Jack Benny was great. I don’t want to waste your time, so here. Watch this one minute clip and if it doesn’t make you laugh just skip this post and go about your day, but know I feel sorry for you, because as previously stated, Jack Benny was great.
Come on. When he touches that “Free” sign at the end… it’s just perfect. If you’ve got a bit more time you can watch the full episode “Jack at the Supermarket” over at Archive.org which has tons of his stuff available to watch and listen to for free.
It features one of my favorite jokes, delivered by a young autograph seeker.
Some context about that joke, it was a running gag that Jack was a terrible violinist. (It was also a running joke that he was cheap, hence that cake bit being so perfect.) Benny was a famous comedian in the days of radio and early television, but before that he started as a violinist in vaudeville acts. He said several times that he would rather be a concert violinist than a comedian, but liked to perform more than practice so he was never as good as he wanted to be.
There’s some debate about how good of a violinist Benny actually was. In the words of Rowlf the Dog, he was “no Heifetz, but I get by.” Later in life he used his fame to perform as a guest soloist with symphonies, where he was clearly a capable musician, but would still play for laughs.
For me, the jokes about him being bad at violin came from the fact that it didn’t matter to him how good he actually was. He was never as good as he wanted to be, so why not make jokes about it?
He even left his Stradivarius violin (now named Benny in his honor) to the Los Angeles Philharmonic after his death. (If anyone from the LA Phil sees this, I’d love a chance to play it next time I’m in town.) It really is a quality instrument. Here’s Benny himself demonstrating the quality of his Stradivarius against the “ordinary, inexpensive violin” used on his show:
Jack Benny died in 1974, about a decade before I was born so I kind of missed him as an entity until I saw that cake clip in an episode of (I think) the PBS series Make ‘Em Laugh as an adult. It really did make me laugh. It was kind of late. I was in my living room with my wife, and when that clip played I laughed so hard my wife gave me that “I understand why you’re laughing. I do not understand why you are laughing so hard” look I get from her occasionally.
I don’t know. It’s just perfect. He throws nearly two full cakes, unwrapped, into a shopping cart one on top of the other. He takes the knife, and even briefly considers taking the sign. It’s genius.
Almost all of Jack’s career was based around him being the butt of his own joke. He’s a bad violinist. He’s cheap. He’s old (but always insists he’s 39). It’s the kind of comedy that laid the groundwork for things like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Louie. In Steve Martin‘s memoir Born Standing Up, he reflects on his early comedic influences,
Jack Benny, always his own victim, had a variety show that turned into a brilliant half-hour situation comedy; his likeable troupe was now cavorting in my living room, and I was captivated. His slow burn–slower than slow–made me laugh every time.
I bought a violin in February. Not because of Jack Benny, but I guess not entirely not because of Jack Benny. I named it Rochester, after Jack’s butler played by Eddie Anderson (easily worthy of his own post).
If you’ve seen me perform in the last few weeks you’ve probably had to hear me play it. For that I apologize. The difference is that Jack pretended to be worse at the violin than he really was to get laughs. I’m just genuinely bad at it. (I’m not, like Jack, being self-deprecating. It’s a hard instrument to learn, and I’ve only been at it a few weeks. I’ll get better.)
Like I mentioned earlier, you can get plenty of Jack’s stuff for free from Archive.org and I highly recommend you take some time to enjoy some of it, but if I can make another recommendation, check out the wonderful Antioch Broadcasting Network. It’s an online stream of old-time radio shows including Jack’s, which usually plays at 7am Eastern if you’re up early, and again at 8pm if you’re not a morning person. Tune in while it’s airing “live”. I think you’ll like it.
Man, I really love that cake bit.