Thursday, August 24, 2017


I occasionally hear The Jack Benny Program on a Sirius XM channel (Radio Classics) devoted to old programs. I'm always surprised by how genuinely funny the show can be, even 80 years later.

There's a character named "Rochester" on the show, and he's African-American. I listened to the program today and there were a few jokes involving Rochester that were pretty cringe-worthy, by today's standards. I knew that Rochester was a big deal, though, because it was the first time an African-American had a recurring role on a national radio program.

So I looked Rochester up, and his story was much, much more interesting than the radio program. Thanks, Wikipedia.

The actor who played Rochester was named Eddie Anderson, and he got his start, like most comedians of his era, on the vaudeville circuit. He was originally on the Benny program in a one-time role, but he was so well-liked that he was called back to play a series of characters, and proved so popular that they wrote him into the show.

His impact on the show was substantial. Originally a highly stereotyped character, those elements were written out of his character over the years, and Benny's respect for Anderson (and their friendship) led to some powerful moments. Once in New York while on location for the show, a Southern couple complained about being in a hotel with a black man (because the cast was staying there).

Seriously, this country and its shit, I swear.

The hotel manager told the show that they would find Anderson accommodations at another hotel, but Benny's brother-in-law, the show's producer, assured the hotel that Anderson would check out the next morning. And he did, along with the other 43 members of the cast.

Like I mentioned in the open, it's remarkable how funny the show still is, even though Anderson's first appearance was in 1937. Snappy writing, unbelievable timing, and the interplay between Benny and Anderson is genuinely funny in any era.

Here's the full Wikipedia entry, and it's well worth reading: Eddie "Rochester" Anderson.

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