Today is February 14 and that means, of course–
It’s Jack Benny’s birthday.
Born Benjamin Kubelsky, Jack Benny (Feb. 14, 1894- Dec. 26, 1974) was one of the funniest comedians of all time, with both a successful radio (1932-1955) and TV (1950-1965) series.
Benny was one of the first comedians— if not the first— to make himself the brunt of the jokes, with his cast getting laughs at his expense. His first words on radio on The Ed Sullivan show, March 19, 1932, were “ladies and gentlemen, this is Jack Benny talking. There will now be a short pause while you say, ‘who cares?’”
Benny was generous in real life, but his radio persona was that of a skinflint. Rather than spend 5¢ on his own newspaper, he’d go over to his neighbors Ronald and Benita Colman and read theirs before they got up.
In the March 12, 1939 episode, Benny congratulated announcer Don Wilson on his 16 years in radio, telling Wilson that nothing’s too good for him.
So Wilson said he’d like a raise.
“You sure do.” Benny said. “Well, let’s get on with the program.”
Wilson returned to that point, with Benny replying, “yes, I’m agreeing, but not spending.”
In that same episode, Phil Harris explained why he always greeted Benny with “hiya, Jackson!”: “Because asking you for a raise is like going up against a stone wall.”
And Mary Livingstone read a letter from her mother about having received Mary’s last paycheck.
“Quite a while ago, wasn’t it?”
Benny, who portrayed himself as a horrible violinist despite being accomplished with the instrument, would also try to put off paying the nominal fee he owed his violin teacher, Professor LeBlanc (voiced by Mel Blanc).
And he’d often have to go to his subterranean vault (which was surrounded by a moat) to get it.
Benny didn’t get down there too often. On one occasion, he informed the guard that Lincoln was no longer president.
Which was a dig at Benny being very old. He often insisted he was 39. So focused was Benny on hiding his true age, that in one radio episode when he needed to know his actual age, his butler, Rochester (Eddie Anderson), told him they’d erased the birth date on Benny’s birth certificate so many times that they’d torn a hole in the paper.
Benny’s “stinginess” was probably best exemplified in the March 28, 1948 episode of the radio series. Benny, somewhat envious of Ronald Colman having won the Oscar™, asked to borrow it to show to Rochester. On the walk home, he was accosted by a man (Eddie Marr) who demanded, “your money or your life.”
“Look bud, I said your money or your life.”
“I’m thinking it over!” Benny retorted.
According to Benny’s autobiography/biography, Sunday Nights at Seven (page 89), begun by Benny and finished by his daughter, Joan (and cited in other sources as well), writers Milt Josefsberg and John Tackaberry were trying to come up with Benny’s response. Josefsberg kept saying “your money or your life” over and over again. Finally, Tackaberry burst out, “I’m thinking it over!” Both realized they’d found the perfect reply.
It (and Benny’s initial pause) got great laughs.
Even in his celebrated 15-year “feud” with his friend Fred Allen, Benny made himself the brunt of jokes. Unlike Benny, Allen was known for ad-libs; and when Allen made a cutting off-the-cuff remark in an episode of his program where Benny was a guest, Benny retorted, “you wouldn’t say that if my writers were here.”
Benny also made fun of a 1945 movie he starred in, The Horn Blows at Midnight, blaming himself for the somewhat lackluster box office performance. In the Feb. 15, 1948 episode, when he thought everyone had forgotten his birthday, Benny went for a walk and came upon a theater showing The Horn Blows at Midnight.
A number of digs at the movie followed. First the woman selling tickets told Benny that if he was a robber, he’d wasted his time; they hadn’t sold a ticket all week.
And then, after Benny had seen the film three times, the manager asked him to go home so they can could close up for the night. Benny asked why the woman had said they hadn’t sold any tickets when nearly every seat was occupied.
The manager’s explanation? They rented it out as a storage room for a mortuary.
When Jack said that was amazing, the man agreed.
“Yesterday, right in the middle of the picture, three of them got up and walked out.”
In 1945, The Jack Benny Show presented the “I Can’t Stand Jack Benny Because-” contest, with $10,000 in Victory Bonds as prizes, $2,500 worth of which went to the winner. Ronald Colman read the winning entry on the Feb. 3, 1946 broadcast. He said of it, “the things we find fault with in others are the same things we tolerate in ourselves.”
The winning entry, penned by one Carroll P. Craig, Sr., concluded with “And all the things that he (Benny) portrays/ show up my own obnoxious ways.”
As I said, in real life Benny was very generous. According to John Dunning in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio (page 357), Benny “over tipped in restaurants, gave away his time in countless benefit performances, and was lavish in his praise of almost everyone else.”
He also paid his cast very well, but some people confused the on-air persona with the real man, including an attorney who wrote Benny a series of letters protesting the abysmal salary he paid Rochester. As Benny related in Sunday Nights at Seven (page 102), he finally wrote back stating A) “Rochester” was actually an actor named Eddie Anderson; B) Anderson made $1,600 a week; C) he lived in a 10-room mansion; and D) he had three servants of his own.
Benny also supported Anderson in other ways, too. In one instance, cited in an article in the July 12, 2009 edition of the Columbia (MO) Daily Tribune, a hotel in St. Joseph refused to allow Anderson to stay because of his race. Benny’s reply: “If he doesn’t stay here, neither do I.”
My closest friend is a life-long Jack Benny fan and at the 2009 Cincinnati Old Time Radio and Nostalgia Convention (now called the Cincinnati Nostalgia Expo), Karen was cast as Mary Livingstone in a re-creation of a Jack Benny Show episode. The late Eddie Carroll (who did a one-man show as Jack Benny) played Benny.
Karen, a teacher, said she’s used Benny’s shows to demonstrate to her teenage students ways in which social values and humor have changed; how sound effects were used; and how dialogue, rather than visual clues, is used to set a scene.
“I’ve talked about him as an individual to emphasize the importance of showing respect and kindness and humility,” she said.
Jack Benny was a true American institution, and the Post Office blew it big time when they didn’t issue a Jack Benny postage stamp when stamps were 39¢.
But I’ll let Karen— to whom this entry is dedicated— have the last word.
“In Milt Josefsberg’s book The Jack Benny Show, he says, ‘I always thought Jack Benny was immortal. I still do.’ Jack is immortal: he continues to influence not only comedians and entertainers, but everyday people as well. Countless sources describe him as kind, polite, generous, caring, and humble, and we can all try to live up to his example.”
Copyright 2014 Patrick Keating