Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Jack Benny

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.

64 comments:

John said...

If I remember right, Ken, your first season writing for M*A*S*H, when the show aired in reruns in the summer of 1977 CBS aired some of the best Benny episodes right before it (the shows aired because Benny having died the previous December). Did you ever get a chance to tell anyone that one of your episodes would be on right after "The Jack Benny Program"?

(And, yes, M*A*S*H was funny, but I remember the episode CBS aired that summer, where Jack was trying to get out of his house and then out of town by train for New York was hysterical -- and as you said, Benny was confident enough to allow the best lines to all go to the supporting characters, with Jack being the target of most of them).

Allen said...

i was introduced to jack benny by my ex-gf's dad...while some stuff didn't do it for me (hey i'm in my mid-20's), I truly found the man funny.

Bobarino said...

Great stuff! Thanks.

VP81955 said...

One great investment for anyone interested in comedy is picking up mp3 discs of Jack Benny's radio program. There are several hundred episodes available, and while some of the situations are dated, they remain gold. Writing, characterization, setup -- it's all there, and for only a few bucks.

eChuckler said...

Jack Benny is one of my favorite old-time-radio comedies. Of course, any discussion of Jack Benny isn't complete without drudging up this famous exchange:

Thug: "Your money or your life?"
Benny: "I'm thinking it over!"

Anonymous said...

He's always funny. And of course you're right, aside from the timing, it was the persona he and his writers created and faithfully maintained. I've been a fan since I was a little kid. I often saw him walking around Beverly Hills. He had that familiar stride we all knew from watching him on tv.

For my 39th birthday, my wife surprised me with a "Jack Benny" party. When I entered the room, all of the guests were wearing Benny masks. Later, impressionist Eddie Carroll dropped in.

Although, as you're probably aware, Benny spent many years in Vaudeville, it was radio that made him a household name -- but it took a few years for that to happen. If you catch any of his early movie roles you'll see that he's a wisecracking straight man. In radio, he made an amazing transformation that assured him a long career. I believe he worked right up to the time he became ill.

robinz said...

I remember in the early to mid '60s (when I was little) in Seattle they played his show at very odd hours. I was forever sneaking up out of bed and finding myself watching his show. I didn't understand the persona was an invention until much later but I liked him very much even at that age. He made me laugh. I also like the WB cartoon they did of him as a mouse.

thehardmenpath said...

So that's where the "Yes" secondary character from the Simpsons comes from?

Great Big Radio Guy said...

"Why do you talk like that?"
"I had a STROOOOOKE!"

I've been doing Frank Nelson impersonations since I was five. I never did a Jack Benny impersonation. He was truly generous, as you said, Ken. You learned timing from the best.

Jack was like the fun uncle in your family. When he walked into the room, you weren't sure what was going to happen, but you knew it would be a hoot.

pat reeder said...

One of the reasons I'm happy I found this blog (aside from the fact that I'm also a comedy writer) is because of essays like this that help to introduce some of my heroes to younger generations. When I was a kid, growing up in rural Texas, we still had a black & white TV, and we were isolated enough that I didn't realize W.C. Fields, Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, Abbott & Costello, etc., were all way before my time, and therefore, not cool and worthy of my attention. I accepted them all as contemporary and devoured all their films, begging my mom to let me get up at midnight to watch them if I'd take a nap that day (bless her memory, she always agreed -- even for Mae West!)

Nothing against today's comedians, but if you are a younger reader, please do yourself a favor: look past the Adam Sandler/Jim Carrey shelf at the video store and explore some of the comedy masters. I promise, watching something in black and white won't kill you. Unless you watch "Duck Soup" and laugh yourself to death.

Geoduck said...

Thug: "Your money or your life?"
Benny: "I'm thinking it over!"


It was the timing in this joke that made it the classic it was..

Thug: Your money or your life!

(eternally long pause. Finally..)

Thug: Well?!
Benny: I'm thinking! I'm thinking!

Willy B. Good said...

I love listening to those old radio shows as Jack Benny and Fred Allen are classics and their feud sure makes Rosie and Donald seem pathetic.

DodgerGirl said...

Hey was that Celeste Holm in the "You Bet Your Life" clip?

Groucho and Jack Benny sure looked like they had some fun playing off each other. Thanks for sharing the clips!

Unkystan said...

That is character actress Elvia Allman in the "You Bet Your Life" spoof. Why aren't more Benny shows available? Benny was the best!

Jason said...

I was introduced to Jack Benny by my grandparents when we'd listen to cassettes of the show driving around the country. My grandfather went to high school with Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson so there was even a bit of a personal connection.

A lot of the old radio shows are available as mp3s on benny.crispy.com

Mr. Hollywood said...

