The Jack Benny Program

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
From left to right: Rochester, Dennis Day, Phil Harris, Mary Livingston, Jack Benny, Don Wilson, and Mel Blanc.

"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."

Tropes used in The Jack Benny Program include:
  • The Alcoholic: Phil Harris
  • The Alleged Car: Jack's Maxwell.
  • All Jews Are Cheapskates: Averted: 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.
  • As Himself: Future Barney Miller Detective Jack Soo made an appearance 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?"
  • Aside Glance: Done to perfection by Jack on the TV version.
  • Big "Shut Up!": There numerous, hilarious versions of this on The Jack Benny 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 drawl, often giving Jack all sorts of grief.
  • Brick Joke: ...amonga!
  • Catch Phrase: "Well!" "Now cut that out!"
  • Channel Hop: The radio show moved from NBC to CBS in 1949, one of a number of shows and personalities that the latter network "raided" from the former.
  • Closer to Earth: Mary
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Dennis Day
  • Comic Book Time: sorta. The first year the radio show was on the air, Jack Benny's thirty-ninth birthday occurred. The next year, as a gag, they had him turn 39 again. It became a running gag so popular that when he actually died in 1974, the headline in newspapers around the world stated, "Jack Benny dies at 39".
  • Continuity Nod
  • Crossover: With The Burns and Allen Show. Jack and George Burns were lifelong friends and appeared on each other's 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 appearance 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..."
  • The Danza
  • Death by Materialism: Parodied with the famous "Your money or your life!" skit.
  • The Ditz: Dennis Day
  • Dreadful Musician: Jack and his violin.

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...)

Mel Look't what you made me do! You made me so nervous, I missed!!!

  • 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 three fraternity pins, and no sweater, but at the censors' insistence, the number of pins was bumped up to 300. Other times, changes were forced for rather inane reasons -- for instance, 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 gymnasium:

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...

Sy (Mel Blanc): I was arrested for reheating the coffee. They got me for double perking.

  • Irony as She Is Cast: In real life, Jack Benny was actually a very good violinist. It takes a lot of musical talent to be able to play a musical instrument badly for comic effect and having it come out amusing rather than painful.
  • It's a Wonderful Plot: The February 2, 1947 episode.[context?]
  • 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 Humphrey 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 to 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."
  • 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 two-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 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.
  • 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."
  • Running Gag: So many... but above all, there is the truly epic feud with Fred Allen.
    • Also Benny's permanent age of 39.

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
  • Shout-Out: On one episode of The Office Michael Scott blows a wooden train whistle and announces "Train leaving on track five for Anaheim, Azusa, and Cuc...camunda!"
  • 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
  • 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 straight man.
  • 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: A Running Gag on Jack's radio show was Take Thats directed at Fred Allen, as a part of their ongoing "feud." Still, there were numerous times where Jack took potshots at other comedians. Like for example, when guest star Claude Rains repeated Allen's accusation that Jack was 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."

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.

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...

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