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.)
Last season’s addition of Dennis Day to the main cast (replacing the departed Kenny Baker) ushered in what I consider to be the “Golden Age” of Benny’s program while sponsored by JELL-O, as the show entered into an era of enhanced knowingness about its identity (greater than in the exciting, but palpably evolving years prior) and finds itself able to be regularly remarkable sans the benefit of novelty, while also free from any meaningful stretches of misguided duds. This wave of excellence extends, essentially, throughout the ’40-’41 season, during which the series was also the #1 most heard show on the airwaves. However, listening to the ’39-’40 season and its successor chronologically, I’m inclined to note that, if I were asked to choose the better of the two (seeing as I consider them – again, if not the most exciting and engaging, then at least — the most artfully crafted), it would be the former – for two reasons. One, this is the first season we’ve examined here in which the show doesn’t become better than it was the year before. That is, there’s no elevation of quality between ’39-’40 and ’40-’41, which, for the JELL-O years since Phil Harris’ addition, makes this the first season without any notable gains. And secondly, this year isn’t as consistently patterned as its predecessor; in fact, as with some of the early years we’ve covered, the winter and spring shows prove elementally more laudable than those from the fall. This is a marked difference from the last two years, which were more uniformly enjoyable with an equitable distribution of gems.
However, I still consider this period part of that aforementioned age of peak JELL-O writing, for in spite of a slow(er) spell, there’s no shortage of classic installments – most of which come as part of the episodic mini-arcs that the season routinely employs (better than any year thus far). In fact, the real strength of the ’40-’41 season, I believe, is its effective use of storytelling, consisting of a handful of outstanding multi-episode premises. In addition to the annual trip to New York City (which nevertheless doesn’t enthrall like the past few seasons’ trips to NYC) and a substantial jaunt to Palm Springs, some of this year’s expert arcs include: Jack getting mugged (and catching a cold) after standing outside the newly-wedded Don’s house while waiting to be invited inside, Jack’s jealousy over the well-received performance of one-week replacement host Herbert Marshall, Jack’s trials and tribulations with The Quiz Kids program, and the festivities surrounding our congenial master of ceremonies’ tenth anniversary in radio. Plus, there’s time for Phil Harris to also become a newlywed (to singer/actress Alice Faye, his future radio co-star), and plenty of promotion for two Benny pictures: Love Thy Neighbor (1940), which he made that summer with Fred Allen and Mary Martin, and Charley’s Aunt (1941), which co-stars Kay Francis and began production near the end of this current season. (Also, there’s a cute running gag involving the musical numbers — listen and see!)
But what really makes all these storylines work is the way the characters are utilized within them. Early years have done most of the heavy-lifting with regard to general characterization establishment (for everyone), but the maintenance and capitalization upon these secure foundations is equally supreme. As for this season in particular, I want to mention that even though Andy Devine (once an asset) makes only one appearance here, Dennis is becoming a significantly comedic presence – one who is both more likeable and situationally pliable than Kenny – and Rochester continues to be a source of extreme humor – one of which the writers take advantage on a weekly basis. (One of the ways that Rochester is allowed to stay incorporated within the weekly stories is the elevated mention and use of Jack’s boarder, Mr. Billingsley, played by writer Ed Beloin.) And because all of these characters are so rich – particularly Jack, who is as brilliant as ever – there are fewer playlets and sketches than before; most of the year is dominated by situation comedy scenes, which you’ll see reflected in this list. As a result, this season offers a great example of just how far this series has come in the cultivation of a template of comedy that will be put to use for decades to come. And despite the odd miss, the hits in this period remain sublime, making this a delectable year of laughs from the golden age of a classic. So, without further ado, out of all 35 original episodes from the ’40-’41 season — all of which are extant, two of which exist in both East and West Coast variants — I’ve listed my picks for the 16 strongest. They are featured below in airing order.
01) October 13, 1940: Jack pays and collects on World Series bets.
After a lackluster season premiere, this simultaneously loose (in performance) and tight (in scripting) installment is a welcome return to form, with an abundance of laughs relating to the now-annual gag of reading the premiere reviews, along with the story of Jack breaking even on a host of World Series bets. My favorite bit, however, is Jack’s violin solo with Phil’s orchestra.
02) October 20: 1940: Jack hopes to trade in his Maxwell.
Coming within the less remarkable first two months of the year, this installment — along with the above — gains distinction because it manages to outshine the other entries from this period. I appreciate this episode, which serves as more great promotion for the upcoming Love Thy Neighbor, because of the gags involving Jack’s Maxwell and the story’s use of Rochester.
03) November 24, 1940: Jack gets robbed outside Don’s house.
The first of an aforementioned three-episode arc in which Jack suffers a mugging and a cold after the gang visits Don’s new bride without calling ahead (thus forcing Jack to stay outside in the rain until Don gets the okay from the “little woman”), this installment sets up the scenario — Don’s just been married, he invites them over, Jack wonders if they should call first, they go anyway, and Jack winds up punished. It’s very funny — quite memorable.
04) December 01, 1940: Jack is recovering from a cold he got outside Don’s house.
Jack is home struggling with the cold that he endured after the events of the above episode in this, the middle part of this trio of outings. This is probably the strongest of the trilogy, for it makes the most comedically effective use of Jack’s repeated insistence of the “call her up, I said” gag, and bases much of its fun on the characters descending on a bedridden Jack.
05) December 08, 1940: Jack and Don are feuding about the house incident.
