even reached the Palace Theater, the "Mecca of Vaudeville",
but bombed. Benny left show business briefly in 1917 to join the Navy
during World War I, and he often entertained the troops with his violin
playing. One evening, his violin performance was booed by the troops,
so with prompting from fellow sailor and actor Pat O'Brien, he ad-libbed
his way out of the jam and left them laughing. He got more comedy
spots in the revues and was a big hit, and earned himself a reputation
as a comedian as well as a musician.
Shortly after the war, Benny started a one-man act, "Ben K.
Benny: Fiddle Funology". But then he heard from another
lawyer, this time that of Ben Bernie, another patter-and-fiddle
performer who also threatened to sue. So Benny adopted the common
sailor's nickname Jack. By 1921, the fiddle became more of a prop
and the low-key comedy took over.
Benny had several romantic encounters, including one with a dancer,
Mary Kelly, whose devoutly Catholic family forced her to turn down
Benny's proposal because he was Jewish. Benny was introduced to
Mary Kelly by Gracie Allen. Later on, years after the split between
Mary Kelly and Jack, Mary resurfaced as a dowdy fat girl and Jack
gave her a part in an act of three girls: one homely, one fat and
one who couldn't sing. This lasted till, at Mary Livingstone's request,
Mary Kelly was let go.
In 1922, Jack accompanied Zeppo Marx to a Passover seder where
he met Sadye (Sadie) Marks, whom he married in 1927 after meeting
again on a double-date. She was working in the hosiery section of
May's department store and Benny would court her there. Called
on to fill in for the "dumb girl" part in one of Benny's
routines, Sadie proved a natural comedienne and a big hit. Adopting
Mary Livingstone as her stage name, Sadie became Benny's collaborator
throughout most of his career (according to Fred Allen's book on
vaudeville, Much Ado About Me, it was a custom for vaudeville comics
to put their wives into the act once married, in order to save on
expenses and so that the marital partners could keep an eye on each
other). They later adopted a daughter, Joan.
In 1929, Benny's agent Sam Lyons convinced MGM's Irving Thalberg
to catch Benny's act at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles. Benny
was signed to a five-year contract and his first film role was in
The Hollywood Revue of 1929. His next movie, Chasing Rainbows, was
a flop and after several months, Benny was released from his contract
and returned to Broadway in Earl Carroll's Vanities. At first dubious
about the viability of radio, by this time Benny was eager to break
into the new medium. In 1932, after a four-week nightclub run, he
was invited onto Ed Sullivan's radio program, uttering his first
radio spiel "This is Jack Benny talking. There will be a slight
pause while you say, 'Who cares?'..."
had been only a minor vaudeville performer, but he became a national
figure with The Jack Benny Program, a weekly radio show which ran
from 1932 to 1948 on NBC and from 1949 to 1955 on CBS, and was consistently
among the most highly rated programs during most of that run.
Canada Dry Ginger Ale as a sponsor, Benny came to radio on The Canada
Dry Program, beginning May 2, 1932, on the NBC Blue Network and
continuing there for six months until October 26, moving the show
to CBS on October 30. With Ted Weems leading the band, Benny stayed
on CBS until January 26, 1933.
at NBC on March 17, Benny did The Chevrolet Program until April
1, 1934. He continued with sponsors General Tires, Jell-O and Grape
Nuts. Lucky Strike was the radio sponsor from 1944 to the mid-1950s.
show returned to CBS on January 2, 1949, as part of CBS president
William S. Paley's notorious "raid" of NBC talent in 1948-49.
There it stayed for the remainder of its radio run, which ended
on May 22, 1955. CBS aired reruns of old radio episodes from 1956
to 1958 as The Best of Benny.
stage character was a clever inversion of his actual self. The character
was just about everything the actual Jack Benny was not: cheap,
petty, vain and self-congratulatory. His masterful comic rendering
of these traits became the vital linchpin to the Benny show's success.
Benny set himself up as the comedic foil, allowing his supporting
characters to draw laughs at the expense of his stinginess, vanity,
and pettiness. By allowing such a character to be seen as human
and vulnerable, in an era where few male characters were allowed
such obvious vulnerability, Benny made what might have been a despicable
character into a lovable Everyman character. Benny himself said
on several occasions: "I don't care who gets the laughs on
my show, as long as the show is funny."
