In the summer of 65 the Beatles were playing at the Hollywood Bowl. I had a chance to get a ticket but passed because it conflicted with another show I wanted to see more – Jack Benny was at the Sahara’s Hotel in Vegas.
Jack Benny is my comedy God. He’s been gone for over thirty years, comedy has evolved and changed since then but he remains my inspiration. And it’s hard to explain why if you’re not already familiar with him. For the most part he just stood stiffly on a stage. He rarely told jokes. He never did impressions. And yet no one could make me laugh like Jack Benny.
If the secret of comedy is timing, Jack Benny was the master. He could get a two minute sustained laugh from just a reaction – ON THE RADIO.
He started in vaudeville, hosted a top rated weekly radio program in the 30s and 40s, then moved seamlessly into television. He created a very specific persona for himself. Benny was supposedly very cheap. (In truth he was anything but.) He kept his money buried below his house in a vault with enough safeguards to keep Indiana Jones out. He was vain. Whenever asked, he claimed he was always 39. He considered himself as a virtuoso violinist although his playing sounded like a cat being tortured.
Furthermore, Benny created a whole world around him – much like SEINFELD. Wherever he went he seemed to be harassed by the same goofy characters. It was as if there was a conspiracy. His reaction to all of this, his exasperation and unflagging comic dignity made it all hysterically funny.
Unlike Robin Williams who would suck the air out of any room, Benny was extremely generous when it came to his supporting cast. Most of the time they had the big jokes and often at his expense. Even from “Rochester”, a black butler, pretty groundbreaking in those unenlightened days.
He was respectful and appreciative of his writers as well. Most stayed with him for over twenty years.
There’s one episode of his radio show that I think perfectly captures just who Jack Benny was. You’re on a bus being given a tour of Hollywood. For a half hour the driver points out various stars homes along with funny remarks and observations. Finally, 25 minutes into the program he announces, “Here is the home of Mr. Jack Benny.” Benny then says, “Driver, this is where I get off.” The next four minutes is just laughter. Jack had one line the entire show. But it was so set up by the world and the character he played.
Here are two examples of Jack Benny. The first features Frank Nelson as a department store floorwalker. Wherever Benny went he would encounter this guy.
And here's Groucho guesting on his show. At the time, Groucho hosted a weekly quiz show called YOU BET YOUR LIFE. In this sketch Benny poses as a contestant.
I made the right choice. That night at Sahara's he was sensational. No one who went to the Beatles concert could hear a note.