By Jocelyn Selim
The Man Who Kept America Laughing
A gentle man on the inside and a loud one on the outside, Jack Benny entertained generations until pancreatic cancer pulled him from the stage
By Jocelyn Selim
In March 1932, more than a decade before launching his weekly TV variety show, Ed Sullivan invited an old friend to appear on his radio program. At the time, radio itself was relatively new—the first broadcast stations were only about a decade old—and Sullivan’s friend, a well-known vaudeville comedian, was hesitant about appearing in this new technological medium. His wife, who fancied his voice as perfect for radio, pushed him to accept the offer.
Thus, on March 29, a rich, velvety voice drifted across the airwaves for the first time: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Jack Benny talking. There will be a slight pause while you say, ‘Who cares?’ ”
As it turned out, millions of people did care. Barely a month later, Benny had his own show. And within two years, polls showed he was the most popular comedian in the country. In Sunday Nights at Seven—a book by Benny and his daughter, Joan—a fan recounted how everybody left their windows open during warm weather in the 1930s in New York City. “It didn’t matter how far or fast I went, I knew I would never miss a word of Jack Benny,” he said. “Everyone’s radio was tuned in to that show.”
Benny’s short appearance on Sullivan’s program, it turned out, was the beginning of one of the longest running and most successful careers in American show business, a comedic routine that lasted until his death, four decades later, of pancreatic cancer.
From Violin Prodigy to Hollywood Star
For most of the 1930s and ’40s, Benny was the voice of America. His show was a massive departure from the interview format or comedy shows of the time. Instead of simply telling one-liners, Benny embraced situational comedy, enlisting a full cast of characters who included his wife, Mary Livingstone, as his smart aleck secretary and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson as his butler. He made himself the butt of most gags: On the airwaves, Benny became an obnoxious, self-aggrandizing, penny-pinching, delusional know-it-all who never failed to fall prey to Murphy’s Law. In 1936, a poll showed that his voice was more recognizable than President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s.
“Fred Allen [a fellow radio comedian] summed it up best when he said: ‘Practically all comedy shows on radio owe their structure to Benny’s conceptions,’ ” Benny’s wife recalled in her biography, Jack Benny. “ ‘He was the first to realize that the listener is not in a theater with a thousand other people, but is in a small circle at home. The Benny show is like [the radio show] One Man’s Family in slapstick. When they tune in to Benny, it’s like tuning in to somebody else’s house.’ “