Sunday, 6 January 2019

The No. 1 Foil

“Why spoil with success” must have been Jack Benny’s motto.

He kept the same writers for years. They kept writing the same type of material for years. And audiences kept eating it up for years.

Jack let Bert Resnik of the Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram drop in as he was about to get ready for another television show. This short column was published on November 17, 1963. This was during Jack’s final season for CBS, though it had already been announced he was leaving for NBC the following season. He was also about six weeks away from headlining a show at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe, with the Lettermen, Moro-Landis Dancers and Leighton Noble’s orchestra. Unfortunately, the cover photo referred to in the story is unavailable.

As for retirement, Jack was true to his word. He worked until cancer stopped him in 1974.

Jack Benny Foil For Jokes
For 14 consecutive television seasons, Jack Benny has been the butt of endless jokes.
“It’s better for my particular show if somebody else has the lines,” said Jack.
“I never figured it out. I felt it.”
The comedian had just come from a script-reading of one of his upcoming CBS-TV Tuesday night programs.
I sat through that reading-rehearsal and became aware, again, that Jack was the No. 1 foil. Everyone else seemed to have the yaks.
* * *
ON THE AIR, you sometimes lose sight of the fact that Jack is the butt.
His facial expressions, his timing, his gesture reactions somehow are funnier than the spoken lines.
In rehearsal, Jack laughs more than anyone else, probably getting it out of his system so he can dead-pan it for the actual show.
Make no mistake. If Jack is the butt of all the jokes, it is his own doing.
“I think it’s much funnier for Dennis Day to get funny lines off me than me off him,” said Jack.
“I create a situation where I deserve what they give me.
“That’s one of the reasons the South never resented Rochester—because I deserved the insults.”
* * *
JACK PLANS ON continuing to deserve insults.
“I never want to retire,” he said.
It would be too strenuous because, right now, Jack figures he has it made time-wise.
His writers have been with him so many years, they know what he’ll accept. This minimizes rewriting and editing.
Rehearsals have an easy rhythm, no pressure, no tension, just fun.
Jack figure he actually works only works about 13 hours a week, which gives him time for golf, listening to good music and collecting paintings such as the Peckstein canvas on our cover.
“I think George Burns has the perfect answer when someone asked him if he was going to retire,” Jack said.
“George answered, ‘I’m too old to retire.’”
* * *
AT 69, JACK, ALSO, is too old to retire.
He’s not worried about compensation.
In television, you’re only in competition with yourself,” said Jack. “If only every other show was good, that’s what they’d expect. But if you have eight good shows in a row, people expect a ninth.
“Maybe you can call that being in a rut, but it’s a good rut. Rut means groove.”
Jack admits there have been a few “ninth” shows which he personally didn’t like.
He hated one in particular, postponing and postponing the air date. It finally aired and “everyone raved” about it.
Benny, once again, was happy the joke was on him.


  1. Jack's supporting characters had their flaws -- Dennis was dumb, Phil was a boozer/womanizer and Don was fat. So that gave Jack the leeway to go in both directions, as either the butt of the joke due to his foibles or as the one pointing out his supporting casts' flaws, though obviously, the former worked far better because it made Jack far more sympathetic to have his own flaws be the source of needling by everyone around him.

    1. Not quite everyone. Listening to the radio shows lately, I've noticed that the Mr. Kitzel character, who turns up fairly regularly from the mid-1940s on, is unique among Benny's supporting cast in that, unlike the others, he's never insulting to Jack. Never rude. Never nasty. Always friendly and pleasant. For that reason, Kitzel is an interesting character to me among Benny's support.

  2. Yes, Kitzel is my favorite because Jack is so genuinely delighted every time he appears.