It was from my Dad that I inherited my love of musical humorists such as Gerard Hoffnung, Flanders & Swann, Victor Borge and Jack Benny...
I first saw the American comedian famous for his bad playing of the violin on a TV broadcast of a Royal Variety Performance and fell for his dead-pan, high-camp persona that - rare among great comics - gave the gag-lines to his supporting cast and made himself the butt of everyone's jokes while never being anything less than the star. And no one - not even the incomparable George Burns - could beat Benny's comic timing.
In his most famous exchange - based on his character's allegedly mean and miserly personality - he is held up by a crook at gun point. "Yer money or yer life!" snarls the the robber. There is an interminable pause and then the robber repeats his threat: "Yer money or yer life!" And back comes Benny's irritated response: "I'm thinking it over!"
When I saw him live at the Palladium on his last UK tour, I was riveted by his ability to do nothing and make people laugh. Like our own Tommy Cooper, when Benny walked on stage - before he said so much as a single word - you simply had to smile. He was the incarnation of funniness!
Being, at the time, an aspiring cartoonist, I sent a caricature of the Maestro round to the stage door. Though not as accomplished as the portrait by the great Hirschfeld (above) it must, at least, have tickled the comic's funny bone because I received, by return, a signed photograph.
This was 1973, just a year before Benny's death, and despite being 79 his photographic likeness miraculously doesn't look a day over his perennially-held age of thirty-nine!
Relatively few Britishers know Jack Benny's work (compared with that of Burns or Hope), but his prolific career is worth checking out. Many of his classic radio shows and some of his TV shows are on CD and DVD and everyone should make a point of finding his superb performance opposite Carole Lombard in Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 classic, To Be or Not To Be.
In the meanwhile, here are two YouTube offerings for your amusement: a sequence on Benny's violin playing from the 1995 TV tribute, Kelsey Grammer Salutes Jack Benny; the other from The Liberace Show in which legendary pianist meets legendary violinist and with a cameo performance from Richard Wattis as Lee's fraffly English butler!
Incidentally, the long-suffering violin teacher in the compilation is played by Mel Blanc, a regular on the Benny shows and the voices of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Pie, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam and - in The Flintstones - Barney Rubble...
Image: Al Hirschfeld