Comedian Jack Benny (1894-1974) was one of the top stars of radio, television, and stage in a career which spanned over 50 years. A master of comic timing, Benny changed the nature of the weekly comedy show on radio and his likeable skinflint stage personna delighted audiences in the United States and around the world.
Jack Benny was born Benjamin Kubelsky on February 14, 1894, in Waukegan, Illinois. His father, Meyer Kubelsky, was a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant who arrived in New York in 1889. After marrying Emma Sachs four years later he opened a small haberdashery shop in Waukegan. Benjamin, the eldest child, had no desire to enter his father's business, but he had a natural talent for music which his parents encouraged by purchasing a small violin for him and paying for expensive lessons. Considered something of a prodigy around his home town, he played as a member of a musical group at various town and social functions.
At the age of 15 Benjamin was offered a job at Waukegan's Barrison Theater playing violin in the pit for vaudeville and stage shows. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), he was a poor student and an incorrigible clown, and in 1912 he was expelled from high school. Shortly thereafter Benjamin went on the vaudeville circuit with the leader of the Barrison Theater Orchestra, Cora Salisbury. Their act was billed as "Salisbury and Benny: From Grand Opera to Ragtime." He reluctantly had changed his name, which he felt was too similar to that of violinist Jan Kubelik, to Ben K. Benny. It was not until Salisbury was forced to return home after a year and he teamed up with Lyman Woods that the act was booked in large towns and Benny began to introduce humorous musical numbers into the repertoire.
During World War I Benny enlisted in the Navy and soon became a performer in camp shows at the Great Lakes Naval Station. In one early performance Benny's violin act bombed so he started telling jokes. He became an instant hit with enlisted men and joined The Great Lakes Revue, which toured most major cities in the Midwest. Aside from his new act, Benny was given the lead in a comedy skit called "Izzy There, the Admiral's Disorderly." Following his discharge Benny returned to vaudeville as a single act, "Ben K. Benny—Fiddle Funology." He now considered himself a comedian and the violin became merely a prop. It was also at this time that he changed his name to Jack Benny so that audiences would not confuse him with another vaudevillian, Ben Bernie.
Throughout the 1920s Benny honed his comic skills, perfecting his timing and developing a suave stage personna. Unlike the zany comedians of the day he dressed in dapper street clothes and presented himself as a vain sophisticate. Benny's urbane brand of humor quickly established him as a star attraction at the large vaudeville houses, where he earned $750 per week. While a headliner at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles in 1927 Benny courted and married Sayde Marks, who worked in the hosiery department in a store across the street. She was later to change her name to Mary Livingston, a popular character she played in the Benny radio show. In the year following his marriage Benny gained a national reputation as the witty master of ceremonies at the Palace Theatre in New York. A movie contract with MGM soon followed, and he was cast in two vaudeville-like films: Hollywood Revue of 1928 and Road Show (1930).
A Radio Comedian
It was in radio, however, that Benny was to achieve his greatest success. Although he was earning $1,500 per week as a monologuist and skit performer in a Broadway revue called The Vanities of 1930, he knew that vaudeville was on its way out. In 1932 he joined the exodus of vaudeville stars to radio when Ed Sullivan convinced him to appear on his program. Later that year Canada Dry sponsored his first weekly radio program, initially on NBC and then shifted over to CBS. Over the next five years Benny developed a new program format for radio comedy. At first he borrowed heavily from his vaudeville routine of one-liners, but he soon realized that this insatiable medium devoured his material at a startling rate. It was Benny who discovered that the humor had to emerge from the character and that the key to longevity on radio was not novelty but familiarity. Radio listeners came to know the Benny personna as a lovable penny-pinching egotist, and before long he was one of the most familiar figures on the air.
Benny and his writers introduced other innovations as well. By placing Benny's fall guy character into funny everyday situations, audiences would howl with laughter anticipating his reaction. When a robber confronted him in one routine with the remark "Your money or your life," Benny paused. Gradually the audience began to catch on. As the robber grew impatient and repeated his statement, Benny took a slight pause and responded "I'm thinking it over." This joke was said to have generated the longest laugh in radio. It emerged as one of the many running gags in his show. This type of repetition was making his character more familiar and predictable to his listeners. He garnered his audience's sympathy by playing the stooge to his regular "gang" of characters with whom he shared the spotlight. Each week, they poked fun at his cheapness, his age, or his self-delusions. One of the familiar trademarks of the Benny character was that he never admitted to being over 39 years old. Benny knew, however, that by letting his cast get most of the laughs, his character became not only the butt of the jokes but the center of attraction as well.