The supporting characters who amplified that vulnerability only
too gladly included wife Mary Livingstone as his wisecracking and
not especially deferential female friend (not quite his girlfriend,
since Benny would often try to date movie stars like Barbara Stanwyck,
and occasionally had stage girlfriends such as "Gladys Zybisco");
rotund announcer Don Wilson (who also served as announcer for Fanny
Brice's hit, Baby Snooks); bandleader Phil Harris as a jive-talking,
wine-and-women type whose repartee was rather risque for its time
(Harris and Mahlon Merrick shared the actual musical chores of the
show); boy tenor Dennis Day, who was cast as a sheltered, naive
youth who still got the better of his boss as often as not (this
character was originated by Kenny Baker, but perfected by Day);
and, especially, Eddie Anderson as valet-chauffeur Rochester van
Jones — who was as popular as Benny himself.
And that was itself a radical proposition for the era: unlike the
protagonists of Amos 'n' Andy, Rochester was a black man allowed
to one-up his vain, skinflint boss. In more ways than one, with
his mock-befuddled one-liners and his sharp retorts, he broke a
barrier down for his race. Unlike many black supporting characters
of the time, Rochester was depicted and treated as a regular member
of Benny's fictional household. Benny, in character, tended if anything
to treat Rochester more like an equal partner than as a hired domestic,
even though gags about Rochester's flimsy salary were a regular
part of the show. (Frederick W. Slater, newsman of St. Joseph, Missouri,
recalled when Benny and his staff stayed at the restricted Robidioux
Hotel during their visit to that town. When the desk staff told
Benny that "Rochester" could not stay at the hotel, Benny
replied, "If he doesn't stay here, neither do I." The
hotel's staff eventually relented.) Rochester seemed to see right
through his boss's vanities and knew how to prick them without overdoing
it, often with his famous "Oh, Boss, come now!" Benny
deserves credit for allowing this character and the actor who played
him (it is difficult, if not impossible, to picture any other performer
giving Rochester what Anderson gave him) to transcend the era's
racial stereotype and for not discouraging his near-equal popularity.
A New Year's Eve episode, in particular, shows the love each performer
had for the other, quietly toasting each other with champagne. That
this attention to Rochester's race was no accident became clearer
during World War II, when Benny would frequently pay tribute to
the diversity of Americans who had been drafted into service. In
fact Benny made a conscious effort after the war, once the depths
of Nazi race hatred had been revealed, to remove the most stereotypical
aspects of Rochester's character. He also often gave key guest-star
appearances to African-American performers such as Louis Armstrong.
rest of Benny's cast included character actors and comedians: Sheldon
Leonard (later a hugely successful television producer and creator)
as a close-mouthed racetrack tout; Joseph Kearns as Ed, the superannuated
guard to Jack's money vault; Verna Felton as Dennis Day's mother
Frank Nelson, usually as an oily desk clerk or floorwalker, always
greeting Benny with an eager Yeeeeeeesss?; singer/bandleader Bob
Crosby (who succeeded Phil Harris in the early 1950s); Artie Auerbach
as the Yiddish-accented Mr. Kitzel ("hoo, hoo, hoo!");
and the remarkably versatile Mel Blanc, who provided several characters'
voices, as well as the famous sound of Benny's aging auto, a rackety
Maxwell that was always on the verge of collapsing with a phat-phat-bang!
Blanc is probably remembered best, however, as Benny's perpetually
frustrated violin teacher, Professor LeBlanc, who was as likely
to throw his own and Benny's instrument into the fireplace as he
was to have a nervous breakdown before he was out the door. Other
musical contributions came in later years from the singing quartet
The Sportsmen. In the early days of the program, the supporting
characters were often vaudevillian ethnic stereotypes whose humor
was grounded in dialects; as the years went by the humor of these
figures became more character-based.
Benny's method of bringing a character into a skit, by announcing
his name, also became a well-known Benny shtick: "Oh, DEN-nis..."
or "Oh, ROCH-ester..." typically answered by, "Yes,
Mr. Benny (Boss)?"
