Before there was Carson…there was Benny

Since David Letterman is leaving late night, I dusted off this never-used review of one of the masters of comedy, Jack Benny. Benny was the inspiration for Carson, who was in turn the mentor for a whole new breed of entertainer, the late night talk-show host. Letterman revered Johnny Carson, but Carson was inspired by Jack Benny.

Benny & Carson

Watching To Be or Not to Be brings back memories of the first time I saw the movie. I didn’t care for old black & white movies with long-dead actors. But To Be or Not to Be, the best movie Benny made, turned out to be one of the funniest comedies ever made. Not only Benny, but Carole Lombard came across as true masters of comic timing. Their pauses made for unforgettable moments, with the culmination of the film focusing on the blind devotion to Hitler, even leading men to jump out of an airborne plane without question, simply upon order of “the Fuehrer”. They periodically show it at art houses and on college campuses, and my wholehearted endorsement for this film would encourage anyone to see it in a movie theater setting.

Lately, I’ve been taping the old Jack Benny show from the fifties and sixties. It comes on at 4 or 5 am on a local station. There lies a treasure trove of comedy from the master. Before there was Carson, there was Benny. Jack Benny was known as the master of perfect timing. In comedy, timing is everything. For Benny, he had it down to a true art.

The show is dated and the scenes with Rochester don’t pass muster with today’s PC media. Yet, there is an underlying sweetness of character and true courage in Benny’s shows. He is never afraid to go out on a limb, to let others take the big laughs and to turn the joke on himself. Beyond that, there is real innovation in his art. He was a true comedic genius, and like so many comics before him, he honed his craft in the rigorous world of Vaudeville.

Some personal favorites of mine include the show where his wife Mary, and the cast all go the the announcer Don’s house for dinner. Benny is forced to hide in the bushes with the rest of the “gang” and one by one, they are all allowed to come into the house. Benny alone is left in the bushes where it begins to rain.

The old gag where a robber asks Benny, “Your money or your life” is used, but that isn’t the funniest part. The fact that Benny is the only one left outside and is soaking wet, while the others are allowed in one by one makes this humor become almost absurdist in the end.

The joke is on Benny, and he milks it for all its worth. He mugs into the camera, exasperated and wounded at the same time, wondering why this always happens to him. The show always centered around Benny’s persona of a cheapskate who was in reality a charming, funny and endearing man. Nothing could hide the warmth of his humor and his infectious smile that lit up for each individual that stepped onto the stage with him. He was a generous and giving man, one who gave of himself with each performance. That was at the heart of Benny’s success.
Beyond that, there is real innovation in his art. He was a master of his art, and like so many comics before him, he honed his craft in the rigorous world of Vaudeville. Benny talks about his years in Vaudeville on several occasions, and used some of the routines in his shows.

The show featuring  Johnny Carson, seen as a young man just getting started and enjoying himself with his idol, Jack Benny, is one of the best of the lot. Carson sings and dances, he does magic and tells jokes with his mentor, Benny. There is a much more relaxed air about him when he didn’t have so much to lose. Benny himself introduced a string of young comics, including Carol Burnett and the Smothers Brothers. And several shows featured his old friends from Vaudeville, George Burns and Bob Hope.

Benny makes fun of the current trends of the era, which included lots of westerns and popular music.  But his is a timeless art of comic genius, in which he is the butt of the jokes, and the long-running gags are part of each show. In the comic universe he created, Jack Benny was vain, a would-be lady-killer, he was cheap, he couldn’t play the violin worth a darn, and he was often jealous of his fellow comics. Of course, the opposite was the truth.

The sweetness and big-hearted nature of the real Jack Benny shone through with each show. He illustrated in each episode the type of generous actor he truly was. There never seems to be a real replacement for the dominant figure of Johnny Carson in the late-night wars. And in the pantheon of comic legends, Jack Benny still shines alone among the stars.

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Author of "6 Degrees of Film: The Future of Film in the Global Village", Ms. Johnson continues to blog on film and publishes a newsletter plus the Flipboard magazine 6 Degrees of Film @ the Movies. Her book is currently available on Amazon at

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