One of the great thrills of my life was interviewing Benny for CBS. He lived in a huge mansion across the street from the Playboy mansion (which I found very funny in itself). He wasn't feeling well that day but still did the interview in his bedroom in his robe. Just Jack and me. He worried that I was going to be deprived of lunch and made sure we had something to eat. As sweet and unassuming as could be for an icon. So sad that many of today's kids have no idea who he is or what his humor was.
Ken, he was the best and to this day I am thrilled I got to spend a few hours with him!

David said...

I'm the only college-age youth I know with a collection of Jack Benny radio tapes.

He was certainly the master of deadpan reaction. Were it not for him, there would be no Bob Newhart, no Dave Foley on NewsRadio, no Jason Bateman on Arrested Development.

ted said...

I heard that Benny was the first radio star to credit his writers by name every week. And paid them high salaries. Pretty generous stuff for the cheapest man in town.

He wasn't just the straight man with the other goofy characters - he was the villain! Cheap, van, nasty, stupid, untalented - the more Benny and his writeres piled on, the funnier it was. What comedian today would make himself look so bad just for the laugh?

Gail Renard said...

I always knew you had taste, Ken. Jack Benny was The Master and also, it seems, a mensche. Am I the only one who thinks Kelsey Grammar's delivery seems very Benny? The hurt dignity and pauses; with his jaw jutting out? And I'm glad Willy B Good mentioned Fred Allen as well; a forgotten genius, who wrote a lot of his own material. Let's hope Jack and Fred are continuing their radio feud in comedy heaven!

jbryant said...

Gail: In the 2007 Kenny Awards thread, I wrote, "Without Jack Benny, there'd have been no Kelsey Grammer (or at least a very different Kelsey Grammer). Actually, I'd be interested to know how much of Frasier Crane's "Jack Benny-ness" was in the original conception of the character and how much was Grammer's homage to his comic idol. Or maybe you'd rather save that question, Ken, for some future Benny thread." Oh, Ken...

pat reeder: I had much the same experience as you (in small-town Kentucky) -- all those greats you mentioned were dead or effectively retired at that time, but my friends and I never thought about that. They were simply funny. They weren't before our time; they were, and are, timeless.

John Nunnemacher said...

I was pointed to this entry by a friend ... I'm a HUGE fan of Jack Benny, especially his radio show.

One major comment: I'm SO glad to see someone else make the Seinfeld connection! Even in its heydey I often tried to point out to friends that Seinfeld felt like the Jack Benny of its day: A show about a comedian played by a comedian, concerning the day-to-day events surrounding him and his network of wacky friends. I now feel vindicated. :)

Anonymous said...

And let's not forget Jack's influence on Carson.

I met Mr. Benny towards the end of his life. My sister and I watched him in a concert in Valley Forge, Pa. We just had to go backstage afterwords, however nervous. I did my impression of him (one of the best, if I do say so, ever since my voice changed)while my sister was so overcome with emotion seeing him up close, she started crying and hugged him. After a few beats, he said to me, "Do you want to kiss me to?" We then watched as he held the hand of what I remember to be a youngish female assistant, did a little skip in the air (at 80) went into his limo... and 4 months later he was gone.

Anonymous said...

I meant "afterwards."

The Curmudgeon said...

The game show clip had me with tears in my eyes I was laughing so hard. The look in Groucho's eyes... "for $3,000"... and Benny's reaction... how can anyone today hope to develop a character as thoroughly that you laugh from two different eye rolls?

And, speaking of Fred Allen, there was another game show parody that Benny did while a guest on Allen's show: "King For A Day" wherein Benny lost his pants, right there on the radio.

Benny: You haven't seen the end of me!

Allen: But I will soon!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ken for the treat. As a kid I couldn't appreciate Jack Benny but now as an adult I wish we could clone him and put him back on TV.
Where are the great talents today? Glad to see Kelsey Grammer coming back. Hope FOX doesn't ruin it.

Bill

Rick said...

I once was talking to a concert promoter from Texas who had booked Jack Benny for an appearance the night Bobby Kennedy was shot. Jack's contract stipulated he be paid even if the concert was for some reason cancelled.
Of course, it was cancelled. Jack walked into the promoter's office to pick up the check. As he voiced his worry about the future of America, with tears in his eyes, he tore up the check and threw it into the waste basket. Now that is class ... Benny style!

Anonymous said...

I knew and worked with the Executive Producer/Director of the Benny program.

He said Benny was his "Primary Sponsor" into Hollywood.

I so loved to hear the stories.

There was only one picture in his office on the wall - probably taken in the early sixties. He and Benny - it was his favorite.

Joan was the only Benny I ever met.

All I can say is that I wish there were more people in Hollywood that were like my "Primary Sponsor," and his Jack.

Mark

ajmilner said...

Jack Benny's stuff, all these years later, is still funny.

Jack influenced everybody. I understand that both Bob Newhart and Johnny Carson were enormously devastated at Benny's death. Harry Shearer got his showbiz start as a child actor on Benny's radio and TV shows in the 1950s, and credited Benny for being a great guy to work for. Phil Hartman once said he always wanted to do a Jack Benny biopic. I'd have loved to have seen it.

