Introducing – Jack
125 years ago, in 1894, a blue-eyed baby named Benjamin Kubelski was born. He would grow up to be one of the world’s most beloved comedians – Jack Benny. He was given the gift of a violin at an early age and his parents had hopes that he would grow up to be a concert violinist. His career, however, took a different turn.
This is one of those blogs that was very difficult for me to write. I know that many readers may not even know who Jack Benny is. Because of this fact, I thought maybe I should write a “biography” type blog. On the other hand, when I think of Jack Benny, I think of the way he broke ground on the way comedy was done. His shows really were the early blueprints from which modern day sitcoms were based on. I don’t know that this blog will fit into either one of those formats.
Even after sitting and pondering, I still really don’t know how this is all going to come together. So let me apologize up front for what may be a very disorganized writing about one of the greatest comedians to ever live. A man who was loved by so many probably deserves a blog with much more structure. I hope you can still walk away from this blog with a greater appreciation for an amazing entertainer.
Evolution of his character
If you were to go back and watch an early episode of Seinfeld, Friends, or any sitcom for that matter, you would notice how “different” some of the main characters are. Their idiosyncrasies, their personality traits, their quirks, mannerisms and what “made” them who they are and who you THINK they are, have not fully developed. Those things developed over time. The same is true of Jack’s character.
If you are unfamiliar with Jack’s persona, here is a partial list:
- He was always 39. His birthday was always in question.
- He was cheap. He did not like to spend money and hoarded it in a vault in his home.
- He was a terrible violin player.
- He was a bad actor and made bad movies (The Horn Blows at Midnight)
- He drove an old Maxwell car.
The aspects of his character were things that developed over time. He wasn’t always cheap, for example. Jack once said that they wrote a gag about him being cheap and it got a big laugh, so they wrote another joke the following week. The more jokes about it, the cheaper he was perceived in real life. The truth is, in real life, Jack was a very generous man.
Jack understood that “extremes are funny”. Take something that is grossly exaggerated and it can be a funny bit. Examples of this are the fact that on the show he had a pet ostrich and polar bear! One of the great bits about his cheapness, which is considered to be one of the biggest laughs on radio, took his cheapness to the extreme. Jack is walking down the street at night when he is asked by a stranger for a match. The stranger then pulls a gun on Jack and says, “This is a stick up. Your money or your life!” A master of comedic timing, Jack pauses (the audience begins to chuckle in anticipation), and the crook gets inpatient. “Look, bud,” the stranger yells, “I said your money or your life.” Jack simply replies, “I’m thinking it over!” Comedy brilliance!!!
His violin playing was also always made fun of on the show. Mel Blanc (the voice of Bugs Bunny) often played Professor LeBlanc, Jack’s French violin teacher (using a voice that was similar to Pepe LePew). Many shows consisted of Jack during a violin lesson and playing badly. He once stated in an interview that it was harder to play bad than to play normal! While he was no concert violinist, he was a good one. Over the years, he raised millions of dollars doing benefit orchestra concerts. However, he’ll always be remembered as a terrible violin player.
During one lesson, his teacher yells, “Mr. Benny, please! A violin has a heart and a soul. You’ve already broken its heart – have pity on its soul!” Another time, while describing Jack’s playing, he says that the “bow is made of horse hair and catgut. In order to describe your playing, picture a cat being stepped on by a horse”.
As I said, the traits developed over time. Jack wasn’t always 39 … until he got there. Once he got there, he stayed there! Jokes surrounding his age were plentiful on the show. They often joked that he was so old, he was friends with famous people from history. Jokes about the number of times the year had been erased from his birth certificate and his driver’s license were other ways to establish this major part of his character. In his New York Times obituary in 1974, it was pointed out that “decades of insistence on the air that he was only 39 years old, made the joke better than cornier” calling it one of “show business’s most durable hits.”
If there was every anyone who was a master of comedic timing, it was Jack Benny. It was something that he mastered in his time on the Vaudeville stage. He knew just how to pace himself. Timing was effortless for him. He seemed to know the perfect time to tell a joke and when he should remain silent. Sometimes, the silence brought more laughs than the joke itself. As with the “money or your life bit”, in many cases the anticipation of the line …. preceded by silence … made the audience laugh before the joke was even finished! This was due to great material – and the establishment of Benny’s character.
