SUNDAY NIGHTS AT SEVEN

The Jack Benny Story

By Jack and Joan Benny

Warner. 302 pp. $19.95

IF YOU'RE too young to know what the title of this book means, explanations probably will never suffice. Sunday night at 7 was the hour Jack Benny's radio program came on the air from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s, and the whole nation, or so at least it seemed, was listening; there's been nothing like it -- not "M*A*S*H," not "Cosby" -- ever since. His daughter, Joan, recalls meeting a man who told her: "It was before air-conditioning and when the weather was warm everyone had their windows open and I would be out walking or running up the street or playing in the park with my friends. It didn't matter how far or fast I went, I knew I would never miss a word of Jack Benny. Everyone's radio was tuned in to that show."

It was called, of course, "The Jack Benny Show," and for half an hour each Sunday evening it turned us into a national, if not global, village. There was a lot of wonderful stuff on the radio those days, Fred Allen's show most particularly, but the Benny program was the best of all. This isn't mere nostalgia speaking; not long ago I picked up a couple of cassettes of the show and listened to them on a long drive, and the extent to which they had weathered the years struck me as astonishing.

The durability of Benny's appeal is explained in large part by a decision made early in his radio career. He was listening to Ed Wynn's radio show and was puzzled that certain lines got loud laughs. "You know, Jack," his wife said, "Ed is playing the show to a studio audience. He must be doing sight gags that get laughs, but it doesn't mean anything to us at home." His response was immediate:

"She was right. The radio audience totaled approximately 30 million, but it really consisted of small family groups. I felt that now I understood the medium. I would play to those family groups and get them to know me and my family (the cast) as real people with real problems. Exaggerated people, yes, but fundamentally honest and true to life."

That is exactly what "The Jack Benny Show" became. Its characters inhabited their own world and developed, over the long life of the show, distinctive personalities and elaborate histories that became as well known to listeners -- and in the show's later years, television viewers -- as those of the members of their own families. Don Wilson, Dennis Day, Rochester, Mary Livingstone, Phil Harris: One needed only mention their names to get a smile and a nod of recognition.

But chief among them, obviously, was Benny himself. By all accounts the most generous and decent of men, he nonetheless devised a "Jack Benny" character whose salient characteristics were grumpiness, self-importance and, above all else, stinginess. This last produced what is perhaps the funniest and most famous exchange in radio history:

Holdup man: "Your money or your life."

Long pause.

Holdup man: "Come on, hurry up."

Benny: "I'm thinking it over."

According to Benny: "This line clocked over two minutes of laughter. It built and built -- stopped -- and went on again. On a 30-minute comedy show, this spread is as carefully budgeted as the salaries of performers." That night, though, "The Jack Benny Show" went way over budget.

Over the year's Benny's radio personality swallowed up the man himself. He tells of checking into a hospital -- he found hospitals "relaxing" and retreated to one when he got overworked -- and being asked by a nurse for a urine sample. He protested that this wasn't really necessary, and that in any event "I went already, just a few minutes ago." But the nurse persisted, so Benny did his best: "When she came back for the specimen and saw the small amount of liquid, she looked at me with a withering glance and then, giving the line a perfect reading, she said, 'You never give anything away -- do you?"

That's one of many stories Benny tells on himself in Sunday Nights at Seven, a memoir upon which he apparently worked off and on in the last years of his life. Why it was never published is a mystery to his daughter, but when she came upon the manuscript six years ago she thought it deserved to be made into a book, and she was right. The final result is a bit of a mixed bag, as Benny's memoirs have been padded out with his daughter's commentary as well as her own recollections, but the book's rather lumpy character is a small price to pay for the pleasure of meeting the great comedian on his own ground.

"I should warn you in advance," he says early on, "that if you're expecting my book to be like other show business autobiographies, you're likely to be disappointed. I did not triumph over adversity. I did not go through struggles and hardship. My only handicap is golf." He grew up in a happy if somewhat impecunious orthodox Jewish family; his parents adored him, and the only real conflict seems to have occurred as he drifted from the musical career his mother had in mind toward the vaudeville for which he clearly was destined -- and that conflict didn't last long in face of the steady success he enjoyed.

Over the years, like so many others of his time, he worked his way from vaudeville to radio to television, with a few largely forgettable stops in the movies along the way. He liked women and was liked in turn by them, but once he married Sadie Marks, he became thoroughly domesticated; just as he'd changed his name from Benny Kubelsky, so she changed hers to Mary Livingstone. They had a happy marriage, to which they added Joan by adoption in 1934; she adored her father but had a tougher time with her mother, for whom she felt "a love mixed with sadness and pity when I was grown -- and confusion and trepidation when I was little."

There's more of Joan in the book than we really need -- not merely her grievances against her mother, but also her Hollywood childhood and her various unsuccessful marriages -- but the temptation to insert herself into the story must have been irresistible; if it's true that "being Mrs. Jack Benny became the center" of her mother's life, being his daughter seems to have become pretty much the same for Joan.

So scan your way through her sections, which are in a light typeface, and save your concentration for her father's, which are in boldface. Even if you've never heard or seen a single one of his shows, you're bound to recognize that this was a comedian of rare gifts and, into the bargain, a good man.