I was around six years old when he died. I remember watching one of the TV retrospectives with my parents. I started running my mouth during the last minute or so, and my parents told me to be quiet -- the program, you see, was ending with a clip of Benny playing "Love in Bloom."

D. McEwan said...

I shot my best Benny story two threads back, so I'll just say that I share your reverence and love for Benny Kubelski. He's one of a small handfull of whom I don't remember a time before I knew and loved them.

Let me understand this; in 1965, you had a choice between going to the Hollywood Bowl and Sahara's in Vegas, and the decision was yours to make? How did you get around? You were 15. At best, you might have just gotten your learner's permit. Your parents were willing to drop you off and pick you up after in EITHER Hollywood OR Vegas? They were certainly accomodating. If I had a choice between a movie in Torrence or one in Redondo Beach in 1965, I was told "You're going to the one in Redondo. It's closer."

When my folks would drag me to Dodger games when I was 12, I would take dad's binoculars and keep them focused on the most expensive seats. When I'd spot Jack Benny, I was sneaking down the stairs to his section like a shot. Never noticed the games themselves.

My only cavil with what you have written here is that Benny WAS a violin virtuoso. His horrible playiing on the show was like his cheapness, an act.

I had a friend on college who was a particular sucker for Jack and Mel Blanc's Si, Sy, Sew, Sue routine. All you had to do was say, "What's your name? Sy. Sy? Si." and he would go into convulsions of laughter. Then, for the rest of the evening, any variation on Sy or Sew or Sue, followed by a Si would reduce him to quivering jelly. It didn't matter if you'd tortured him with it all the previous evening; it would kill him again the next evening. It NEVER got old to him.

In 1975, I got to have lunch with Mel and his wife,and got to do the Si Sy, Sue routine with Mel, doing Jack's part myself, just for fun, over dessert. It was ecstasy, sweeter than any dessert could ever be. Mel praised my delivery of "Now cut that out!" Joy.

Joan's book on her father, SUNDAY NIGHTS AT SEVEN, sits next to books on the Marx Brothers, in a row just below my TV, where I see Jack on the spine, fingers to chin, every day.

Now Bob Hope really was the cheapskate Jack pretended to be.

A favorite story of Jack's: On the first night of George & Gracie's honeymoon, Jack called them long distance.

Jack: George, it's Jack.

George: We'd like a chilled bottle of champagne and some cavier sent up to the room right away. [Hangs up.]

Jack waits until the next day to call back.

Jack: George, it's Jack.

George: Where the hell's that champagne? [Hangs up.]

Now I know it sounds like George was the funny one in this story, but consider; would that story be as funny if it was someone else calling? It's the combination of Jack and the cost of long-distance calls back then that makes it work.

One other thing about Jack needs saying: when he'd tour in the south (Or anywhere else, but this cropped up most often in the south) with his cast, if Eddie Anderson wasn't allowed to stay at a hotel, Jack wouldn't stay there either.

Straight man to the world.

Jack was the motherlode.

estiv said...

Thank you, Ken. This hit the spot.

The older I get the better I appreciate what I understand is the Chinese tradition of reverence for one's ancestors. And not necessarily in a solemn way--Benny was a hoot.

For those noting the Kelsey Grammer link: there is an episode of Frazier where for some reason he's wandering around town, and stumbles across a movie theater that has "To Be or Not To Be" on its marquee. Grammer goes into a perfect right-elbow-in-left-palm, right-palm-on-face, sidelong-glance Benny imitation. I always figured that was his acknowledgment of the influence.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I also grew up on Jack Benny - but the closest I ever got was watching him at the Kansas State fair sometime in the 60s.

His comedy was gentle, kind, and as many have said, made himself the butt of the jokes. We don't have enough of that any more.

benson said...

Just to make one small correction, the actress opposite Benny on "You bet your life" is Irene Tedrow. She was on Dennis the Menace and played Congresswoman Geddes on the Mary Tyler Moore Show episode with the Veal Prince Orloff.

The Home Office said...

I was lucky enough to see Bob Newhart flogging his book several months ago. Newhart is as nice and unassuming as might be expected. The best stories he told about his career dealt with how helpful Jack Benny had always been to him, and how Benny was the true master of timing. These clips bring that home. (I wish there was room to recount the story he told as an example of Benny's confidence and timing. It was hysterical, especially told by Newhart to someone who still remembers Benny.)

Rob Bates said...

My favorite Jack Benny joke came when he was trying to drive into a movie studio.

He tells the guard: "I'm Jack Benny. I made a movie here called 'The Horn Blows at Midnight.' Didn't you see it?"

"See it?" says the guard. "I directed it."

Awesome.

Dave O'Hara said...

One of your best blogs, Ken! Thanks! Also loved the comments from your readers. Thanks to them!

Just goes to show that you don't have to be a trash mouth, do fart jokes or wallow in the sewer to get laughs. Just need good writers and the talent to deliver.

