Born in Waukegan, Illinois, on February 14, 1894, to Meyer (a shop keeper) and Naomi Emma Kubelsky was Benjamin Kubelsky, who began violin lessons at age six. Once he got a job playing in live Vaudeville theatre, around age 16, he quit school (don’t try this yourselves, young ones) and went to work full time. He got to know the Marx Brothers, who were playing that same theater (the Barrison), and their mother Minnie asked him to go on the road with them. At age 17, his parents said “no” for him.
Soon enough he went on the road in piano-violin duos with various pianists. During World War I he served in the Navy, and found purchase as a stand-up comic. After service, he went back into Vaudeville as a solo, Ben K. Benny, comic and dancer. The film industry took note and put him in the 1928 short Bright Moments, followed by the 1929 Hollywood Revue of 1929 and Chasing Rainbows, and then in the 1930 Medicine Man. A star was born.
Having become friendly with Ed Sullivan, who then had a radio talk show, he was a featured guest. By the end of 1932 he had his own radio program. Between then and 1955, he would be continually on the air with regular programs.
Jack Benny said that comedy is based on seven principles: the joke, exaggeration, ridicule, ignorance, surprise, the pun, and the comic situation. (Your correspondent notes that there are many notions about construction of comedy; this is just one of them.) He slipped back into the movies a couple times, in The Big Broadcast of 1937 and Charley’s Aunt (1941) and To Be or Not to Be (1942), among others.
In 1950, he moved to television with The Jack Benny Show. His usual character was mostly known for being cheap, along with being insecure, selfish, and lacking ability. His violin playing was awful. Yet this was a beloved character, whose age was always “39.” The telling bit is a crook steps up to him, holds a gun to his back and says, “Your money or your life!” Jack says nothing. The crook repeats himself. Jack takes several beats and then says, “I’m thinking!”
As time has gone on, we can look back at his program as being rather egalitarian, with various races and genders, and no particular religion or politic mentioned. It was the story of a community, where various characters lived together. In terms of production, the egg might be on anyone’s face at any time.
Jack Benny was in a couple dozen movies, was the subject of several books, and wrote Sunday Nights at Seven, which was published after his death with his daughter as co-author. Jack Benny died on December 26, 1974.
There is a school named for him in Waukegan, Jack Benny Junior High.