OK, I haven’t been reading much lately, but I was listening to an episode of Jack Benny lately. It seems that the most common thing thing that comes to mind when you ment8ion his name is that he was known for being stingy. There’s otther things that fans might shoot out to me, and in the particular episode, his blue eyes, and perpetual age of 39 were also mentioned. Stinginess ran through out the whole show though.
The word was never really mentioned, but it was the most prominent topic of the jokes. His use of a pay phone for his home phone, to charge his house guests for their phone calls. His advice to “whack the coin box” to get the last phone call coin returned to you indicates his skill at not having to spend money himself. The mention that his phone was upside down on the wall to poke fun at how frequently he battered his phone to get that coin out of it.
That’s all in the opening few minutes of the show, stinginess moves on to the form of a loan that one of the cast asks Jack Benny to borrow. Not just a few bucks, which Jack would’ve balked over loaning, and had enough comedy to milk for a laugh, but the sum of $500. For the kind of miser that Jack Benny was, it would be in his nature to even have problems with a loan for as small as a few cents, let alone, a few dollars. Keeping in mind factors of inflation, those few hundred dollars would be an amount easily into 4 figures in today’s money. The ridiculously high amount not only is enough to leave a miser like Jack Benny speechless, but it begs to know why in the world that much money is needed, but that’s a secret to be revealed later in the show. To me, the reason it was needed isn’t nearly as funny as the reason Bob Crosby can’t borrow money from his famous brother, or a fiasco regarding a loan from years ago.
The focus in the show drifts to an upcoming live stage show that was to take place, and a fictional need for Jack to audition tallent for it. There’s still a joke where the neighbors valet comes over to borrow a few items. For a new listener to the show, it may not seem like its that big of a deal, and the humor go over the head.
Old time comedians, especially of the Vaudeville era, learned that if something was funny once, and got a laugh, to keep on doing it. It could take a long time for a joke to make the rounds and be heard by a large population, and that one joke could be the anchor for a life long career. In the faster paced era of broadcast media, that one funny bit would be old news to the listening audience in a week. When comedians tried to milk a particular joke, or catch phrase, it was known to end careers. The people growing tired of it, but the comedian not knowing how to stop using it. Jack Benny saw that early on, and developed his onstage character in a way where he was always stingy, but the jokes about stinginess were limitless, and ranged from the obvious to the ones that were over the top. He could tell the same jokes, or actually the same topic of jokes, and it was never exactly the same.
With that in mind, getting back to the visiting valet, it’s part of a long time running gag that ties in to shows from earlier in the season, and in fact, from earlier seasons. Jacks next door neighbors, Ronald and Bonita Coleman, were always being visited by either Jack Benny, or his butler, Rochester to borrow any number of household items from cups of sugar, to Academy Award statues. Of course, the Colemans were frustrated and annoyed with Jack, but were too courteous to confront him about it. Today’s show is a rare moment when they send their butler over to borrow a few things back.
The fun in the show is all fiction. In real life, Jack Benny was far from stingy, and was actually very generous. His neighbors were never the Coleman’s, though they lived near by in his neighborhood. It’s all a matter of his ability to create characters, based on a little real personality, and stretch them to make the audience not clearly recogn9ize the blurry lines of truth and fiction crossed.