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How Jack Benny and Harry Conn Stumbled onto the Formula for Situation Comedy

By Kathryn Fuller-Seeley | HUMANITIES, Summer 2017 | Volume 38, Number 3

It was 9:30 p.m. on Monday, May 2, 1932, and chilly in the old roof garden atop Broad-way’s New Amsterdam Theater. A small, glass-enclosed broadcasting booth had been erected on the stage where Florenz Ziegfeld once produced risqué summer revues. Inside the booth, 38-year-old vaudevillian Jack Benny nervously contemplated the microphone in front of him. With the Great Depression on, there was little work to be had in films or on stage, so Benny was trying his hand at radio. This was the inaugural episode of a twice-weekly, half-hour musical program sponsored by Canada Dry Ginger Ale, a live show nationally broadcast on the NBC radio network.

Benny was not the headliner. That honor belonged to New York bandleader George Olsen, who would lead his orchestra through a half dozen jazz and popular songs accompanied by his wife, Ziegfeld Follies star Ethel Shutta. Between songs, Benny—“that suave comedian, dry humorist and famous master of ceremonies” as announcer Ed Thorgerson called him—would perform brief monologs:

Ladies and gentlemen, this is Jack Benny talking, and making my first appearance on the air professionally. By that I mean, I am finally getting paid, which of course will be a great relief to my creditors. I really don’t know why I am here. I’m supposed to be a sort of master of ceremonies and tell you all about the things that will happen, which would happen anyway. I must introduce the different artists, who could easily introduce themselves, and also talk about the Canada Dry made to order by the glass, which is a waste of time, as you know all about it. You drink it, like it, and don’t want to hear about it. So ladies and gentlemen, a master of ceremonies is really a fellow who is unemployed and gets paid for it.

These lines were probably lifted straight from the routine Benny used at New York’s famous Palace Theater, with the added twist of a backhanded plug for the sponsor’s product. He borrowed witticisms from his stage material, genially self-deprecating comments about his girlfriend, who, he said, posed for the “before” shots in “before and after” photos. The sponsors, ad agency reps, and NBC executives attending the broadcast all thought it had gone well, but Benny sensed a problem.

He was running out of material. At this rate, he would soon exhaust nearly every joke he had purchased, polished, and perfected over two decades in vaudeville, while that microphone and the next week’s broadcasts loomed ahead.

Benjamin Kubelsky was born on February 14, 1894, in Chicago, but raised in the gritty manufacturing town of Waukegan, Illinois, the eldest child of an Eastern European immigrant couple successfully forging a comfortable lower middle-class life for their small family. They dreamed that their son would become a concert violinist, but he abandoned school at 16. He worked as a musician, playing popular tunes, styling himself Ben K. Benny, until 1920, when the more famous musician Ben Bernie insisted he change it. Rechristened as Jack Benny, he began to talk more on stage and soon developed a vaudeville act as a humorist who held a violin in one hand and a cigar in the other.

Working as a “single” who occasionally interacted with an assistant or other acts, Benny joined the expanding group of performers pioneering what would later be called stand-up comedy. Benny’s persona was that of a “middling” Midwesterner, but his jokes melded an Anglo-American style with content that subtly spoke to Jewish and ethnic cultural issues.

Reviewers commended the monologist’s “reserve, poise and personality,” which helped make his carefully rehearsed lines seem ad-libbed. When he appeared at New York’s Palace Theater, vaudeville’s pinnacle, in 1925, Billboard praised Benny’s “droll delivery,” but also noted his obvious copying of vaudeville star Frank Fay.

Fay’s urbane manner made him one of the most prominent and highest-paid performers in vaudeville. He was one of the first stage comedians to eschew outlandish costumes, makeup, props, and broad physical shtick. Debonair, redheaded, and blue-eyed, Fay dressed with aristocratic style and moved with a feminine grace. He was a “boastful big-city boulevardier” with a breezy delivery, a soft-spoken demeanor, and a rapier wit. A Life magazine profile described “his cockiness and his conceit . . . the gentle smile, the quizzical lift of the eyebrows, the sweet voice and then the dirty crack.” Fay’s act was widely admired and copied, but offstage he was reviled for his bigotry and his big ego. Fellow comic Fred Allen once cracked, “The last time I saw Fay, he was walking down Lover’s Lane holding his own hand.”

