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.)
While the first season we covered here — Benny’s third year sponsored by Jell-O — was instrumental in this series’ establishment as a comedic powerhouse, introducing a high quality precedent that would persist throughout the bulk of his program’s life, and the following season expanded upon what had previously been created by proving that these elements weren’t just unreliably ephemeral, the ’38-’39 season finds the writing more consistent than ever before, but matches this enjoyable evenness with a mania surrounding the facets that had made the prior two years so magnetic. In other words, this season has raised the show’s base level of quality, such that there are no longer any outright bombs, but the tools that had been used in the past to distinguish the series and its comedy — namely arcs and long-running jokes, all of which are rooted in character — are not employed quite as effectively as they had been when the constructs were newer. However, as later seasons will prove, the lack of novelty doesn’t solely determine the success rate of a given idea; instead, any noticeable missteps here are due, I think, to the fact that the show’s possibilities are limitless. Now, this is a blessing when we’re discussing sheer creativity (always one of the Benny program’s strong points), but when it comes to focus and direction, such scattered aims can be counterintuitive. In the case of the ’38-’39 season, the show is inundated with ideas, most of which work, but with varying degrees of potency.
Two of the more effective stories from prior seasons — Jack’s rivalry with his bandleader Phil Harris and his full-blown feud with rival comedian Fred Allen, whose animosity toward Jack has resumed in fits and starts since their initial detente in March 1937 — are once more used for the sake of story, and much more overtly than last year. With regard to the former, we see this tension enacted in an amusing fight over a girl, Barbara Whitney, who is introduced in October and remains a presence until December, before being dropped without explanation. Then the guys’ relationship is tested through a mini-arc involving Phil’s attempts to get his own show, another amusing beat that fizzles after a few weeks. And then, near the end of the season, as the show gears into its promotion of Jack’s upcoming picture Man About Town (1939), the show reveals that both Rochester and Phil have parts in the film, which is also used to explore Jack and Phil’s ongoing oneupmanship. (The incorporation of Jack’s film career is a brilliant angle for his radio series to explore as both story and publicity, although it’s not as comedically satisfying as last season’s use of Artists And Models Abroad, which helped yield some of the strongest episodes we’d heard thus far and represented an incredibly smart blend of fact with fiction.) In all three cases, these small stories are part of the broader presentation of the pair’s relationship, but the lack of definition — and the absence of, specifically, a solid ending — keeps each arc from besting others we’ve heard before (and we’ll hear ahead).
Similarly, the Fred Allen feud, always a tool that the show can employ at random, is invoked several times more formally throughout the year (although Allen himself never appears) — first in an arc in which Jack prepares to face Fred in a boxing match and later in a story in which Fred has accused of Jack of being an imposter who really hails by the name Maxwell Stroud. Again, both ideas are comedic, but they peter out without the necessary crescendo, rendering them insufficient. The same could be noted for other arcs — like the theft of Jack’s Maxwell or the introduction of Jack’s pet polar bear, Carmichael, a gag that could only work on radio, and doesn’t, in this season, yield the big laughs one would anticipate (perhaps an explanation for the general phasing out of his presence). However, aside from the acknowledgement that the plotting for these stories leaves something to be desired, they nevertheless deliver a lot of laughs, thus indicating that the series at least understands what makes it work, thus representing a sense of identity awareness that helps to ground the flighty nature of the weekly stories. (This accounts for the elevation of the aforementioned base level of quality.) Also, it must be noted, there’s a sense of excitement to the fast-paced timbre of the season — which incidentally, is Kenny’s last; we’ll talk more about him next year in relation to Dennis — that certainly aids its overall value and detracts from the occasional narrative ineptitude.
