To the Editor:
TERRY Teachout’s piece, (“Jack Benny’s Comic Program,” October), is a gem, and virtually all of his points are well taken. I know better than to try and compete with Mr. Teachout in almost any field of culture criticism. But I have been a lifelong addict of Benny’s radio program and therefore offer a few additional insights.
Mr. Teachout comments that Benny never explicitly referred to being Jewish on the air. This was also true, for example, of his pals George Burns and Eddie Cantor, and of many others in an era in which comedy was dominated by recently arrived Jews who portrayed quintessential Americans. On their programs, many even celebrated Christmas and Easter. But I believe that Benny gave anyone with a good antenna a recurrent signal of how proud he was of his Eastern European Jewish identity. On a fairly high percentage of his radio shows, Benny would run into a Jew with a thick Yiddish accent named Mr. Kitzel, played by an actor named Artie Auerbach. Mr. Kitzel came in various guises. Selling hot dogs “wit da pickle in da middle an’ da mustard on da top” was a particular favorite. He regaled Benny with stories of his stereotypical Jewish family. In dialogue with the regular members of his cast, and with virtually everyone he chanced upon during the program, Benny was annoyed, dissatisfied, angry, petty, and tense. But when Mr. Kitzel popped up, always unexpectedly, Benny greeted him with pure joy, loudly calling out “MR. KITZEL!” with equal emphasis on both parts of his name. He listened with adoring curiosity to Mr. Kitzel’s preposterous stories, never argued with anything Mr. Kitzel said, and showed sincere love and affection that no other character on the show ever received. My theory is that this was Benny’s way of communicating to those who cared that he knew who he really was and was thrilled by it.
Mr. Teachout describes the regular cast as talented, and he is right. Dennis Day was a world-class Irish tenor, Phil Harris was a good bandleader, and Don Wilson was in a class with the best of that genre of mellifluous announcers who read the sponsor commercials and introduced and concluded the show. Mr. Teachout points out that Benny was happy to give them the best laugh lines. I would make an additional point: None of these characters had anything resembling great comic talent. But when Benny interacted with them, they turned into some of the funniest characters ever on radio.
Mr. Teachout touches upon the unusual way in which understanding and appreciation of Benny’s humor increased with the listener’s experience. Indeed, I think that Johnny Carson, who was obsessed with Jack Benny and proudly borrowed some of Benny’s signature mannerisms, hit the nail on the head when he said that a serious comprehension of The Jack Benny Program required five years of listener experience.
I agree with Mr. Teachout that radio was Benny’s best medium. The TV show all too frequently consisted of Benny in conversation with a celebrity guest. But even when the regular cast was assembled for a sitcom, the TV show was rarely at the level of the radio show. I urge Mr. Teachout to do one of his wonderful pieces on Jack’s best friend, George Burns.
New York City
Terry Teachout writes:
MY THANKS to Richard Stone for this lovely reminiscence of The Jack Benny Program. I should have thought to mention Mr. Kitzel myself and agree with his wholly plausible explanation of the character’s significance.