Jack Benny Program evolved from a variety show blending sketch comedy
and musical interludes into the situation comedy form we know even
now, crafting particular situations and scenarios from the fictionalization
of Benny the radio star. Anything, from hosting a party to income
tax time to a night on the town, was good for a Benny show situation,
and somehow the writers and star would find the right ways and places
to insert musical interludes from Phil Harris and Dennis Day. (With
Day, invariably, it would be a brief sketch that ended with Benny
ordering Day to sing the song he planned to do on that week's show.)
One extremely popular scenario that became an annual tradition on
The Jack Benny Program was the "Christmas Shopping" episode,
in which Benny would head to a local department store. Each year,
Benny would buy a ridiculously cheap Christmas gift for Don Wilson
from a store clerk played by Mel Blanc. Benny would then have second
thoughts about his gift choice, driving Blanc (or, in two other
cases, his wife and his psychiatrist) to insanity by exchanging
the gift countless times throughout the episode.
example, in the 1946 Christmas episode, Benny buys shoelaces for
Don, and then is unable to make up his mind whether to give Wilson
shoelaces with plastic tips or shoelaces with metal tips. After
Benny exchanges the shoelaces repeatedly, Mel Blanc is heard screaming
insanely, "Plastic tips! Metal tips! I can't stand it anymore!"
A variation in 1948 concerned Benny buying an expensive wallet for
Don, but repeatedly changing the greeting card inserted -- prompting
Blanc to shout: "I haven't run into anyone like you in 20 years!
Oh, why did the governor have to give me that pardon!?" --
until Benny realizes that he should have gotten Don a wallet for
$1.98, whereupon the put-upon clerk mentally disintegrates, and
in several instances, committed suicide, or attempted to commit
suicide ("Look what you done! You made me so nervous, I missed!").
Over the years, in these episodes, Benny bought and repeatedly exchanged
cuff links, golf tees, a box of dates, a paint set, and even a gopher
1936, after a few years broadcasting from New York, Benny moved
the show to Los Angeles, allowing him to bring in guests from among
his show business friends — guests as diverse as Frank Sinatra,
James Stewart, Barbara Stanwyck, Bing Crosby, Burns & Allen
(George Burns was Benny's closest friend), and many others. Burns
& Allen and Orson Welles guest hosted several episodes in March
and April of 1943 when Benny was seriously ill with pneumonia, while
Ronald Colman and his wife Benita Hume appeared frequently in the
1940s as Benny's long suffering neighbors.
the early days of radio (and in the early television era, often
as not), the airtime was owned by the sponsor, and Benny made a
point of incorporating the commercials into the body of the show.
Sometimes the sponsors were the butt of jokes, though Benny did
not deploy this device as frequently as his friend and "rival"
Fred Allen did at the time, or his cast member Phil Harris later
did on his own successful radio sitcom. In fact, the show was not
officially called The Jack Benny Program for many years; usually,
the primary name of the show tied to the sponsor. Benny's first
sponsor was Canada Dry Ginger Ale from 1932 to 1933. Later, Benny's
sponsors included Chevrolet from 1933 to 1934, General Tire in 1934,
and Jell-O from 1934 to 1942. The Jell-O Show Starring Jack Benny
was so successful in selling Jell-O, in fact, that General Foods
could not manufacture it fast enough when sugar shortages arose
in the early years of World War II, and the company had to stop
advertising the popular dessert mix. General Foods switched the
Benny program from Jell-O to Grape Nuts and Grape Nuts Flakes cereals
from 1942 to 1944, and it became, naturally, The Grape Nuts Show
Starring Jack Benny. Benny's longest-running sponsor, however, was
the American Tobacco Company's Lucky Strike cigarettes, from 1944
to 1955, and it was during Lucky Strike's sponsorship that the show
became, at last, The Jack Benny Program once and for all.
was notable for employing a small group of writers, most of whom
stayed with him for many years. This was very much in contrast to
other successful radio or television comedians, such as Bob Hope,
who would change writers frequently. Historical accounts (like those
by longtime Benny writer Milt Josefsberg) indicate that Benny's
role, like that of Fred Allen, was essentially that of both head
writer and director of his radio programs, though he was not credited
in either capacity.
