2 November 2010 | dougdoepke
I think one reason Benny is so beloved by fans is that he comes across as a genuinely likable guy beneath all the funnyman routines. Unlike many comedians, there's nothing of the "smart Alec" or "wise guy" about him. Not that these are disqualifying traits—Bob Hope, for one, made an immensely successful career as a wise guy. But the thing with Benny is that no matter how vain or cheap he appeared in his stage act, there was always an air of underlying likability. So when he tipped the sweating waiter a nickel or preened as the world's best comedian, fans laughed and forgave him.
Consider that his show lasted an amazing 15 years on a medium with a reputation for devouring funnymen. Much of that success is due to a cast of well-honed regulars that the writers skillfully blended into the program whether live or on film. Basically, we knew what to expect from each—a wise-cracking Rochester, a jovial Don Wilson, a sensible Mary Livingstone, a dazed Dennis Day, and, of course, Jack's two perennial nemeses Mel Blanc and Frank Nelson. The latter two furnished many of the petty annoyances that were the basis of much of Jack's comedic schtick. Speaking of style, it also looks like Jack was mainly a "reactive" comedian— that is, his humor grew out of exasperated, low-key reactions to life's many petty annoyances, which were also ones the audience could relate to.
My favorite routines were the spoofs of popular movies, like Gaslight or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It was the latter, I believe, where dressed up as the fearsome Hyde, Benny attacks this feeble old lady who, nevertheless, proceeds to flip him in six different directions before he slinks away, a totally defeated Hyde. I don't know how they did it, but the contrasting appearances and unexpected outcome were hilarious.
I doubt the show would succeed with today's hyper-energized audiences, where much of the humor is more obvious and more over-the-top. Jack's era was, of course, a period of tight restrictions on what could be said or shown. But his show under-played that tight framework like a virtuoso, week-in and week-out. I guess these few words amount to my little appreciation of a program that gave me so many pleasurable moments. So, the time spent trying to think this out is time well spent. Thanks, Mr. Benny. In my book, you are an enduring classic.