“Jack Benny had style from the beginning. He stood straight and walked kind of sideways as if he was being shoved by a touch of genius”—William Saroyan
Howard Stern once claimed to be the King of All Media. A huge boast by a talented individual, but completely wrong. That title is still owned by the late Jack Benny.
I got exposed to the Jack Benny Program by watching reruns on Nick-at-Nite and other retro programming channels with my mom and grandmother as a youth. Fortunately, they both filled in the missing reference points about Jack Benny’s background, so I was able to get the humor explained to me. It took several episodes before the jocularity and situational sketches started making sense without watching them with an adult. Since then I’ve been a fan.
Benny’s schtick was portraying a man obsessed with money. He was cheap, petty, vain and totally self-absorbed. He insisted he was 39 years old; his character couldn’t play the violin very well, but thought himself a virtuoso.
As for Jack Benny the man, very few entertainers can match his broad body of work. Mary Miley stated on her blog, “Jack was one of the twentieth century’s most important entertainers.” An examination of Benny’s impressive resume reveals a career of unparalleled success and achievement. He was one of only a hand full of entertainers to of had success in vaudeville, on stage, radio, film and television. He was also an accomplished violinist—not that you’d know that from his skits.
Benny was born Benjamin Kubelsky on Valentines Day, 1894, in Chicago, Illinois. He launched his “show biz” career at the age of 16 by working as a fiddler in a silent movie theater orchestra. It’s been reported that he was asked to tour with the Marx Brothers as their violinist, but his parents objected. A short time later Kubelsky would join the navy.
During his time in the service, Kubelsky developed an appreciation for telling jokes and getting laughs. After his stint in the Navy, he embarked on a career in entertainment.
In keeping with the standard of the day, Kubelsky would adopt a stage name. It took several iterations for a name to finally take because of confusion with other entertainers. Kubelsky eventually settled on the name Jack Benny.
With his new name and raw talent, Benny’s career steadily gained steam working the vaudeville circuit. He honed his skills in storytelling, comedic timing and delivery.
Benny’s time in vaudeville allowed him to develop lifelong friendships with future comedy greats, George Burns and Bob Hope to name a few. It also laid a strong foundation in live performance that would serve him well his entire life. Benny’s early work in vaudeville—along with others—arguably helped pioneer an art form that’d eventually become known as stand-up comedy.
The Great Depression hit vaudeville performers pretty hard and made work difficult to find. While looking for a steady paycheck, Benny decided to give radio a try. He experienced a mild crisis after exhausting his repertoire of jokes a few weeks into his new gig. Hiring an experienced comedian and vaudevillian Harry Conn as a joke writer, and using his extemporaneous performance skills to engage live audiences, Benny quickly overcame that crisis and launched his career into the stratosphere. He never looked back.
Jack Benny was a talented and brilliant performer. “He didn’t just stand on the stage. He owned it,” once quipped Bob Hope about his long time friend’s stage presence. His pregnant pause (a comedy technique used to build anticipation and laughter without saying a word) was executed better than any other performer, either before or since his heyday.
Benny’s success earned him the respect of his peers and the Hollywood community. He was awarded three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He received one star for Motion Pictures, located at 6650 Hollywood Boulevard; another for Radio, placed at 1505 Vine Street; and a final star for Television, installed at 6370 Hollywood Boulevard.
What made Benny such a force of nature in the entertainment industry was his unique comedic timing and delivery. He did more with a facial expression and his body language than most comedians could do with a full length monologue. Also what separated Benny from other comedians is how he didn’t deliver the punch lines. He used his impeccable timing and well placed gestures to get laughs, not the actual joke. In fact, most of Benny’s lines were common phrases, such as, “yes,” “you don’t say,” and his signature statement, the exasperated “well!” That he delivered with a simultaneous hand to his cheek, as he turns his head towards the camera, and gives a deadpan look straight at the audience. It may not sound funny in print, but it’s an absolute knee-slapper on film.
The passage of time has pushed Jack Benny’s career out of the public’s eye. His TV program’s black and white format doesn’t appeal to many Gen X and Millennial aged adults. They see it as an old outdated anachronism, and it’s humor is not understood due to a lack of context. That’s a shame because his immense talent may be lost to generations of people.
On the bright side, there are more retro programming than ever before; the internet’s presence makes it even easier for people to learn about Jack Benny and appreciate his comedy. I’m hopeful that he will be rediscovered and appreciated by generations yet to come.