Comedian Sarah Crisman offers political commentary, audio essays, and interviews laced with Bay Area hip-hop.
This week, Crisman sits down with Oakland producers G Koop, O-man, and Anthony Caruso — masterminds to all the sounds heard on this program.
Written and Produced by Sarah Crisman
Produced and Engineered by Graham Richards
Recorded at Blanketfort Studios, California. Themes by Graham Richards (BMI). Other music by G Koop & O-man, ©2012 RM Moods & Colors (BMI), “Lige”, “Juice” featuring Blush, Foreign Legion, DJ Toure, DJ Platurn; “Guitar Jam” featuring Jerome Rodgers. Kim Manning, and The Mastrs. For licensing information, contact Rob@gkoop.com.
For more visit gkoopandoman.com
The sound of my little sister’s breath deepens. She always fall asleep before me. The chow chow next door barks again. I think about the creepy image of a little girl staring saucer eyed into the darkness and shut my eyes tight. I roll over toward the drafty window as the wind swirls through the tall pine trees surrounding our street. I reach my arm between the bed and the wall and grab the handle to the pink boom box my Mom gave me for my 8th birthday. The plastic scrapes along the wall, knocking a bit of plaster loose. My sister lets out a tiny snore. I hold still then carefully pull the radio under my Strawberry Shortcake pillow. My fingers navigate the dial in the darkness. I make sure the volume is at zero before clicking the power on.
Bringing the sound up a single notch, Diana Ross sings a muffled melody through the pillow to my waiting ears. I imagine myself on stage with the Supremes. The station cuts to commercial. I edge the dial through the static along less satisfying channels and long distance dedications. I know every station by ear. Oldies. Classic Rock. Love songs. Jazz. Pausing on a big band at the edge of the dial, I remember it is Sunday and immediately flip the switch to AM. More static. I turn the volume down and ease the knob silently to the general vicinity of WBBM. AM stations are better for Golden Age programming as they operate on the preferred wavelength of World War II veterans and odd, insomniac children.
Talk radio and Tejano crackle by as I nimbly hone in along one edge of my fingertip to the other. My deft ears are rewarded with trumpeting fanfare as the voice of Don Wilson announces: “The Jack Benny Program!”
I close my eyes and listen to the great miser’s familiar quips and the space between every laugh. Jack Benny’s poignant pause. The longer his silence between subdued jokes, the louder the audience laughs. I am tickled by Mr Benny’s indignant banter with Fred Allen and wonder what the audience got to see that I cannot. Something is terribly funny. Even Mary Livingston is breaking through her lines — and she’s married to him! Jack lets out an exasperated “Now cut that out!”
My own laugh escapes into the darkness. I broke. I slap my hand over my mouth and listen to my sister mutter incoherently and turn over under her quilt. I mute the radio until I am sure she is fully asleep. A car rolls into the gravel driveway next door and I bring the show up to an audible yet undisturbing level, just in time for a Lucky Strike cigarette spot. I close my eyes and drift off to sleep to the smooth sophistication of 1947 advertising.
Jack Benny grew up in Chicagoland, only an hour away from where I was growing up. We were both on the skirts of the Second City. I wonder if he longed for the city as much as I did, ever searching the horizon for the towering skyline. Jack Benny’s Chicago was shorter than mine. The city taught him vaudeville. I learned improvisation. We gravitated to the stage. My great grandfather was a vaudevillian in those days. I wonder if they ever met and if Dr Clutterhouse was as mean to Jack Benny as he had been to me. The historical overlap inspired me to one day write my own vaudevillian character, Dr Clusterfuck.
Jack Benny’s sidekick, Rochester is my favorite character; played by an astute, seemingly flustered Eddie Anderson. Unlike many black supporting characters of the time, Rochester was a regular member of the fictional household of Benny — and actually black. Benny treated Rochester as a partner rather than hired domestic, writing Anderson’s character to subtly transcend racial stereotype. This conscientious equal treatment on the show is clear during World War II episodes when Benny pays frequent tribute to the diversity of Americans drafted into military service.
After the war, when the depths of Nazi racism and hatred were seen, Benny made a conscious effort to remove the stereotypical aspects of the Rochester character. In 1948, it became apparent to Benny how much times had evolved when a 1941 script for “The Jack Benny Program” was re-used for the show one week. The script included mention of several African-American stereotypes— for example, a reference to Rochester carrying a razor— and prompted a number of listeners to send in angry letters protesting the stereotypes. Thereafter, Benny insisted that his writers make sure that no racial jokes or references be heard on his show. Benny also often gave key guest-star appearances to African-American performers such as Louis Armstrong and The Ink Spots.
I would have never pursued a life in radio had it not been for Jack Benny. Though we were not alive at the same time, we followed a parallel path. In one episode he talks about his first live performance playing violin on Market and Taylor, less than two miles from where I first stepped on to a San Francisco stage. Jack Benny’s influence over my ear remains in tact thanks to Netflix, Spotify, and Stitcher radio. You’d be hard pressed to know what year it is if you passed through my mind today. I have my show. I have my stage. Now all I need is my Rochester.