Jack Benny borrowed Fay’s quiet charm, elegant manner, and womanly walk but did not mimic his arrogance. Lacking a quick and inventive tongue, he replaced Fay’s ad-libbed put-downs with carefully crafted lines that sounded off the cuff, while adding an element of self-deprecation.

“Benny’s opening line, which he used for years, was celebrated,” recalled vaudeville historian Maurice Zolotow. “He would casually lope toward the center of the stage, tuck his violin under his arm, brush his hair back with his left hand, and inquire of the maestro, ‘How is the show?’ ‘Fine up to now,’ the maestro would reply. ‘I’ll fix that!’ Benny would say.”

The Canada Dry executives must have assumed that Benny ad-libbed or wrote his own humorous asides, because there was no budget for writers. Benny exchanged banter with orchestra leader George Olsen and singer Ethel Shutta as he introduced them, but awkwardly, with Benny doing most of the talking. He commented on his fellow radio performers, drawing on standard vaudeville insult-humor patter: George Olsen was penurious, Ethel Shutta lied about her age, and the boys in the band were drunkards. Announcer Ed Thorgerson resembled a Hollywood playboy—his thin mustache looked, according to Benny, as if “he’d swallowed all of Mickey Mouse but the tail.” In the second week, Benny appealed to his unseen listeners directly. “Hello somebody. This is Jack Benny talking. There will be a slight pause while you say, ‘What of it?’” He closed with, “That was our last number of our fourth program on the eleventh of May. Are you still conscious? Hmm?”

“In vaudeville you had one show and that was it. You changed it whenever you felt like it,” Benny said, years later. But, in radio, “when you realized that every week you needed a new show, this got a little bit frightening.” In another interview, he recalled, “The first show was a cinch—I used about half of all the gags I knew. The second show consumed all the rest, and I faced the third absolutely dry.”

Benny sought out one of the vaudeville writers he had occasionally purchased jokes from: Harry Conn, a tap-dancing former vaudevillian who now wrote full time, penning routines for dozens of comedians and for Mae West’s Broadway shows in the 1920s. The two quickly became partners, working closely together week in and out to create, edit, and perfect the dialog. To Conn’s chagrin, the radio network would not allow writers to receive on-air credit, so Benny always remained the focus of public and critical acclaim. On the other hand, Benny was financially generous with Conn, paying him one of the highest salaries earned by radio writers.

Benny and Conn devised a constantly changing mix of monologs, repartee, pun-tossing, and fictional adventures. Flippant commercials voiced slyly by Benny quickly became one of the program’s most noted aspects (to the horror of the conservative sponsors), such as this parody of write-in contests then popular on radio:

Walk up to your favorite soda fountain, order a glass of Canada Dry Ginger Ale made to order by the glass, and sip it through a straw—of course, this is optional. You can either sip it through a straw or drink it right out loud. But if you DO happen to sip it through a straw, save it. Don’t go a-losin’ it. Why? Send it to your Canada Dry cleaners to be pressed. Then, on one side of the straw, write us why you like Canada Dry made to order by the glass, and on the other side, write ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ Mail your straws to us at your earliest convenience, as the straw hat season opens next week. We will not tell you what the prize is yet, but keep a scallion in mind.

Benny and Conn also began experimenting, in the spring of 1932, with a richer fictional world for the program, creating sketch routines that briefly moved away from the microphone. On air, Ed Thorgerson magically tuned a radio into conversation taking place among the characters at a soda fountain located in the building’s lobby. The show staff created sound effects of glasses clinking and ginger ale fizzing. Jack and Ethel Shutta bantered with a soda jerk played by orchestra member Fran Frey. The scene lasted only two minutes, but when Benny seemed to “return” to the studio after the next song, he jokingly assumed that he had to explain to the audience what they had done: “Well folks, this is Jack Benny back at the studio. Well, to tell you the truth, we never even left here. Olsen’s bass drum was the counter. And the fizz you heard was one of the boys sneezing.”

