Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday and the continuation 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’m sharing my selections for the 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.
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. 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 indexing 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 these posts are sourced from those copies. (Check them all out here; additional rarities here.)
This month we’re looking at the fourth year of Benny’s program for JELL-O, which has long been overshadowed by its predecessor, the ’36-’37 season, the groundbreaking year that saw the introductions of Phil Harris, Andy Devine, and Eddie Anderson as Rochester, along with the birth of both Buck Benny and indelible running gags like Jack’s feud with rival radio comedian Fred Allen. Yet while last season made large and obvious improvements to the series — and did more than perhaps any other year for the formation of Jack’s persona and the establishment of the storytelling that would come to typify his show — this year simply takes what worked before and expands upon it. Well, that’s how it seems on paper. The truth, which becomes evident in listening to the 36 shows that remain in existence from this 39-episode season, is that this is a year where a lot of little things happen. That is, there are tiny characterization tweaks — Jack is now, with regularity, a cheapskate (a part of his character that really emerged during last season’s feud with Phil); small recurring jokes subtly being added — like the debut of Jack’s Maxwell; and relationships getting refined with expert care — particularly Jack’s with Rochester, whose character had just been introduced in the penultimate episode of the season prior. So there is a lot of forward momentum going on here, it’s just not as ostentatious as it had been the year before, which frankly needed broader changes to establish its viability.
But what of this year’s quality? As you’ll notice from my selections, the fall of 1937 isn’t a particularly fertile time for the show’s sense of humor. Although no bad decisions are made and laughs are still had, these shows come sequentially both after some delectably fun entries in the spring and before a string of superb outings in the new year, making these autumn episodes simply less bright. All of the ingredients are present, but the show struggles a bit with how to move forward following a knowingly terrific season. Miniature attempts to reignite the Phil/Jack quasi-rivalry persist throughout the year, but the really great and new ideas seem to start coming in around February of ’38. [Of course, with full disclosure, only 10 of the 13 episodes from fall of 1937 are in existence; it’s possible the three we’re missing are actually the highlights.] By the spring, everything is elevated. The usage of comedically advantageous supporting players like Andy, Rochester, and Shlepperman (who’s back with regularity this season) becomes more frequent, the interplay between the main cast members becomes looser and thus more fun for the audience, and the sketches/parodies are starting to become almost as strong as the character-driven situation comedy scenes, which are also on the rise. Additionally, the ’37-’38 season sees an increase in the show’s metatheatricality, as the writers have fun toying with the relationship these “characters” have to the radio show on which they star. Note that Jack listens to his show on occasion, leaves it early (for sitcom scenes), and the lines between fiction and reality are continually blurred — an element of humorous fascination.
Before I get to my list, there’s one other thing I have to note — and that’s the consistent nature of the writing once we get into the spring. This was a much harder list to make than last year’s, simply because every episode in the second half of the season is chock full of delights — if they aren’t directly related to the scripts and the storytelling, they’re derived from a few expert gags, or the evident amusement that the cast is having riffing off one another. (There are a lot more “bloopers” this season than last — and that energy is infectious.) Also, the wonderful tie-in promotion for Jack’s latest film effort, Artists And Models Abroad (1938) is genius, with a guest appearance from his co-star Joan Bennett and a terrific running joke involving a scene that Jack must perform while hanging upside down. It’s probably the cleverest story of the season, and admittedly one of my personal favorites. In fact, the spring of ’38 is probably one of the best periods of the Jell-O program and while last year was revolutionary, this season — thanks to its back half — is qualitatively better. So, without further ado and with 36 of 39 original episodes extant from the ’37-’38 season, I’m choosing my picks for the years’s 16 best installments — they are featured below in airing order.
01) October 24, 1937: Jack gets a Maxwell and the cast parodies Wife, Doctor And Nurse.