By the late 1930s Jack Benny was the king of radio. He led off the most important night of the week in the most important time slot on the top-rated network—Sunday at 7 p.m. on NBC. The time slots opposite his on the other networks were considered unsalable. It was at this time that he began his famous feud with Fred Allen, another leading radio comedian of the day. In reality the two had been good friends in vaudeville, but their mock war of insults provided them both with a substantial boost in the ratings. Their cutting remarks kept listeners in stitches well into the 1940s, their much awaited face-to-face confrontation drew the largest audience in the history of radio up to that time.
Throughout the 1940s Benny's popularity continued to grow. During World War II he contributed tirelessly to the war effort by selling war bonds and by entertaining the troops both at home and abroad. His experiences performing on the Armed Forces Radio System led him to quicken his delivery, and after the war Benny, who was a perfectionist in preparing his routines and an excellent editor of his own material, developed a slicker program with greater emphasis on comic situations.
Yet despite his success Benny, like many other comedians, was unhappy about his earnings on the show. Highly paid performers were being heavily taxed under the new rates established after the war. As a result, Benny formed his own company, Amusement Enterprises, to produce his and other programs. Although this allowed him to retain a higher percentage of his earnings, he sold the company for a huge profit to the CBS network in 1948. William Paley, the chairman of CBS, personally persuaded Benny to switch to his network with an enticing capital gains deal. Benny had been at NBC since 1933 but was put off by the coldness he perceived in the NBC hierarchy. He was the first entertainer in the unbeatable Sunday night lineup of stars on NBC to make the move to CBS. When others followed, in what became known as the "NBC Raids," CBS took the lead in the ratings for the first time in its history.
The Move to Television
Benny's program remained on radio until 1955, but by 1951 his ratings were beginning to plummet. Television had arrived and was siphoning off a substantial portion of the radio audience. Although he was initially hesitant, Benny made his first appearance on television in 1950. His caution was not entirely unjustified since many radio comedians failed in front of the television camera. For the second time in his life Benny had to adapt to a new medium replacing an old one. Since television is essentially visual in nature, he had to develop new gestures—the mincing walk, the famous hand on the cheek, and his hopelessly harangued stare. In 1952 Benny's television program alternated every other week with his radio program. It was one of the most popular programs on television throughout the 1950s, but in 1964, after 32 consecutive years on the air, his program was cancelled. He continued to appear on television as a guest performer and in his own television specials until his death in 1974.
Few entertainers could match Jack Benny's skill and flexibility as a comedian. Aside from his mastery of stage, radio, and television, Benny appeared in 22 motion pictures. Two of these films, To Be Or Not To Be (1942) and The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), are considered to be film classics, and in others, such as Charley's Aunt (1941) and George Washington Slept Here (1942), Benny proved h mself to be a talented film actor. In any medium Benny was a master of delivery, using the pause and the reaction to its maximum advantage. His ad lib abilities were said to be limited, but his timing was impeccable. His greatest accomplishment was perhaps the character he created: the frustrated violinist who relentlessly tortures his audience with a screeching rendition of "Love in Bloom" and who refuses to believe the putdowns of his many critics; the eternally vain tightwad who built an elaborate underground vault to protect his millions and who still owns a wheezing Maxwell automobile. Although a sensitive and generous man offstage, Benny's popularity sprang from his unique ability to embody in a sympathetic way the pettiness within us all.
Further Reading on Jack Benny
An excellent analysis of Benny's radio work is contained in Arthur Frank Wertheim's Radio Comedy (1979). In addition, three Benny biographies are available: Mary Livingston Benny and Hilliard Marks with Marcia Borie, Jack Benny (1978); Irving A. Fein, Jack Benny: An Intimate Biography (1976); and Milt Josefsberg, The Jack Benny Show: The Life and Times of America's Best Loved Entertainer (1977).
Additional Biography Sources
Benny, Jack, Sunday nights at seven: the Jack Benny story, New York, NY: Warner Books, 1990.