Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday and the debut of our official coverage on the best of The Jack Benny Program, or as this season was originally titled, The JELL-O Program Starring Jack Benny. Every other month, I’ll be sharing my selections for the seasonal best offerings from this classic old-time radio comedy, which I credit for really establishing the sitcom as we now know it. For while the series regularly employed skits and the casual variety-esque patter — you know, fare that generally typified most of the ’30s radio comedies — the Benny Program‘s wonderfully crafted and nuanced personalities came to allow for situational humor that directly capitalized on these characterizations, making use of the history that the show had easily established to develop actual scenarios and, eventually, stories. And with the show now following its group of characters through motivated plots, the situation comedy was born. (Other shows were sort of doing this, but Benny and company seemed to have a better grasp on how to do it — all the while employing humor that would stay playable when the big television transition occurred.)
But in addition to the revolutionary narrative and structural tropes this series established, it also had the distinction of being the most consistently hilarious (in my opinion, as always), of its radio contemporaries. Long a favorite of mine, Benny coverage has been in the queue for a while, so I’m incredibly thrilled that its time here on That’s Entertainment! has finally arrived. Given the timeless appeal of Jack Benny, it’s no surprise how popular this series remains to this day, with many internet sites and communities offering truly invaluable information and discussion on every aspect of both the television and radio incarnations of the Benny program. Some of the resources that have proved of tremendous assistance to me during my Benny coverage include several Facebook groups, including the one for The International Jack Benny Fan Club, run by Laura Leff, whose trilogy of encyclopedias on the series remains a wealth of insight. Also, the recaps provided by the good folks at Jack Benny in the 1940’s (which also includes the ’30s and ’50s too) made tracking down and studying the show much easier. And, above all, special thanks to reader WGaryW, who graciously granted public access to a huge collection of episodes, many of which are quite rare. The episodes featured in this series of posts are sourced from these copies. (Check them all out here; additional rarities here.)
Now, it is a lot of work — joyful work, mind you — to listen to every episode and draft these posts, but I’m committed to keeping up a regular pace with them, and here and now I can guarantee that the remaining years of the JELL-O program will be covered before this time next year (and hopefully the remaining years will indeed follow). If I slip to every three months, I will let you know in advance; as of now, I can promise that you’ll see ’37-’38 in October and ’38-’39 in December. (So stay tuned, because there’s no shortage of quality here!) But I suppose the question you may be asking is why I’m starting with the 1936-37 season, which as I’ve noted, is the third season under JELL-O, who wasn’t even Benny’s first sponsor! There are several reasons for my decision to begin in ’36, with the most obvious being that so many of the early shows are lost and/or fragmented, while the ’36-’37 season is almost entirely complete, with only one episode being inadequately represented (coming in at about eight of its full 29:30 minutes). As a result, it would have been difficult to pick favorites from years in which it is most likely that the majority of the best material is missing.
Additionally, the ’36-’37 season is the first year where the show is recognizably good. Now, I’m not interested in knocking all that came before, but moments of quality in earlier seasons were inconsistent and never guaranteed; they were figurative diamonds in the figurative rough. If you listen to this series chronologically, you’ll notice that this season finds success (which, this being a comedy, simply means the ability to invoke earned laughter) as a regular occurrence, and there are a handful of factors that clearly elevate this year above its predecessors. First, to say that this is a season of “firsts” is an understatement. For not only does this season claim the debut of Phil Harris as the resident orchestra leader, an addition that finally cements the bandleader character as a fully-fledged comedic presence off of whom Jack can riff, but the year also boasts the recurring inclusion of actor Andy Devine, a fella with one of the most unmistakable voices in Hollywood (an understatement), and soon, Van Nuys. He’s the kind of character whose delivery of a line, irrespective of the line itself, is able to elicit guffaws, and with Phil Harris, whose character nevertheless takes several months to click, the show thus adds substantial comedy to its already strong quartet of Jack (Master of Ceremonies), Mary (his gal Sunday), Don (the announcer), and Kenny (the tenor), all of whom find their characterizations crystallizing — vain, sassy, girthy, and naive: the show is realizing how to handle them.
