No other comedian could milk a pause for a laugh quite the way Jack Benny could on his radio program, which lasted from 1932 to 1955 and turned him into an American institution. (He also did a TV show from 1950 to 1965.) Benny was a comedy minimalist, and his friend George Burns called him the best editor of comedy material in the business. His art is the art of withholding and of simplifying, and certain elements of it were serious in that Benny himself actually did take playing the violin rather seriously but played it for laughs on his program. He was not vain about his age or tight with a dollar as he was on his radio show, but Benny knew that these foibles allowed for an ever-replenishing source of comedy.
Americans listened to The Jack Benny
Program every week on the radio, and so Benny was as known and loved as a
favorite relative. For people of
that generation, just saying the name Jack Benny made them feel better and happier,
as if he were a guarantee of security and consistency, always there, cheerfully
unchanging, like untouched money in the bank. He was not challenging or edgy
and he did not push boundaries. Benny’s character on the radio was a bit of a know-it-all, and Americans usually hate
know-it-alls, but there was something about Benny’s touchy voice and aggrieved
timing that made this character beguiling. The dry comic genius of Benny—and genius is not too strong a word for him—thrives
on his perception of the crassness of the world around him when compared to his
own supposedly and perhaps actually fine feelings.
Benny did not have much luck with feature films, and he even made one of his movies, The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), into a running gag on his show. (It really isn’t that bad, but just bad enough to let Benny milk it as a comic punch line for decades.) Yet he is the essential male lead in one great film, Ernst Lubitsch’s highly risky To Be or Not to Be (1942), which relies on Benny’s image and timing just as it makes similar demands on Carole Lombard. It concerns a troupe of actors in Poland in 1939 and their reaction to the Nazi occupation, and the boldness of Lubitsch’s alternations between a comic and dramatic tone here really put Benny in particular on the spot.
Audiences seeing To Be or Not to Be at the time of its release would have been saturated in Benny-ness, or very Benny conscious, but even someone who has no conception of who Benny was should be able to feel the incongruous comic charge of this self-absorbed, dainty middle-aged man stepping out on a stage in doublet and hose with a little book that he closes before launching into Hamlet’s soliloquy questioning the value of life.
Benny plays Joseph Tura in To Be or Not to Be, a Polish theater star. If his radio character had sought to portray Hamlet, surely Benny would have gotten most of his laughs by being interrupted and sent up, and so there is a deep laugh here when Benny’s Tura is interrupted by a young soldier (Robert Stack) leaving the audience as he begins his speech. This laugh has been set up because Benny looks out at us when he closes that book in a pricelessly self-satisfied way, as if Tura is signaling, “I’m about to give you a precious gift.” And so when he is deflated by Stack’s exit, this is in keeping with the basis of Benny’s act: lightly absurd pomposity followed by affronted pride.
In his memoirs, Benny told a story about asking Lubitsch why he had been chosen to play the lead in To Be or Not to Be, and Lubitsch said, “You think you are a comedian. You are not a comedian . . . you are fooling the public for thirty years. You are fooling even yourself. A clown, he is a performer what is doing funny things. A comedian, he is a comedian what is saying funny things. But you, Jack, you are an actor, you are an actor playing the part of a comedian and this you are doing very well.” Lubitsch “got” Benny and his act on a very deep level, and he makes full use of that knowledge for To Be or Not to Be.
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