Benny, who began as a vaudeville entertainer, is best known for The Jack Benny Program, on radio (1932-1955) and for The Jack Benny Show on television (October 28, 1950 - 1965). Actually, during his first two years on TV, he appeared infrequently then the next two years every fourth week. From 1955-1960 he appeared every other week and from 1960-1965 he was seen weekly. CBS dropped him in 1964 and he went to NBC in the fall of '64 only to be out-rated by "Gomer Pyle, USMC" on CBS, and NBC dropped his show at the end of the '64- '65 season. Today Benny is thought of as the premier comedian of old-time radio.
His programs featured a fictionalized version of Benny's life with many running gags, particularly jokes about Benny's cheapness. One of the most famous silences in radio came when Benny was accosted by a robber who demanded, "Your money or your life!" After an extended pause, Benny replied, "I'm thinking it over."
When Benny moved to television, he revealed that his verbal talent was matched by his assortment of facial expressions.
Among other running gags was his famous feud with another radio comedian, Fred Allen, actually one of Benny's closest friends. A typical Benny and Allen episode, in this case on Fred's radio show, was a satire of "Queen for a Day" re-titled "King for a Day". In it, Allen plays host and eventually showers Benny with a ton of worthless prizes in honor of him being named King for a Day. The grand prize is a pants pressing from a local dry cleaing company. Well, the hilarity builds as Jack's shirt is being taken off. Then, his pants are pulled off to the shock of the audience. The laughter was so loud and chaotic at the chain of events that Fred's announcer, Kenny Delmar, was cut off the air amidst the wild laughter while trying to read the credits...Fred's show had ran over-time yet again! Another of his friends and frequent guest-stars was George Burns of Burns and Allen. Benny's show also starred his wife Mary Livingstone, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Phil Harris, Dennis Day, announcer Don Wilson, Frank Nelson, and the remarkably versitile Mel Blanc. Ronald Colman his wife Benita appeared frequently in the 1940s as Benny's neighbors.
Jack's sponsors were many: Canada Dry Ginger Ale: 1932-1933; Chevrolet: 1933-1934; General Tire: 1934; Jell-O from 1934-1942; Grape Nuts Flakes from 1942-1944; and finally Lucky Strike from 1944-1955. The commercials were incorporated into the body of the show; the sponsors were often the butt of jokes.
The program's plots centered around putting on a radio program and were set partly in the studio and partly in Benny's home. Rochester ran the house. Jack was single on the show. His real-life wife, Mary Livingstone, was presented as Jack's leading lady on the radio show. Mary had many running jokes of her own, including her romantic interest in many of the guests, and her former employment as salesgirl at the May Department Stores, where the Jack had supposedly met Mary, in the lingerie department.
The show-within-a-show setting was an example of breaking the fourth wall by bringing the audience in on the joke that it was "just a show".
See also: Maxwell automobile