In 5 To Watch, writers from The A.V. Club look at the latest streaming TV arrivals, each making the case for a favored episode. Alternately, they can offer up recommendations inspired by a theme. In this installment: In honor of Black History Month, we’re spotlighting five episodes of The Jack Benny Show that featured Eddie “Rochester” Anderson.
There were Black characters on the air during the early days of radio, as the first mass broadcasting medium swept the country in the 1930s, though many of them were portrayed by white actors in what amounts to aural blackface. The most famous example was the popular program Amos ’N’ Andy, in which Black characters were portrayed by the show’s two white creators, Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden. Elsewhere, white men also voiced Black women, like Fibber McGee And Molly’s Black maid, Beulah, who was portrayed by Marlin Hunt.
Which makes the career of Black comedian and actor Eddie “Rochester” Anderson even more remarkable, as well as groundbreaking. Anderson played Jack Benny’s valet, Rochester, on The Jack Benny Program, one of the most popular shows of the radio era. He was famous for his raspy voice, said to be caused by a childhood spent yelling out headlines as a newsboy. His life eventually took him from vaudeville to film. He starred in the 1943 musical Cabin In The Sky, which featured an all-Black cast, and appeared in two consecutive Best Picture winners, You Can’t Take It With You in 1938 and Gone With The Wind in 1939. But Anderson was most famous for his iconic radio role, giving him the nickname that would stay with him throughout his career.
Besides Anderson, the supporting cast included Phil Harris (who would become The Jungle Book’s Ballew) as a dipsomaniac bandleader, Looney Tunes voice legend Mel Blanc, and Benny’s own wife, Mary Livingstone. Anderson, who joined the cast in 1937, became a fan favorite, perhaps second in popularity only to Benny himself. The Jack Benny Show excelled in subtle, sophisticated comedy. Benny’s genius was that, unlike many stars who hoarded all the good punchlines and never let themselves be seen in an unflattering light, he realized that the greatest humor came from making himself the butt of the joke. He was depicted as insecure, vain, and, most famously, cheap; the show’s most legendary line came when Benny is stopped by a robber who asks, “Your money or your life?” and he replies, “I’m thinking it over.”
Taking Benny down a peg or two was the key to the show’s humor and success, and no one performed this function better than Anderson. While it was acknowledged that Rochester was poorly paid by his skinflint boss, Benny’s valet often got the better of Benny by gambling with him over domestic chores, lounging around as the man of the house, or deflating his egocentric flights of fancy, usually via the oft-repeated line, “Oooh boss, come now.” As in many of his other roles (and the majority of roles available for Black performers at that time), Anderson was playing a servant—but one who was an actual character, and didn’t exist solely in the background (like his domestic worker characters in Gone With The Wind and You Can’t Take It With You). More importantly, Rochester was a Black employee who frequently outsmarted his white boss, during the Jim Crow era when that was practically unheard of in the entertainment industry. Granted, the show still contained much of the era’s racist hierarchy: the fact that Rochester never calls anyone else by their first names, for example, while everyone calls him “Rochester.” But some radio listeners in the South protested Jack Benny’s popular show because of Rochester’s empowered stance as a character. When the cast went on tour, Benny refused to play at segregated theaters or stay at segregated hotels that wouldn’t accept Anderson.
On air, Anderson was not only accepted but treasured as an integral part of the show. As the program moved to television in 1950, Anderson’s role became even more vital: Some players like Harris had moved on, and Livingstone developed a late case of stage fright. Rochester became not just Jack Benny’s devoted valet and sparring wisecrack partner, but as the series stretched into several seasons (it ran until 1965), his best friend. Elsewhere, an all-Black Amos ’N’ Andy finally made it to the small screen in 1951, but it only lasted for a few seasons. Similarly, Beulah was finally led by a Black woman in its iteration as a sitcom (the lead character was also an employee with more sense than the family she worked for), but the series was plagued by frequent recasting—with Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel and Ethel Waters among the women who played the title role—and also lasted for only a few years. The heyday of Black sitcoms wouldn’t arrive until the 1970s, with the likes of Sanford And Son, Good Times, and The Jeffersons. Although Good Times’ Florida was another domestic worker, the show focused on her role as the mother of a close Chicago family; in Sanford and The Jeffersons, the title characters owned their own businesses (junk/antiques dealer and dry cleaner, respectively). Several years earlier, Eddie Anderson had helped to pave the way for future Black sitcom stars to step out of secondary roles.