Soon Benny and Conn thought they had achieved a solid, successful blend of comedy and music, with increasingly complex characters, situations, and sketch parody elements (poking fun at popular films, contests, sports coverage, and interview programs). And their show was influential in shaping the overall style of radio entertainment then on the air, but there was hardly time for a victory lap. In November 1932, Canada Dry declared its displeasure with many aspects of the program and then, with little warning, moved to CBS to gain a larger network of participating stations. This meant losing Olsen, Shutta, and the announcer, who were contractually obligated to NBC. The sponsor also claimed that the comic elements were insufficient and hired an additional writer/performer, Sid Silvers, to take the show in a new direction. Benny and Conn had to start over from scratch: teaching a new bandleader, singer, and announcer how to be comedians, all while fighting off the intrusions of Silvers, who sought to turn the show into the completely fictional, continuing story of a befuddled Broadway producer and his smart-aleck assistant, played by none other than Silvers. Benny, Conn, and Mary Livingstone (Benny’s wife, who had joined the staff that summer) stormed into the ad agency’s headquarters and threatened to quit if Silvers was not removed and they did not regain full control of the program’s production. Canada Dry relented and let Silvers go, but very soon the sponsor decided it had had enough excitement and cancelled the show in January 1933.

Fortunately for Benny, automobile manufacturer Chevrolet was tired of the shenanigans of its temperamental singing star Al Jolson, and, when Jolson quit, the company picked up Benny. The shift brought several changes, as Benny was now the program’s acknowledged main focus and the supporting characters, called “stooges,” interacted with Benny, while he got most of the punch lines. Mary assumed a much more prominent role as Jack’s companion, the only female character on the show. Radio critics complimented Benny for the high-quality humor he created with his cast of characters, one noting, “Jack has the knack of making everyone on his program real and human, instead of just a lot of radio voices.” In the spring of 1934, however, a new chief executive took over the reins at Chevrolet and pronounced that he wanted his company to present orchestral music instead of comedy.

Although his program was climbing to the top of the ratings, Benny once again found himself summarily, and humiliatingly, fired. He found another sponsor, General Tire, and became determined to assume more of the responsibilities of a program producer (what we today would call a showrunner). This allowed him to handle personally the cast upheavals plaguing his program, and present the show as a complete package for the sponsor to fund. Benny’s first hiring of a permanent cast member was the new announcer Don Wilson, the tenth announcer in two years, who joined the program in April 1934. Conn made Wilson an intelligent, and, originally, pugnacious, opponent who critiqued Jack’s vanity, and Wilson’s warm, friendly Midwestern voice soon made him one of the top salesmen in radio. His character became jollier as jokes about his girth abounded.

Benny and Conn continued to make over the show’s humor. “Before, Jack had told jokes” and, “as was customary with comedians, he got all the laugh lines.” But now, a critic noted, “the new scripts . . . gave most of the laughs to the others in the cast.”

Jack’s radio personality developed more quirks and flaws: Jokes harped on his cheapness, boastfulness, vanity, his paucity of hair, lack of masculinity, and awful violin-playing. The self-deprecation that had been his trademark on vaudeville was now a catalog of human fallibility. On the June 8, 1934, program, Conn created a skit in which Jack, at a film studio, is asked to complete a screen test. No longer the “Broadway Romeo” of his vaudeville career, he is nervously incompetent at portraying a romantic leading man.

Kane (the film director): Now for the first line, say “Ah Christina, your royal highness, thou are ravishing this evening. Would’st that thou favor me with thy presence at luncheon forthwith!”

Jack: I’ve been waiting for a Jimmy Cagney part like this. [Now speaking his line] Oh, Christina . . . er, er, ah Christina . . . er, er . . . Can you cash a check?

Kane: Now Mr. Benny, I think we better rehearse this first. . . . You walk up to Miss Hill and say “Christina, I love you.”

Jack: I see, okay [with a heavy clomp of footsteps].

Kane: Not so heavy on the walk!

Don Wilson (the announcer): [in a reference to sponsor General Tire] Jack, I think he means the Silent Safety Tread!

Jack: You would, Don.

Kane: Yes, that’s it. Now come on, read your line.

Jack: All right . . . [very flatly] “Christina, I love you.”

Kane: How do you expect her to believe that? Come on, put some passion into it. . . . Try it again.

Jack: Christina, I love you!!!! (pants) . . . How’s that, Mary?

Mary: I still like Robert Montgomery.

The scene devolves into further humiliation for Jack as the director calls Don Wilson over to demonstrate appropriately virile histrionic skills. Wilson then passionately extols the virtues of General Blowout-Proof tires to the heroine while Jack fumes on the sidelines.

General Tire, however, could no longer afford to sponsor Benny’s show, and in October 1934 the program was picked up by yet another struggling consumer product manufacturer, Jell-O Gelatin, then a 35-year-old product with a steeply declining market share. Money was so tight that Benny and Livingstone agreed to work without pay until sales rose to cover the show’s production.