his early radio shows, Benny adopted a medley of "Yankee Doodle
Dandy" and "Love in Bloom" as his theme music, opening
every show. The strange interpolation of "Yankee Doodle Dandy"
seems to have been an inside joke at Benny's expense: Jack Warner
of Warner Brothers had once promised to cast Jack Benny as George
M. Cohan the film Yankee Doodle Dandy (which of course didn't happen,
although Warner did cast Benny in "The Meanest Man in the World",
based on a Cohan play). "Love in Bloom" later became the
theme of his television show as well. His radio shows often ended
with the orchestra playing "Hooray for Hollywood." The
TV show ended with one of two bouncy instrumentals written for the
would sometimes joke about the appropriateness of "Love in
Bloom" as his theme song. On a segment often played in Tonight
Show retrospectives, Benny talks with Johnny Carson about this.
Benny says he has no objections to the song in and of itself, only
as his theme. Proving his point, he begins reciting the lyrics slowly
it be the trees. That fill the breeze. With rare and magic perfume."
Pause. "Now what the hell has that got to do with me?"
money or your life"
of the carefully timed, pregnant pause, Benny and his writers used
it to set up what is popularly (but incorrectly) believed to be
the longest laugh in radio history. It climaxed an episode (broadcast
March 28, 1948) in which Benny borrowed neighbor Ronald Colman's
Oscar and was returning home when accosted by a mugger (voiced by
comedian Eddie Marr). After asking for a match to light a cigarette,
the mugger demanded, "Don't make a move, this is a stickup.
Now, come on. Your money or your life." Benny paused, and the
studio audience—knowing his skinflint character—laughed. The robber
then repeated his demand: "Look, bud! I said your money or
your life!" And that's when Benny snapped back, without a break,
"I'm thinking it over!" This time, the audience laughed
louder and longer than they had during the pause.
punch line came to Benny staff writers John Tackaberry and Milt
Josefsberg almost by accident. Writer George Balzer described the
scene to author Jordan R. Young, for The Laugh Crafters, a 1999
book of interviews with veteran radio and television comedy writers:
they had come to a point where they had the line, "Your money
or your life." And that stopped them... Milt is pacing up and
down, trying to get a follow... And he gets a little peeved at Tack,
and he says, "For God's sakes, Tack, say something." Tack,
maybe he was half asleep---in defense of himself, says, "I'm
thinking it over." And Milt says, "Wait a minute. That's
it." And that's the line that went in the script... By the
way, that was not the biggest laugh that Jack ever got. It has the
reputation of getting the biggest laugh. But that's not true.
actual length of the laugh the joke got was five seconds when originally
delivered and seven seconds when the gag was reprised on a follow
up show. In fact, the joke is probably not so memorable for the
length of the laugh it provoked, but because it became the definitive
"Jack Benny joke"—the joke that best illustrated Benny's
"stingy man" persona. The punch line—"I'm thinking
it over!"—simply would not have worked with any other comedian
The actual longest laugh known to collectors of The Jack Benny Program
lasted in excess of 32 seconds. The International Jack Benny Fan
Club  reports that, at the close of the program broadcast on
December 13, 1936, sponsored by Jell-O, guest Andy Devine says that
it is the "last number of the eleventh program in the new Jelly
series." The audience, who loved any sort of accidental flub
in the live program, is still laughing after 32 seconds, at which
point the network cut off the program to prevent it from running
overtime. The program broadcast September 16, 1951 is reported to
have a laugh lasting 35 seconds, but the IJBFC website has a qualifying
footnote that is not explained.
to Jack himself, Mary Livingstone got the biggest laugh he ever
heard on the show, on the April 25, 1948 broadcast. The punchline
was the result of the following exchange between Don Wilson and
noted opera singer Dorothy Kirsten:
Don Wilson: Oh, Miss Kirsten, I wanted to tell you that I saw you
in "Madame Butterfly" Wednesday afternoon, and I thought
your performance was simply magnificent.
Dorothy Kirsten: Well, thanks, awfully. It's awfully nice and kind
of you, Mr. Wilson. But, uh, who could help singing Puccini? It's
so expressive. And particularly in the last act, starting with the
Don Wilson: Well, now, that's being very modest, Miss Kirsten. But
not every singer has the necessary bel canto and flexibility or
range to cope with the high testetura of the first act.
