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My Favorite Jack Benny Sketch

Today is Jack Benny's birthday. The radio, television, and film star would have been 39 today. (Not really; he would have been 116, but one of his many shticks was that he never admitted to more than 39, even when he was obviously much older.) On radio and television he portrayed a character who was cheap, vain, effeminate, and eminently lovable.

His most famous bit is “Your money or your life,” where a mugger pulls a gun on Jack and issues the ultimatum. There is a long silence, and when the robber repeats the request, Jack replies, “I'm thinking it over”--the joke being that he's so cheap he'd rather part with his life than his wallet.

But my favorite bit is a different one. Jack is preparing for a party at his house, and his girlfriend (real-life wife, Mary Livingstone) tells him he needs to buy some new records for the party because his guests are “tired of listening to 'Cohen on the Telephone.' ”

“Cohen on the Telephone” was an early novelty record. Released in the United States by Joe Hayman in 1913, it's a spoken word recording of an “ethnic” vaudeville-style routine. Here, a recent immigrant is having trouble making himself understood on the telephone due to his thick, old-country accent and lousy quality of early telephone connections.

That looks deadly dry in print, but, if you get the reference, and know Jack, that's a hysterical line. Why?

1) “Cohen” was released in 1913, so it was a couple of decades old by the time this particular episode of “The Jack Benny Show” was recorded. The implication is that Jack is old enough to have bought “Cohen” when it was released. It's like saying to someone that you are tired of listening to their E.L.O. 45s.

2) Jack still plays “Cohen.” Jack is so cheap that he hasn't bought any new records in decades.

3) “Cohen” isn't a musical record, like you would expect to hear at a party. It's spoken word. Implication: Jack is “square.”

4) “Cohen” is a comedy album. Jack is so self-centered that his idea of good time is more comedy (to keep on working, so to speak), regardless of the fact that his guests want to have a good time. No one will be dancing to “Cohen.”

Fortunately, Jack Benny lives on in thousands of public-domain MP3s and public radio shows like The Big Broadcast.

We're a little late, so good night, folks . . .



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