After several worrisome months, Jell-O sales rose, assisted by both the inviting and warm commercials Wilson broadcast for the dessert and the delightful punning references to the product that Benny and Conn sprinkled throughout the program. Nor did all this salesmanship undermine Jack Benny’s product: comedy. As syndicated columnist O. O. McIntyre wrote, “Benny’s humor has the dry crackle of sun-burned twigs. Never explosive, he bungles along, firing the arrows of contempt at himself. He brought to the business of being a comic a becoming restraint, a suavity that was something entirely different, and it clicked.”

In the fall of 1935, as the show ascended to new heights of success, fissures began to widen between the show’s main creative collaborators. A resentful Harry Conn watched jealously as Jack Benny reaped the spotlight of stardom. Without authorial rights to official on-air credit, Conn labored in well-paid anonymity. He made increasing contract and salary demands, and was quoted in interviews dismissing Benny’s editorial contributions and belittling the degree to which actors created comedy.

The New York Times radio critic Orrin Dunlap saw both sides of the issue. “It is no easy task for the gag men to keep these clowns on the track that fits their personality; to feed lines that win sympathetic reaction.”

“Radio humor,” Dunlap argued, “is not all a matter of material. The delivery counts. Every comedian can take the same joke and make it sound different to the average ear. . . . Each comedian ‘pitches’ differently in curving humor over the home plate for a strike.”

The increasingly tense partnership broke irrevocably when Conn deserted Benny midweek in March 1936, while they were performing in Baltimore in the middle of an East Coast tour. Benny quickly rallied assistance from fellow radio comics and his advertising agency (now Young and Rubicam), and, after a few shaky weeks, emerged with a new duo of young script writers: Ed Morrow and Bill Beloin.

Despite Harry Conn’s ambitious plans to become a headlining radio writer/performer, he quickly fell into embittered obscurity, while Benny’s radio program, enhanced by fresh ideas, became ever more inventive and popular. Building on the strong foundation that Conn had laid, Morrow, Beloin, and Benny added embellishments such as scripting their half of a feud with Fred Allen and shifting Mary’s persona to become much more bitingly sharp. Their masterstroke, however, was the addition of Rochester the valet, played by Eddie Anderson, who became a perfect foil for Benny’s escalating failings.

The road from vaudeville to radio to situation comedy was traveled by generations of performers, but Jack Benny, who went on to a 20-year career in television, played an especially significant role. And Harry Conn’s input was invaluable.

While other radio comedians relied on strings of individual jokes, Benny and Conn used dialog, character, and a regular setting to yield more humor from the quirkiness of disparate personalities and their conflicts and misunderstandings. Twenty years later this combination of ingredients would be called the sitcom. This was not only an artistic feat, but a practical one. Benny and Conn’s development of a flexible situation comedy format made the scripting of shows each week during a 39-week season of live broadcasts to be a completable task. Their formula was also incredibly flexible, enabling experiments with parodies of popular films, guest star performances, and occasional recurring characters.

It was a creative breakthrough as well, allowing Jack Benny to remain the centerpiece of his own program without having to shoulder the burden of telling all the jokes himself. His humor was actually extended and deepened by his interactions with the rest of his cast. Benny and Conn had thus created a comedy-generating machine, which would, with some careful tending by Benny and his subsequent writing staffs, endure from 1932 all the way through the end of Benny’s career in television and live performance in 1974.

About the Author

Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, the William P. Hobby Centennial Professor of Communication at the University of Texas, Austin, received an NEH research fellowship to support her work on Jack Benny. Her book, Jack Benny and the Golden Age of American Radio Comedy, will be published this fall by the University of California Press. Sources: The Jack Benny Papers at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming; the Jack Benny Papers in Special collections at the UCLA Library; newspaper and magazine collections.

Funding Information

NEH has funded many projects in the areas of radio and entertainment history. Lauren Sklaroff of the University of South Carolina received a Public Scholar grant for her forthcoming book Wanting to Be Wanted: Sophie Tucker and the Creation of a Show Business Legend. The Studs Terkel archive received NEH funding for the organization of its archive and public programming, while WNET recently received a grant to support a documentary on Bob Hope. In 2015, Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, received a preservation grant to support an assessment of the audiovisual collection of the Archives of Iowa Broadcasting.