Jack was a different kind of comedian. Bob Hope, Red Skelton, and Milton Berle often got on the air and told joke after joke after joke. They would tell three jokes to Jack’s one. Jack was meticulous in how a show was prepared. He was involved in the entire process. He very rarely ever strayed from the script unless there was a flub. He was very serious during the writing and rehearsing. He was detail oriented and hired very good writers who knew how to write things based on his character or the others on his show.
The Joke’s on Him
One of the most admirable things about Jack is that he was one of the first comedians to let others share the laughs. So many comedians needed to be the center of attention. They needed to be the star. Jack and his writers often gave the best lines to the other people on the show. His co-stars Mary Livingstone, Don Wilson, Dennis Day, Rochester, and Phil Harris (to name a few) became big stars because of this. The cast of his show often told jokes that made Jack the butt of the jokes.
As I mentioned before, his show was the predecessor of today’s modern day sitcoms. Each character had their own persona. For example, Phil Harris was a playboy bandleader who was often drunk. Don Wilson was a big man and so his weight and eating habits were poked fun of. Dennis Day was an adult who was a dimwit. He was child like and he played it to the hilt. Rochester was one of the first African American stars on radio (in an era where many African American roles were played by white actors).
It should be noted here that Jack Benny, his cast, and his writers were creating entertainment over half a century ago. During this time cultural norms were very accepting of great amounts of racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia (a dislike or prejudice of people from other countries). It is important to remember that the show was a product of its time, much like many of the cartoons made during that time. It should also be noted that while Rochester’s role on the show was that of a butler/valet and stereotypical, Jack was very good friends with him. While their radio show was on the road, the cast was slated to stay at a certain hotel. When they refused to give Rochester a room because of his color, Jack took his entire cast to another hotel.
With the dawn of television, Jack embraced the new medium. At first, he did a show every six weeks. Then he did one every four weeks. As time went on, he did TV more frequently. Sometimes, the writers would adapt a radio script for a TV show. One of these is the classic Christmas Shopping episode. Mel Blanc plays a clerk that Jack buys a wallet from. At first he has to chose between a cheap wallet or an expensive one. It is for Don Wilson, who has been with him a long time, so he opts for the more expensive one. Over the next 25 minutes, he is constantly back bugging the clerk to change the card he wrote for Don, to sign the new card, and eventually, change the wallet. Blanc’s performance is priceless and even cracks Jack up.
There were some challenges with the move to TV. On radio, it was “theater of the mind”. Listeners would hear Jack going down the steps to his vault, with Jack describing his steps (“watch out for the aligators”, etc). To a listener, the vault was HUGE and had all kinds of booby traps, and such. How do you show that on TV? He still was a great success bringing on big stars like Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, and Marilyn Monroe. In many cases, the play on extremes led to some very funny visuals! After the TV show went off the air, he did many specials. He did “Farewell Specials”, “Anniversary Specials” and more. The last special aired shortly before his death.
Jack on Humor
He was called the comedian’s comedian because they could all make him laugh. His best friend, George Burns, could make him laugh by just looking at him. George would look at him and say, “Why are you laughing, I didn’t do anything.” Jack would reply, “Yeah, but you did it on purpose!” George called him “the greatest audience”. When he laughed, he was often laughing so hard, he’d fall on the floor.
In 1968, Jack said, “To become successful your public must have a feeling like, ‘Gee, I like this fella. I wish he were a good friend of mine.'” This is one of the great principles that we were taught in radio – “be a friend to your listener.” There is no doubt that lots of people liked that “fella.”
In reading things for this blog, a great nugget that I found was Jack’s thoughts on comedy. He believed that comedy is based on 7 principles, and he used every one of them often during his career. Those principles were: 1) The joke 2) Exaggeration 3) Ridicule 4) Ignorance 5) Surprise 6) The pun and 7) The comic situation. Jack once said, “Never laugh at the other fellow; let him laugh at you. I try to make my character encompass about everything that is wrong with everybody. On the air, I have everybody’s faults. All listeners know someone or have a relative who is a tightwad, a show-off or something of that sort. Then in their minds, I become a real character.” With those principles and attitude – he became a comedy giant!
