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 Grape Nuts And Grape Nuts Flakes 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 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.)
The 1943-’44 season of The Jack Benny Program, the last with General Foods and the only sponsored by both Grape Nuts and Grape Nuts Flakes, is the first year with the team of writers who’d stay throughout Benny’s career in radio: Milt Josefsberg, George Balzer, John Tackaberry, and Sam Perrin, the latter replacing Cy Howard several months into the new season. It’s this foursome who’ll turn the show into the straightforward character-driven situation comedy that most listeners (and viewers, following the move to television) best remember — actualizing the evolution that began in 1936 with the more ambitious and experimental, but rough-around-the-edges, team of Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin. However, as discussed in relation to last season, these Grape Nuts years mark an era of transition — due both to these above personnel shifts and to the limitations imposed by the Second World War, which kept the show connected to the JELL-O years’ traversing (especially during wartime), vaudeville-esque variety-like sensibilities, while also inching slowly closer to that full-blown situation comedy mold. Here, these new writers spend months establishing a groove with the characters and this liminal mode of storytelling; it takes them until about January ’44 to get a command of the players and discover a workable rhythm. At this point, the show re-shifts into comedic overdrive (which is laudable, because last year, remember, was a bit wobbly) — and despite the show-defining excitement that emanated from the revolutionary JELL-O years, this season poises us for the Lucky Strike era, which will grow to become a more consistent and well-oiled character-based property.
But, once again, this year also finds change in front of the microphones as well, for the show makes room for both John Brown and Minerva Pious, two regulars from Fred Allen’s show; they began the year temporarily out-of-work as Allen’s poor health necessitated his extended hiatus. Jack’s rival eventually returned to the airwaves in mid-December (two months late); Brown stayed with Benny throughout the season (in a variety of roles), while Pious (who also played several roles, including Suzette Greenberg) left at the end of January. Interestingly, while both are funny, neither are ever allowed to infiltrate the core ensemble, and their move from Allen to Benny is never made a story point. Clearly, their presence on the show was meant to be temporary — a favor to the performers and, until he recovered, Allen. Frankly though, there’s bigger casting news this season. First, Butterfly McQueen recurs for much of the year as Mary’s new maid (and Rochester’s niece). The actress best known for Gone With The Wind (1939) doesn’t make it past the season, however, for she lacks chemistry with the rest of the ensemble, especially her boss. On the other hand, the year scores two victories by using a pair of recurring players — Sara Berner, who’ll become best known as Mabel the phone operator but here gets a spring arc as Mary’s old friend Ruby Wagner, and the immortal Mel Blanc, who makes six appearances as listless insurance salesman Herman Peabody, appearing throughout the year’s last few months. They’re both hysterical, filling out the peripheral ensemble beautifully.
Meanwhile, the war years bring the Benny program another casualty, as Dennis Day embarks for the Navy in April ’44, starting a two-year leave that’s a pretty significant loss for the series. Just as with Phil’s three-month absence last season, every entry without our favorite tenor (especially at the end of this year, which doesn’t yet have the perennially interim Larry Stevens) feels incomplete. What’s more, if one had to choose a Most Valuable Player from this season’s ensemble (excluding our esteemed master of ceremonies, of course), it would be Dennis, who’s grown to become the best defined and most reliably hilarious member of the ensemble (outside of Rochester, who always gets his laughs — and has done so since 1937). Not only does Dennis play into some of the most memorable gags (like one involving his desire to change his name), but he also anchors the year’s most memorable arc — in which he tries to get a raise from Jack, is foolishly talked out of it, and then watches as his boss incurs the wrath of Mother Day (Verna Felton). So, he helps make this year especially funny, and as the next season looks to be without him, the future doesn’t seem as bright. However, with the new writers getting the hang of the show — again, probably sometime around January 1944 — we’re in a good, if shakily defined (neither vaudeville nor pure sitcom), territory. Thus, without further ado, out of all 35 original episodes from the ’43-’44 season — all of which are extant — I’ve listed my picks for the 16 strongest. They are featured below in airing order.
01) October 17, 1943: The cast does a parody of Casablanca.
Although it’s not included on this list, the season premiere — the first entry written by the new writers — is a fairly solid show, following Jack’s return from his North African USO tour. The remaining installments in October all continue this theme and form a trilogy of sorts, as Jack recounts his “travels.” Here, in the best of this lot, the show parodies Casablanca — complete with Rochester’s rendition of “As Time Goes By” and Minerva Pious as Ingrid!
02) October 24, 1943: The cast does a parody of Algiers.
Using the same design as its predecessor (and continuing another heretofore unmentioned gag about a cabbie asking Jack if he ever ran into his brother over in Africa), this entry once again features a reporter who asks Jack about his travels, leading to a parody of Algiers. It’s not as funny as the above, but it features a great ad lib from Jack about “Claudette Cobra.”
03) November 28, 1943: Babara Stanwyck meets Mary’s new maid and Dennis wants a raise.
Even though the new writers are still finding their grasp on the show during these first months, their work is consistently strong and November ’43 is a (generally) solid showing. This entry is the best, however, and although it lacks Mary (who’s ill for three weeks), Ms. Stanwyck is an adequate replacement. Also, Butterfly makes her second appearance, joining the ensemble.