Dorothy Kirsten: Thank you, Mr. Wilson. And don't you think that
in the aria, "Un bel di vedremo," that the strings played
the cumulto passione exceptionally fine and with great sustunendo?
Jack Benny: Well, I thought--
Mary Livingstone (to Jack): Oh, shut up!
According to Jack, the huge laugh resulted from the long buildup,
and the audience's knowledge that Jack, with his pompous persona,
would have to break into the conversation at some point.
The Benny-Allen "Feud"
1937 Benny began his famous radio "feud" with rival Fred
Allen. Allen kicked the "feud" off on his own show, after
child violinist Stewart Canin gave a performance credible enough
that Allen wisecracked about "a certain alleged violinist"
who should by comparison be ashamed of himself. Benny — who either
listened to the Allen show or was told about the crack — answered
in kind on his own show, and the two comedians (who were actually
good friends in real life) were off and running. For a decade, the
two went at it back and forth, so convincingly that fans of either
show could have been forgiven for believing they had become blood
enemies. But Benny and Allen often appeared on each other's show
during the thick of the "feud"; a very close listening
should show that, often as not, when one guested on the other's
show the guest usually got the better laugh lines. Benny later revealed
that his and Allen's writers often met together to plot future takes
on the mock feud.
playful sniping ("Benny was born ignorant, and he's been losing
ground ever since") was also advanced in the films Love Thy
Neighbor and It's in the Bag!, but perhaps the climax of the "feud"
came during Fred Allen's parody of popular quiz-and-prize show Queen
for a Day, which was barely a year old when Allen decided to have
a crack at it. Calling the sketch "King for a Day," Allen
played the host and Benny a contestant who sneaked onto the show
using the alias Myron Proudfoot. Benny answered the prize-winning
question correctly and Allen crowned him "king" and showered
him with a passel of almost meaningless prizes. Allen proudly announced,
"Tomorrow night, in your ermine robe, you will be whisked by
bicycle to Orange, New Jersey, where you will be the judge in a
chicken-cleaning contest." To which Benny joyously declared,
"I'm king for a day!" At this point a professional pressing-iron
was wheeled on stage, to press Benny's suit properly. It didn't
matter that Benny was still in the suit. Allen instructed his aides
to remove Benny's suit, one item at a time, ending with his trousers,
each garment's removal provoking louder laughter from the studio
audience. As his trousers began to come off, Benny howled, "Allen,
you haven't seen the end of me!" At once Allen shot back, "It
won't be long now!"
laughter was so loud and chaotic at the chain of events that the
Allen show announcer, Kenny Delmar, was cut off the air while trying
to read a final commercial and the show's credits. Allen, who was
notorious for running overtime thanks to his ad-lib virtuosity,
had overrun the clock again.
Benny was profoundly shaken by Allen's sudden death of a heart attack
in 1956. In a statement released on the day after Allen's death,
Benny said, "People have often asked me if Fred Allen and I
were really friends in real life. My answer is always the same.
You couldn't have such a long-running and successful feud as we
did, without having a deep and sincere friendship at the heart of
The CBS talent raid
Benny had formed a holding company (a tax break major entertainers
usually enjoyed in those years), which allowed him to bundle his
entire program and personnel into a single commodity. While Benny
was top of the proverbial heap on NBC, CBS czar William S. Paley
cast a hungry eye upon the comedian. Paley apparently had good reason
to believe Benny could be had: he learned that NBC balked at buying
a "Jack Benny" package deal when "Jack Benny"
was not the star's real name. Paley reached out to Benny and offered
him a deal that would allow that package-buy — a tremendous capital-gains
tax break for Benny, at a time when World War II had meant taxes
as high as 90% at certain high income levels.
Paley, according to CBS historian Robert Metz, also learned that
Benny chafed under NBC's almost indifferent attitude toward the
talent that attracted the listeners. NBC, under the leadership of
David Sarnoff, seemed at the time to think that listeners were listening
to NBC because of NBC itself. To Paley, according to Metz, that
was foolish thinking at best: Paley believed listeners were listening
because of the talent, not because of which platform hosted them.