In fact, while I might tell new listeners to start with the ’36-’37 season and then cite the ’37-’38 season (specifically the spring) as being a moment of sustained superiority, I would probably advise that, as a collective season, this year is the strongest of the trio — because nitpicks aside, the show is refining itself. This is a better example of The Jack Benny Program, which has many terrific (read: more both comedically and narratively refined) years ahead… So, without further ado, out of the 39 original episodes extant from the ’38-’39 season, I’ve listed my picks for the 16 best — they are featured below in airing order.
01) October 30, 1938: Jack hosts a Halloween party at his house for the cast.
Although this year starts out much stronger than the preceding two, it isn’t until the end of October (and this is the fifth episode of the season), that the scripts start leaving a boffo impression. At a Halloween party that Jack’s throwing for the cast, we meet Rochester’s brother September, who is a laugh-a-minute, and the show introduces the Barbara Whitney arc.
02) November 13, 1938: Jack and Phil fight over Barbara, and the gang visits a swami.
I’ve always found this episode to be supremely comedic, although not for any grand particular reason. It’s simply that the pre-sketch (or in this case, sitcom scene) patter that dominates the first two-thirds of the episode is so tightly rendered, with a lot of great one-liners regarding Barbara Whitney and her two-timing ways. Also, there are a couple of choice ad-libs too!
03) November 27, 1938: Jack recovers from a cold and the cast puts on a football drama.
One of the things that should be noted about this season is that while last year saw the quality of the skits and film parodies improving tremendously, this year finds them even BETTER, with some episodes actually boasting better sketches than opening banter. In fact, I’d say that’s the case for this erratic entry, which is recommended for the very funny football annual.
04) December 04, 1938: On location in New York, the cast does another Captain O’Benny skit.
Captain O’Benny is invoked for the first, last, and only time this season (after making his inconspicuous debut last year) in this humorous outing broadcast live from New York (where Benny had to appear before the court for smuggling charges). Jokes abound about Fred Allen, but once again, it’s the humorous sketch that makes this entry a winner and earns it mention.
05) December 11, 1938: Jack has words for Fred Allen and goes Christmas shopping with Mary.
Every Jack Benny fan has fond memories of the annual Christmas shopping shows, which took on a life of their own in the late ’40s (thanks, in large part, to Mel Blanc), but the show had been exploring variations of the idea since the late ’30s. We’ve heard it before, and we hear it here in this amusing entry, the script for which boasts a plethora of worthwhile holiday laughs.
06) December 18, 1938: The cast takes the train from New York back to Hollywood.
Episodes set in trains, or train stations, will become another staple in the Benny Program‘s oeuvre (heck, Eddie Anderson made his first appearance on the train ride back from New York in March ’37). These entries, this one included, generally work because they’re taking established characterizations and putting them in a relatable construct. The opposition of these two forces serves as the source of the comedy. One of the season’s most supreme.
07) January 08, 1939: The show re-performs their Snow White And The Seven Gangsters sketch.
Essentially a remake of an episode that the company produced last season (which also made my list) of their version of the Disney classic, this entry acts as a command performance for Walt Disney himself, who is in the audience. Some tweaks are made to the skit to make it a tighter affair, and although last year’s was probably funnier, the show is still strong and memorable.
08) January 15, 1939: Jack goes out before the show, and Phil makes plans for his own series.
Each ensuing season finds an increase in the show’s exploration of its metatheacricality; this installment opens with Jack and his friends at the drugstore, while their “show” doesn’t actually start until midway through — once again blurring the lines of fact and fiction. This is an uproariously funny offering with lots of delicious gags, including Don’s encounter with a scale, the discussion of Jack’s performance alongside Joan Crawford, and Phil’s plans to start his own show. Another of my absolute favorites — pure entertainment.
09) January 29, 1939: Jack is feuding with Fred Allen again and visits Andy Devine’s farm.
This part of the season finds the show attempting to reignite Jack’s beef with Fred Allen, and although the history of their relationship is such that this beat works every time, this year’s previously mentioned lack of follow-through does hamper a bit of our enjoyment. Nevertheless, this entry features a fun scene where Jack goes to Andy’s farm to train for a fight with Fred, but not before Rochester loses control of the car and crashes into the family’s barn.
