The Sitcom Was Invented Because A Legendary Comedian Ran Out of Jokes

Jack Benny was way ahead of his time
The Sitcom Was Invented Because A Legendary Comedian Ran Out of Jokes

From The Honeymooners to The Golden Girls to that show starring prehistoric insurance mascots that you probably forgot about until right now, the sitcom has been a cornerstone of our entertainment landscape for decades. But the formula for the situation comedy didn’t emerge into the world fully-formed, someone had to create it. And, apparently, that someone was legendary comedian and Lucky Strike pitchman Jack Benny. 

As argued by Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, the author of Jack Benny and the Golden Age of American Radio Comedy, the origins of the sitcom can be traced back to the days when radio was the popular form of entertainment, i.e., when American families weren’t too lazy to use their brains to imagine what stuff looked like. 

In 1932, NBC aired the first episode of a new weekly radio show, hosted by a young former vaudevillian named Jack Benny, and sponsored by Canada Dry (who thankfully made ginger ale, not tobacco products aimed at children). Benny cracked jokes, read ad copy and introduced bandleader George Olsen. In the 1930s, this was probably as exciting as a Fast and Furious movie. 

But Benny soon ran into trouble; in vaudeville, he could recycle jokes for every appearance. On the radio, however, he had to come up with new material each week. And he was burning through his vaudeville lines at an alarming rate. As Benny once recalled in an interview, “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.”

So with no jokes left in his tank, Benny hired writer Harry Conn, and the two quickly began experimenting with the show, moving away from simple monologues and introducing sketches that were set outside of the confines of the studio, depicting fictional behind-the-scenes conversations with an array of characters. This approach inarguably laid the groundwork for later meta show-business comedies like The Larry Sanders Show and 30 Rock.

According to Fuller-Seeley, other radio comedians at the time “relied on strings of individual jokes,” but Benny and Conn found humor in the “conflicts and misunderstandings” of quirky characters occupying a “regular setting.” Two decades later, “this combination of ingredients would be called the sitcom.” 

Benny’s proto-sitcom eventually became a TV show, The Jack Benny Program on CBS, but it was still ahead of its time. “Benny created a whole world around him — much like Seinfeld,” writes Ken Levine, who scripted episodes of The Simpsons, Cheers and Everybody Loves Raymond. “Wherever he went, he seemed to be harassed by the same goofy characters. It was as if there was a conspiracy. His reaction to all of this, his exasperation and unflagging comic dignity made it all hysterically funny.” 

Basically, Benny created the sitcom formula by accident. So, in a way, he’s to blame for the career of Tim Allen.

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