If I ever have the chance to meet Jerry Seinfeld, I have a question for him: Is he a fan of the old Jack Benny show? The two shows have many similarities, especially in structure. The idea of one central character surrounded by all kinds of strange and unique characters was a hallmark of “Seinfeld,” but decades before “Seinfeld” it was the basis for the Jack Benny show. It takes a particular talent to be able to pull it off. Jack Benny was such a talent, and so much more.
Born Benjamin Kubelsky in Waukegan, Illinois (right outside Chicago), in 1894, Benny was a headliner in vaudeville and on Broadway by the early 1930s, and took the stage name of Jack Benny. In 1932, like so many stars of the era, he made the move to radio. After a few years, he really hit his stride when he figured out the secret of his program; he was the straight man and the butt of the jokes. Different characters were added over the years, and the program was a masterpiece of comedic timing.
Early on, Benny determined that a broadcast Sunday night at seven o’clock would garner the largest audience. He was right. His program was the number-one program for over 15 years. A half-dozen writers worked on the show, and every word was carefully measured. The show featured many characters, including his real-life wife, Sadie Marks, who he met at a Passover Seder. Marks took the stage name Mary Livingstone. Rochester, his valet, was played by famed African American entertainer Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. And in something unique for the times, Rochester was an equal, making jokes at Benny’s expense. Don Wilson was Benny’s long-time announcer, and Phil Harris was his long-time (and supposedly drunken) band leader. Dennis Day, whose beautiful Irish tenor voice was heard for many years, played himself. They became like family.
Even the sponsors were an integral part of the show. During the early years, Jell-O sponsored the show. Benny would introduce the program by saying “Jell-O again, this is Jack Benny talking.” During World War II, gelatin, needed for the production of explosives, became scarce, and production of Jell-O ceased. From 1944 until the end of the radio show in 1955 and the TV show, the sponsor was Lucky Strike cigarettes. Always concerned that the middle commercial would interrupt the comedy flow of the show, Benny convinced the American Tobacco Company to pay thousands of dollars in music clearance to have the Sportsman Quartet sing a popular song as a commercial for Luckies. Even their spokesmen, famed tobacco auctioneers F.E. Boone and L.A. “Speed” Riggs, became household names.
Benny’s character had certain traits that were maximized for laughs. He was terminally cheap, keeping his money in an underground vault guarded by a sentry who hadn’t seen the light of day since the Civil War. He had a polar bear named Carmichael who lived in the basement, read racy magazines, and of course, smoked Lucky Strikes. Carmichael would eat the gas man when he came to read the bill so Benny wouldn’t have to pay.
The longest laugh ever in the program’s run came when Benny was held up and the stick-up man said, "Your money or your life.” There are several delicious seconds of dead silence. The man repeats the threat and Benny finally said, “I’m thinking it over!”
He was a buffoon who had no social graces and his next-door neighbors were the classy British acting couple, Ronnie and Benita Coleman, who guest-starred regularly, and the results were always hilarious. He had a supposed “feud” with another radio comic, Fred Allen. They regularly made fun of each other, though in real life they loved each other dearly. The radio show lasted until 1955, when Benny took the show to TV, where it lasted until 1963. He made many TV appearances until his death in 1974. Over 700 broadcasts of the radio show are available today, and it is worth listening to even now. It holds up remarkably well as a masterpiece of comedy. If you never heard it, I highly recommend it.
When Benny made his first radio appearance in 1932, he said, “This is Jack Benny talking. There will now a pause for everyone to say, ‘Who cares?’”
When he died 42 years later, millions around the world cared — and cried for a great and beloved entertainer.
The Master Singer of His People
Questions or comments?
By Larry Shor