Yet another thing to note is that this season, very late in its run, acquaints us with yet another soon-to-be-beloved cast member, Eddie Anderson as Jack’s valet, Rochester Van Jones. (More on his introduction below…) He helps point the show, just like Phil and Andy, into the perfect direction, in which Jack is surrounded by an ensemble of well-defined playmates, none of whom can claim to be the weak link. (When everyone looks good, Jack looks good!) But it’s not just the cast that makes this season a big improvement over the earlier ones — it’s also the writing, as Ed Beloin and Bill Morrow palpably elevate the quality of the weekly scripts, having first joined in the spring of ’36 following previous headwriter Harry Conn’s sudden departure. With these two talented gents at the helm, the ’36-’37 season finds the show flirting, for the first time, with its unique brand of iconic storytelling. That is, this is the season that discovers extended arcs and long-running jokes as rewarding means of amplifying the laughs already engendered by the characters. Among the most notable arcs include the Buck Benny Rides Again sketches, a Western parody (starring Jack as Buck) that runs for a good portion of the season and remains the most well-known series of plays the show ever did. More excitingly, this season also claims the introduction of Jack Benny’s long-running feud with Fred Allen, which realizes itself to be a fountain of extraordinary merit for both comedians. The rivalry is sparked in early 1937 and remains in play for the remainder of their careers — although never more potently than in its first three months, the pride of the ’36-’37 season, as you’ll see below.
It’s an incredibly smart decision to give Jack an enemy, for not only does it help focus some of these scripts, but it also serves to define his character and the foibles the show can then use for its own comedic gain, thus introducing the Jack Benny Program as it is best remembered. For that reason alone, I’m reluctant to claim that any other story is as exciting, for none are as impactful; the same could be said about the ’36-’37 season in general — there will be much funnier years ahead, but there won’t be any that do as much for the show’s formation of its own identity than ’36-’37, which introduces stories, characters, and modes of operation that will be in use for the rest of the program’s life. And even though this year is a little rocky — it takes until about November 1936, when Buck Benny is introduced and the show does a dry-run of the Benny-Allen feud with Jack and Phil, who also finally gets some development, for laughs to become bountiful — one nevertheless has the sense of being at the birth of something great, and that’s a feeling that helps mitigate small shortcomings. So, with all of this noted, it’s time to share my favorite episodes from this groundbreaking season of comedy. With 39 original episodes, I’m choosing my 16 favorites (the equivalent to 10/24). They are listed below in airing order.
01) November 15, 1936: The cast debuts the new serial “Buck Benny Rides Again.”
This is an important offering for a variety of reasons. Obviously, this marks the introduction of the Buck Benny series of sketches, which will play through the majority of this season. Also, the new heightened level of quality with which the show is beginning to engage first starts to reveal itself in this offering, making it a delicious precursor for the magic that’s to come.
02) November 22, 1936: Jack is jealous of Phil’s prowess with the women.
While Jack’s rivalry with Phil really explodes, this is the episode to which I look as launching the big-laugh, character-driven style of comedy that will persist throughout the show’s existence. As mentioned above, this story arc fleshes out both the new bandleader and our esteemed host in ways that will also last for the duration of their characters’ existence. Fabulous comedy.
03) December 13, 1936: Andy Devine joins the show for another Buck Benny installment.
Andy Devine is a marvelous addition to the ensemble, for his distinctive voice makes him an inherently comedic presence — regardless of the material he’s actually given. Joining the cast for another segment of Buck Benny Rides Again, his inclusion automatically bolsters the episode to stratospheric laughs, and many fans fondly remember a classic blooper he makes at the end.
04) December 20, 1936: Jack and Phil end their feud in time for Christmas.
Just as Jack’s conflict with Phil had begun about a month ago, this installment decides to have the gentlemen finally make amends — a wise move that gives the arc a naturally occurring beginning, middle, and end (although the effects will still linger). Now that both characters, and their humor, have benefited from the arc, the show can move on to bigger fish (read: Allen).
05) January 03, 1937: 1937 brings the Knocking Man, more Buck Benny — and a new feud…
A legendary installment, this is the first mention of the feud that develops between Jack and Fred Allen, who made remarks about Jack on his program. But this offering only includes a brief allusion — at the very end, after the last commercial — to the story ahead. This one’s really another entry in the Buck Benny serial, and a fine chapter it is, filled with big laughs.
06) January 10, 1937: Fred Allen’s comments about Jack spark discussion.
Boom! It’s game on between Freddie and Jackie, and more than any other story arc that the show did in the course of its run, I think of this one as putting the Benny program on the figurative map — not in terms of popularity, but in terms of tapping into its comedic potential. The Benny-Allen dispute invigorates both shows and this episode is an early welcome jolt.
