One of the longest laughs in recorded comedy history was when a robber asked Jack Benny, “Your money or your life!” To which Benny eventually replied, “I’m thinking.” For decades, audiences may or may not have known what he looked like—he did have a movie career as well as his radio show—but they knew his persona. Jack Benny was born into the Golden Age of Radio, and he was one of its great stars. This probably wouldn’t have happened had his parents gotten their way and he became a concert violinist instead.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t being on the same bill as the Marx Brothers that prompted the change, though Minnie Marx tried to get him to be part of the act—as a violinist. Benjamin Kubelsky was seventeen at the time, and his parents wouldn’t let him go. (He did, however, form a lifelong friendship with Zeppo.) He ended up changing his name to Ben K. Benny to avoid confusion with violinist and composer Jan Kubelík. In 1917, he did a stint in the Navy; his fellow sailors booed his playing, and he responded with comedy at the suggestion of Pat O’Brien, who would go on to an acting career of his own. After the war, fellow vaudevillian Ben Bernie insisted he change his name. In the Navy, they’d called him Jack.
By all accounts he really was a talented violinist, though he hated to practice. (All together now, musicians: “I can sympathize!”) However, Benny was possessed of a comedic timing that was hard to match. He had a deadpan and a gift for snarky comebacks that made him one of the funniest men in show business. Back in the days when Sullivan was a radio show, Benny’s first appearance opened with, “This is Jack Benny talking. There will be a slight pause while you say, ‘Who cares?’” Despite the failure of his brief movie career prior to radio, within a very few years, much of America cared.
His wife, Sadie Marks, also played violin. In fact, Benny accompanied Zeppo Marx (no relation) to a seder in Vancouver where she was playing, and she got irate when he tried to leave during her playing. Several years later, they would meet again and Benny would fall in love. As Mary Livingstone, she was a staple on the show, though she spent twenty years battling crippling stage fright and would not make the move to television with him. Eddie Anderson would; the character of Rochester has not aged altogether well, but Benny’s support of Anderson definitely has.
There are any number of Benny gags that were just part of how audiences saw him. His Maxwell—the automotive brand went out of business long before Benny finished milking the bit. His violin-playing, always far worse than Benny’s actual ability. His cheapness—the Benny character probably would have liked “frugality” instead, but audiences knew better. The fact that he was perpetually thirty-nine. Benny fans campaigned to have a stamp for him when postage rates went up the thirty-nine cents, and the USPS should have obliged.