Copyright (c) (2017) by Kathleen Spaltro
All Rights Reserved
Jack Benny built a good living and a solid career on the flimsy foundation of sheer pretense. He pretended to be vain, miserly, and ornery, and he pretended to be oblivious about these failings. The character "Jack Benny," our self-absorbed Uncle Jack, enlarged our own traits in a mirror turned on ourselves. His embodiment so exaggerated our faults into absurdity that, by laughing at Benny, we also laughed at our own silliness.
Benny mastered the humor of self-deprecation. If he played the violin, his butler Rochester van Jones (Eddie Anderson) cautioned that rope should not be nearby to tempt any listeners. If Benny invited guests to his home, they put coins in his vending machines, such as the lamp that sold penny candy. If Benny reluctantly dragged out some coins in payment, suction in his pocket held the coins back. If Benny went out of town for 10 days, he pawned his parrot to get free room and board for the bird. If Benny boasted about his cleverness in buying a beautifully tailored suit in Hong Kong for $17, the lapels, pockets, and sleeves fell off as he demonstrated his mastery of the violin.
Oblivious to his own orneriness, Benny maddened a department store clerk whom he badgered into repeatedly rewrapping an uncharacteristically generous Christmas gift. In the "Christmas Shopping Show," Mel Blanc hilariously conveyed the growing despair of the clerk. (The voice of many Warner Brothers cartoon characters, Blanc also impersonated Benny's parrot and "the Maxwell," Benny's elderly—manufactured no later than 1925—and barely functioning car, as it coughed itself into starting.)
While Blanc's clerk submitted to Benny despairingly, more frequently Benny got no respect from store clerks, phone operators, or plumbers. With a pained look at the audience, a "put-upon" expression, and the drawn-out, indignant exclamation "Well!," Benny would fold his arms, place his hand on his chin, and eventually saunter away with his trademark swaying, mincing walk, "like Theda Bara," the "vamp" of American silent movies.
The audience expected "Jack Benny" to be cheap, vain, fussy, bad at violin playing, and oblivious, and the audience never tired of Benny's re-enactments of these faults. Forever 39 years old, Benny locked his savings in a vault located in a dungeon guarded by a crocodile and a Confederate soldier who had never learned of the end of the Civil War. Most famously, he prolonged a hesitating response to a hold-up demanding "Your money or your life!" Several minutes of "dead air time" later, the audience was speechless with hilarity.
Benny recycled this durable material from vaudeville and radio into the movies and then into television. Born as Benny Kubelsky, he had begun his entertainment career in vaudeville with violin playing; his childhood violin lessons got him a job in ninth grade as a violinist for the orchestra of the vaudeville house in his Waukegan neighborhood. (His lifelong friendship with the Marx Brothers began there in 1911.) In the Navy during World War One, Benny entertained his fellow sailors at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Waukegan with comedy routines. By 1921, he was focusing on his vaudeville career as comedian "Jack Benny."
An advertising account executive for Canada Dry who had heard Benny perform during a 1932 appearance on a 15-minute radio program hosted by "New York Daily News" Broadway columnist Ed Sullivan recruited Benny to be the emcee of the CBS Radio "Canada Dry Ginger Ale Program." By the end of 1932, he was voted "Most Popular Comedian on the Air." Other sponsored radio shows followed on CBS and NBC: "Chevrolet Program," "General Tire Revue," General Foods's "Jell-O Program" and "Grape Nuts Flakes Program," and American Tobacco's "Lucky Strike Program."
Benny still did radio programs while he was trying out television on a local affiliate station in 1949-50 and on his first network TV show on 28 October 1950. His last new radio program (for Lucky Strike) aired in 1955. With his concentration now on his CBS TV show, Benny won a 1957 Emmy Award, and his program in 1958 won the Emmy for Best Comedy Series. TV sponsors included American Tobacco's Lucky Strike (1950–59), Lever Brothers' Lux (1959–60), State Farm Insurance (1960–65), Lipton Tea (1960–62), General Foods's Jell-O (1962–64), and Miles Laboratories (1964–65).
With his ratings slipping in the 1960s, CBS did not renew Benny's contract at the end of the 1963-64 season, and he went to NBC on a 1-year contract. His last regular TV program aired in 1965; TV specials and guest appearances followed during his last decade of life.
A kindly and gentle, not oblivious man, Benny was actually not cheap but very generous. The benefit concerts that he did with orchestras raised $6 million for orchestras worldwide. (He also gave $1 million to an actors' retirement home.) Concert audiences came for the "Jack Benny" that they half-knew was a fiction but wanted to laugh at anyway. Benny joked that, during these benefit concerts, the more expensive seats were the furthest from the stage on which he played his violin: "When I give concerts, the tickets sell for $5 to $100, but for my concerts the $5 seats are down in front . . . the further back you go, the more you have to pay. The $100 seats are the last 2 rows, and those tickets go like hotcakes! In fact, if you pay $200 you don't have to come at all."
First published in The Woodstock Independent