By Tinky "Dakota" Weisblat
Jack Benny was among the most beloved American entertainers of the 20th century. He brought a relationship-oriented, humorously vain persona honed in vaudeville, radio, and film to television in 1950, starring in his own television series from that year until 1965.
Born Benjamin Kublesky on February 14, 1894, the comedian grew up in Waukegan, Illinois. Although there is now a school named after him in Waukegan (Jack Benny Junior High School), Benny's education consisted of one term at Central High School. He worked in his father's haberdashery shop, then at age 16 he got a job playing violin in the orchestra pit of the town's Barrison Theater. After spending several years on the road with various partners in piano-violin duos he served in the Navy during World War I, where his talent for stand-up comedy was revealed. After his naval stint he created a solo vaudeville act, touring as comic and dancer under name Ben K. Benny, which ultimately got him noticed by the film industry. In 1928 he appeared in the short film Bright Moments and in 1929 headlined in the films Hollywood Revue of 1929 and Chasing Rainbows, and in Medicine Man (1930). With this national exposure in film, Benny became a star.
In 1932 Benny hit the radio waves, featured on his friend Ed Sullivan's talk show. Two months later, Benny was the host of his own radio program. He starred in a regular radio program from 1932 to 1955, establishing the format and personality he would transfer almost intact to television. According to Benny, comedy was based on seven principles: the joke, exaggeration, ridicule, ignorance, surprise, the pun, and the comic situation. Most of his films capitalized on his radio fame (e.g., The Big Broadcast of 1937), although a couple of pictures, Charley's Aunt (1941) and To Be or Not to Be (1942) showed that he could play more than one character.
Benny's radio program spent most of its run on NBC. In 1948, the entertainer, who had just signed a deal with the Music Corporation of American (MCA) that allowed him to form a company to produce the program and thereby make more money on it, was lured to CBS, where he stayed through the remainder of his radio career and most of his television years.
In 1950 Benny advanced to television. Benny made only four television shows in his first season. By 1954-55, he was up to 20, and by 1960-61, 39. The format of The Jack Benny Show was flexible. Although each week's episode usually had a theme or starting premise, the actual playing out of that premise often devolved into a loose collection of skits.
Benny played a fictional version of himself, Jack Benny the television star, and the program often revolved around preparation for the next week's show--involving interactions between Benny and a regular stable of characters that included the program's announcer, Don Wilson, and its resident crooner, Dennis Day. Until her retirement in 1958, Benny's wife, Mary Livingstone (née Sadye Marks, 1909–1983), portrayed what her husband termed in his memoirs "a kind of heckler-secretary," a wise-cracking friend of the family and the television program.
The main point of these interactions was to show off Benny's onscreen character. The Jack Benny with whom viewers were familiar was a cheap, vain, insecure, untalented braggart who would never willingly enter his fifth decade. Despite his conceit and braggadocio, however, Jack Benny's video persona was uniquely endearing and even in many ways admirable. He possessed a vulnerability and a flexibility few male fictional characters have achieved. His myriad shortcomings were mercilessly exposed every week by his supporting cast, yet those characters always forgave him. They knew that "Jack" was never violent and never intentionally cruel--and that he wanted nothing (not even money) so much as love. The interaction between this protagonist and his fellow cast members turned the Jack Benny Show into a forum for human absurdity and human affection.
"Human" is a key word, for the Benny persona defied sub-categorization. Benny had shed his Jewish identity along with his Jewish name on his way from vaudeville to radio. The character he and his writers sustained on the airwaves for four decades had no ethnicity or religion.
He had no strongly defined sexuality either, despite his boasts about mythical romantic success with glamorous female movie stars and his occasional brief dates with working-class women. In minimizing his ethnicity and sexuality, the Benny character managed to transcend those categories rather than deny them. Beneath his quickly lifted arrogant facade lurked an American Everyperson.
The Jack Benny Show further crossed boundaries by being the only program for decades that consistently portrayed Americans of mixed races living and working side by side. Jack Benny's ever-present butler/valet/nanny, Rochester (portrayed by Eddie Anderson), had first appeared on the Benny radio program as a Pullman porter but had pleased audiences so universally that he moved into Benny's fictional household. Unlike the popular African-American radio characters Amos and Andy, Rochester was portrayed by a Black actor, Eddie Anderson, rather than a white actor in blackface.
Rochester's characterization was not devoid of racism. As Benny's employee he was, after all, always in a nominally subservient position. Nevertheless, neither Rochester nor his relationship with his employer was defined or limited by race. Like the other characters on the program, Rochester viewed Benny with slightly condescending affection--and frequently got the better of his employer in arguments that were obviously battles between peers. He was, in fact, the closest thing the Benny character had to either a spouse or a best friend.
The complex relationship between the two was typical of the Benny persona and its fictional formula, which relied on character rather than jokes. Benny sustained the persona and the formula, in his regular half-hour program and in a series of one-hour specials, until both wore out in the mid-1960s. He returned to television from time to time thereafter to star in additional specials but never dominated American ratings as he had in the 1950s, when he spent several years in the Neilsen top-20s and garnered Emmy awards year after year.
Offscreen, Benny was apparently ambivalent about television. In his memoirs, Sunday Nights at Seven, posthumously published with his daughter as co-author in 1990, he wrote, "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 entertainer." Despite this concern, Jack Benny and American television clearly did well by each other.
Benny died of stomach cancer in Beverly Hills, California, on December 26, 1974.
Fein, Irving. Jack Benny: An Intimate Biography. New York: Putnam, 1976.
Jack Benny: The Radio and Television Work. Published in Conjunction with an Exhibition of the Same Title: Museum of Television and Radio, New York. New York: Harper-Perennial, 1991.
Josefsberg, Milt. The Jack Benny Show. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1977.
Marc, David. "Lending Character to American Comedy." Television Quarterly (New York), Winter 1992.
McFadden, Margaret T. "America's Boy Friend Who Can't Get a Date: Gender, Race, and the Cultural Work of the Jack Benny Program, 1932-1946." Journal of American History (Bloomington, Indiana), June 1993.
O'Connor, John J. "Jack Benny: Comedy in Bloom." New York Times, 5 October 1992.
Source: The Museum of Broadcast Communications; Encyclopaedia Judaica; I. Fein, Jack Benny: An Intimate Biography (1976); M. Josefsberg, The Jack Benny Show (1977).