“Well!”: The Comedic Genius of Jack Benny
By John C. Alsedek:
“My wife, Mary, and I have been married for forty-seven years, and not once have we had an argument serious enough to consider divorce. Murder, yes—but divorce? Never.”
Mention the name "Jack Benny" these days and the response you get will probably depend on the age of the person with whom you’re talking. Most people under the age of 40 will probably just give you a blank look; if you’re lucky, they’ll recognize his name but nothing attached to it. Get into the 40-to-70 range and you’ll get a little more: they’ll remember him in his older years on celebrity specials and awards shows doing his trademark “Well!” But it’ll probably take a real old-timer to recall Jack Benny at the height of his comedic powers, when he ruled first radio and then television for over three decades.
Benny was born Benjamin Kubelsky on February 14, 1894, the son of Jewish immigrants. Having worked in vaudeville since his teen years (he was close friends with, among other notables, the Marx Brothers!), he graduated first to Broadway and then to motion pictures when he was signed to a five-year deal by MGM in 1929. Though this first foray into "talkies" didn’t go well (Benny was released from his contract after 1930’s Chasing Rainbows didn’t meet its commercial expectations), the experience showed Benny that there was a world away from the footlights. It was right at this time that radio was emerging as the new form of popular entertainment; initially unconvinced of the fledgling medium’s viability, he quickly became a fan and looked for his big break.
That break came in March 1932, when he got a chance to guest on Ed Sullivan’s popular show-biz news show. His very first utterance set the tone for what was to come: “This is Jack Benny talking. There will be a slight pause while you say, ‘Who cares?’” Benny was a hit, and in May 1932 he got his own show—The Canada Dry Ginger Ale Program—on the NBC Blue Network (which would later become ABC). Benny would end up moving from network to network, airing at various points on both NBC networks (Blue and Red) as well as CBS. The show’s name would also change many times over the years: The Chevrolet Program, The General Tire Revue, The Lucky Strike Program, The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny, The Grape Nuts Flakes Program Starring Jack Benny, and others; eventually, they’d all just be remembered as The Jack Benny Program, which was also the name of the 1950’s TV version.
Likewise, the format of The Jack Benny Program also changed over the years. It began as a variety show, with an opening musical number, some banter between Benny and bandleader Don Wilson, a couple of comedy sketches, another song by tenor Dennis Day, more banter, etc. But over time, Benny’s show evolved into what we know today as the "sitcom" format, focusing on Jack’s life either on the radio show or at his Beverly Hills home with his real-life wife, Mary Livingstone, and his ever-present valet, Rochester (Eddie Anderson, the subject of the last column). It was during this period that the gags for which Benny is best remembered today came into being, all of which were extremely self-deprecating and based around a fictitious persona that had no basis in reality: the most tightfisted of skinflints, whose cheapness was only matched by his vanity.
His claim to be just 39 years old was such a fixture of Benny’s act that his radio "rival" Fred Allan once said, “He is my favorite comedian, and I hope to be his friend until he is forty. That will be forever.” And his painfully awful violin playing was also used to great effect. In real life an accomplished violinist, Benny deliberately made himself sound dreadful as he attempted to play a variety of classical pieces (most often "Etude No. 2 in C major" by Rodolphe Kreutzer) to the dismay of anyone within earshot.
As for his cheapness, the most popular gags involved his ancient Maxwell automobile and the vault in the basement of his mansion. The Maxwell gag began in October 1937, when Benny announced that he’d purchased a "new" car . . . from a company that had gone out of business a dozen years earlier. The clattering, sputtering relic became a character in itself, providing Benny ample opportunities to show what a cheapskate he was, such as how he was convinced he could get a few more miles out of it and how he’d only buy a gallon of gas at a time. On The Jack Benny Program, Jack’s original Maxwell was sacrificed in 1942 to a World War II junk salvage drive, netting him $7.50 in war stamps. However, he soon had another Maxwell on the radio and, when his show came to television in 1950, Benny was driving a 1916 Maxwell Model 25 Tourer.
Even more over-the-top was the infamous Jack Benny vault. Reputedly "countless fathoms" below his home, it was protected by a wide variety of anti-burglar deterrents, including multiple locked doors, crocodiles in a moat, a motion-activated guillotine, and an ear-shattering alarm that went off regardless of whether or not Benny opened the vault with the correct combination. There was also a final line of defense in the person of the blunderbuss-armed vault guard, Ed. Voiced on radio by Joseph Kearns, Ed had been at his post for an indeterminate but fantastically long time, given at various times as since the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, the birth of mankind . . . or even possibly Jack’s 38th birthday!
After more than three decades on radio and television, The Jack Benny Program went off the air, not because of poor ratings (the show was said to still draw 18 million viewers per week) but because Benny was tired of dealing with short-sighted television executives and sponsors who complained about the cost of his show. He would continue to do television specials until his death of pancreatic cancer in 1974. At Benny’s funeral service, his longtime best friend, George Burns, was so overcome with grief that he was unable to deliver his eulogy, so Bob Hope summed it up perfectly: “For a man who was the undisputed master of comedic timing, you would have to say this is the only time when Jack Benny’s timing was all wrong—he left us much too soon.” And he did. But not before he’d made an indelible mark on radio and television history, and on comedy in general.
The Jack Benny Program frequently featured guest stars: some instantly recognizable, others with faces that leave you thinking, I know I’ve seen that actor somewhere before. We’ll be looking at the career of one of the latter, the great Virginia Gregg, next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.