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Jack Benny was a great many things to many people. To millions of radio listeners, his character was simply the cheapest man in America, an image so ingrained into the national consciousness that on opening day of baseball season-instead of throwing out the first ball-he merely glanced at it and put it in his pocket, bringing the house down. To others, he was the world's lousiest violinist, whose ego told him he was one of the all-time greats, an opinion he shared with no one. To many of those same people, he was a man so vain that he claimed to be 39 for almost 40 years. However, for industry insiders and fellow comedians, he was the creator of what is now universally known as the family sitcom and the absolute master of comedic timing. He was also as far removed from his stage character as was humanly possible. Benny may have played the ego obsessed miser, but nobody was more gracious, especially when it came to sharing the laughs on his radio and-later-television shows among his ensemble cast. Benny was not only the pioneer of ensemble cast sitcom work but the genius who knew what made it tick, knowing full well that it didn't matter if you (or for matter, who) got all the laughs as long as the people tuned back in to your show every week. Nobody was better at protecting a laugh than Jack Benny. No matter which cast member had the preceding punch line, Jack always made sure that his writers gave the next line to him, so he could milk the laugh for all it was worth before continuing the routine. As George Burns would so often attest, nobody could wring more laughs out of a blank stare and dead silence than Jack Benny. Certainly no comedian had a keener awareness of what made their act work than he did, a knowledge gleaned from numerous years on the vaudeville circuit, finding out first hand what made audiences laugh.
He was born Benny Kubelsky in Chicago, Illinois on Valentine's Day in 1894. His parents lived in nearby Waukegan and that small Midwestern town forever became known-through its constant interjection into radio and tv skits-as Jack Benny's birthplace and home town. There he broke into show business, working as a violinist in the pit band of the local vaudeville house. His parents were opposed to him pursuing a life in show business (especially comedy), but soon he hit the road working in an act with an older woman pianist as "Salisbury and Kubelsky-From Grand Opera to Ragtime." When concert violinist Jan Kubelik objected to his ham fisted playing and similarities in their name thru his lawyer, his stage name changed to Ben Benny. Finding a new partner, he continued with the same type of act as "Benny and Woods," still a few years away from developing his character or doing comedy on stage. After the breakout of World War I, Benny enlisted, working in a Navy sponsored revue show that toured the Midwest. After the war, he drifted back into vaudeville, working as a single, doing a monologue as "Ben K. Benny, Fiddleology and Fun." He briefly changed the spelling to 'Bennie,' but when fiddler-monologist-bandleader Ben Bernie-who had been doing a similar act for much longer-had his lawyer contact the upstart, his stage name was changed for the last time to Jack Benny.
During this time, he had found out several things that were to become staples of his act. He found he was an excellent master of ceremonies, but that he worked well with a partner, or in a group. He also found that he didn't need to use the violin as a major component of the act any more (other than threatening to play it for laughs) and once he figured out-through trial and error-how to use his hands, a new comedic style was being freshly minted. The other thing Benny quickly learned was that the longer he stared at an audience after telling a joke-saying absolutely nothing-the longer they laughed. Although generally perceived as a visual gag, this became so much a part of his character that when those pregnant pauses were used on radio, they worked just as well if not better.
He worked in movies for awhile, doing guest shots in films like Hollywood Revue of 1929 and some two reelers, but truly found his medium with radio in the early 30s. After a couple of unsuccessful starts, he found his sponsor (Jell-O) and his time slot: Sunday nights at seven, soon to become an American radio tradition for two decades. It was in this environment that he developed a radio 'family,' with recurring characters, the precursor to the modern day sitcom. There was his girlfriend (real life wife) Mary Livingstone, his announcer Don Wilson, his bandleader Phil Harris and perhaps the most important and best liked character, his African-American butler Rochester, played by Eddie Anderson. Rochester may have been Benny's manservant, but no typical Negro stereotype was he. Brassy and assertive, Anderson's character struck a positive blow for race relations that Benny was more than happy to be a behind the scenes pioneer of. The show was a national treasure on radio for over 20 years, before making a successful transition to television in 1951. What had worked so well on radio worked equally well in the new infant medium and by the 1953 season, the Jack Benny radio program ceased to exist. Even if some of the mysteries of the Maxwell (Benny's ancient car) and the legendary basement vault were erased by finally having pictures to go along with the sounds, it was worth it just to have Benny staring at you, making you laugh by doing-seemingly-nothing at all. The show ran successfully-with little to no alteration to format-for the next 15 years, winning eight Emmy awards. Benny went on to do specials for CBS for another nine years, himself being awarded the very first Trustees Award ever presented by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. At the time of his death in 1974, Benny was still playing Vegas, doing benefit concerts, tv specials, still in demand. And still 39.