Jack Benny Tries To Tell A JokeWatch
Jack Benny Birthday Special '69Watch
Dean Martin Celebrity Roast ~ Jack BennyWatch
|2006||EMI Comedy: Benny, Burns & Allen|
|2006||Legends of Radio: The Ultimate Jack Benny Collection|
|2005||Radio Stars of America|
|2002||EMi Comedy - Jack Benny|
No specials by this comedian.
|2002||The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America|
|1990||Sunday Nights at Seven: The Jack Benny Story
Co-Author: Joan Benny
|1977||The Jack Benny show
by Milt Josefsberg
One of America’s most beloved comedians, Jack Benny’s style boils down to the first line he ever uttered on radio. In1932, on Ed Sullivan’s local WHN show in New York, he said, “This is Jack Benny talking. There will be a slight pause while you say, “Who Cares.”
The timing of his lines and his mild chagrin at being the butt of the jokes were keys to his enduring success. In stand-up he was one of the first “natural” comedians, coming out in a suit and tie and telling jokes in a conversational manner. On radio and television Benny was a pioneer “reaction” comedian—getting laughs more from the way sidekicks deflated his vanity and satirized his stinginess than from any wisecracks uttered in return. Some of his most memorable laughs came from reaction lines. His answer to “Your money or your life” was just a sublimely timed “I’m thinking it over.” He topped a Fred Allen insult with chagrin: “You wouldn’t have said that if my writers were here.”
Born in Chicago but raised in Waukegan, Jack studied the violin and in his late teens was an accompanist for a local vaudeville house. He was offered a job as accompanist to the young Marx Brothers but his parents made him turn it down. Eventually they let Jack team with a safe, motherly 40 year-old pianist named Cora Salisbury. Eventually Benny became a solo performer. His stage name at the time was Ben Benny, but entertainer Ben Bernie complained.
From “Ben Benny, Fiddle Funology” he became “Jack Benny, Aristocrat of Humor,” adopting a breezy, sophisticated air. He even sang an occasional novelty tune like the prohibition lament “After This Country Goes Dry, Goodbye Wild Women, Goodbye.” He was featured in a Broadway show called “The Great Temptations” but the Herald Tribune called him just “a pleasant imitation of Phil Baker.” In early films like “The Big Broadcast of 1937” he’s rather slick and self-assured, and in many he’s smooth and sarcastic, especially “George Washington Slept Here,” where he wisecracks and slow-burns his way through the story of a man roughing it in a falling-down suburban home. Year after year he developed and refined the self-deprecating patter and fall-guy personality that would win him sympathetic laughs.
In 1932 Benny got his own radio show, but his peak years began in the middle and late 30’s. By the time he had assembled a cast of supporting players that included his wife Mary Livingstone (whom he married in1927), announcer Don Wilson, band leader Phil Harris, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Dennis Day and Mel Blanc. Almost all got an equal chance to toss verbal stones at the fragile glass targets of Jack’s preening narcicissm and woeful thrift.
Known to be one of the nicest men in show business, the one thing that truly bothered Jack was fans thinking he really was a tightwad. At one point he ordered his writers to cut down the “cheap jokes” to one per show. Only in retrospect was it remotely amusing to him when, after having failed to return a full bottle for a urine specimen, his nurse angrily remarked, “You never give anything away, do you!”
While other radio comedians burned out quickly with boisterous jokes and wild catch-phrases, Benny guided his writers into well thought-out scripts that often included running gags from week to week. His catch-phrases were too mild to wear out their welcome—his fidgety, frustrated “Now cut that out!” or his contemplative “Hmmmm.”
Benny was a pioneer in building and topping the laughs, taking one gag and sprouting several more from it—then twisting back to get a few more in before the surprise finish. A typical example from an old radio show:
“When I started in radio, I was 22.”
“What are you talking about? I knew you then and you had gray hair.”
“Don, I was born with gray hair. I was worried about the doctor bill. I’m glad I didn’t pay him. Slapping me when my back is turned. And Don, after all these years who do you think is sitting in the audience this very moment?”
“No, his lawyer. The case comes up in court Wednesday.”
Benny remained on radio through 1955. While he often joked about his limited film success, he did star in at least one authentic classic, “To Be Or Not To Be” with Carole Lombard. His television shows, in various formats, lasted from 1950 to 1965. Benny was a regular visitor into American homes for over thirty years, rarely missing even one week. An exception was the Sunday after Carole Lombard’s plane crash. Jack couldn’t bring himself to perform the show. Another time, on Yom Kippur, Jack balked at performing. He told his writers that it wasn’t because he himself was especially religious. He said, “I wouldn’t like the Gentiles to think I didn’t respect my religion.”
In the 60’s Benny continued to perform regularly in TV specials and on talk shows. On a “Dick Cavett Show” he mentioned one of his greatest sources of pride—the school in Waukegan named after him. The sports team was “The 39’ers,” a reference to one of Benny’s longest running gags—his vainglorious insistence on being 39. Remarkably, Benny looked fairly close to 39 or 49 even when he was in his 70’s. He was performing almost to the end, always a big draw at live concerts around the country.
At his death, President Ford wrote, “If laughter is the music of the soul, Jack and his violin and his good humor have made life better for all men.”