In the best surviving episode from the first two months of the season, this offering is notable for containing the first mention of Jack’s Maxwell, a gag out of which the show will get a lot of mileage (pun intended) and will first be heard in the next week’s episode. Meanwhile, the parody of Wife, Doctor, And Nurse is one of the better forgotten film (by non-cinephiles) sketches, with laughs as big as those in the casual dialogue prior.
02) December 12, 1937: The gang discusses Christmas presents and goes shopping.
From the 10 episodes currently available of the 13 produced in fall ’37, this is the only entry that I think delights as much as the best episodes from last season and points towards the excellence ahead. This is the first Christmas Shopping show, soon to become an annual tradition, and though the bit’s not nearly as great as it’ll become, it’s still highly rewarding. Also, take note of the bevy of “Jack is cheap” jokes; we’re on the right track!
03) January 02, 1938: Jack reels from a blind date, courtesy of Phil, with Dolores Del Schmutz.
A lopsided episode, this is one of many entries — from the duration of this program’s run — that boasts better character-driven patter (usually the first two-thirds of an episode) than the climactic sketch/scene/bit, which in this case is a series of interviews with faux famous people. The entry makes today’s list for the delicious stuff involving Jack’s blind date with a dame named Dolores Del Schmutz — lots of fun here (and it gets mentioned next week too).
04) January 09, 1938: Jack and the cast broadcast from a Women’s Club in San Francisco.
I’m not one of those fans who’s automatically enamored when the program goes on location, but usually changes in scenery allow fresh ideas, and there’s something quite unique about this offering, which takes place (mostly) at a women’s club in San Francisco. I always cringe at the depiction of Asian characters at this point in the run, but when you get past that, there’s a lot to enjoy — like the “Phil is late” gag and the Shelepperman appearance.
05) February 20, 1938: Jack celebrates his birthday and the gang does a submarine drama.
Don’t expect the discussions about Jack’s birthday (which is actually on Valentine’s Day, February 14th) to involve the classic 39 bit, as that’s not yet established. However, this outing is benefited from a general elevation of quality — the kind that will persist throughout the rest of the season and will be reflected in all of the ones highlighted below. The sketch, a submarine drama, offers plenty of laughs too — though there’ll be more next week.
06) February 27, 1938: The cast performs the second half of their submarine drama.
I adore this episode, which is benefited from an incredible blooper-ridden looseness by all involved — at one point Jack even jokingly says that they should have had a rehearsal. It’s another pretty strong script, with fine moments for the two broadest laugh-getters, Rochester and Andy, and a sense of fun that is probably unmatched by any other entry on today’s list. How much of this is from the mistakes? Eh, probably a good bit…
07) March 06, 1938: Don’s 15th anniversary on radio is honored and Jack gets out his violin.
Although this is a show designed to honor Don on his 15th anniversary in radio, it’s Jack who really gets to shine when he whips out his violin again to play a rendition of the then-new “Thanks For The Memory.” But the songwriters, Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger (we’ve seen them both on this blog before) show up in an attempt to keep the M.C. from destroying their beloved song (similar to a bit from spring ’36)! Lots of fabulous laughs here.
08) March 27, 1938: In New York, Jack once again has words with Fred Allen.
Jack does a single episode from NYC, where he works with Harry Von Zell, Abe Lyman, and Kate Smith in place of his regulars. We miss the others, but the script more than compensates, particularly when Fred Allen joins the fun and gets into a screaming match with Jack. These two pros have one of their best interactions yet! Note that both the East and West Coast versions survive. Above is the latter, which I think is slightly funnier — note how good Allen is here.
09) April 10, 1938: Jack is having a house built and the gang parodies A Yank At Oxford.
As alluded above, the parodies of these ’30s films are always hit-and-miss, especially when a lot of their enjoyment is dependent on whether or not you’re familiar with the picture that is being spoofed. In this case, the take-off on A Yank At Oxford, which I covered on this blog back in November 2013, is funny even without a knowledge of the picture, and it even stands as the best part of the installment; that’s no easy feat! A surprise favorite.
