In the early 1930s, more than 60 years before Seinfeld, there was Jack Benny. His was the first show about nothing. He had wacky neighbors who showed up randomly. He had a a group of eccentric friends. He played a comedian but we rarely heard him perform. Jack was perhaps the inventor of the situation comedy as we know it. In the 1950s the show moved to television, where it was very successful. Seinfeld was a reprise of the Jack Benny Show. Several drop-in characters were performed by Mel Blanc (aka Bugs Bunny).
Here’s the Thanksgiving Day episode from 1947:
Note: There is a character in the show, Rochester, played by Eddie Anderson (1905–77). He was a great African-American radio and TV actor. He portrays Benny’s valet. Benny, whose real name was Benny Kubelsky (1894–1974), was Jewish and was sensitive, because of his own experience, to the social and economic situation of minorities. Anderson received a lot of unfair criticism in the 1960s for his portrayal of Rochester. The relationship, in the show, between Benny and Anderson was complex and subtle. There is little overt racism and Anderson’s character gets in quite a few digs at Benny. There were other characters who were more stereotypical, e.g., Mr Kitzel, played by Artie Auerbach (1903–57). Arguably, the Rochester character is less demeaning that the Kitzel character.
Remember, when this program aired there was little immigration to the USA. The country was not as racially diverse as it is now. Further, Jim Crow laws were still in effect in the South and racial segregation was widespread across the North. There were no African-American actors in leading parts in radio or television. That did not begin to change until the mid-1960s (TV). Were there African-American butlers in that period? Yes. Is there a hierarchical relation between employers and butlers? Yes. Is that inherently racist? I don’t think so. I am not sure that his character was any more subordinate to his boss than Joseph Marcel’s character was to his in The fresh Prince of Bel Air. Nevertheless, be forewarned that you may hear some things that are unfamiliar.