Here are five episodes of The Jack Benny Show that portray the dynamic between Benny and Rochester at its best, including some of Anderson’s finest moments, as the two ultimately transcended the employee/employer relationship.
The jump to television was intimidating even for a radio legend like Jack Benny, as millions were bound to tune in to see the visuals for the show they’d been listening to since 1932. As with the radio program, The Jack Benny Program on TV took a meta view of entertainment, with many episodes centered on the creation of the show itself. In this episode, Jack calls up popular singer Dinah Shore to be the guest on his first TV show. When she says she usually gets $5,000 for such an appearance, Jack starts choking. Rochester brings him a glass of water, and upon hearing the amount Dinah’s demanding, throws it in his face to help him get over the shock. The premiere episode of The Jack Benny Program shows how much faith Benny et al. had in Anderson; after an energetic introductory number, and the setting shifts to the narrative, the first person we see is Rochester cleaning Benny’s house to the tune of “My Blue Heaven.” It was one thing to see Anderson sing—radio fans had heard that before—but he calls back to his vaudeville roots by dancing as well, drawing new Benny viewers in as a consummate entertainer from the early minutes of the very first episode.
This episode begins with Rochester as the man of the house, lounging in Benny’s luxurious living room in a smoking jacket, not even moving when the phone rings incessantly except to fluff up a pillow to make himself more comfortable. Turns out, it’s Rochester’s day off, and his hapless boss is helpless without him, unable to pull together even a cheese omelet for lunch. The hard-working Rochester refuses to cave from his break to help out (Benny: “Rochester, that was a funny joke, why didn’t you laugh?” Rochester: “This is my day off.”) Anderson gets another dance number in this episode, as announcer Don Wilson asks him for some help with the program; this segues into a charming performance of “On The Sunny Side Of The Street,” in which Anderson tries to teach Wilson some soft-shoe. When Jack and Don have to run out to meet with guest star Johnnie Ray, Rochester gets the cheese omelet.
By this point in the program, Rochester had become Benny’s closest confidant. In this episode, Jack tells Mary that every week he asks Rochester, the critic he trusts the most, how the show went over. But then Rochester falls asleep instead of watching the show, getting in this classic dig:
Jack Benny: Look, Rochester, if you must sleep during a television show, why does it have to be mine? Why don’t you sleep when… when Bob Hope is on?
Rochester: I tried that, but the laughs kept waking me up.
Jack Benny: Oh, the laughs kept waking you up, but during my show tonight…
Rochester: Slept like a baby.
An enraged Jack blows up at Rochester, who, used to his boss’ insecurities, is unconcerned, especially since he’s looking forward to a fishing trip with his friend Roy. But when Jack goes in to apologize and finds Rochester packing, he assumes the worst and completely starts fawning all over Rochester to make him stay. Rochester, enjoying being appreciated for once, doesn’t correct him. Of course he gets found out at the end, but the episode is another indication of how Jack and Rochester are more than employer and employee, and how much Jack relies on him, for his opinion as much as everything else.
“Jack At The Supermarket” begins with Jack in an apron rattling off the list of chores he’s accomplished on the phone to Rochester, who’s at the golf club. This surprising reversal of fortune is ultimately explained by Jack’s line, “And that’s the last time I’ll play gin rummy with you.” It’s revealed that Rochester actually won by cheating, hiding cards in the sleeves of the kimono he was wearing, a trick that Jack passes on to get out of his chores as well. Once again, Rochester gets away scot-free, while Jack is easily flummoxed by the duties his valet accomplishes on a daily basis. His incompetence reaches its comedic high point when he’s forced to trudge out to the grocery store, soon getting into squabbles with store employees, especially frequent foil Frank Nelson (the “Yeeesss?” guy).
This episode is one of the high points of the series’ entire run—but for sentimental reasons instead of comedic ones, as it cements Jack and Rochester’s partnership once and for all. Jack makes a big deal of going out with his girlfriend for New Year’s Eve. But when she stands him up, he’s too embarrassed to meet up with the friends he boasted to earlier, so after a sad, solitary walk though town, he heads home. There, he finds Rochester, who, when seeing how lonely his boss is, decides to forego his own plans and stay with him instead, despite Jack’s feeble protests—proving that Rochester is the person Jack Benny is closest to in the world. The episode ends with the two men in party hats and tails, cheering the New Year with champagne from matching chairs in the perfect summation of their mutual affection and devotion.