Prompt: Let’s do lunch! – If you could have lunch with anybody, who would it be and what would you like to discuss?
I madly, madly adore Jack Benny.
Who is he? He is vaudeville. He is radio. He is TV and occasionally movies. He’s a comedian, a violinist (mostly), a master of timing, humor and pathos, perennially 39 and one of the finest humanitarians who ever played a skinflint for his character so well that people are still fooled today.
I say “is,” though he was born on Valentine’s Day, 1894, and died just shy of 1975. Every time I dial up his radio show on my iPod, read one of the loving biographies about him or watch his television show, he’s right there alive with us again.
Yet I’d spent so much of my life not knowing anything about him. I loved old movies and knew many of the old comedians, but it took the explosion of the internet, streaming media and the incredible wealth of archived old time radio shows to bring Jack Benny into my own public domain. That was all it took, that magical day when I came upon an “Old Time Radio” online channel and the Jack Benny Show was playing.
Brilliant. The deadpan delivery, the drawn-out pauses, the fractured dignity–all that wit, charm and sheer screwball comedic intelligence came straight down through the years as if not a one had passed. I was captivated. I was convulsed. I was in love.
Jack was a wonderfully generous comedian who didn’t begrudge others their share of the laughs. Where other comedians would make sure they got all the funny lines, to Jack, making a good show was far more important than grabbing the limelight. With his exceptional cast of Phil Harris, Rochester, real-life wife Mary Livingstone, Don Wilson, Dennis Day, Frank Nelson and Mel Blanc–yes, that Mel Blanc–and team of great writers, the subtle timing and intrepreting of lines and situations convulsed the audience, bringing them back week after week to gather around the radio.
And Jack was smart, oh, was he ever smart. He didn’t use the same gags show after show, the ones that got the biggest laughs. He made the audience wait for them, building up the tension and suspense, so that when he finally let one out, the laughs would go on and on.
One of the favorites was when he’d go to his vault to get money. Remember, he’s a miserly man, so this was a very big deal for him to take out a *gasp!* five dollar bill. He’d set off and you’d hear echoing footsteps and creaking doors opening, and suddenly, the sound of a drawbridge. Jack always muses out loud as he goes so you’re right there with him. I know I risk losing context but as a fangirl, I can’t resist:
“Now to cross the bridge over the moat…gosh, look at that alligator. So strong and powerful, he’s been very valuable to me too…three wallets and a belt and he’s still as healthy as ever! I hope he forgets by next Christmas. He’s getting wise to me when I come in here with a piece of meat in one hand and a can of ether in the other.”
Since I’m pulling quotes, here’s another snippet from a 1951 radio show where Jack’s valet, Rochester, is making egg nog. His recipe is simple: Eggs and bourbon.
Jack: “Why would anyone think of mixing eggs and bourbon?”
Rochester: “It’s psychological, boss. The eggs make you think you’re getting something healthy. And the bourbon makes that fact unimportant.”
The boss-valet relationship between Jack (a white man) and Rochester (a black man) was also exceptional and as such threatened more than a few people, because Rochester’s valet character was an intelligent man, and it was clear that Jack valued him highly.
Jack got so many letters from racists claiming that the relationship was “too close” for a white and black man to have that he wrote a form letter to send right back [excerpt]: “Why are you threatened by two men who have a real regard and affection for one another? Is it because one of the men is a negro? It is a shame that some people are still fighting the civil war after nearly one hundred years.” You can read another great anecdote here.
When WWII came, Jack entertained the troops with a star-studded show just like Bob Hope. He absolutely loved it, and so did they. He also insisted that everyone in the show dressed in glamorous clothes, because the soldiers were surely sick of seeing nothing but khaki.
I could write all day about him, the things he’s done for others, the influence he’s been, how he was still reading scripts for his TV show just a few weeks before his death, even about his latter-day music career. Wikipedia will of course tell you all about him and the show itself, and here’s a link to all things Jack on Amazon.
At the very least, get a biography or two from the library–especially George Burns’ “All My Best Friends,” one of the most touching books on friendship I’ve ever read.
And you can get his radio show and more at the Internet Archive.
So what would I like to discuss with Jack Benny? The man with eyes “bluer than the seat of the fourth man on a three-man bobsled”? After I got over my vapors–everything!
Pictures above are from the International Jack Benny Fan Club or wiki.
Bonus: A tiny .gif I made years ago from a Jack & Marilyn sketch on his TV show.
(Gankable with credit to thehouseofbeck)