Irving Benson, one of the last comedians from the days of vaudeville and burlesque, who appeared dozens of times on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and had a running shtick as a smart-aleck heckler hurling insults at comedian Milton Berle, died May 19 at his home in Port Jefferson. He was 102.
The death was confirmed by a daughter, Vicki Dvorin. She did not know the cause.
Benson won an amateur contest as a dancer in the 1920s, and, by the mid-1930s, he was touring the country telling jokes. He worked in the vaudeville theater, in which a variety of performers — singers, jugglers, dancers, magicians — appeared on a single bill. For many years, he also appeared opposite strippers and other performers in burlesque shows, vaudeville’s more disreputable cousin.
Over time, he climbed to the top of the bill as the featured “first comic” or, as it was sometimes called, top banana. For 30 years, he was part of a comedy duo with straight man Jack Mann, appearing all over the country, including at New York’s Palace Theater, the pinnacle for vaudeville entertainers.
Benson delivered his punch lines with a hangdog expression, an uninflected, matter-of-fact voice and the perfect timing honed by thousands of performances. He came of comic age at the same time as other vaudeville and burlesque comedians, including Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers.
In the 1960s, Benson became known to television viewers through his appearances with Berle, another comedian from the vaudeville tradition. Pretending to be an audience member named Sidney Spritzer, Benson interrupted Berle’s monologue with a blizzard of insults.
“Why are you applauding? I didn’t say anything,” Berle would say.
“That’s why I’m applauding,” Benson responded.
“What have you got against me, anyway?” Berle went on. “If there’s something about my performance that you don’t like, tell me.”
“Well, for one thing,” Benson said, “you stand too close to the camera.”
“How far would like me to be?” Berle asked.
Benson: “You got a car?”
For years, Benson — as Spritzer — was featured in Berle’s performances around the country, as well as on TV. He made his first appearance on “The Tonight Show” in 1962 and became a favorite of Carson, who often acted as Benson’s straight man.
“I want you to know I’ve got a million jokes in the back of my head,” Carson would say.
“How come they never reach your mouth?” Benson answered.
Irving Wishnefsky was born Jan. 31, 1914, in Brooklyn. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. He appeared in talent shows before he turned 10, and by the time he entered show business he had changed his name to Benson.
During World War II, he entertained troops with the USO. As vaudeville theaters began to close in the 1950s, Benson moved to Las Vegas, where he lived for 35 years. In addition to his nightclub routines, he occasionally acted in touring theatrical productions and in TV shows, including a 1979 appearance on “Happy Days.”
His wife of 79 years, the former Lillian Waldowsky, died in March. Survivors include two daughters, Vicki Dvorin of Manhattan and Cookie Leskowitz of Coram; five grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
In 2010, actors and filmmakers John C. Brown and Bart Williams released a documentary about Benson, “The Last First Comic.”