Sunday 30 August 2015

Jack Benny: His Life, His Comedy, His Timing

A book called The Great Comedians Talk About Comedy was excerpted over a number of weekends in the Weekly Observer, a Sunday newspaper magazine supplement syndicated by the Gannett News Service.

First up in the series was Jack Benny. I need not say more other than it was published on March 9, 1969

Benny: The Penny Pinching Pauser

Perhaps Jack Benny’s most famous comedy moment has him walking down a street. A hold-up man appears from the darkness and shoves a gun in his ribs, saying, “Your money or your life!”
Because he is notorious for penny-pinching, there is an interminable pause. The audience is convulsed with laughter. At the last split-second, Jack says: “I’m thinking it over!”
As a guest on Fred Allen’s radio program, on which the comedians carried on their hilarious “feud,” to the delight of millions, Allen got off a particularly funny ad-lib, which stopped the show. Jack Benny, not to be outdone, came back with: “Hmmmm, you wouldn’t say that if my writers were here!”
JACK BENNY was born Benny Kubelsky on Feb. 14, 1894, in Chicago, but be grew up in Waukegan, Ill. He spent his early career touring vaudeville circuits, eventually doing Broadway musicals for Earl Carroll and the Shuberts. He entered the new medium of radio in 1932, switched to television in 1950, where he won eight “Emmy” awards for the excellence of his program. His best-known movies were: George Washington Slept Here, Buck Benny Rides Again, Man About Town, Charlie’s Aunt, and To Be Or Not to Be.
Jack’s latest enthusiasm is performing as violin soloist with the top symphony orchestras m America, with proceeds going to charitable causes.
THIS MEETING TOOK place m Benny’s Beverly Hills office. Fifteen minutes passed while Benny worked on some material with his writer for Lake Tahoe appearance.
As we chatted, it was difficult for me to believe that the man was in his seventies. He looked fifty-five.
Wilde: All right, Jack. How many years did you play the violin before you decided to become a comedian? Beany: We-e-ell . . . when I was about 14, 15 years old in Waukegan, I used to play with dance orchestras. We would play in stores on Saturdays and maybe get a dollar and a half for the day. Then I studied and I went into vaudeville as a violinist. There was a woman pianologist — or whatever they called them — who sang and did talking, comedy songs. Her name was Cora Salisbury. She took me with her on the road. We did a violin and piano act — Salisbury and Benny.
Wilde: Did you do any comedy?
Benny: No, only a little bit of kidding with the violin, but I never talked.
Wilde: What happened to make you give up being a musician and become a comedian?
Benny: Well, Cora’s mother became very ill and she had to give up the stage. So, I found another partner, a fellow by the name of Woods and I called the act Benny and Woods. That’s how I have Benny as my last name — Benny is my right first name. We stayed together doing a violin and piano act until the First World War and then I joined the Navy.
Wilde: Until then, you still had not done any comedy?
Benny: No comedy at all. Then in the Navy at Great Lakes, David Wolfe, who became a very dear friend of mine later, was the author of a couple of sailor shows for Navy relief. Wolfe needed somebody to play the part of an admiral’s orderly, who only had one or two comedy lines. He happened to see me and said, "Hey, young fella, come over here!" And I read a couple of lines and he liked it, because the next day he added lines for me and by the time the show opened in Chicago in the Auditorium, I had practically the comedy part of the show. Then I realized I could talk and get laughs. When I went into vaudeville again, I went back as a single act. But I always held the violin . . . did a lot of violin playing and just a little bit of talk. And then gradually I kept talking and less violin until finally I dropped the violin entirely. If I wanted to have a finish for my act I borrowed a violin from the orchestra.
Wilde: Even though you stopped playing the violin, why did you still hold it? For security?
Benny: Yes, for security. Also, it made all my jokes sound impromptu— when you hold an instrument, they always think you are ready to play.
Wilde: Where did you get the material you used?
Benny: I would get help occasionally from writers and I would pay them for that particular routine — $35 or $50 — but I wrote a lot for myself. In those days I was able to write because I had to. The only trouble . . . I was always walking down the street staring and people would pass me and say hello and I would not even know who they were. I was always thinking of jokes.
Wilde: Was your delivery basically the same as it today—that is, leisurely, unhurried?
Beamy: Basically the same, but I was always nervous, the first few years, when I talked. I wouldn’t gesticulate enough and though I work easy and smoothly now and I put into it, in the old days I was afraid to. When I was a bit in those days, I was a big hit because I worked easy and smooth, but if I flopped I was a flop for the same reason. You see, there’s such a thing as being too nonchalant on stage. It looked as though you were—
Wilde: Too well rehearsed?
Benny: Yeah. It looked as though you were over-acting and under-acting at the same time. Trying too hard to be smooth and easy. I learned since then I have to have a little action.
