‘Mister Benny’ comes to life at JCCNV

Tim Newell plays the violin in Mister Benny. On his show, Benny’s character played a violin that squeaked and screeched; in reality, Jack Benny was an accomplished violinist. Photo by KC Kratt, courtesy of the JCC of Greater Buffalo
Tim Newell plays the violin in Mister Benny. On his show, Benny’s character played a violin that squeaked and screeched; in reality, Jack Benny was an accomplished violinist. Photo by KC Kratt, courtesy of the JCC of Greater Buffalo

“Well.” He could cause riotous laughter simply by crossing his arms, placing his palm on his cheek and with a slight smirk, declaring, “Well.” The son of a Jewish haberdasher from Poland who immigrated to Chicago, Jack Benny was a gentleman’s comedian. He owned the airwaves for more than 30 years — well before The Voice, The Talk, The Late Show or Breaking Bad were even inchoate ideas. His early radio show evolved to the young medium of television, toggling from NBC to CBS and back again, at a time when listeners and viewers made appointments and gathered together for their at-home entertainment.

The master of the deadpan stare, Benny, born Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago, invented himself for the stage, radio and later television. He was an Everyman, wracked with foibles and suffering follies — often at the expense of his driver Rochester or a pedantic store clerk, Mr. Nelson — that gently poked more fun at himself than his compatriots on stage and screen. Audiences loved him for it.

Tim Newell, a Buffalo-based actor, brings his evening-length homage to this one-time comic king, Mister Benny, to the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia’s performing arts series next weekend. Newell, just 48, admittedly has few direct memories as a youngster of seeing Benny on television. “I remember the Jack Benny of the 1970s, late in his career,” Newell said, “when he would make guest appearances on other shows, like Carson, Dinah Shore, probably Mike Douglas, and the Dean Martin roasts in particular.”

Serendipity and an uncanny resemblance introduced the character to him. A long-time theater director and friend in Buffalo insisted that he looked so much like Benny that he should play the part, even though there wasn’t a script to perform. Eventually, Newell found playwright Mark Humphrey, who created a 90-minute piece featuring Benny that would showcase Newell’s close resemblance.


Mister Benny opens with the first episode of Benny’s television show in October 1950. Act 2 advances 15 years, when we meet the comedian in September 1965, as he is preparing and performing in the last episode of his weekly television series, which was unceremoniously canceled as he faced changing American tastes in humor: Gomer Pyle USMC was his more highly rated competition on another network.

Newell noted that he is not impersonating Benny, but rather channeling the comic’s essence. The first time he created the role, back in 2001, he studied the few available videos of old Benny programs. This time, more than a decade later, YouTube proved to be his most valuable resource with a wellspring of clips and even full Benny shows at his disposal.

“Over the years and through my maturity as an actor, I’ve come to possess more qualities of Jack Benny: I watched to start cultivating a lot of his mannerisms. He had many different hand gestures; it wasn’t just crossing his arms and putting his hand to his cheek,” Newell said. There was a choreography to his gestures: “His hands were very articulate. He stood a certain way and his walk was very signature and it was often a joke how he walked and carried himself.”

While Benny was Jewish, he didn’t wear his Judaism on his sleeve. Nor did he carry the popular Borsht Belt Jewishness into his performances that so many of his Jewish comic compatriots — the Marx Brothers, George Burns, Milton Berle — did. Instead, Benny’s comedy was universal, even his character’s much-laughed-at cheapness wasn’t seen as a Jewish trait.

“He was a gentleman’s comedian and a gentleman’s gentleman,” said Newell, who is not Jewish. “And despite his [character’s] stinginess and being a tightwad on his show, he really was a very generous man. Money meant nothing to him. He was always donating to foundations and charities and would think nothing of writing a check for a charity or a cause.” In fact, Newell said, “I think a lot of people weren’t aware that he was Jewish. Only his closest friends and biggest fans might have actually known.” He hopes with this revival of Mister Benny, more people will be introduced to this iconic comedian.

Mister Benny is onstage Jan. 10 and 12 at 2 p.m., Jan. 11 at 8 p.m. at the JCCNV in Fairfax. Tickets, $29-$19, are available by calling 703-537-3000.

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here