Forever 39, Jack Benny Lives On
For the 100 or so people gathered in a small hotel ballroom Saturday near Los Angeles International Airport, the question posed by an audience member triggered a wave of murmurs in the crowd.
Why exactly do late-night cable television programmers persist in the outrage of showing “I Love Lucy” reruns but no old Jack Benny shows?
This is the kind of issue that can heat up a room, especially when the International Jack Benny Fan Club is in town. The club is hosting a tribute to Benny this weekend that included, among many events, the late comedian’s induction into the National Comedy Hall of Fame on Saturday night at the Friar’s Club in Beverly Hills.
The Lucy versus Benny question never was answered to anyone’s satisfaction. The leading theory was that perhaps the physicality of Lucy’s humor appealed more to audiences these days.
But this was a Jack Benny crowd: At least one member of the audience confessed that she keeps a photo of Benny on her wall at work to help her get through the “rough days.”
Benny died in 1974 at the age of 80 after a long career that spanned vaudeville, radio and television. He remains best known for a trifecta of running gags: his age stuck forever on 39, his musical skills or lack of them, and an unrelenting stinginess that led to years of jokes.
For example, a robber points a gun at Benny and says, “Your money or your life.” A long pause, then Benny says, “I’m thinking. I’m thinking!”
That’s a joke that has brightened many days for Hal Bogart, 51, who traveled from Cleveland for the show.
“I grew up after radio -- I’m a TV guy -- and he was just this warm, funny gentleman that for me was almost grandfatherly,” said Logan. “When he passed away, I was in my early 20s, and it just really touched me in some strange way. I felt compelled to be here.”
Saturday was largely dedicated to forums that dissected every aspect of Benny’s life. At one point, as an audience member questioned Benny’s daughter Joan about the origins of her father’s family in Eastern Europe, it became obvious that there were at least a few in the room who knew as much about the man as she did.
For the most part, nearly everyone despaired of the current state of television comedy. On the other hand, Kelsey Grammer of “Frasier” was praised several times as one contemporary actor whose comic timing was as good as Benny’s.
“Jack Benny was a man trying to regain his composure while the world falls apart around him,” said Stan Taffel, a Van Nuys film archivist and comic.
Taffel, like many others, pointed out that Benny usually drew laughs not because of what he said, but because of what the audience expected him to say.
When a reporter asked Taffel his age, he paused and then said: “39.”