10) April 24, 1938: The gang performs Snow White And The Seven Gangsters.
This heavily hyped offering features one of the largest sketches of the season, as the troupe puts on their satire of Disney’s latest hit — his first animated feature, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Their efforts are actually quite enjoyable and the show liked the results so much that they would in fact re-do this script next season. (Will it make my list? Stay tuned…) The highlight is Mary and Andy’s rendition of the Wishing Well song — pure hilarity.
11) May 22, 1938: Jack diets for a film role and the gang begins their Tom Sawyer sketch.
And this episode begins a lengthy stretch of truly classic installments, extending to the end of the season. The three-part Tom Sawyer sketch is an ambitious endeavor that offers more laughs than cringes, but not surprisingly, the best part of the show is the initial patter, as the gang discusses Jack’s new picture, setting up an upcoming runner, and allowing for a handful of delicious jokes about Jack’s attempted diet. Classic late ’30s Benny; easy, fun.
12) May 29, 1938: Jack rehearses a scene with Rochester and the Tom Sawyer parody continues.
The middle entry of the Tom Sawyer sketch is weaker than the two surrounding parts, but the episode itself is saved by perhaps the single funniest scene of the season, as Rochester reads Joan Bennett’s lines while rehearsing a scene with Jack. Anderson has quickly become one of the show’s best players — always delivering guffaws — and this is the best usage of his character we’ve seen yet. This is exactly why I love this series and knew it had to be discussed.
13) June 05, 1938: Jack refuses to do a scene hanging upside down and Tom Sawyer concludes.
As the extended Tom Sawyer sketch wraps up with a fairly amusing installment, this really funny outing continues the masterful promotion of Jack’s upcoming film by introducing a mini-arc about Jack having to do a scene in the picture while hanging upside down. It’s a divinely unique gag — one that works better on radio than it would on television — and its introduction makes the first half of this episode another tour de force classic.
14) June 12, 1938: Jack agrees to perform the upside down scene opposite Joan Bennett.
Were I to choose an MVE this season, this would likely be the recipient, for it’s outstanding from start to finish. Joan Bennett guest stars as herself, alongside Mitchell Leisen, who was the actual director of Artists And Models Abroad. Yes, this episode contains the scene in which Jack does the upside down scene, and the big-bit scene is delightfully farcical, weaving in sublime movements for “Mr. Zukor.” But even before the climax, this episode is a winner — Mary’s jealousy of Joan Bennett always has me in figurative stitches! A classic — take note of this one, folks.
15) June 19, 1938: Kenny talks about an upcoming gig and the cast does a sketch set in Indiana.
This is the penultimate installment from the season and the last (this year) with Kenny, who’s going overseas to star in The Mikado. This fact leads to a truly expert gag in which Jack is asked to define the Mikado, and then my absolute favorite joke from the season, in which Kenny reveals how he gets his paycheck (it involves walnuts). The sketch itself is decent — no major missteps — but it’s these earlier moments (including an Andy bit) that shine.
16) June 26, 1938: The cast discusses summer plans and Jack arranges for a season-ending party.
Sometimes the finales tend to be formulaic or a little tired (as the staff has been working tirelessly for months), but this installment is still riding the crest of this truly excellent wave and offers a handful of memorable moments. Not surprisingly, the Rochester phone call sequence is the highlight, but I’m also quite fond of the stuff with Andy (who’s going to “Honolula” — which Jack milks into a big laugh). Great end to a season that turned out to be great!
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: January 23, 1938, in which the cast puts on a newspaper drama, February 13, 1938, in which Robert Taylor guest stars, and May 01, 1938, in which the gang visits Jack’s home as it’s being built.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! Tune in this December for the best from the 1938-39 season of The JELL-O Program Starring Jack Benny! And don’t forget to come back on Monday for another forgotten musical!