The son of East European Jewish immigrants, Jack Benny—né Benjamin Kubelsky—began his career as a vaudevillian and went on to be a pioneer of the radio situation comedy, crafting in his eponymous show a model that remains with us on television today. Reviewing a recent biography of the comedian, Terry Teachout explains the tightrope he walked with regard to his Jewish identity:
The Jack Benny character that [the real Benny] played on radio and TV . . . was never referred to or explicitly portrayed as Jewish. To be sure, most listeners were in no doubt of his Jewishness, and not merely because Benny made no attempt in real life to conceal his ethnicity, of which he was by all accounts proud. The Jack Benny Program was written by Jews, and the ego-puncturing insults with which their scripts were packed, as well as the shlemiel-like aspect of Benny’s “fall guy” character, were quintessentially Jewish in style. . . .
Even so, his avoidance of specific Jewish identification on the air is noteworthy precisely because his character was a miser. At a time when overt anti-Semitism was still common in America, it is remarkable that Benny’s comic persona was based in large part on an anti-Semitic stereotype—yet one that seems not to have inspired any anti-Semitic attacks on Benny himself. When, in 1945, his writers came up with the idea of an “I Can’t Stand Jack Benny Because . . . ” write-in campaign, they received 270,000 entries. Only three made mention of his Jewishness. . . .
Benny’s foibles were seen by his listeners not as particular but as universal, just as there was no harshness in the razzing of his fellow cast members [that was the source of much of the show’s humor], who very clearly loved the Benny character in spite of his myriad flaws. . . . Therein lay Benny’s triumph: he won total acceptance from the American public and did so by embodying a Jewish stereotype from which the sting of prejudice had been leached. Far from being a self-hating whipping boy for anti-Semites, he turned himself into WASP America’s Jewish uncle, preposterous yet lovable.