named after him in the West Adams district of Los Angeles.

Eddie Anderson’s home on a street named after him in the West Adams district of Los Angeles.

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3 Responses to “Netflix Update No. 80: “The Jack Benny Show””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    I just watched that clip you linked and laughed all the way through. I’d forgotten how those shows delighted me.

    I was interested in your point that Rochester was portrayed as quick-witted and smart. Through my childhood, he was one of the only black people I had “contact” with. I grew up in a town whose only black person was one mail carrier – and he lived in a different town a few miles away. It wasn’t until I went to college that I remember meeting and actually talking with a black person.

    I wonder now if my predisposition to see blacks positively when I began meeting them might not have been shaped by all those years of watching Rochester. If so, it raises some questions about the glorification of rappers, hip-hop artists and the so-called “thug culture”.

    In any event, your post went wonderfully well with my morning coffee. Thanks!

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I had a similar experience in that the town I grew up in in northern New Jersey borders on Paterson, which had a large black population when I was a kid. Totowa, where I lived, had no black residents then or for a decade or two afterward. My brother was the first businessman in Totowa to employ a black person. We rarely had black customers in our grocery store, except for sanitation workers who would stop in to buy provisions for their lunch. We traded with a black business owner from Paterson, Mr. Chait, who made and sold charcoal, and he used to drop by once in a while to do a little customer relations. I, too, didn’t go to school with black students until college, and there were very few at Seton Hall in the 1960s. Through all of this, I never developed any negative attitudes toward black people, and I give credit for that to my parents and grandparents who were always courteous to the few black people who did pass through our lives.

  2. V.E.G. Says:

    Some early shows was not recorded due to pre-1947 shows. It has vanished into oblivion.

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