Remembering Jack Benny, on his 130th Birthday

This day really should not pass without notice.

Understanding the influence of the artists of yesteryear can be difficult. We noted, recently, that the 1923 version of The Gold Diggers invented the modern romcom. You may have heard that Douglas Fairbanks was the “first movie star.” That Barbara La Marr was the first sex symbol. Clara Bow was the first “It Girl.” (That last one is unarguably true, because in 1927 she starred in a movie called It. You’re going to hear a lot more about Clara Bow in coming months.)

Jack Benny was none of those things. No one even knew his name till he was nearly in his forties. As a middle-aged man, he had the top-rated radio show for a number of years, but that just means that for a while he was somewhat more popular than Lum and Abner, Amos and Andy and Big Town. After decades of popularity, the Gomer Pyle sitcom knocked him off his perch in the 1960s. If everyone had to know about everything that was ever the most popular thing around, it’s all you’d ever do, your days would be filled with Laverne and Shirley and Vic and Sade reruns, and you’d read Rafael Sabatini novels and Art Buchwald columns on your commute to work. It’s inevitable that most of the biggest things of yesteryear will be forgotten. And this is as it should be.

But Jack Benny should be remembered.

Born Benjamin Kubelsky on February 14, 1894, 130 years ago today, Jack Benny evolved from a modest success playing violin and telling jokes on the vaudeville circuit to one of the leading entertainers of the twentieth century, with a highly popular comedic career in radio, television and (more modestly) in film.

Benny was known for his comic timing and his ability to cause laughter with a pregnant pause, or an exasperated “Well!” A comedic style characterized by the ability to get laughs with a stare and a long pause was groundbreaking at the time. His radio and television programs, popular from 1932 until his death in 1974, were for this reason a major influence on the sitcom genre and changed the comedy landscape forever.

Consider his most famous gag, from a radio show in 1948.

Benny is walking down the street, after dark. Suddenly, a threatening voice (played by Sheldon Leonard), growls, “Hey buddy. This is a stickup. Your money … or your life!” Benny hesitates. And hesitates. Just dead air, and nervous laughter from the studio audience. Finally, the mugger blurts out, in disbelief, “Didn’t you hear me? I said your money or your life!”

After a few more moments of silence, Benny yells, “I’m thinking it over!”

As Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley writes in her excellent, insightful book, Jack Benny and the Golden Age of American Radio Comedy, “The studio audience exploded into roars of laughter, releasing a pent-up emotional response of relief and disbelief that swept across the auditorium. Their reaction was shared by millions of radio listeners in homes across the nation. Their beloved, fallible ‘Fall Guy’ had faced a dire situation and responded in a hilarious, typically self-centered way. But this wasn’t simply a joke, and not quite a full comic routine; it was an exchange distilling an essential aspect of a continuing character, a moment that drew on more than fifteen years of writers’ and performer labor as well as fifteen years of audience familiarity with Jack’s infamously parsimonious character.”

You see? Benny was vain, cowardly, cheap, self-important, but still somehow lovable. Then audience knew him well; in some ways, they saw themselves or their friends and relatives in his character. The line, and the ensuing pause, and even the final “gag,” were funny only because the audience knew the Jack Benny character. Put any other comedian of the era into that situation — Bob Hope, George Burns, Fibber McGee — and the scene would be threatening, the pauses would be serious, the supposed “punch line” inexplicable. Before Jack Benny, radio comedians relied on gags that, theoretically, anyone with a good sense of patter could tell, what Norm MacDonald once called a “street joke.” A setup, a punchline. Jack’s innovation was a pregnant pause funny only because the audience already knew his flaws and foibles.

Sitcom actors and actresses have relied on this again and again in the years since: build a character with flaws, let the audience get to know the character, then put that character in a situation uniquely uncomfortable only to them and let them squirm. Think of Carroll O’Connor on All in the Family, Candice Bergen on Murphy Brown, Jason Alexander on Seinfeld, Matthew Perry on Friends.

The “money or your life” skit was so successful that for decades afterwards, someone faced with a ridiculous choice would say, “I’m thinking it over.” (Or misquote it as, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking,” which is somehow not as funny.)

Though he may not be a household name today, his influence on comedy is undeniable. He was a true pioneer, a master of timing and one of the greatest entertainers of the twentieth century.

Those who want to learn more can pop in this weekend on the 4th Annual Jack Benny Convention, a virtual gathering that began during the pandemic and has been graced by luminaries like Dick Cavet, Leonard Maltin, Rich Little, Carol Burnett and even Neil Gaiman, who discovered Jack late in life, and who is now a diehard fan. The devotees in attendance skew young; a new generation is discovering Jack’s comedy, though not very many of them.

Happy birthday, Jack Benny. Your legacy lives on.

^^^

Content and Image by Oblivioni Magazine.

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