Brian Scully said...

I understand that Jack Benny was the original choice to play one of "The Sunshine Boys" opposite Walter Matthau... but he died before production had started and they cast George Burns in his place. Burns was great, but I can't help wondering what it would have been like to see Jack Benny in one more film.

John Pearley Huffman said...

Now why is exactly that TVLand is running crappy reruns of dreck like "What's Happening Now!" and "Litte House On The Prairie" while Benny's stuff rots in a vault?

It can't be simply that people won't watch B&W shows, is it?

Joey H said...

Jack Benny and Groucho in the same sketch....talk about the epitome of comedic timing!!! Thanks, Ken, for reminding us of how great Benny was.

D. McEwan said...

Benny did a number of color specials late in his career, so the B&W vs Color shouldn't keep him off TV Land.

Mel Blanc played that studio guard who had directed THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT. HORN BLOWS was, of course, Benny's go-to worst movie of his career running joke.

Actually, the bit on the show had Mel merely reacting in terror to Jack, and the newbie guard asks him why after Jack drives on the lot, and Mel had an emotional monologue about how directing Jack in HORN BLOWS had destroyed his life, getting more worked up and suicidal as he went. Memorable bit.

Jack comes home from the studio early, and sits down to read the paper in a chair beside a bowl of fruit. From teh kitchen we hear Rochester say, "Oh boss, I ate a piece of fruit. I hope you don't mind."

Jack says, "Rochester, don't be silly. I don't care if you ate ...." Jack looks at the bowl and silently counts. Then, "... a banana."

Dave said...

Grammer has always acknowledged his debt to Hope and in 1995 even hosted an NBC tribute to him. They showed a clip on either that show or Grammer's Hope tribute that is still one of the funniest things I've ever seen: a sketch with Hope, Benny, and Rosemary Clooney that completely falls apart to the point where Benny steps out of the scene, looks at the camera and announces "This is the lousiest thing I was ever in!"

You Tube has pulled the clip thanks to Hope Enterprises, but it's worth tracking down. No one -- and that means no one -- has ever been funnier than Benny.

Gary said...

The woman in the Groucho-Benny clip is Irene Tedrow. Her contribution to this scene is subtle, but really amazing. Watch how she shifts the focus from Benny to Groucho with her batting eyelashes, all while keeping near silence, and incredibly, a straight face. She puts a brave face on in an unspoken support of Benny when looking at Groucho, yet turns back to Benny with undisguised incredulity. She is simply a great "straight man" in a great comic bit, adding to it with her underplay.

Apparently there is a tag line on this bit that did not make it into the clip. Groucho tells Benny in an untertone as he leaves that he can "telephony" too.

--Aatragon

Ken Levine said...

Here's some REAL trivia:

Irene Tedrow, the woman in the clip -- her daughter is Enid Kent who played "Nurse Bigelow" on many episodes of MASH.

jrosen said...

