Legendary comedian Jack Benny, who died Dec. 26, 1974, at age 80 of pancreatic cancer, enjoyed a stunning 50-year career, transitioning from vaudeville to radio to film and television – and shining in each medium.
Legendary comedian Jack Benny, who died Dec. 26, 1974, at age 80 of pancreatic cancer, enjoyed a stunning 50-year career, transitioning from vaudeville to radio to film and television – and shining in each medium. For laughs, he introduced audiences to Jack Benny the legendary cheapskate who boasted of musical talent he did not possess. That character claimed to be eternally 39, had a rough relationship with his spouse, and possessed self-centeredness beyond compare.
The real Benny was a gifted violinist so beloved in his Illinois hometown that a school there still bears his name. He was generous with time and money, touring extensively with the USO during World War II and donating money and possessions to local museums and charities. As for his relationship with his wife, who worked alongside him under the name Mary Livingstone, Benny was devoted and arranged for her to receive one rose each day until her death eight years after his.
Benny’s humor was largely timeless. Legacy.com remembers him by sharing some of his classic routines and jokes.
1. Benny opened up his first radio appearance this way: “Hello, folks, this is Jack Benny. There will be a slight pause while everyone says, ‘Who cares?'”
2. Another radio bit: Benny the tightwad is approached by an armed robber while walking home. The man says, “This is a stickup. Your money or your life.” There is a long pause. The armed man speaks, “I said your money or your life!” Benny replies, “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”
3. On marriage: “My wife, Mary, and I have been married for 47 years and not once have we had an argument serious enough to consider divorce. Murder, yes, but divorce, never.”
4. On his professed stinginess: “I must be cheaper now than I was 10 years ago in order to get a laugh. It’s not funny now if I leave the table and give the waiter a nickel tip, which was a laugh years ago. Today I must maneuver it so that somehow I get the waiter to give me a nickel tip.”
5. He always loved a good one-liner. Among them: “A cannibal is a guy who goes in the restaurant and orders the waiter,” and, “A rich man is one who isn’t afraid to ask the salesperson to show him something cheaper.”
6. Other well-known Benny lines: “Age is strictly a case of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter,” and “Gags die. Humor doesn’t.”
7. And just a few more quick-hit jokes: “Give me golf clubs, fresh air and a beautiful partner, and you can keep the clubs and the fresh air,” and “I went to see one of those X-rated pictures the other night, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. So I stayed to see it a second time.”
8. On Abraham Lincoln: “Any man who would walk five miles through the snow, barefoot, just to return a library book so he could save three cents — that’s my kind of guy.”
9. While being honored at a ceremony: “I don’t deserve this award, but I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that, either.”
10. For many years, Benny had a “feud” with fellow comedian Fred Allen. (The two were actually good friends.) The two men had different performance styles: Benny carefully worked to develop a script and followed it, while Allen was known for his ad-libs. Some of their exchanges:
Allen: “Jack, you couldn’t ad-lib a belch after a plate of Hungarian goulash.”
Benny: “You wouldn’t say that if my writers were here.”
Allen: “How long have you been in the cake business?”
Benny: “Long enough to know a crumb when I see one.”
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she’s now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, “Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone’s world that we’re often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we’re alive.”