Confessions of a Fifteen-Year-Old Film Historian
By Locksley Camille Hooker
(From left to right, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, Dennis Day, Phil Harris, Mary Livingston, Jack Benny, Don Wilson, and Mel Blanc)
Welcome to the second installment of my column!
Today I am happy to introduce one of my all-time favorite radio performers and comedians: Jack Benny. You’ve probably seen an impression of him at least once, maybe without knowing it. The easiest one consists of slapping your hand against your cheek and saying “Well!” in an exasperated voice. Jack Benny’s character is an easy one to remember; only one thing really distinguished him: He was cheap. Really, really, cheap. He was also petty, vain, argumentative, and in his own mind, always right. Doesn’t sound like the kind of person who anyone would want to listen to week after week on the radio, does it? But the fact that the character Jack Benny wrote for himself was such a flawed one was part of the thing that singled him out from other comedians: When Jack Benny wrote jokes, he was always the butt of them.
His show was a mixture of endless inside jokes: Jack’s ancient Maxwell car that sputtered and gagged and never got anywhere, the polar bear that guarded his money safe, his perpetual self proclaimed age of 39, his on-going feud with fellow comedian Fred Allen (in real life a close friend) and above all, the riffing he received from his co-workers Mary Livingston (his real-life wife till death), Phil Harris, Don Wilson, Dennis Day and his faithful butler Rochester. All had their distinguishing quirky personalities, all were under-paid by Jack, and all consistently got the better of him.
In real life, the people who knew Jack Benny called him one of the most generous and friendly men in Hollywood. He was born on February 14, 1894 to a strict but not entirely orthodox Jewish-Polish family. His father owned a haberdashery in Waukegan, Illinois. Being the only child of the family meant that his parents, his mother Emma in particular, had high ambitions for him: even before he was born she insisted that he would be a famous violinist. And she was right; he became famous for playing the violin badly. At an early age Jack became interested in show business. Skipping school to attend Vaudeville shows and silent movies eventually got him expelled. In 1912, Jack went on the road for the first time, finally obtaining permission from his family who thought show business a low-brow profession. After changing his name twice to avoid lawsuits (it was originally Benjamin Kubelsky), and evolving his act from violin numbers to violin numbers with jokes, to eventually just jokes, Jack received a following that lasted past the death of Vaudeville into a successful radio career; and past radio, a successful television show from 1950 to 1965.
Aside from his familiar characters, running gags and situation comedies, another one of Jack Benny’s trademarks was his ability to use silence better than any joke. Very often someone might feed him an obvious build up line, like “Do you think I can sing?” and instead of a witty comeback, Jack would simply fold his arms, look at the audience, and say nothing. This worked equally well on radio, the audience exploding into laughter imagining his benign look.
One of his most famous ‘cheap’ routines happened when he was held up by a robber. “It’s your money or your life!” he demanded. There was silence “Well?!” asked the frustrated criminal. “I’m thinking it over!” was Jack Benny’s famous reply. I remember listening to Jack Benny from an early age, usually in the car with my dad, or while we worked together in the kitchen. Not only was the show funny even when I was that small (progressively as I got older) but the familiar characters and advertisements and music gave the whole thing a familiar family-feel that made listening to them into something of a tradition. Jack’s unassuming pleasure in presenting the show stemmed from both the facts that he enjoyed what he did so much, and that he was more than a little insecure about his humor. So fittingly, I end with the demure line on which he started his first radio broadcast:
“Hello folks, this is Jack Benny talking. There will be a slight pause while everyone says ‘who cares?’…”
Sunday Nights At Seven: The Jack Benny Story, by Jack Benny and Joan Benny, 1996, Warner Books.
That’s Not All Folks: My Life in the Golden Age of Cartoon and Radio, by Mel Blanc and Philip Bashe, 1988, Warner Books.