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE CONCERT…

The toughest job I ever had lasted less than a ninety seconds, paid not a cent, and earned me the heartiest applause I have ever had.
It was one of those seasons when I played the violin in the Festival Casals. The highlight of the year in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the Festival brought orchestral players from all over the country and audiences from all over the world. The presiding spirit was of course Don Pablo Casals himself. That year he was in his mid-eighties, shrunken to barely five feet, unable to clearly hear the sound on a television set and needing assistance to get out of a chair, but with ears for music as sharp as a ever, radiating vigor while conducting from a seated position. It is no small thing for a person of full strength to conduct Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, all four hours of it, in one day, but at an age when some would be happy merely to be breathing unassisted he did it, and magnificently. A serious, an impressive event it was, so impressive that the powers-that-arrange-such-things had us repeat the performance in New York a few days after the San Juan Festival ended.
At the time some influential folks in Puerto Rico were organizing a Conservatory of Music for the island, and to this end they had enlisted the Festival orchestra to participate in a fundraiser held in the ball room of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel the day after the Passion performance. A few days before, the personnel manager of the orchestra had come to me and said “Jerry, can you keep a straight face?” “Of course I can keep a straight face!” “I mean can you keep a straight face with Jack Benny?” Prudence has never been a prominent part of my temperament, and so I had replied “Yes!” in total ignorance of what I was getting into.
I was going to do it no matter what; from childhood radio days, I had loved Jack Benny. His classic comic persona was that of an insecure egotist, a skinflint, and a bad violinist with pretensions far beyond his skill, although his behavior was never aggressively unpleasant. Jack Benny the man was warm and self-effacing, generous, and a better violinist than he pretended to be --- although he really wasn’t very good and he knew it. He would set up his vain, miserly stage character for comeuppance, and when this inevitably happened, it was the second banana or straight man who got the laugh. He had recorded possibly the longest such in radio history: when accosted by a holdup man with the snarl “OK bud, your money or your life!” he had remained mute. Only when the noise crested did he shout in distress “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!” which of course again sent the laugh meter off the scale.
He had started his career in vaudeville as did so many comedians as a musician, a violinist. He remained always an aspiring fiddler, and expressed his esteem for us symphony professionals by doing benefit appearances at pension fund concerts. I had seen him at this when I was a student in Philadelphia and had been a member participating when he did it for the Cleveland Orchestra.
His symphony act simply rang a change on his basic comic character: he would struggle through various solos and a series of orchestra players would upstage him. The concertmaster took over a solo for him, the assistant concertmaster moved over and did the same, the cymbal player played too loud in “Love and Bloom”. After each incident, Benny would consult with the conductor; the latter at first mournfully and then resignedly would speak sotto voce to the offender, who would then leave the stage in a huff. The key moment was when Benny, his vanity outraged beyond endurance, would silently impale the transgressor with the Look, a hurt yet disdainful stare that said with mute eloquence “How DARE you insult my artistry? Begone!”. The Look got the laughs.
So I was to upstage Jack Benny, get skewered by the Look, and leave the stage in high dudgeon. Benny explained it to me himself: “You’re attitude is ‘I’m just trying to help Benny and if Benny doesn’t like it, fuck him!’ ”
They sat me on the second stand outside, just behind the concertmaster. The conductor was Alexander “Sascha” Schneider, a high-energy --- some thought hyper-thyroid --- Russian-born violinist who had been in and out of the famous Budapest String Quartet. He had been a musician in the Weimar Berlin made legend by “Cabaret”; more recently he led a highly regarded concert series at the New School for Social Research in New York, and had been close to Casals for a long time. The program began with some Johann Strauss knick-knacks, and then Sascha went to the microphone and explained a serious situation to the crowd, which included not just many affluent New Yorkers with donations in their futures, but such musical giants as Rudolf Serkin and Isaac Stern. It seems that there was this violin student who wanted to audition for the Conservatory, but he was shy and mysterious and insisted that the only way he would do it was to play concertmaster here, in this very concert, and what could we do but let him? So the concertmaster of the evening, Sidney Harth – no less than the concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony – was booted at the start. In an overcoat, with a hat pulled down over his face, Jack Benny emerged from the kitchen --- which functioned as the wings for this occasion --- sat down in the first chair, removed his hat and smiled wanly at Sascha, who began conducting the “Capriccio Espagnol” of Rimsky-Korsakov, a perennial crowd-pleaser that was first conceived as a violin concerto. When we reached the big solo cadenza --- which has probably been required at every concertmaster audition from the time the ink on the first copy dried --- he began butchering it. And I started my bit, playing along with him, softly at first, and then more and more assertively until he was obliterated, performing the final flourish with, if I might say, definitive authority. The tittering began. I placed my violin upright on my knee, sat up straight in my chair, and glared defiantly at Benny. And received, in return, the Look.
That’s when I got into deep trouble. Benny was twisted all the way around in his chair right in front of me, all of three feet away, and I dared not look at him. The audience was beginning to let it out, but I couldn’t. I intently studied the scroll of my instrument, I became fascinated by my shoes, I thought of the most disgusting subjects that I could conjure up, and barely, just barely, managed not to roar; to say that I kept a straight face would be too kind. Benny broke his pose. The laughing increased. He summoned Sascha with an imperious fore-finger and spoke softly to him. Sascha shrugged and came over to me, mumbled something. I mimed protest, and then took my violin and my indignation off the stage into the kitchen, followed by the still-rising crescendo of hilarity. And once I was safely beyond the swinging doors I lost it completely. Had I not been carrying an easily damaged stringed instrument, I might have rolled on the floor. But I wasn’t so out of touch as to not hear the sound of a real ovation going on inside, so I reappeared to take a modest bow, and then decamped to the bar.
When someone calls my trade entertainment they usually mean to demean it, as in “mere entertainment”. On the contrary, I am honored to be included in the company of people like Jack Benny. His serious purpose was to make people laugh, and I was pleased --- and lucky --- to help him do that for a few seconds. But it was hard. It would be exaggeration to say that I’d more easily perform a Paganini Caprice, but not much.

D. McEwan said...

What a great story! Thanks.

MLW said...

I have been reading all these wonderful comments about your glorious piece about Jack Benny and I was so moved that I found myself in tears....tears of joy from being so happy to see that Benny has such a huge following almost 33 years after his passing.

My best friend and I were lucky enough to be friends with Mel Blanc fron 1978 on....I have always been convinced that Mel took to us partly because we were huge Benny fans.

Thank you, Ken, for sharing .

MichaelBates said...

Commenter Ted mentions that Jack Benny cast himself as the villain for the sake of laughs. The 1960 episode from which the Frank Nelson clip is a great example. Jack is buying Christmas presents, and Mel Blanc is in charge of gift wrap. Jack insists on having his gift for Don Wilson wrapped and rewrapped, with absolutely no consideration for Mel's hard work, oblivious to the suffering he's imposing.