10) March 19, 1939: Jack listens to his show while laid up in bed with Carmichael’s cold.
Yet another of my favorite entries, this is probably one of the more satisfying installments with Carmichael, as Jack is laid up in bed after having caught the bear’s cold. This invites more metatheatrics as Jack listens to his “show” on the radio, where Kenny, Phil, and Don discuss allegations that Fred Allen has made about Jack’s identity! There are lots of top drawer laughs here from all involved, including Rochester, Blanche Stewart as the Nurse, and good ol’ Frank Nelson as the doctor. A classic!
11) March 26, 1939: Ed Sullivan investigates Maxwell Stroud, who pops in during the sketch.
Yes, the Ed Sullivan guest stars in this episode as himself, when he comes to press Jack on the truth about Maxwell Stroud, who incidentally shows up in the hotel-set murder mystery sketch that the company performs. It’s an ingenious idea, and the incorporation of this character into what was already a stellar sketch is supreme. One just wishes it didn’t end so nonchalantly.
12) April 09, 1939: It’s Easter Sunday and the gang performs a parody of Four Girls In White.
As with several of the other episodes highlighted on today’s list, this entry gains distinction primarily for a very enjoyable sketch — this time a parody of the 1939 film Four Girls In White, with the ensemble as the eponymous girls and Jack as their teacher. It’s a funny premise aided by the solid script — as with all the great ones, you don’t need to know the film to enjoy.
13) April 23, 1939: Jack is at Paramount to shoot a scene for his new picture, Man About Town.
In a basic replication of the show’s keen cross promotion of Benny’s film career that we’d seen at the end of the last two seasons of the radio program, this year has the show crafting episodes around Man About Town. This episode features both the director (Mark Sandrich) and Jack’s co-star Binnie Barnes, along with more sparring between Jack and the ego-inflated Phil.
14) May 21, 1939: There’s more talk of Man About Town before the conclusion of Gunga Din.
This episode sees the second half of the show’s parody of Gunga Din, the epic poem that was produced into a film that year, which represents another one of the show’s best cinematic parodies; you really don’t need to know the story to enjoy it, it’s that funny! My preference is for this part over its predecessor due to the strength of the opening patter — filled with strong bits.
15) May 28, 1939: Rochester is cast in Jack’s film, and the cast parodies Alexander Graham Bell.
Jack’s Maxwell is stolen in another one of those arcs that never really goes anywhere and is quickly dropped. However, this episode is supremely comedic and seems to promise additional avenues that this story could explore. Also, the show continues to ride the crest of its wave of excellent skits, offering another comedic satirization of The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939).
16) June 18, 1939: It’s Father’s Day and the group is getting ready for their trip to Waukegan.
The penultimate episode of the season, this entry is notable for several reasons. Not only is this, frankly, among the most hysterical on today’s list, but it also represents another installment in the train station variety, as the gang heads down there in preparation for their trip to Waukegan (for the premiere of Man About Town). Also, this is the last with Kenny as a regular!
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: October 23, 1938, in which the cast broadcasts from their new studio, a two-episode arc that came naturally as a function of the show’s actual move, with a very funny parody of Algiers, April 30, 1939, in which the group celebrates Jack’s seventh anniversary on radio, and both episodes that include the Jesse James sketch (yet another of the show’s best), February 26 and March 05, 1939.
NOTE: If you’re enjoying these Benny posts, please let me know! I am currently working on our June 2017 entry on ’41-’42, the last year sponsored by JELL-O, and am debating whether or not to extend coverage of the series, as all I initially promised was these six seasons. Benny posts are a lot of work, but if there’s enough of an audience, I’d be well-motivated to continue!
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! Tune in February for the best from the 1939-40 season of The JELL-O Program Starring Jack Benny! And don’t forget to come back on Tuesday for more Married… With Children!