When people these days are quick to cite the America of World War II, they don’t really know what those times were like. They know how it’s shown in movies. They know how it feels when venerable newscasters intone respectful eulogies for the great men of that era and what they did. But they don’t really know what rationing meant, what red stamps and blue stamps were and what everyone was willing to do or go without for the boys overseas.
They also forget about the role radio played in stitching together the nation’s various communities in a whole cloth of common purpose. Because as radio performers hawked war bonds, recommended victory gardens and urged on scrap metal drives, they also kept America marching forward together, not as soldiers but as neighbors. Radio stars helped Americans collectively dream of a better America, one worth fighting and dying for, the one that awaited them on the other side of the fight.
Many of the performers of the day were the sons and daughters of Jewish immigrants. They were men and women compelled to change their ethnic names to win acceptance in their new nation. Many of the other performers were Black men working in comedy roles, hired to elicit laughs from a nation that denied their humanity. These Black and Jewish performers were asked to get the nation through its long dark night. In the process, they helped America revise its dream of itself.
This is why the old radio shows from the wartime era really chill me the fuck out. In them, you hear what it was really like for Americans at that time. And in some ways, it’s even more beautiful than it’s portrayed.
You can find a treasure trove of these shows on YouTube. In fact, there are years and years worth of some classic shows online, with myriad websites featuring lists of downloads and episodes, many of which include plot summaries and listener reviews. Meanwhile, over on satellite radio, there’s Greg Bell and the Radio Classic channel on SiriusXM, a well-curated, rotating schedule of bygone gems.
Chief among them, of course, are superhero shows like The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, and naturally, Superman — as well as many fantasy shows like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. But The Jack Benny Show, a sort of forerunner to the classic TV sitcom, is my personal favorite. Benny was a well-practiced master of comedic timing and self-deprecation, a performer who could use just one syllable to split an audience into peals of laughter. To that end, his show boasts the longest-ever recorded laugh. It came from this bit:
Mugger: Your money or your life.
Mugger: Look bud. I said, your money or your life.
Jack: I’m thinking it over!
While those lines may not leap off the page or constitute incisive social commentary — it’s just a joke that he’s cheap — the laugh came from how well the audience knew Benny’s character as the most frugal man to ever walk the earth.
IRL, this was very much not the case; Benny was famously generous and thoughtful — e.g., after he died, he arranged a single rose to be delivered to his wife every day until she passed herself. The Jack Benny character, however, was vain, cheap and socially obnoxious; he was someone who exploited any advantages, and imagined himself to be a suave ladies man, all-around athlete, sophisticate and artist. The joke obviously was on him (i.e., he was none of those things), but beyond being just funny, it allowed listeners to feel better about themselves in comparison — while also serving as a gentle critique of their own worst impulses. (Kelsey Grammer has said that Benny’s persona was the basis for the dynamic of Frasier.)
As mentioned briefly earlier, as a Jewish performer in early 20th century America, Benny had to change his name to find mainstream success. This may help explain why he was particularly generous with how his show employed its main Black character for laughs. While Eddie “Rochester” Anderson did have to play his valet/chauffeur/personal chef, he’s also the character who gets to take the most cutting shots at his boss. This was unheard of at the time. It was something Benny had to fight for, too, as he insisted his Black co-star’s character never be written as a racist caricature, or as his subordinate.
For instance, in the episode below, the cast — which included Mary Livingstone (Benny’s real-life wife) and Mel Blanc, of Bugs Bunny fame, who plays Benny’s parrot, violin teacher and car as well as all sorts of other characters — listens to the 1948 World Series between the Cleveland Indians and Boston Braves, the first to feature a Black pitcher, Satchel Paige, the legend of the Negro Leagues. Along the way, Benny uses the newly desegregated World Series to ridicule the very nature of segregation in the first place.
Finally, here’s one last episode of The Jack Benny Show from the war years. Before an audience of U.S. troops, the cast performs a parody of Casablanca. In it, you hear how it really was back then. You hear how Americans, in their most dire moment, could still dream of a better tomorrow — and believe in that dream, together.