When Paley said as much to Benny, the comedian agreed. Because Paley
also took a personal interest in the Benny negotiations, as opposed
to Sarnoff (who had actually never met his top-rated star), Benny
was convinced at last to make the jump — and, in turn, he convinced
a number of his fellow NBC performers (notably Burns & Allen
and Kate Smith) to join him.
sweeten the deal for a very nervous sponsor, Paley also agreed to
make up the difference to American Tobacco if Benny's Hooper rating
(the radio version of today's Nielsen ratings) on CBS fell to a
certain level below his best NBC Hooper rating. But Benny's CBS
debut on January 2, 1949 bested his top NBC rating by several points.
NBC, for its part, its smash Sunday night lineup now broken up in
earnest, became nervous enough to offer prompt and lucrative new
deals to two of those Sunday night hits, The Fred Allen Show and
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show (Benny's bandleader and his singing
actress wife now starred in their own hit sitcom, meaning Harris
was featured on shows for two different networks), before they,
too, got any ideas about jumping ship.
The ironic postscript, according to Metz: Benny and Sarnoff finally
met, several years later, and became good friends, with Benny saying
that if he could have had this kind of relationship with Sarnoff
all those years earlier, when he was Sarnoff's number-one radio
star, he never would have left NBC in the first place.
television version of The Jack Benny Program (which never used the
sponsor's name) ran from October 28, 1950 to 1965. The show appeared
infrequently during its first two years on TV, then ran every fourth
week for the next two years. For the 1953-1954 season, half the
episodes were live and half were filmed during the summer, to allow
Benny to continue doing his radio show. From 1955 to 1960 it appeared
every other week, and from 1960 to 1965 it was seen weekly.
September 1954, CBS premiered Chrysler's Shower of Stars co-hosted
by Jack Benny and William Lundigan. Chrysler's Shower of Stars enjoyed
a successful run from 1954 until 1958. Both television shows often
overlapped the radio show. In fact, the radio show alluded frequently
to its television counterparts. Often as not, Benny would sign off
the radio show in such circumstances with a line like, "Well,
good night, folks. I'll see you on television."
When Benny moved to television, audiences learned that his verbal
talent was matched by his controlled repertory of dead-pan facial
expressions and gesture. The program was similar to the radio show
(several of the radio scripts were recycled for television, as was
somewhat common with other radio shows that moved to television),
but with the addition of visual gags. Lucky Strike was the sponsor.
Benny did his opening and closing monologues before a live audience,
which he regarded as essential to timing of the material. As in
other TV comedy shows, canned laughter was sometimes added to "sweeten"
the soundtrack, as when the studio audience missed some closeup
comedy because of cameras or microphones in their way. The television
viewers learned to live without Mary Livingstone, who was afflicted
by a striking case of stage fright — after she had been in show
business for many years already. Livingstone appeared rarely if
at all on the television show (for the last few years of the radio
show, she pre-recorded her lines and Jack and Mary's daughter, Joan,
stood in for the live broadcast as the pre-recordings were played),
and finally retired from show business permanently in 1958.
television program relied more on guest stars and less on his regulars
than his radio program. In fact, the only radio cast members who
appeared regularly on the television program as well were Don Wilson
and Eddie Anderson. Day appeared sporadically, and Harris had left
the radio program in 1953.
In due course the ratings game finally got to Benny, too. CBS dropped
the show in 1964, citing Benny's lack of appeal to the younger demographic
the network began courting, and he went to NBC, his original network,
in the fall, only to be out-rated by CBS's Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
NBC dropped Benny at the end of the season, though he continued
to make periodic specials into the 1970s.