Wilde: What qualities are required, other than being able to make people laugh?
Benny: In the first place, to become real successful they must like you very much on the stage. They must have a feeling like: “Gee, I like this fella” — “I wish he was a very good friend of mine” — “I wish he was a relative.” You see, it’s like a television show—if they like you, you may think sometimes you are doing a bad show and you’re not at all. But if they don’t like you, you cannot do a good show. Of course, we had great schools in those days—vaudeville and burlesquer, which they haven’t got today. That’s why I give all the new comedians a lot of credit for making it as quickly as they do and actually getting big laughs. For instance, I can walk on stage and if I want to be secure I can open up with a stingy joke and everybody screams. Well, a lot of comedians who haven’t got those characterizations have to actually make good as comedians, not as institutions—household words.
Wilde: When yon started, were there any comedians you admired or patterned yourself after? You said Phil Baker was your idol—
Benny: It was not so much that Phil Baker was a great comedian — he was a great personality. One of the handsomest fellas you have ever seen and people loved him. He would always have somebody working with him to get the laughs, like I do on television. I used to like Frank Fay very much. Al Jolson was the world’s greatest entertainer. I don’t think there’s been anybody since then that had his magnetism, and particularly when he was in black-face. He had a sympathetic quality. I have always thought Ed Wynn was the world’s greatest comedian, and I still think there is nobody that has ever been as funny, or will be, in my time as he was in his heyday.
Wilde: Has what people laughed at changed much through the years?
Benny: I don’t think so. I think they laugh at the same things. Years ago you could do some corny things and be funny. I can look over what I used to do many, many years ago and pick out things to use now. The only thing is if you are working on characterizations, things that were funny 30 years ago have to be embellished — have to be smarter — wilder. Like, if I do stingy jokes I can’t do an ordinary joke about leaving a guy a nickel tip — that’s not funny anymore. Now you have to be more wild. Maybe the waiter leaves me a dime tip knowing how cheap I am. Today, it has to be actually funnier.
Wilde: Many comedians earn an excellent living doing club dates, conventions, but the world never hears of them. Some are very content with this anonymity while others are still striving to reach the top. Was it always your goal to become a star?
Benny: I would think so, and I nearly every comedian wants to be . . . just like a politician would like to be President of the United States. And I don’t care who the politician is—he might be the mayor of Carson City, but if he’s in politics he would like to end up being President. I think every dramatic actor, every singer, would like to be among the top few. Every concert musician would like to be considered among the top half-dozen. But when I say “would like to be the top” . . . you see, we didn’t demand too much in those days. For instance when I played the Palace in New York, which was the theatre every actor was nervous about, and I was a big hit . . . you had the feeling that everybody in the world knew about it and you didn’t have to go any farther. And the same with money. When I got to the point where I was getting $450 per week I thought I was quite a rich man. I started to move in the first-class hotels . . . oh, my goodness, I thought, if I could ever reach $1,000 a week, then I’m ready to call it a day—this is it.
Wilde: Could you pinpoint the specific steps you’ve taken to remain a star all these years?
Benny: I think I have had, through my years of radio and television, almost always a very, very good show. I can’t stand bad shows — I get embarrassed. I was the comedian, of course but I think I was almost a better editor. Most comedians give me credit for being not the best comedian in show business, but the best editor — which is important — as important as being a comedian. It’s not that I am such a particularly funny man. People will say to me, “Did you study the pauses in the tape?” There is nothing as important as editing.
Wilde: Were you born with this talent for editing or do feel it came about as a result of years of analyzing yourself and your material?
Benny: The latter — I don’t think I was born with it. It was important to me never to have a superfluous moment in my act or in my radio or television shows.
Wilde: How did all the Jack Benny trademarks come about? Thriftiness, bragging, playing straight to the people you work with, etc.
Benny: All these things happened by accident . . .with one show. Now how I probably became a stingy character happened because on one show I did some jokes about my being stingy. Then we did it again and again, until suddenly by accident this became one of my characterizations, and it’s the easiest one to get laughs. My feud with Fred Allen was an accident. Fred said something one night, I answered him —he answered me — I answered him, and it went on and on. We never got together and said, “Let’s have a feud.” If we did, the feud would have flopped, because it would have been contrived. We would have worked so hard at it it would have been lousy.
Wilde: Why was Fred Allen considered the comedian’s comedian?
