It’s Valentine’s Day! Time for the traditional exchange of cards, candy, flowers and other affectionate gifts with our loved ones! If you listen closely, you can hear the sounds of cash registers ringing, and perhaps even the rubbing of hands in gleeful anticipation of the windfall visited upon greeting card companies, confectioners, florists and anyone else who stands to make a hefty profit from the February 14th holiday.
I can’t help but smile, however, when I think of the many ways that the person born in Chicago, Illinois on this date in 1894 (celebrating the 83rd anniversary of his 39th birthday, as it were) would surely have devised to get on that Valentine’s Day gravy train. He’d have his manservant Rochester growing roses in the backyard, or cooking candy in the kitchen. And as for greeting card verse?
Roses are red
Violets are blue
But then so are my eyes
Happy Valentine’s to you
It would be no exaggeration to state that Benjamin Kubelsky—better known to old-time radio fans as Jack Benny—remains the most beloved mirth maker from Radio’s Golden Age. Jack was unquestionably one of the most popular of the radio comedians; his program would become a Sunday night institution on both radio and TV for thirty years. Whenever longtime Jack Benny Show cast member Eddie “Rochester” Anderson would answer his employer’s ringing telephone with “Star of stage, screen and radio,” he was reminding listeners that Benny also drank deeply of success in vaudeville and on the silver screen as well.
On stage, he started out as a violinist; his parents had a dream that their son would one day become a professional, but Jack gave up on that when he discovered he was more proficient at making audiences laugh. (He never completely abandoned the string instrument, however—using it as a prop to punctuate his low-key style of humor [and as the inspiration for a million “bad-violin-playing” jokes.]) As for the movies, his agent persuaded M-G-M’s Irving Thalberg to catch his client’s act at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles in 1929, and Jack soon found himself the beneficiary of a five-year-contract with the studio, appearing as the “Master of Ceremonies” in The Hollywood Revue of 1929.
Although Jack appeared in a number of feature films and shorts, he was never really satisfied with his forays into motion pictures. Part of this was due to the fact that he was a victim of his own radio success: many of the movies in which he appeared either had him playing himself or a Jack Benny-type character—Buck Benny Rides Again (1940), Love Thy Neighbor (1940), The Meanest Man in the World (1943), etc. There were, however, some movies in which he did approve of his acting: he was quite fond of Charley’s Aunt (1941) and George Washington Slept Here (1942), and considered To Be or Not to Be (1942) his greatest cinematic achievement (and rightly so, in my opinion). His final starring film, The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), would provide delightful comic fodder for his radio and television series, despite the fact that it’s not nearly as bad as he pretended it was.
Jack Benny’s comedy remains timeless, even when the jokes of many of his fellow funsters from that era can’t help but come across as a bit dated. The reason for this is simple: Jack was a disciple of character-based comedy—he may have begun his radio career with vaudeville-style humor, but writers like Harry Cohn, Ed Beloin and Bill Morrow soon developed a “switcheroo” formula. They made Jack the target of barbs from his “gang,” instead of just using his co-stars to set up punchlines. The exemplary supporting cast included his wife Mary Livingstone (who played Jack’s sardonic Girl Friday), announcer Don Wilson, bandleader Phil Harris, tenor Dennis Day, and as mentioned, Rochester. The regulars were aided and abetted by some of the best second bananas in the business: Sheldon Leonard, Joseph Kearns, Verna Felton, Frank Nelson, Artie Auerbach, Bea Benaderet…and most importantly of all, Mel Blanc. (The Jack Benny Program without Mel Blanc would be like a Bowery Boys film without gangsters.)
The real reason why Jack Benny remains so beloved among his fans is that the man essentially functioned as a funhouse mirror, exaggerating our imperfections and weaknesses in order to help us cope with them by laughing uproariously. The person Jack played on his radio and television shows was not the most attractive of individuals. He was a money-grubbing miser, a martinet who demanded complete fealty from his employees, and a bon vivant who had persuaded himself he was catnip as far as the ladies were concerned. He was none of these things in real life, of course, but the fact that he convinced listeners and viewers that he was stands as a testament to his skills as a performer and actor. And yet, I don’t think any comedian among Benny’s peers was able to convey so well that adored Everyman persona—the individual who immediately won our sympathy the moment he came up against a figure of authority…say, a condescending store clerk (usually played by Frank Nelson).
Jack Benny stopped production on his weekly TV series at the end of the 1964-65 season, though for many years afterward he continued to be a fixture (and elder statesman) with a series of highly-rated television specials. But on December 26, 1974, Jack left this world for a better one—a devastating turn of events for many. As his longtime friend Bob Hope so memorably said as he delivered Jack’s eulogy: “For a man who was the undisputed master of comedy timing, you’d have to say that this was the only time when Jack Benny’s timing was all wrong. He left us much too soon.”
So here’s the age-old argument, even more pressing than “Which came first—the chicken or the egg?” It’s “Was Jack Benny better on television or radio?” Well, Radio Spirits refuses to take sides (we think he was great in both mediums), but we do give you an opportunity to sample the visual contributions of today’s birthday boy in the DVD collection The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes. (We even have a review of this set in our voluminous blog archives.) If you’re inclined to argue the radio side, we have you covered. You can check out Benny broadcasts on such potpourri compilations as Comedy Goes West, Great Radio Comedy, and Radio Classics: Selected by Greg Bell…not to mention Yuletide celebrations in Christmas Radio Classics, Radio’s Christmas Celebrations, and The Voices of Christmas Past. You should also look into our Burns & Allen presentations of Muddling Through and Burns & Allen and Friends, which feature shows with Jack as guest star.
Bah and feh! I hear you saying. You’re past all that, and demand pure, undiluted Benny. Radio Spirits offers up plenty of those collections as well—I’d highly recommend Be Our Guest, which presents Jack in various venues such as Suspense and The Lux Radio Theatre. In addition, we feature two sets that allow Jack to square off with his longtime radio nemesis (though in real life they were the best of friends) Fred Allen: The Feud and Grudge Match. Finally, binge on Benny with such collections as Jack Benny & Friends, Jack Benny International, Maestro, Neighbors, Oh, Rochester!, Tall Tales, and Wit Under the Weather. Happy birthday, Jack!