Saturday 3 May 2008


I grew up with a dad who played the violin: not as often as I would have liked because the lady next door used to complain about his practicing! As a lad he had played in the Crystal Palace Orchestra in its days in Sydenham before it burned down (the lengths people went to to stop him playing!) and when I was a child he would tell me little musical stories illustrated on the violin.

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


Elaine said...

Thanks for bringing back memories of Jack Benny,
I used to rave about him instead of the usual pop stars, my freinds all thought I was mad.

Brian Sibley said...

Yes, well, I can understand that reaction, Elaine! But you showed taste!

Bill Field said...

Brian, on youtube is an absoloutely hilarious, over the top scene with Benny and Mel Blanc, as a department store clerk who shoots himself because Benny drives him to it- changing his mind too much! What a fascinating repartee perfectly timed they always have, no matter what sort of character Mel Blanc is playing.

Brian Sibley said...

Thanks Bill. Yes, it's a great clip, but for some reason I can't get onto YouTube in order to find and post the link... If I can do so later, I will.

What viewers should know, however, is that the clip is only the climax of a half hour show in which Jack Benny has reduced the shop assistant to a state of total nervous collapse by taking forever to decide on his purchases, haggling over the cost and then returning to change them for something else - or cheaper!

These kind of sustained routines were a gift to the combined talents of Benny and Blanc.

By the way, readers in the UK may care to note that there is a 30-minute radio programme devoted to Blac - That's All Folks! The Mel Blanc Story - on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 6 May at 11:30 am.

Brian Sibley said...

YouTube's back on and here's that clip Bill was talking about featuring Jack Benny and Mel Blanc. Enjoy!

Matt Jones said...

You were an aspiring cartoonist? How far did you get with this career Brian? Sublime Hirschfeld-the Nina is particularly well hidden.

Brian Sibley said...

Not far enough, Matt! :-)

Hirschfeld is, quite simply, a GOD!

For those who don't know: Hirschfeld hid his daughter's name - Nina - in every one of his caricatures. If you click on his portrait of Benny, you'll be able to view it large enough to find the hidden Nina...