As the conclusion of this little story arc, it’s probably not as strong as its two predecessors, and gains mention here simply for the association with this wonderful trilogy. But since it’s being highlighted, I want to acknowledge that this entry marks one of the first times we see Jack in conflict with Don, whose persona adapts as a result — he’ll get more outspoken.
06) January 05, 1941: Jack and the gang go to the Rose Bowl Game.
Following an extended trip to New York (where workable templates and old gags are invoked — but with results that are only good, not great), this installment has everyone back on the West Coast for the Rose Bowl Game, which the gang attends along with Gladys Zybysko, Jack’s casual and oft-referenced girlfriend from last season. She’s always good for some laughs!
07) January 12, 1941: The writers haven’t written this week’s script. (WEST)
Definitely the most metatheatrical episode of the season, this installment is entirely based around the fact that the writers are having trouble scripting the show (which strikes me as incredibly honest given some of what we saw in the fall) and have nothing for the program. It’s a delicious premise that engages the show’s unique charms (of which fourth wall breaking has always been a part) and takes good advantage of the ensemble dynamics.
08) January 26, 1941: Jack is preparing for his trip to New York.
With this episode, the season really launches into a state of mostly sustained quality for the rest of its duration, as the show pushes less for story and simply takes advantage of what it has with its characters. This installment sets up the events of the following week, with Jack preparing for a brief business trip to New York. Just funny and well-written from beginning to end.
09) February 02, 1941: Herbert Marshall hosts in Jack’s absence.
Among the cream of this season’s crop, this is one of the few episodes from the JELL-O era in which Jack does not appear, as the show has established that he’s in New York. In his place is movie star Herbert Marshall, who plays his part in the show’s parody of his recently released film The Letter (1940). Marshall surprises by being hysterically funny, and the interactions that the other players have with him — Mary is smitten, Dennis keeps calling him “Hubert,” and Phil perplexes Marshall entirely — is divine. One of the best.
10) February 09, 1941: Jack is jealous of Herbert Marshall’s performance last week.
While the above episode was truly outstanding, this installment really cements its predecessor’s reputation for comedic greatness, for the show once again embraces metatheacricality by using Jack’s established vanity to create the premise of his being jealous of Herbert Marshall’s superb performance in the week prior. It’s all rooted in character and it’s truly delectable.
11) February 23, 1941: Jack and the company vacation in Palm Springs.
I’m not enthralled by the three-episode Palm Springs arc, but I consider this installment to be the best of the bunch, for it, as with so many others here, does a great job of letting the characterizations guide both the story and the comedy. The gag about Jack staying in the Teepee motel (named after T.P. Ginsburg — his uncle is Mo Tell) because of his cheapness is a riot!
12) March 23, 1941: Jack and his cast do their version of Tobacco Road.
Without a doubt, this episode contains the best play/sketch of the season (although The Letter would be a close contender), because it’s the most memorable. Part of this is because there are fewer sketches now, and so the ones the show presents happen to stand out better, but also, the laughs are fast, furious and don’t require knowledge of the source material.
13) April 06, 1941: The cast goes up against “The Quiz Kids.”
Another absolute classic, this entry introduces the arc of Jack’s appearing on The Quiz Kids, a game show in which children answer trivia questions. This installment has “The Quiz Kids” joining the JELL-O Program to compete with Benny’s cast in a trivia contest. It’s sheer lunacy and goes about as anticipated, but boy, is it well-executed, with laughs coming from all sides, even the kiddies themselves. And this episode introduces the TERRIFIC running gag about Carmichael possibly eating “The Gas Man.” So many laughs here!
14) April 13, 1941: Jack worries about his upcoming appearance on The Quiz Kids.
The middle part of this trilogy (and the one set right before Jack is to make his appearance on their show), this excursion hits a lot of the same notes as the one prior, but the proceedings are enlivened by a marvelously absurd dream sequence in which Jack competes on The Quiz Kids with William Shakespeare (Frank Nelson), Sir Isaac Newton (Phil), and Lady Godiva (Mary Kelley). Also, what happened to the Gas Man?
15) May 18, 1941: The gang visits Jack on the set of Charley’s Aunt.
Kay Francis guest stars in this outing as herself — alongside director Archie Mayo — in another one of the show’s ingenious film promotions. I can’t claim that this episode is as exciting or fresh as some other past promotional outings (like those in 1938 for Artists And Models Abroad), but the star wattage of the game Francis makes listening a unique delight.
16) May 25, 1941: A Jell-O commercial parodies newlywed Phil’s home life.
This is the penultimate episode of the season before the gang heads out to San Diego for the finale, and this outing is notable for a variety of reasons. Not only does it feature a great gag about how much Jack actually has to work each week, but there’s also an appearance — for historical buffs — by Thomas E. Dewey making a pitch for the USO. Yet this excursion really makes my list for the spoof of newly wed Phil Harris’ home life, starring Jack and Mary.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: November 17, 1940, a simply designed excursion that guest stars Mary Martin (Jack’s co-star in Love Thy Neighbor), March 30, 1941, a solid entry with character laughs for everyone (especially Rochester), April 20, 1941, which follows Jack’s expectedly embarrassing appearance on The Quiz Kids, and June 01, 1941, broadcast from the San Diego Naval Training Station, foretelling what’s to come next year…
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! Tune in this June for the best from the 1941-42 season of The JELL-O Program Starring Jack Benny! And don’t forget to come back on Tuesday for more Seinfeld!