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The Trailblazing Comedy of Jack Benny

There was nothing particular that made Jack Benny stand out in a crowd. Benny was the quintessential every man. He was average looking, average height and weight. He could play the violin relatively well but nowhere near the ability to earn the title of prodigy. During his time in show business, Jack never really wrote his material yet his contributions were unmistakable. He would readily admit that he couldn’t tell a joke if he had to. That said, Jack Benny, at  his height, was one of the most popular comedians.  The comedy that Jack Benny would help to create was, on first glance, “average”.  In truth, however, he was a genius, a trailblazer.

So, how did Jack Benny become one of the greatest comedians of all time?

Benjamin Kubelsky From Waukegon

For the better part of three decades, The Jack Benny Show consistently scored near the top in ratings every year. What made Benny unique? What was it that resonated so greatly with audiences? Certainly, at the center was the character Benny would present. A vain tight wad, more likely to surrender a dollar than admit his true age, the Benny character couldn’t be further from Jack the man. Contrary to the overwhelming number of comedians  of his era, Benny was not born in New York City. The most famous resident of Waukegon, Illinois was Jewish, born Benjamin Kubelsky, but he did not have the exposure to the fabled Yiddish theater comedy. If anything, Benny, like another Jewish wit born in the region, Bob Dylan, had, it could be argued, a Midwestern temperament.  The Wikipedia Encyclopedia entry about the show notes,

“His comic rendering of these traits was the linchpin to the success of his show. Benny set himself up as comedic foil, allowing his supporting characters to draw laughs at the expense of his own flaws. With his humanism and vulnerability in an era where few male characters were allowed such character traits, Benny made what could have been an unlikable everyman character.”

The Unselfish Jack Benny

It didn’t matter to him who got the laughs as long as the show was actually getting laughs . The Wikipedia entry for Jack Benny would provide a very apropos example of Benny’s unselfishness,

“This attitude reached its apogee in a broadcast structured as a Hollywood bus tour of the stars’ homes. Each “stop” on the tour was at a house belonging to one of the show’s supporting cast, who would then have a scene which included jokes about the absent Benny. Not until the final moments of the program did the bus arrive at Jack Benny’s house, at which point the listening audience heard Benny’s only line of the episode: “Driver, here’s where I get off.” Few stars possessed the combination of daring, humility and comic timing to commit to such an extended payoff.”

The Humanity of Jack Benny

Anyone who saw or listened to the show loved Rochester. Eddie “Rochester” Anderson was in a unique position as far as black actors were concerned. In an era when blacks in general were considered second class citizens,  his relationship with his boss was different. Sure, he was Jack Benny’s servant on the show. However, unlike many of the other servant characters, that had a voice in every day matters. Anderson appeared regularly on the show and Benny made sure the Rochester character wasn’t plagued by racial stereotypes.

Many of those stereotypes were commonplace of the era in everything from cartoons, such as Tom & Jerry, to such big name feature films like Gone With the Wind. They were a set of beliefs that many today hold to be racist. Under that guise, a lot of it gets filed away. The education that was needed then becomes secondary. as still today, to political correctness. Sometimes, shows, like The Jack  Benny Program, found themselves lumped in with these shows. Thusly, Benny doesn’t receive the deserved credit for his equality attempts.

The Jack Benny Program and Jack Benny

How influential was  Jack Benny? I mean, after all, it’s one thing to have a hit show.  To be an icon, takes something quite a bit more. How about being idolized by the King of Late Night Johnny Carson? According to the LA Times,

“Jack Benny served as one of Johnny Carson’s biggest influences and prompted the late night host to write his college thesis, “How to Write Comedy for Radio,” on the structure of Benny’s comic routines.”

Carson would even go so far as to adopt some of Benny’s mannerisms into his act.

In the end…

To truly understand how Jack Benny, Mr. Joe Average, became an icon of comedy, we must turn to his best friend, Mr. George Burns. In his eulogy for Jack Benny, Burns, himself one of the true wits ever, had this to say,

“Good, honest jokes live forever, Look at Jack Benny. Nobody knew how great he was until he passed away. I knew him for 55 years but even I didn’t know how great he was until he was gone.”

“There was something magic about Jack. Everything he created—the old Maxwell car, the ‘stingy’ jokes, ‘Jell-o Again,’—all that lived for all of us as though it were real.

“The pauses. The look. The nerve he had when he used to go next door to the Colmans to borrow a cup of sugar.
“Even if he told a bad joke, he made it work for him. I remember one show when he told a bad joke and he said it couldn’t be a bad joke because a great writer, Norman Krasna, had written it. So he told it again. And the next week he repeated the whole thing and, within a few weeks, he had a whole thing going about that bad joke.”