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‘Jack Benny and the Golden Age of Radio Comedy’ (book review)

Jack Benny and the Golden Age of Radio Comedy
Written by Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley
Published by UC Press
ISBN-13: 978-0520295056
Released 10/17/17 / $34.95

 

Jack Benny, one of America’s most beloved and respected entertainers, died at the end of 1974.

Perhaps surprisingly, in spite of thousands of articles in magazines and newspapers over his half century plus career, there were no actual books exclusively about Jack up to that point.

We found out more than a decade later that Jack himself had attempted an autobiography but never completed it. It was later incorporated into his daughter’s book. His wife also put out a book, as did his longtime agent, and a major writer for his radio and TV series.

The first book my own non-fiction writing ever appeared in was, in fact, a book on Jack — Well! Reflections on the Life and Career of Jack Benny. The Museum of Television and Radio and the International Jack Benny Fan Club also published books more of interest to the hardcore Jack Benny fans.

And there really ARE still hardcore Jack Benny fans! The rise of the Internet has made hundreds of Benny’s shows from both radio and television more accessible than ever and new fans are popping up all the time.

The problem with introducing anyone today to Jack Benny, though, is that they have to be willing to make a commitment. Jack Benny in and of himself is not amazingly funny. He plays the violin poorly, he’s vain, stingy, cheap, has a mincing walk, and can go for long period just standing there. What’s funny about that?

Well, it depends on the context.

You see, Jack Benny is, in a way, the world’s longest running gag. He and his writers built up the “character” described above—by all accounts nothing like the real-life performer—and surrounded him with other characters who would be funny at their host’s expense.

This was an outlandish concept in its day but the ultimate thinking was that listeners would laugh like crazy at Jack’s co-stars, but the next day at the water cooler at work, it would be, “Say, didja hear Jack Benny last night?”

Jack got all the credit.

And according to the brand-new volume, Jack Benny and the Golden Age of Radio Comedy, written by Professor Kathryn Fuller-Seeley of the University of Texas at Austin, he deserved it!

Putting to rest the fears that this book would simply revisit the same ground now covered in the many Benny books that popped up after his passing, the author gives us a much more complete and well-rounded look at the man behind the character, a man who surrounded himself with brilliant writers and performers who understood his humor but who himself contributed a lot more to his success than he’s sometimes been given credit for.

Jack always seemed easygoing in real life, but Dr. Fuller-Seeley digs through papers, files, and other private sources to reveal the behind the scenes struggles with critics, civil rights activists, and even his sponsors!

My favorite parts of the book are the sections dealing with the sponsors. From Canada Dry to Jell-O to the American Tobacco Company, there were always problems!

Traditionally, Jack is cited as a sponsor’s dream because of the often brilliantly clever uses of product placement and the integrated commercials.

But behind the scenes, the sponsors weren’t always happy. In the early days, Jack is shown to have had every radio star’s dread of unhappy sponsors but by the end of his radio run, he was powerful enough, and knew it, that he could stand up to them and dictate the terms rather than the other way around.

Wife and co-star Mary Livingstone gets better and more detailed coverage here than even in her own book, at least as far as her emergence, popularity, and eventual issues on Jack’s series. Likewise, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, forever remembered as Jack’s sidekick, is made more real than ever here, with detailed coverage of both his rapid rise and the issues his continued presence eventually caused the show. At one point, he was the highest paid and most popular African-American performer in the country.

Both Rochester and Mary became known exclusively by their character names. Both deservedly receive multiple chapters here. There’s a bit of a disparity with some of the other co-stars getting little to no mention by comparison, though. The rise of Phil Harris as a comedian in his own right—and star of his own long-running series with wife Alice Faye—is kind of just there.

Similarly, Dennis Day’s emergence as the standout tenor out of a rapidly changing group of boy singers is rather glossed over. Other performers so integral to the series such as Andy Devine, Benny Rubin, Frank Nelson, Mel Blanc, Bob Crosby, and Mahlon Merrick, seem to just be mentioned in passing by comparison, if mentioned at all.

Also, Jack’s writers, whom he always credited with being such a major part of his success, get the in-depth coverage early on but by the time the more familiar, long-term names are in place, they just got brought up occasionally.

The author’s writing style is quite readable but she has the unfortunate (to me) habit of announcing what we’re about to be reading. You’re six pages into a chapter when you’re suddenly told, “In this chapter we will be…” or three pages from the end of the chapter, you read, “In the next chapter we will be dealing with…”

A matter of personal taste perhaps, but I’d rather just go right into the chapter itself.

It’s like arguing semantics, though. The way you present your work isn’t as important as its content! And Kathryn Fuller-Seeley’s book, Jack Benny and the Golden Age of Radio Comedy, offers up new info in every single chapter on a man and a series I would have sworn I knew all there was to know about already.

If you’re a fan, it’s a must! If you’re not a fan, it’s still a fascinating story that will lead you to trying some of Jack’s radio or TV shows!

 

Booksteve Recommends!

 

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