A staple of comedy shows is the running gag. The most successful running gags become a kind of inside joke shared between the performers and the audience.
When a show runs as long as the Jack Benny Program, there is room for a lot of gags to run!
The real humor of the Jack Benny Program was Jack Benny's Program was Jack's character. Jack Benny on the radio was everything that Jack Benny was not. On the radio Jack was a vain, miserly bachelor wrapped in his own neurosis. In real life Jack was a very happy man, madly in love with his wife, and generous to a fault. Most of the laughs on his program came when he allowed his supporting players to get the laughs at his expense, and Jack had a great cast of supporting characters to work with.
Following vaudeville tradition, the first thing Jack did when he got married was to write his wife into the act. On the program Mary Livingstone was a smart-aleck friend, but not quite a girl friend, which allowed Jack to try to date celebrities like Barbara Stanwyck. One recurring bit of Mary's was similar to Portland Hoffa's "Oh Mister Allen!" routines. When Mary first appeared she would read a letter from her mother in Plainfield, NJ. Mother usually had news about Mary's fictional sister, Babe. Mary did have a sister named Babe, but she was nothing like the coal-mining, steel-foundry working, Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker described by Mary's mom. Babe did appear on the program a on a couple of occasions. (Jack had a secret provision in his will, after he passed away, a red rose was delivered to Mary every day for the rest her life. Although Mary and Jack played very well together, Mary in fact suffered from an almost crippling stage fright.)
Don Wilson was the announcer for the program, and often was the butt of Jack's jokes, usually about his weight. Band leader Phil Harris began his run with the show as a "jazz talking hep cat" with more than a few wise cracks for his boss. Jack often chided Phil for his fast life style, but Phil would wind up leaving the program to start a family show with his real-life bride, Alice Faye. In 1952 the band leader duties were taken over by Bing's kid brother, Bob Crosby.
One of the most popular recurring characters was Jack's butler and valet, Rochester. Eddie Anderson first appeared as a railroad Redcap and porter and later as a waiter. He made himself "At home" with the cast, joining in with the Jello jingle. The show received enough positive mail on Anderson's appearances that he was written in as Rochester, becoming the first African-American to have a recurring role on a radio program. Benny and Anderson have both taken criticism for Rochester perpetuating racial stereo-types. However it should be noted Rochester, even though he was a servant, was always treated as an equal by Benny both on and off the air.
Jack began playing the violin at the age of 6. His parents had hopes that he would become a classsical violinist, but is soon became obvious that Jack enjoyed playing but hated practicing. While in the Navy Jack was heckled during talent shows, and he realized that he had more success telling jokes using the violin as a prop. The violin, and Benny's atonal playing, became a trademark, although Benny became a quite accomplished player through the years.
The violin was the root of Benny and Fred Allen's famous "Feud". The feud was of course a put-on that began when Fred compared Benny's playing with a genius violinist appearing on his program. The remark was an ad-lib, but Benny thought it was incredibly funny and had his writers work it into the show. In addition to the violin feud, the Benny program used "Did you hear what Fred Allen said?" a number of times. What made the bits even funnier was the fact that Allen and Benny were close friends in real life.
A device that often works well in situation comedy is the "Suffering Neighbor Dealing with the Crackpot Next Door." Jack Benny was able to make this work very well with the services of screen heart-throb Ronald Colman and his actress wife Benita Hume. The fact that the Colman's and the Benny's actually lived with-in walking distance of each other in Hombly Hills surely helped with the performance. It was a program with the Colman's that premiered the "Classic Jack Benny Joke": Jack borrows Ronald Colman's Oscar Statue to show Rochester, and is held up on the way home. When the crook tells Jack to hand over his "money or his life", Jack hesitates- "I'm thinking it over!" Their success with the comedy of the Jack Benny Show helped land the Colman's the lead roles in the Halls of Ivy, created by long-time Fibber McGee and Molly writer, Don Quinn. When Jack Benny took his program to TV, Jimmy Stewart and his wife Gloria took over the occasional "Suffering Neighbor" roles.
Radio can't use site gags the way movies and TV can, but Jack Benny had a one-man gag department with Mel Blanc, "the man of a thousand voices." Jack's famous Maxwell Automobile was written into the show to help show what a cheapskate Jack was- that he wouldn't by a more modern car (he traded a Stanley Steamer for the Maxwell, which had been out of production for ten years at the time). When the well rehearsed sound effect for the car didn't work, Mel quickly improvised a coughing wheezing sound. Jack liked Mel's ad-lib better than the original sound effect, so it stayed in the program. Another Mel Blanc routine for the program was as the Rail Road Station announcer announcing "Train leaving on Track Five for Anaheim, Azuza, and Cucamonga!" It is hard to decide which was funnier, the fact that no train would connect those cities or Blanc's pronouncing the last city "KOOK-a-Mong-ah" (Another part of the gag was the growing separation between the "KOOK" and the "a-Mong-ah", which got to the point that the cast had moved on to another sketch by the time the city was announced.) Another favorite running gag was Carmicheal the polar bear. Mel Blanc gets the credit for Carmicheal, but all he really contributed was a roar over in the back ground of a telephone call to the studio from Rochester telling Jack about a mysterious Christmas present. No one knew where the bear came from (but Jack was quick to blame Fred Allen.)
Jack Benny began his radio career in 1932, and worked full time until 1965, when he ended his regular TV series. Although he made a some appearances as a guest star and specials on his own afterward, he basically got out of the game on top. He shared an ambivalence towards TV with Fred Allen, jack stated "The camera was a man-eating monster... It gave a performer close-up exposure that, week after week, threatened his existence as an interesting entertainer."
Jack Benny was certainly always interesting and always entertaining.