his unpublished autobiography, I Always Had Shoes (portions of which
were later incorporated by Jack's daughter, Joan, into her memoir
of her parents, Sunday Nights at Seven), Benny said that he, not
NBC, made the decision to end his TV series in 1965. He said that
while the ratings were still very good (he cited a figure of some
18,000,000 viewers per week... although he qualified that figure
by saying he never believed the ratings services were doing anything
more than guessing, no matter what they promised), advertisers were
complaining that commercial time on his show was costing nearly
twice as much as what they paid for most other shows, and he had
grown tired of what was called the "rate race." Thus,
after some three decades on radio and television in a weekly program,
Jack Benny went out on top. In fairness, Benny himself shared Fred
Allen's ambivalence about television, though not quite to Allen's
extent. "By my second year in television, I saw that the camera
was a man-eating monster...It gave a performer close-up exposure
that, week after week, threatened his existence as an interesting
also acted in movies, including the Academy Award-winning The Hollywood
Revue of 1929, Broadway Melody of 1936 (as a benign nemesis for
Eleanor Powell and Robert Taylor), and notably, Charley's Aunt and
To Be or Not to Be. Benny often parodied contemporary movies and
movie genres on the radio program, and the 1940 film Buck Benny
Rides Again features all the main radio characters in a funny Western
parody adapted from program skits. The failure of one Benny vehicle,
The Horn Blows at Midnight, became a running gag on his radio program,
although contemporary viewers may not find the film as disappointing
as the jokes suggest (Benny plays the trumpet, not the violin).
also was caricatured in several Warner Brothers cartoons including
Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur (1939, as Casper the Caveman), I Love
to Singa (1936, as Jack Bunny), Malibu Beach Party (1940, as himself),
Goofy Groceries (1941, as Jack Bunny), and The Mouse That Jack Built
(1959). The last of these is probably the most memorable: animation
giant Robert McKimson engaged Benny and his actual cast (Mary Livingstone,
Eddie Anderson, and Don Wilson) to do the voices for the mouse versions
of their characters, with Mel Blanc — the usual Warner Brothers
cartoon voice meister — reprising his old vocal turn as the always-aging
Maxwell, always a phat-phat-bang! away from collapse. In the cartoon,
Benny and Livingstone agree to spend their anniversary at the Kit-Kat
Club — which they discover the hard way is inside the mouth of a
live cat. Before the cat can devour the mice, Benny himself awakens
from his dream, then shakes his head, smiles wryly, and mutters,
"Imagine, me and Mary as little mice." Then, he glances
toward the cat lying on a throw rug in a corner and sees his and
Livingstone's cartoon alter egos scampering out of the cat's mouth.
The cartoon ends with a classic Benny look of befuddlement. It was
rumored that Benny requested that, in lieu of monetary compensation,
he receive a copy of the finished film.
teamed with Fred Allen for the best-remembered running gag in classic
radio history, in terms of character dialogue. But Benny alone sustained
a classic repertoire of running gags in his own right, including
his skinflint radio and television persona, his perpetual age of
39, and his atonal violin playing. (His periodic violin teacher,
Professor LeBlanc — played by the "Man of a Thousand Voices"
Mel Blanc — often cried during their lessons ... when he didn't
throw up his hands and threaten some variation of suicide or nervous
gag in Benny's private life concerned George Burns. To Benny's eternal
frustration, he could never get Burns to laugh. Burns, on the other
hand, could crack Benny up with the least effort. An example of
this occurred at a party when Benny pulled out a match to light
a cigarette. Burns announced to all, "Jack Benny will now perform
the famous match trick!" Benny had no idea what Burns was talking
about, so he proceeded to light up. Burns observed, "Oh, a
new ending!" and Benny collapsed in helpless laughter.
even had a sound-based running gag of his own: his famous basement
vault alarm, allegedly installed by Spike Jones, ringing off with
a shattering cacophony of whistles, sirens, bells, and blasts, before
ending invariably with the sound of a foghorn. The alarm rang off
even when Benny opened his safe with the correct combination. The
vault also featured a guard named Ed (voiced by Joseph Kearns) who
had been on post down below before, apparently, the end of the Civil
War, the end of the Revolutionary War, the founding of Los Angeles,
on Jack's 38th birthday, and even the beginning of humanity. In
one appearance, Ed asked Benny, "By the way, Mr. Benny...what's
it like on the outside?" Benny responded, "...winter is
nearly here, and the leaves are falling." Ed responded, "Hey,
that must be exciting." To which Benny replied (in a stunningly
risqué joke for the period), "Oh, no—people are wearing clothes
one episode of the Benny radio show, Ed the Guard actually agreed
when Jack invited him to take a break and come back to the surface
world — only to discover that modern conveniences and transportation,
which hadn't been around the last time he'd been to the surface,
terrorized and confused him. (Poor Ed thought a crosstown bus was
"a red and yellow dragon.") Finally, Ed decides to return
to his post fathoms below, and stay there.
