“To become successful,” Jack Benny said in 1968, “your public must have a feeling like, ‘Gee, I like this fella. I wish he were a good friend of mine. I wish he were a relative.’ ”
During a career that lasted more than 60 years, 15 of them on his Emmy Award-winning television program, Benny became one of America’s most beloved comedians. Irving Fein, Benny’s personal manager for 28 years, says, “Everybody loved Jack Benny. He didn’t have an enemy in the world. I don't think I ever heard of any person who didn’t like him.”
Benny’s daughter, Joan, agrees. "My father’s true character came through in everything he did. You always felt that this was a truly nice man and that what you saw was what you got. The public trusted my father. They felt he was an honest, nice man. And it was true. He really was a gentle, sweet man. That came through always. People liked him."
The Jack Benny stage persona was the creation of Benjamin Kubelsky. Though he has long been associated with his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois, he was actually born in nearby Chicago on Valentine’s Day, 1894. According to his daughter, Benny was born in Chicago because his mother believed her child was destined to become a world-famous concert violinist whose birth deserved to take place in a world-famous city.
But Kubelsky proved to be a mediocre violinist whose first job in show business was in the orchestra pit of the local vaudeville house. In September 1912, he teamed in his first act with matronly Waukegan pianist Cora Salisbury. Billed “From Grand Opera to Ragtime,” the act was all music, no jokes. But professional violinist Jan Kubelik took umbrage, so Kubelsky had to change his name to Ben K. Benny, shortly to be modified to Bennie after he joined another pianist in an act called Bennie and Woods.
“He was not an educated man,” his daughter says. "But he was a very curious man with an incredible instinct for comedy. He felt if you tried to be funny it wasn't as funny as if you tried to be straight. When he played his violin at comedy concerts later in his career, he played the violin as well as he could. People thought he was trying to be bad. In fact, he was playing as well as he possibly could. According to him, that was what made it funny."
With the outbreak of World War I, just plain Kubelsky enlisted in the Navy, which stationed him at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station on Lake Michigan. During a show at the base, the troops threatened to mutiny during Kubelsky’s rendition of his sentimental vaudeville standby, "The Rosary.” Out of desperation, he lowered the violin from his neck and told his first public joke:
I was having an argument with Dave Wolf this morning about the Irish navy. You see, I claim the Swiss navy is bigger than the Irish navy … but that the Jewish navy is bigger than both of them put together.
Much to Kubelsky’s relief, that joke brought down the house.
Following the war, Kubelsky returned to vaudeville as Ben K. Benny, a solo violinist who also told a few patter jokes. Comic Ben Bernie accused him of using a name “obviously geared toward cashing in on my name and fame.” Ben K. Benny finally became Jack Benny, taking his new first name from a comic he greatly admired, Jack Osterman. In 1927, Benny married Sadie Marks (later to be known as Mary Livingstone), whom he had courted while she worked behind the hosiery counter at the May Company in Los Angeles.
On March 29, 1932, Benny made his radio debut on newspaper columnist Ed Sullivan's New York radio program:
Ladies and gentlemen, this is Jack Benny talking. There will be a slight pause while you say, “Who cares?” I am here tonight as a scenario writer. There is quite a lot of money in writing for the pictures. Well, there would be if I could sell one.
By May he had his own radio show, The Canada Dry Ginger Ale Program, with Benny billed as the “Canada Dry Humorist.” He soon became one of radio's most popular comedians. In 1935, he went on the air for General Foods (his opening line was “Jell-O again!”), and his popularity increased.
Hal Goldman, who wrote for Benny’s radio and television shows, says, "Jack was great to work for. There was no tension or pressure on the show, no crisis. He never threw out a script, never said in the middle of the week, “This won't work. We have to start over,” as practically every comedian does on a show. We worked on things, edited them, and changed them a little, but we never had to start over with two days to go.
"Jack loved to laugh at other comedians. He never felt any of the jealousy other comedians feel. Jack was relaxed. He didn’t feel every show had to top the previous one, that he had to top himself. He figured if the shows had a good average, if they were representative Jack Benny shows, there would always be something funny in the show. It didn't have to be some supernatural show every week. Some guys feel that way. They are always looking for something better, and they drive themselves and everyone else crazy.
"He didn’t want a lousy show, but he was smart and knew that each one couldn’t be better than the last one. He would get nervous about his own performance, but he wasn't nervous about the show."
Matching the visual expectations of his radio listeners proved to be Benny’s biggest challenge in moving his show to television. How, for example, could any stage set of Jack Benny's famous vault, its ancient guard responding to Benny's footsteps with "Who goes there?" match what the radio audience had seen in its mind’s eye for almost a decade? What about his house, the setting for so many of his sketches? How grand or modest should it be for the man who, when threatened by an impatient mugger with "Your money or your life," responded after an extended Benny pause with “I'm thinking it over!”
Fein remembers Benny as the person having the most fun doing the show each week. “Jack was the greatest audience,” he says. "I felt l was a great comedian with Jack. I would do lines, and he would be on the floor. Everybody who was with him was a great comedian. George Burns didn't have to say anything to have Jack on the floor. George just looked at him, and Jack started to laugh. George would say, “What are you laughing at? I didn’t do anything.” And Jack would say, “Yeah, but you did it on purpose.” Jack never tried to be funny. Jack could be funny, but generally, if we were at a dinner, he would sit around, and everybody else would make him laugh."
“He really was a generous man,” Fein continues. “Because of his cheap character, he spent twice as much as anybody else to prove he wasn’t cheap. Where anybody else tipped one dollar, Jack tipped five dollars.”
“There wasn't an ounce of miserliness about him,” Joan agrees. “But people identified with his character because his cheapness, his miserliness, his lying about his age and always being 39 are such common traits, such Everyman traits.”
In 1957, the Television Academy presented Benny with its first Trustees’ Award for his contributions to television on his series, which won a total of eight Emmys before it went off the air in 1965. Consistently high in the Nielsens, it was usually ranked in the top 10.
Until his death on December 26, 1974, Jack Benny continued to appear in his own television specials and as a guest star in numerous other comedy programs.
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Jack Benny's induction in 1988.