Jack Benny was a gifted comedian but he wasn’t really funny. He couldn’t manufacture a joke to save his life. Yet he was one of the greatest comedy stars ever. How is that possible, you ask? Timing. He knew how to pause. In fact, the more Jack paused the funnier the joke became. He could even crack other comedians up by his pauses and looks of exasperation. This was all a part of Jack Benny’s spiel. A joke would be told, usually not by Jack, and he would give the audience that look and wait and, sometimes, wait. Who knew you could use dead space to your advantage?
Jack Benny was born Benny Kubelsky in Chicago, Illinois and grew up in neighboring Waukegan. His father, Meyer, emigrated from Poland and his mother, Emma, from Lithuania. He began an affair with the violin at the age of six that would stick with him for the rest of his life. In 1911, he played the same theater as the young Marx Brothers. Minnie, their mother, liked Jack’s violin playing, and invited him to accompany her boys in their act. His parents, however, refused to let their son go on the road at age 17. Jack would wait and conquer Vaudeville nonetheless. He would transport the following he won on the Vaudeville circuit to the radio in 1932 with the Jack Benny Program. This is where Jack’s popularity really took off, and eventually saw him switch to television.
The most amazing thing about Jack Benny, and there were more than a few, is selflessness. “I don’t care who gets the laughs on my show, as long as the show is funny.” Jack felt he got the credit or blame either way, not the actor saying the lines. To him, the emphasis was on the comedic bottom line, rather than his success. As well, he gave Eddie Anderson, his black valet-chauffeur, Rochester, more leeway than other comics might have. This was the era of extreme racial prejudice and Rochester was a regular member of the fictional household of Benny. Jack, in character, treated Rochester as a partner rather than a hired domestic.
In 1948, a 1941 script was reused, which included several African-American stereotypes, and Jack prompted listeners, who were unaware the script was reused, to send in angry letters protesting the stereotypes. Thereafter, Jack insisted that his writers guarantee that no racial jokes or references should be heard on his show ever again.
To the end, Jack Benny’s humanity made him more than just a mere actor. Contrary to his character, the real life Jack Benny was not a cheapskate. He constantly fretted over if his tip to the waiter that served him was big enough or if he should give the homeless man on the corner more money. The real Jack Benny was one of the most generous who ever lived. As his time in TV began to dwindle, Jack went back to his childhood passion, the violin. In spite of it being a running joke on his radio and TV programs that he wasn’t a good violinist, Jack toured and played violin in all the major orchestras around the world.
He was neither a sharp-tongued wit, nor did he have George Burns’ knack, but Jack Benny knew comedy and how to make people laugh. He is one of the treasures in the entertainment world and the legacy he built has no equal. Jack Benny was the master of the pause, but it was the funniest pause ever.