February 14, 2010
A fist pounds the top of the television set, a vertical hold knob is twiddled with surgical precision, a coat hanger is patiently and minutely adjusted, until at last JACK BENNY (1894-1974) emerges from the static. In the days before cable, staying up late or staying home sick meant spending time with Burns and Allen, Eve Arden, Danny Thomas, and all the other veterans of the Golden Age of Radio. Their reruns were the hamburger helper of the broadcast schedule. Among them The Jack Benny Program, which ran from 1950 until 1964, stood out as evergreen. His comic timing was peerless, as was his comic instrument — the foppish poses, the fussy timbre and inflection of his voice, the chin raised and eyebrows arched in an aspect of wounded nobility. Gary Giddins points out that Benny “may be the only great comedian in history who isn’t associated with a single witticism,” and that’s because his performance as a vain, childish celebrity tightwad was his material. “The whole humor of Jack Benny,” said Jack Benny, “is, here’s a guy with plenty of money, he’s got a valet, he’s always traveling around, and yet he’s strictly a jerk.” Curb Your Enthusiasm, anyone?
HUMORISTS at HILOBROW: Michael O’Donoghue | Jemaine Clement | Andy Kaufman | Danny Kaye | George Ade | Jimmy Durante | Jack Benny | Aziz Ansari | Don Rickles | Godfrey Cambridge | Eric Idle | David Cross | Stewart Lee | Samuel Beckett | Jerry Lewis | Joanna Lumley | Jerome K. Jerome | Phil Silvers | Edward Lear | Tony Hancock | George Carlin | Stephen Colbert | Tina Fey | Keith Allen | Russell Brand | Michael Cera | Stan Laurel | Ricky Gervais | Gilda Radner | Larry David | Chris Pontius | Dave Chappelle | Jimmy Finlayson | Paul Reubens | Peter Sellers | Buster Keaton | Flann O’Brien | Lenny Bruce | Sacha Baron Cohen | Steve Coogan | PG Wodehouse | A.J. Liebling | Curly Howard | Fran Lebowitz | Charlie Kaufman | Stephen Merchant | Richard Pryor | James Thurber | Bill Hicks | ALSO: Comedy and the Death of God