Today is the 40th anniversary of the passing of one of the great early American comedians of his age or any age, the inimitable Jack Benny. And that sad milestone is a reminder just how important the resurrection of the man and the appreciation for his dry, jocular, razor-sharp wit and sense of humor needs to be stressed and ultimately enjoyed in today’s era.
Regardless of today’s perception and remembrance of the man, Jack Benny nevertheless was a titan among titans. He could mow down a room with a short hysterical utterance of a one-liner and he could slice wit like a brain surgeon, extant with the best of them. Only the rapier wit of Groucho Marx would be the closest thing to the kind of parlayed sense of humor and the quick rat-at-at machine gun style that came out of Jack Benny with frightening ease, and the result was a career that found him a superstar of comedy on many different occasions, in many different projects, all of them finding stellar success for the man and the genre.
It had to do with so many things within him. Firstly, it was at face value his look, sometimes bespectacled but never playing it dumb when he was, like so many other “comedians in glasses” do and have done. On the contrary, his “character” of himself was a stingy well-to-do individual, who was at turns flummoxed always at the situations before him and dryly so, exasperated to the point of cool boil. Secondly, Benny had a solid penchant for playing it ultra dry, yet high key. He was a comedy martini in essence, verbally personified when he uttered what would become his catchphrase of simply the word “Well!” delivered in a bone-dry-desert vocalizing and ultimately it became instantly synonymous with the man and the visual image of him saying it, hand usually on chin, and eyes semi-rolled.
Benny, born Benjamin Kubelsky on February 14, 1894, in Chicago, Illinois, was also surrounded by a motley crew of characters, who kept his timing strong and the jokes plentiful: His wife on and off screen and stage Mary Livingstone; his gravelly voiced, yet keen and dutiful, sometimes to the point of no return chauffeur manservant Rochester; and voice man monarch Mel Blanc, best known as the voice of Bugs Bunny, who breathed to life many zany, bizarre characters, both on Benny’s radio and TV shows, much to the hilarious chagrin of Benny’s character, to name two. He was also skilled at violin, even performing, without the clowning as the focal point, but performing serious classical music at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall. It all dazzled and delighted audiences through World War II as Benny triumphed on radio, and then got a stranglehold on TV for over two decades in some form or another once that medium came to fruition. And clearly, in all formats, and even in the classic motion picture To Be Or Not To Be with the wonderful comedienne Carole Lombard, who tragically died before the finished product made it to the screen in 1942, Jack Benny stood as a maverick and mandarin in many forms of what he gave to the world of comedy and the people he influenced, and that would be an absolute A-list ranging from heavyweights like Johnny Carson and Bill Cosby and then going down from there, to an endless stream of admirers.
By the time Jack Benny died at the age of 80 on December 26, 1974 from pancreatic cancer, he was a hall-of-fame par excellence in many entertainment mediums. He starred in television specials right up the end of his life which were choked with stars, akin to a galaxy in gridlock, all of whom were having the time of their lives gabbing, jabbing, jiving, and conniving with the great master of laughter. Benny was all set to co-star with Walter Matthau in a 1975 cinematic adaptation of Neil Simon’s geriatric Odd Couple Broadway smash The Sunshine Boys when he passed away. One of his very best friends, George Burns, another long living and endearing comedian, stepped into Benny’s role and wound up winning a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his side-splitting and tender performance. Screen tests exist, excruciatingly silent however, of Benny and Matthau rehearsing some scenes. They would have to stand as the last public images of a man who 40 years gone, still resounds his influence in the hallowed comedic halls to this very day, even if most don’t know of his said influence. Hollywood has honored him with a Star on its Walk of Fame and The US Postal Service adorned a stamp with Benny’s image in 1991. When stamp prices rose to 39 cents in 2006, Benny fans clamored (albeit unsuccessfully) for the Post Office to make another stamp, since 39 was the number that Benny had joked was always his age, even when he was well into his 70s.
There’s a multitude of Jack Benny’s work to be seen and seen again on YouTube. His work gets funnier with age, with each viewing, with the neverending passage of time. The discovery or rediscovery of Jack Benny is like finding a vintage case of wine burrowed deep in a winery, deep in the Napa Valley. It’s that good and that worth finding out for oneself. Do yourself a favor today, go find out for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.