Sunday, 17 May 2015

Jack Benny's Good Old Days

Pretty much every obituary about Jack Benny after his death in 1974 mentioned the gag about his age being 39. Not generally known was the “39” part came about late in Benny’s radio career and was the perfection of an old routine where Benny lied about his age.

Jack claimed other ages before 1950, but 36 is no funnier than 38. But 39 is funnier because it gave him and his writers ample opportunities to stretch the gag and invent comedy around why he refused to go to the milestone age of 40.

But Benny did turn 40, albeit briefly. It happened not on his own show, but on another series that Benny hosted. The show was a mess. It didn’t help that Eddie Anderson got sick at the last minute and couldn’t appear. The show was loaded with old colleagues of Bennys. But there wasn’t anything for them to do. They existed solely for the audience to peer at them and go “Gee, I didn’t know Paul Douglas was on the Benny show.” Instead of well-honed and purposely dialogue amongst a small group of characters, it look more like a visit to a museum. (Still, there is a contingent of TV viewers who find entertainment in merely ogling at stars. Oscar Night Red Carpet telecasts wouldn’t exist without them).

Here’s one of a number of syndicated newspaper columns featuring interviews Jack did solely to plug the broadcast. It was published February 13, 1958.

TV Keynotes
Jack Benny Late Arriving At 40 Year


Jack Benny is celebrating his 40th birthday on tonight's Shower of Stars and joining in on this remarkable milestone are such cronies as Mayor Robert Sabonjian, of Waukegan, Ill., band leader Don Bester, Phil Harris, Van Johnson, Andy Devine, Mary Livingston and many others to see that Benny doesn't renege and go back to the comfortable age of 39.
For some reason 39 is a funny age, and Benny, who's been that since 1950, has decided to face 40. In his early 60's, Jack and wife Mary Livingston recently celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary, and the master now feels he can look the public in the eye and admit to 40.
A few years ago Jack and his writers decided the time was ripe for him to turn 40, but the public, via mail, said no. One Boston newspaper went so far as to print an editorial against the move. Naturally, the birthday was abandoned. Now, eight years later, Benny sneaks into the fourth decade accompanied by a blast of trumpets.
Having a birthday means recalling "the good old days" and the other day in Hollywood, Jack was asked to name his happiest ones.
"I think the best time in my life was doing vaudeville," he said: "There were no particular problems about coming up with new material every week. And traveling at that time was fun and there were a minimum of worries."
What does he consider the funniest line in his career? Jack thought a moment and said "Well, I guess my most famous line is the one in which the holdup man sticks a gun in my ribs and says: 'Your money or your life.' I just stand there, and he repeats the line, whereupon I say, 'I know, I know, I'm thinking it over.'"
Jack learned most of his comic lessons in vaudeville and the most important one was making himself the butt of jokes. “I found it was always good for a laugh," said Jack, "when the other acts on the bill would make me the victim of the joke I'd stand there, a poor abused emcee, and the audience loved it.
“I found that if people laugh at you, they don't tire of you That's why I turn the laughs on myself and lots of time give most of the big laughs to others in the cast. That's part of the role I've built for myself and people seem to like it.
"I think the success of my comedy lies in the fact that I've created a fictional character,” Jack continued. "The fact that the audience knows in advance I'm going, for instance, to be cheap doesn’t detract from the humor, because they expect me to be cheap, but the audience doesn't know just how I'm going to be able to justify it to myself.
“When I do things expected of the Benny character, I'm actually doing something most people wouldn't do—it's easy to laugh at something you yourself are not guilty of. Now if I did something a normal person might be expected to do in a given situation—no matter how funny I was—there would be the thought in the mind of the listener that maybe under the same set of circumstances he might have done the same thing, and he wouldn't laugh.”
Well, Jack can laugh at his 40th birthday—all the way to that famous Benny bank vault. And if 40 isn't funny (he can't recall whether it really was or not) he can up it to 41 in only eight years.

Here’s another column we posted earlier on the subject. Fortunately, Benny and his people realised their error and went back to 39. And that was, at least according to one wire service at the time with a sense of humour, Jack’s age at his death.


  1. For at least the moment, the 1958 show is posted online. It's one of those situations where the idea may have seemed good in conception, but didn't play out as well in execution, and threatened to take an easy way at poking fun at Jack's vanity away in the future (and in a way, the lack of something like YuoTube to make it easy to recall past continuity mistakes made it easier for Jack and his writers to correct the mistake without a bunch of nit-picking)

    1. Jack's show was always so well structured. You'd get the Kitzel bit. Then the Nelson bit. Then the Polly bit, and so on. You didn't have six characters like Frank Nelson. The special stuck in a whole pile of people and gave them the same schtick--they had been regulars on the Benny radio show years earlier. There was nothing to differentiate them.
      And, as I mentioned in the post, the lack of Rochester really hurt. That kind of situation would never happen today; the show would never be done live now.

  2. see