How Jack Benny Paved The Way For All Comedians
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Ask comedians today (including Jerry Seinfeld) about their career inspiration and many will name Jack Benny. For over half a century, Jack Benny was one of the great comics of stage, screen, radio, and television. He was the past master of the long take and knew how to milk a laugh. On his long-running radio and television programs, Benny was depicted as a miser who hoarded every penny he made.
Year after year he denied he was older than 39 and honed his persona of a vain and devious penny-pincher — which was in stark contrast to the warm and generous human being he was in real life. Benny knew he could be funny by applying a simple policy: let others around him deliver the punch lines. He discovered early on that it didn’t matter who got the laughs on The Jack Benny Program as long as people were talking about how funny it was. Perhaps this is why Variety once labeled him “television’s straight man.”
Learn the secrets of Jack Benny’s success
The secret of Jack Benny was the understanding, which existed between him and his audience, a conditioned telepathy that enabled him to be funny without being obvious. Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (an African American comedian who portrayed Benny’s butler and valet) often got the best of his employer… an unheard of position for most African Americans at the time.
Benny’s smooth humor was of the highest order, never telling a dirty joke… well, rarely. In one TV episode, the comedian went down to his underground vault to withdraw a few dollars and is greeted by the old timer who stood guard at the door. It’s obvious the old man has been in the underground vault for decades when he asks Benny what it is like on the surface. “Well, it’s autumn and the leaves are falling,” Benny explains. The old man displays an odd look on his face and expresses how that would be real nice. “Oh no,” Benny calmly explains. “People are wearing clothes now.”
Jack Benny’s Beginnings
Born Benjamin Kubelsky in 1894, Benny grew up in Waukegan, Illinois and began studying the violin at the age of six. His parents dreamed he’d be a great classical violinist. By age 17, he was performing on vaudeville. In 1929, Benny signed a Hollywood contract and made his screen debut as a comedic emcee in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. In 1932, Benny made his radio debut on Ed Sullivan’s program and became an overnight sensation. Before the end of the calendar year, Benny was signed to star on a weekly radio program on NBC.
Throughout the thirties, Benny was aided by a supporting cast that included announcer Don Wilson, singer Dennis Day and Benny’s real-life wife, Mary Livingstone. His Sunday night radio program was among the top ten for more than a decade but his success was not limited to the stage and radio. In the late 1930s, Paramount Pictures signed Benny to a multi-picture deal. He starred in such classics as Man About Town (1939), Buck Benny Rides Again (1940) and Love Thy Neighbor (1940) — the latter of which highlighted a bitter rivalry between Jack Benny and another radio comedian, Fred Allen.
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The two exchanged unkind words on each other’s radio programs, generating a lot of laughs and publicity. In truth, the rivalry was a farce in the same vein later reproduced by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
The Jack Benny Program was born
A staple on NBC radio for 16 years, Jack Benny made headlines when he signed an unprecedented contract with rival network CBS. In late 1948, CBS hoped to dominate the broadcasting industry by successfully luring Jack Benny away from his long-term NBC contract. With television on the horizon, CBS knew that offering stock options and a high salary, was what it would take to woo Benny and they were right. They later convinced him to appear on CBS television in a series of monthly specials beginning in 1950.
By 1953, The Jack Benny Program was a weekly television fan-favorite. Benny and his radio cast transitioned perfectly to the video medium managing to generate laughs on both radio and television. With audiences abandoning radio for TV, Benny dropped his radio series in 1955, continuing with the weekly television program for another decade. If you miss his radio series, you can still find them on Classic Radio Club.
After reviewing countless episodes of Benny’s classic television program, one word best describes the situation comedy: brilliance. Perhaps his most famous gag was the night he walked home and was confronted out of the darkness by a robber who barked: “Your money or your life.” Benny, hands in the air, did a slow deadpan look towards the audience. After a few seconds of silence from the victim, the robber with a gun in hand repeated his demand. “Look, Bud, I said your money or your life!” “I’m thinking it over!” responded Benny.
Benny’s later years
To add to his resume of laughs, Benny made a guest appearance on the popular quiz program, The $64,000 Question. After answering the first question correctly, Jack Benny quit and took home the $1.00 prize. In the summer of 1965, Jack Benny decided it was time to retire from television. This decision was later reinforced when one evening, toward the end of his television run, he was waiting for his pre-recorded show to air and began watching Bonanza, which started a half-hour before his show on a rival network. He wound up missing his own TV show and later remarked, “If I won’t even watch me, what chance do I have?”
Throughout the late sixties and early seventies, Jack Benny was convinced by NBC to star in a series of “farewell” television specials, with celebrity guests including Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, George Burns, and Dinah Shore, among others. The cast of his radio and television program also made appearances, recounting their fond days of weekly comedic breakups. On one of those television specials, Benny was presented with an award and the comedian remarked: “I don’t deserve this, but I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that, either.”
Through the years, Benny and his program garnered eight Emmys. Jack Benny, the accomplished violinist, performed with more than 80 symphony orchestras raising millions for charities. During World War II, he entertained U.S. troops by performing in Africa, the Middle East, Italy, Australia, and the Pacific Islands, among many other places. In 1951 he spent six weeks in Korea entertaining the troops. At his funeral in 1974, George Burns began the eulogy and broke down. Bob Hope rose to the podium and in a shaky voice honored the comedian by finishing the text, “for a man who was the undisputed master of comedy timing, you’d have to say that this was the only time when Jack Benny’s timing was all wrong. He left us much too soon.”
Do you remember classic radio shows such as Abbott & Costello and the “Who’s On First” sketch, The Jack Benny Program, Gunsmoke, Suspense, Inner Sanctum Mystery, and more? We’ve partnered with The Classic Radio Club to bring you this article on Jack Benny
Carl Amari is the producer/host of the nationally-syndicated nostalgia radio series “Hollywood 360” and the curator of the Classic Radio Club at www.classicradioclub.com. This article is sponsored by Classic Radio Club