Benny: Because he was a great writer. Fred was a wonderful humorist. He wrote funny letters. He wrote funny books. He wrote great shows. I don’t know whether he was altogether a great editor, because sometimes he’d have sensational shows and sometimes they wouldn’t be at all. They would be far from it. I always blame it on editing. Let’s take you . . . you are preparing this book, you gotta edit it, right? They say a play to never written, it’s rewritten. Well, the same goes for an article in the paper, or a monologue for a show—everything. My four writers and myself sit down and argue and discuss whether the word “but” helps or hurts a joke. That’s how important editing is.
Wilde: How did “Love in Bloom” become your theme song?
Benny: Quite by accident. “Love in Bloom” is not a theme song I particularly like. It has no significance with a comedian! It happened that I was fooling around with that number thirty years ago, and before I could do anything about it . . . it was an avalanche, and it became my theme song.
Wilde: You are considered to have the best timing among comedians. What exactly is timing?
Benny: Sometimes I think I have been given more credit than I merit in that because every good comedian has to have, right off the reel, good timing, otherwise he can’t even appear anyplace. I think the reason other comedians (feel this way) and maybe the public, who are gradually getting to know about timing, they know the words now . . . because I talk very slowly and I talk like I am talking to you . . . I might hesitate . . . I might think. Everybody has a feeling, at home watching television or when they come to a theatre, that I am addressing him or her individually. They feel that I am doing it for them, and because I talk slowly . . . I make it a point to talk like I would in a room with fellows. So they think my timing is great for that reason. Other people have great timing but they talk very fast. It would be tough for them to talk slowly and it would be tough for me to talk fast.
Wilde: Do words like “rhythm” . . . “pause” . . . help describe it?
Benny: Well, my pauses fortunately went over even in radio, when you couldn’t see me. The audience felt the pauses, but pauses make an audience think you are thinking. Sometimes I might do a monologue three or four nights and not change a word and an audience sitting out front will think I am ad-libbing a lot of it because I hem and haw around. But how do you define timing? It’s a necessity. It’s something everybody has to have. A good joke without timing means nothing and a bad joke without good timing means nothing — except you can help a bad joke with timing where you can’t help a good joke with bad timing . . . I don’t know how to define it.
Wilde: Is it a question of an easy flow . . .?
Benny: That’s right — one word or one syllable too much can throw it off completely. I had an experience one. I was playing Las Vegas . . . wonderful audience every night and I knew that my very opening line would be a big laugh, and every night it was a big laugh, and I knew just how long that laugh would hold . . . and then I would continue. One night I walked out and the laugh was good but not as long or as big . . . and that performance knocked me off my timing for about two medium—radio, television, movies, night clubs, or the stage — do you prefer to work in?
Beany: The stage — and my concerts. They’re all charity, you know. I enjoy playing with the big symphony orchestras . . . Carnegie Hall. A concert is the finest background a comedian can have. I’m dressed in tails as though I were the world’s greatest violinist. The musicians behind me are ninety or a hundred of the greatest musicians— Leonard Bernstein, George Stell, or William Steinberg. Alfred Wallenstein or Zubin Mehta are conducting for me like they would for Heifetz.


  1. All well and good, but let's be honest: None of the movie titles listed was Jack's "best-known." That honor, of course, goes to "The Horn Blows at Midnight."

  2. The bit about people not being able to see his pauses during the radio years made me think about an episode of Jack's radio show that I was just listening to this morning, the one from 4/25/54 where they hold a seance. In that episode, Jack supposedly plays his violin to accompany the Sportsmen during the Lucky commercial. Now, I'm sure that Jack didn't actually play the violin every time he was supposedly playing on the show; if it were just a quick bit, no sense in preparing a violin for him when someone in the orchestra can just do a quick scrape across the strings. But this time I believe Jack really was the one playing the violin in the bit, as you can hear some audience laughter that doesn't quite match up with what you hear. I think Jack must've been doing some visual business after each brief violin bit that the live studio audience was reacting to. I imagine he was looking smug and proud that he managed to pull off a fairly inconsequential violin chord (which was, of course, the gag). I think most of us would agree we like the radio programmes better than the tv shows, as they were so good about conjuring up mental images. But we're happy to have the tv shows, because they were quite funny on their own, but also because that we can actually see the visual of JAck taking pauses or looking silently smug, and thus can picture them more vividly when they happen on the radio show, like with the aforementioned Lucky commercial. Just a thought.