The Basement vault gag was also used on an episode of The Lucy Show.
sound gag involved a song Benny had written, "If You Say I
Beg Your Pardon, Then I'll Come Back to You." Its inane lyrics
and insipid melody guaranteed that it would never be published or
recorded, but Benny continued to try to con, extort, or otherwise
inveigle some of his musical guests (including The Smothers Brothers
and Peter, Paul and Mary) to perform it. None ever made it all
the way through.
In keeping with his "stingy" schtick, on one of his television
specials he remarked that, to his way of looking at things, a "special"
is when the price of coffee is marked down.
The explanation usually given for the "stuck on 39" running
joke is that he had celebrated his birthday on-air when he turned
39, and decided to do the same the following year, because "there's
nothing funny about 40." Upon his death, having celebrated
his 39th birthday 41 times, some newspapers continued the joke with
headlines such as "Jack Benny Dies - At 39?"
popular running gag concerned the social habits of Benny's on-air
orchestra, who were consistently portrayed as a bunch of drunken
ne'er-do-wells. Led first by Phil Harris and later Bob Crosby, the
orchestra—and in particular band member Frank Remley—were jokingly
portrayed as often being too drunk to play properly, using an overturned
bass drum to play cards on just minutes before a show, and so enamored
by liquor that the sight of a glass of milk would make them sick.
Remley in particular was portrayed in various unflattering situations,
such as being thrown into a garbage can by a road sweeper who had
found him passed out in the street at 4am, and on a WANTED poster
at the Beverly Hills police station. Crosby himself also got consistent
laughs by frequently joking about his more famous brother Bing's
February 2006, Benny's name appeared in the news again when his
fans petitioned to put this famous 39er on the US postal stamp after
the standard postal rate for first class letter was increased to
39 cents. (The U.S. Postal Service had issued a stamp depicting
Jack Benny in 1991, as part of a booklet of stamps honoring Comedians
- however, the stamp was issued at the then-current First Class
letter rate, which was 29 cents.)
his broadcasting career ended, Benny performed live as a standup
comedian and also returned to films, with a cameo appearance in
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in 1963 and was preparing to star
in the film version of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys when his health
failed. In fact, he prevailed upon his longtime best friend, George
Burns, to take his place on a nightclub tour while preparing for
the film. (Burns ultimately had to replace Benny in the film as
well and went on to win an Academy Award for his performance).
made one of his final television appearances in the fall of 1972
on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson when Carson celebrated his
10th anniversary. (an audio recording featuring highlights of Benny's
appearance is featured on the album Here's Johnny: Magic Moments
From The Tonight Show released in 1973.) During this appearance
he talked about how much he loved the violin that "if God came
to me and said 'Jack, starting tomorrow I will make you one of the
worlds great violinists, but no more will you ever be able to tell
a joke', I really believe that I would accept that." He also
related something Isaac Stern once told him: "You know, Jack,
when you walk out in front of a symphony orchestra in white tie
and tails and your violin, you actually look like one of the world's
great violinists. It's a damned shame you have to play!"
October 1974, Benny canceled a performance in Dallas after suffering
a dizzy spell, coupled with a feeling of numbness in his arms. Despite
a battery of tests, Benny's ailment could not be determined. When
he complained of stomach pains in early December, a first test showed
nothing but a subsequent one showed he had inoperable pancreatic
cancer. Choosing to spend his final days at home, he was visited
by close friends including George Burns, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra
and Johnny Carson. He succumbed to the disease on December 26, 1974
at the age of 80. Bob Hope delivered the eulogy at his funeral.
Two days after his death, he was interred in a crypt at Hillside
Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California. Mr. Benny's will
arranged for flowers, specifically a single long-stemmed red rose,
to be delivered to his widowed wife, Mary Livingstone, every day
for the rest of her life. Mary Livingstone died nine years later
on June 30, 1983.
trying to explain his successful life, Benny summed it up by stating
"Everything good that happened to me happened by accident.
I was not filled with ambition nor fired by a drive toward a clear-cut
goal. I never knew exactly where I was going."
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