The following “rules” Jack used could be applicable today in any sitcom or radio show. Rule 1: Don’t just rattle off a litany of old jokes. Instead, create conversations between the speakers and characters on the show. Real conversations lead to great comedy situations. Rule 2: Let your speakers unique personalities and voices shine as individual, quirky characters. Listeners will get to know them, and hence, build a relationship with them and connect with them. Rule 3: Don’t be afraid to turn the humor on yourself. His character was a self-confident braggart often, and usually made a fool of himself in the process. Jack said that with a character like that, you laugh at him, but you also pity him a little, too.
One piece I read stated that Jack’s radio character “suffered all the indignities of the powerless patriarch in modern society – fractious workplace family, battles with obnoxious sales clerks, guff from his butler, the withering disrespect of his sponsor, every woman he met, and Hollywood society. And yet, he was a lovable schlemiel.” Think of how he can be compared to modern sitcom characters like Jerry Seinfeld, and others!
What others thought of Jack
Comedian Don Knotts said, “My idol was Jack Benny and he was the master of subtlety and timing.”
Comedian Bob Newhart said, “Jack Benny was, without a doubt, the bravest comedian I’ve ever seen work. he wasn’t afraid of silence. He would take as long as it took to tell a story.”
Bob Hope said at Jack’s funeral, “For a man who is the undisputed master of comedy timing, you’d have to say this was only time when Jack Benny’s timing was all wrong. He left us much too soon. He was stingy to the end. He only gave us eighty years and it wasn’t enough.”
After Jack passed away, President Gerald Ford said, “If laughter is the music of the soul, Jack and his violin and his good humor have made life better for all men.”
What I think of Jack
Jack passed away when I was 4 years old. Thanks to my dad, I was introduced to old radio shows early in my childhood. The Jack Benny Program was one of those shows he played for us. Growing up there was a show called “When Radio Was” that aired on one of the radio stations at night and we’d listen to old shows every night. The Benny shows always were a treat.
When we got cable, I don’t recall if it was WGN or WTBS, but one of them aired old Jack Benny TV shows at night. That was the first I ever saw of them. They still make me laugh even though I have seen them numerous times. In high school, as a senior, I took an elective class called “Life in America”. It had an entire unit on Jack Benny. We watched one of the tribute specials (which is still available on YouTube) called “A Love Letter to Jack Benny” and another called “Jack Benny: Comedy in Bloom”. They are two specials that I would highly recommend if you are a fan. They are loving done and wonderful tributes to a man who brought many laughs to the world while he was alive, and still brings laughs long after he has left us.
Happy 39th Birthday, Jack!
6 thoughts on “The Comedian’s Comedian”
Vaudeville really trained those old comedians to be great. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Jack, Harpo, and George Burns. I have started to look more up on Benny and I love what I see.
I reread “Harpo Speaks” from time to time and it has some great stories.
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I have been searching for Harpo Speaks for a while. Just need to break down and buy it online
Mary Livingstone’s book on Jack and his partial autobiography (completed a few years ago by his daughter, Joan) Sunday Nights at Seven are both very good.
One of my favorite episodes had Raymond Burr as a guest star. Jack is on trial for murder and Perry Mason is his lawyer. In the sketch, Perry is a terrible lawyer. Jack is frustrated and says, “What’s wrong with you, Perry, you never lose a case” to which Burr replies, “Maybe my writers are better than yours!”
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“Maybe my writers are better than yours!” that is classic.
I will look for the Livingstone book.
Great post by the way.
I already recommended Harpo Speaks to you so I’m sorry… That is one book I reccomend to everyone .
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Thank you for writing and posting this, Keith. When you hear the banter between Jack and his array of guests on his radio and TV shows, what seems to always come through is their respect for his talent, regardless of the comedy routine. Such stars as Basil Rathbone, Edward G. Robinson, Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Louis Armstrong, and even Sarah Churchill, Winston’s daughter, gave the impression they were thrilled to be asked to appear on his shows. Nowadays, TV hosts make such a fuss over big stars who walk onto their stage, and in turn, the celebrities usually give the impression that we viewers are so lucky that they took the time to appear. Jack’s stage had the ring of authenticity, a rare quality, even then.
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Thanks for reading, Steve. I agree, there was a great respect for Jack. His guests knew they would be given great material and he always made them look great!