You can watch the whole thing in three parts -- it'll make you laugh til you cry:

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xnqct_jack-benny-xmas-shopping-1
http://www.dailymotion.com/NilbogLAND/video/xnqpd_jack-benny-christmas-shopping-2
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xnqvh_jack-benny-xmas-3-christmas

NYLouOC said...

One forgets that Benny's shows had about as much 'plot' as Seinfeld's too - Jack goes to the grocery store, Jack takes a day off,Jack takes a walk for Petes sake...and some things were just sacrosanct in the Benny Universe - people had to have been waiting for the annual 'Jack goes Christmas shopping' 'storyline'; people HAD to look forward whenever Jack traveled - time to break out 'Anahiem....A-ZU-sa..and CUC-------------------amonga' -one time they actually slipped a whole scene in between 'Cuc' and 'amonga'! One mention of booze, and sure enough, Phil Harris shows up!

nothing like him then..and sure as hell nothing like him today!

Anonymous said...

Here's another story I got from legendary Benny writer, whom I had the pleasure of working on the same Norman Lear lot with in the 70's.
The "your money or your life" is famous for getting one of the longest laughs ever. Over 40 seconds.
But a tape I listened to of the famous radio show, the laugh was 23 seconds. I asked Milt if the live laugh was really over 40 seconds. He said "yes, it was." So why was the taped laugh 23 seconds?
Back then, the recording was made by making a vinyl record of it. And they changed records on long laughs.
And now you know the rest of the story.
Wayne Kline

Anonymous said...

Oops. Left out the Benny story came from Milt Josefsberg.
Wayne Kline

-Stephen M. Wolterstorff said...

I was born in the same general time period that Jack died. He makes me laugh out loud more than anything generated in my life time.

Clyde said...

It is a true testament to the CLASS that Benjamin Kubelsky brought to this earth. Here it is, almost 33 years since he died at the age of "39",(yes, I realize it was 80 by the calendar)... and Ken's posting has generated near fifty responses. Jack Benny was a true gentleman, a comic genius, and an entertainer that never had to resort to vulgarities to get laughs. For anyone interested, Laura Leff has a fantastic website dedicated to Jack at www.jackbenny.org Laura has also researched two incredible volumes entitled "Forever 39", documenting Benny's radio career.

Tod Hunter said...

I appreciate your appreciation of Jack Benny. The Loevly Mrs. Hunter and I raised our kids (now teenagers) on te KNX Drama Hour and one of our fondest memories is going to see The Dopey Griffith Park Christmas Light Show and the traffic being so backed up we heard The Jack Benny Program and Burns and Allen while we were inching forward.

HOWEVER

When you were at the Sahara watching Jack Benny, I was watching the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, August 31, 1965. And I can assure you that the audience kept quiet -- relatively -- during the songs. Between songs it was pandemonium.

Was Benny in the Congo Room? I remember when I was watching The Amazing Johnathan there that it must have been a HELL of a venue to see Johnny Carson.

--t

Anonymous said...

I got into Benny when Gary Giddins came to a class I was taking and gave a great lecture about Bing Crosby. I instantly became both a Crosby and Giddins fan, and devoured his biography. After that, I picked up Giddins's "Faces In The Crowd," the opening essay of which is an encomium to Benny. I've been hooked ever since; him, Crosby, and Britt Daniel are the three role models who might help get through this life with my dignity flapping in the breeze but still somewhat intact...


Now, my useful two cents: there's a great series of interviews on emusic.com with various comedians -- very formalist and shoptalky, just how I like it. Seinfeld, Carson, Benny, and Carlin are all worth hearing, although since the tracks are often short and emusic charges by the track, you might want to try some of the longer ones first and see what you think...

Barry A. Nulph in Phoenix said...

Who can tell me the address of Jack and Mary's last home?
I remember in daughter Joan's book that Mary wanted a bigger house than the one on Roxbury that everyone associates with him, and he didn't. She says he spent a lot of money and bought the one he ended up dying in. Haven't found an address or pic anywhere.
I saw him at the Sahara not too long before he died...he was perfect on stage. In the morning he spent 30 minutes in the gift shop in his robe and pajamas! I was going to talk to him but was put off by the behavior. Now I wish I had.
Good blog barry.nulph@cox.net

Jay said...

It is the recordings of the Jack Benny Show that kept my sanity through two years of living in Japan, and now in the Philippines.

The quality of his work is as close to timeless as comedy can be, and 20 and 30-somethings who are exposed to it today do enjoy it. I agree that his television work needs to return to the air and that a biopic is LONG overdue.

What is more, kids need to learn about him and the other vaudevillians who really are the ones who are responsible for the creation of what we call American culture today.

Anonymous said...

I accidently stumbled across this website last night while doing some research on an email containing a letter he had supposedly written to his wife about the Roses he sent her every year. Here is that letter whether it is actually true or not I cannot say but perhaps someone can verify...
The person who did this was Jack Benny....