07) February 07, 1937: Jack plans to play “The Bee” on his violin.
After having announced in the week prior that he was going to play “The Bee” on his violin (as a means of disproving claims made by Fred Allen), the time has come for Jack to demonstrate his musical ability. Unfortunately, his instrument is “stolen,” making way for a great mini-arc within this larger storyline. Jokes about the violin are usually gold, and this episode is as well.
08) February 14, 1937: Jack’s birthday is celebrated while a tribute is paid to Fred Allen.
Wow — one of the funniest episodes of the entire season, this one always has me in stitches from beginning to end. It’s Jack’s birthday and everyone is paying their “respects,” including Ben Bernie, who appears in a hilarious sequence that is a laugh-a-minute. Meanwhile, there’s a fantastic sketch about “Highlights In The Life Of Fred Allen”: two seconds of silence. Ha!
09) February 21, 1937: Mary lets a dramatic role go to her head.
Coming in a period of extraordinarily high quality, this installment manages to match the new amplified status quo. Mary gets a chance to shine in this episode doing a fancy dramatic actress routine (sparked from her and Jack’s performance on another program of Brewster’s Millions) and once again, we get another really funny Buck Benny scene — one of the best. Plain fun.
10) March 14, 1937: Jack has a showdown in New York with Fred Allen.
The trilogy of episodes set in New York are interesting, as Abe Lyman and his orchestra fill in for Phil — with Abe establishing himself as another unique and combative presence. This is the middle of the three and obviously the best, as it’s the crescendo to which the past two-and-a-half months have been building. And this classic doesn’t disappoint; in fact, it actually surprises!
11) March 28, 1937: Jack and company take the train back to California.
Another seminal offering, this one has the honor of both launching the train travel shows (which will prove to be a popular staple) and introducing Eddie Anderson — but he’s not playing Rochester, he’s actually the train porter. There are a lot of sublime comedic moments in this episode, and were I pick an MVE for the season, it would most likely be this one.
12) April 11, 1937: George Burns and Gracie Allen come to promote their new show.
Okay, I’m definitely a bit biased when it comes to this installment. I’m a big fan of George and Gracie (and I intend to cover their television series on this blog in a couple of years), and it’s always a delight whenever they get together with their good friend Jack Benny. This offering features classic Gracie as she comes to promote their new show — and meets Buck Benny too.
13) April 18, 1937: Don Wilson interviews Jack Benny the movie star.
The Jack Benny Program was always the master of meta-theatricality (and this was before it was trendily outré) and I often applaud the series for its creativity: having Jack appear not as Jack Benny the radio star but Jack Benny the movie star is an ingenious idea and gets some interesting laughs (and a flub). The sketch is also a kooky delight, with several fun beats.
14) May 16, 1937: Jack looks forward to vacation and the cast redoes Ah, Wilderness.
A few weeks back, Jack told the audience to vote on the show’s best sketch, which they would re-perform; this one was chosen as the winner, and it’s easy to see why — it’s loaded with laughs, and you don’t have to know much of the original play to get it. However, the real reason this episode is here is because the cast is infectiously loose, cracking jokes and making flubs.
15) June 13, 1937: The gang crashes the set of Mary’s film.
It’s thrilling to be blogging about such wonderfully humorous shows here (not to knock The Cosby Show, but…) and this offering is another tour-de-force of laughs, with sharp banter back and forth between every member of the ensemble. In addition to some great moments for Andy, there’s goofy fun in the studio scenes, in which everyone is well-used. A favorite.
16) June 20, 1937: Jack is at the studio to shoot a big scene for his new picture.
The penultimate episode of the season, this one marks the official debut of Rochester, who appeared three times before on the series (but in different characters). His moments are definitely the installment’s highlights, with his character and relationship with Jack already pretty well-established. Also, the very idea of Jack in a barrel also yields delectable laughs. Stellar!
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: January 31, 1937, in which Jack has a nightmare about Fred Allen, March 07, 1937, the first in New York, in which Jack spars with Abe Lyman, and May 02, 1937, in which the show celebrates Jack’s fifth anniversary on the air.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! Tune in this October for the best from the 1937-’38 season of The JELL-O Program Starring Jack Benny! And don’t forget to come back on Monday for another forgotten Jerome Kern musical!