You have to read this it is absolutely beautiful......

Each year he sent her roses,
and the note would always say,
I love you even more this year,
than last year on this day.
My love for you will always grow,
with every passing year.'

She knew this was the last time
that the roses would appear.
She thought, he ordered roses
in advance before this day.
Her loving husband did not know,
that he would pass away.

He always liked to do things early,
way before the time.
Then, if he got too busy,
e verything would work out fine.
She trimmed the stems and
placed them in a very special vase.

Then, sat the vase beside
the portrait of his smiling face.
She would sit for hours,
In her husband's favorite chair.
While staring at his picture,
and the roses sitting there.

A year went by, and it was
to live without her mate.
With loneliness and solitude,
that had become her fate.

Then, the very hour,
The doorbell rang, and there
were roses sitting by her door.

She brought the roses in,
and then just looked at them in shock.
Then, went to get the telephone,
to call the florist shop.

The owner answered, and she asked him,
if he would explain, Why would someone would
do this to her, causing her such pain?

'I know your husband passed away,
more than a year ago,'
The owner said,
'I knew you'd call, and you would want to know.

The flowers you received today,
were paid for in advance.
Your husband always planned ahead,
he left nothing to chance.

There is a standing order,
that I have on file down here,
And he has paid, well in advance,
you'll get them every year.

There also is another thing,
that I think you should know,
He wrote a special little card...he did this years
ago. Then, should ever I find out that he's no longer here,
that's the card that should be sent to you the following year.'

She thanked him and hung up the phone, her tears now flowing hard.
Her fingers shaking,
as she slowly reached to get the card.

Inside the card, she saw that he
had written her a note.
Then, as she stared in total silence,

this is what he wrote...

'Hello my love, I know it's been a year
since I've been gone.
I hope it hasn't been too hard for you to
overcome.
I know it must be lonely,
and the pain is very real.
Or if it was the other way,
I know how I would feel.

The love we shared made everything
so beautiful in life.
I loved you more than words can say,
you were the perfect wife.
You were my friend and lover,
you fulfilled my every need.
I know it's only been a year,
but please try not to grieve.
I want you to be happy,
even when you shed your tears.

That is why the roses will be sent to you for years.
When you get these roses,
think of all the happiness that we had together,
and how both of us were blessed.

I have always loved you and
I know I always will.
But, my love, you must go on,
you have some living still.

Please...try to find happiness,
while living out your days.
I know it is not easy,
but I hope you find some ways.

The roses will come every year,
and they will only st op,
When your door's not answered,
when the florist stops to knock.

He will come five times that day,
in case you have gone out.
But after his last visit,
he will know without a doubt!
To take the roses to the place,
where I've instructed him
and place the roses where we are,
together once again.

I have too say I am completely taken in and thoroughly enjoyed reading all the comments here. The letter itself is heart moving as well. I got to catch some of Jaack Benny in the early 60's when I was just young but as many of you have stated, these were the masters of comedy and many can laern from them.......

dreadlock said...

I have loved Jack Benny since I was a boy, and the void that he left has never totally been filled. That is the effect of a great artist.
I watched all the Tv programs as a boy and always laughed so much with the Benny programs and specials. Many people on stage today even if they are not aware of it, are very influenced by Benny. He is still very much a part of us.

I have always kept a daily ledger and diary. I looked to the date Dec. 27, 1974, and saw that I wrote a bit about Benny's death on the 26th. Ending it all with the statement.. "We we laugh again, but never so well."

In my work today I am often in large crowds and on stage. I have always remembered Benny in my work and have borrowed from him to hone my skills.
One may call much of his work a "Master Class" in the field of dealing with the public at large. Watch him and you will learn much.

In closing I had the chance to interview Isaac Stern in 2000, and we had a number of laughs over Jack Benny in our conversations. Stern also had a great sense of humor. Thanks for having this page...Jack

Floyd said...

I am a big fan of Jack Benny. Was raised on his TV shows and now such a big fan of the old Radio Shows. I must share this. A few months ago in Los Angeles, I was on my way to see a customer. I was listening to a radio show from I think 2/20/55. Jack (who is the treasurer of the Beverly Hills Beavers club) has been told by the club they are doing a fund raiser at their grammer school. Jack, Mary, and Dennis go to the school and are sitting in the audience watching the show.

Each member of the club will portray a member of the Jack Benny radio cast in their own version of the Jack Benny Program. Well, Once kid played Jack (excellent), Mary, Bob Crosby, Dennis, Rodchester, Don Wilson, Race Track Tout, etc. They even had a "school sounding" orchestra playing the opening theme. Each segment was a gem. I laughed so hard I was crying. Fat Jokes on Don, Dumb Jokes for Dennis, Letter from Mother for Mary. The kid who played Dennis even sang "Clancy Lowered the boom".

What made me almost drive off the road was when "Little" Jack goes off stage to get a candy bar and some other kid doing an ACE imitation of Sheldon Leonard doing the Tout.

Find the show and listen.

It has to be one of the all time funniest.

Anonymous said...

If you would like to here some Jack Benny episodes for free. I run a podcast about the Benny show and every week we run the Benny episodes that are exactly 60, 65, 70, and 75 years old each and every week! Come join us as we celebrate this absolutely wonderful brilliant man and the exploits with his stellar cast at www.jack_benny@podomatic.com

Anonymous said...

Nearly all the Jack Benny radio shows and many, many other radio shows are available for free over the internet at OTR.net

Old Time Radio

Johnny Savage said...

What a wonderful blog page. Jack Benny may have been the single funniest comedian of the century. Thank you for sharing your affection and appreciation of Jack with all of us.

Johnny

Martha Magee said...

What a wonderful page to find ! Thank you, Everyone for all your rich stories and comments about our beloved Jack Benny.

I am falling more in love with Jack Benny by the minute.
What an adorable person he was.

Lately I've been watching reruns of his old programs at 3 in the morning and I find myself laughing real belly laughs OUTLOUD. which I rarely do these days.
Despite the cranky persona, the truth is Jack Benny was pure love. It poured out of his eyes when he smiled. And he was so bright and that dry wit just slys me every time.
Jack Benny was a true gentleman. But more than that, he was a gentle man.

I love you Jack!

Us Jack Benny lovers have to stick together. Great to be here! I joined the Fan Club also. It's been quite a day.

God BLESS Jack Benny. Long May He Wave.

xo

Anonymous said...

Well, many will disagree with me but I'm having my say. Jack Benny was not much of a comedian. In fact he stunk. My parents only had his show on a couple of times and switched channels early on. Bob Hope and George Burns were way overrated as well. Their style is a "lazy" style of comedy; banal, tacky and lack luster. There's no edge to it. Today's comedians are bright, edgy and illuminating. Heck, even Bill Maher's deadpan style comedy grants me a giggle-fest. And Bill's an intellect too! Don't assume that I'm some ignorant kid trolling here; I'm 63 years old. Two of the first comedians that ever wowed me were the late, great George Carlin and Lenny Bruce. I enjoyed their cutting edge style especially when their comedy showcased the stupidity and irrationality of religion and belief in god. Yep, I'm an atheist. I also liked Buddy Hackett. I saw Buddy live in Vegas and literally pee'd myself in laughter. What a funny guy he was! Anyway, I give kudos to the bright, young comedians and the not so young edgy comedians who are way better than their successors from the dark age.

Anonymous said...

It is a shame so many of the pre and golden age movies are owned by a singular company, you know the company who likes to ruin the wonderful lighting and ambient of B/W movies via of coloring them, cough, airing them only on their paid channel, aka cabe/satellite. These films are national treasures.

Benny was in many solid movies always with perfect timing, ex To be or not to Be. On his radio and TV shows he always surrounded himself with amazing guest talent and like Johhny Carson never upstaged them.

Benny's soft gentle humor of the "star" trying to get by seems to "wear well" even today as he goes thru life "just not getting the respect he thinks he deserves", either as a comedian or as a "fiddle" player.

I do not think today you would see the cut of real humanity based on a diversity of shape/sizes, age. These days it is shinny, no one over the age, or hiding it, 30, cast. Or you get the lopsided "Golden Girls" show, aka no one under the age of ..... fill in the blank.

Eddie "Rochester" was another comedian, character actor with wonderful timing. Rochester would best defined as "glue" in these Benny shows.

He was in a lot of wonderful movies, Brewster's Millions comes to mind and an very early, I can not remember the title, B/W all black musically where you can see his talent.

Seinfeld and Newhart ? Please, like Carson, Jack made it look easy. Carson once called a "replacement" after seeing the Tonight Show and said, "it looks easy, doesn't it", when the replacement was struggling.

Shock, tattoo comedy is really the cheap cop out, the real test here is if you had a few thousand comedians doing it, the novelty would soon wear thin, off. You know, The Howard Stein Syndrome, it gets old very fast after the shock wears off quickly, and you realize the true cruelty of "his same old, same old, gags". You realize how lazy and phone it in of a performance it is.

Like, Stein, Lettermen and Jack Paar both had mean streaks and of the same ilk as Stein, Paar's treatment of Elvis and Letterman's pank on Richard Simmons isn't funny even by shock stands. I can not stand Simmons TV personally, but still, Letterman isn't funny and owes this guy an apology.

I wonder who of this bunch would have a staff of 30 or more leave a hotel because your black performer wasn't allowed to stay in the same hotel? My guess that took some balls, back then, down south.

Who among the above would sell the copyrights of a Radio/TV writer's "personality" character to the black performer of that character for one dollar? Talk about a cheap skate? Well...it wasn't Jack. This was a copyright worth thousands.
.