04) December 05, 1943: Jack goes to the DMV to renew his license.
While this episode isn’t stellar, it comes sandwiched between two great installments, furthering the arc introduced last week — Dennis asking Jack for a raise and then being stupidly talked out of it. While there’s more on that front, the entry’s comedic centerpiece has Jack venturing down to the DMV to renew his driver’s license — where he encounters the usual problems.
05) December 12, 1943: Dennis’ mother heckles Jack about giving her son a raise.
Among the season’s most memorable excursions, this is the legendary installment where Mrs. Day (played divinely by one of my favorite character actresses, Verna Felton) bellows “Ahhhh, shut up!” to Jack, as she heckles him about giving her son a raise. It’s an entirely character-driven, story-lite installment, but it’s filled with terrific laughs. An absolute favorite.
06) January 23, 1944: Jack rehearses with his latest co-star, Alexis Smith.
I look to this episode as launching the season’s sustainable string of hilarity, for it seems like the writers finally know the show and its characters well enough to exert their evidently comedic power. Featuring the second appearance of Jack’s new co-star, Alexis Smith, this entry is filled with delectable lines and gags — some of the best dialogue of the entire season. Terrific.
07) January 30, 1944: Jack heads to the studio to protest the excision of his film’s love scene.
The third week of promotion for Jack’s newest picture, The Horn Blows At Midnight, this entry is more rigid than its predecessors, as Jack marches down to the studio to protest the removal of his big love scene with Alexis Smith. There’s a lot of situational humor that occurs at the studio (as usual), but I also like the opening patter — where Dennis considers a name change.
08) February 06, 1944: Jack recalls his entry into the Navy during the First World War.
Another candidate for the season’s funniest, this entry is consistently strong, opening with more terrific patter that continues what was introduced last week: Dennis’ goofy fascination with changing his name to Dennis Hosenpfeffer. What’s more, the show doesn’t disappoint in its flashback sitcom scene, as we follow Jack’s entrance into the Navy back in 1917.
09) February 20, 1944: Jack plays checkers with Groucho Marx.
As mentioned in prior posts, I’m not automatically enthused by a flashy guest star appearance… even when it’s Groucho Marx. However, there’s no denying that this episode makes this list only because of his inclusion, for everything that follows the opening scene in which the two play checkers (yielding many laughs) is only adequate. Still, the first part figuratively kills!
10) March 05, 1944: Don complains about his salary.
More evidence of the new writers’ enhanced understanding and established mastery comes in March, which is loaded with truly solid (that is, simply good — no strings) excursions, including this character-filled one, which features Jack’s first “Now cut that out!,” and the following, which is highlighted as an Honorable Mention. Effortless, fun — a simple offering of high quality.
11) March 19, 1944: Dennis dreams about having his own show and dating Barbara Stanwyck.
With Dennis’ two-year leave of absence fast approaching, this excursion offers the show’s funny tenor the chance to take the spotlight, as the addled kid fantasizes about having his own series — in another one of the Benny program’s deliciously surrealistic dream sequences. Also, Barbara Stanwyck (one of this era’s most frequent celeb guests) plays his love interest!
12) March 26, 1944: Jack invites his friends over for a pool party and meets Herman Peabody.
Last season’s spring-inspired pool party entry was weighed down by a bizarre appearance from Loretta Young (not in the story, mind you), but this year’s similarly themed excursion avoids those problems by simplifying the scope and keeping it all character-rooted. What makes the episode memorable, however, is the introduction of Mel Blanc’s Herman Peabody.
13) April 02, 1944: Jack hosts a dinner party for Louella Parsons.
Once again, this entry is a candidate for being among the year’s funniest (which goes to show just how good the season has become in its latter half, as there are so many great showings), and it’s centered around a dinner party and interview for Louella Parsons, famed gossip columnist, whose narratively integrated promotion for her new book is a thing of beauty. Funny!
14) April 23, 1944: In Vancouver, Mary sees an old friend and Dennis joins the Navy.
Broadcast from Mary’s hometown of Vancouver, this outing is notable for being the last time we’ll hear from Dennis Day until March 1946! As mentioned above, his absence is a tremendous loss for the series, even as the new writers continue honing the show’s trademark comedic and narrative superiority throughout 1945. Good laughs come from the introduction of Sara Berner as Mary’s obnoxious friend Ruby Wagner, in her first of three appearances.
15) May 07, 1944: The cast does a sketch about The Wright Brothers.
Sara Berner’s Ruby Wagner steals much of the show with her celebrity impersonations (chief of which is Katharine Hepburn, first heard in the prior installment), while John Brown plays her Durante-spoofing beau. Also, the main sketch, the story of how the Wright Brothers invented the airplane, surprisingly delivers its laughs and ties in well with the patter.
16) May 21, 1944: The gang talks dual personalities and Jack contends with his own.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include solid fare like November 07, 1943, in which Jack mines for gold in the Mojave desert, November 14, 1943, in which the company visits Palm Springs, and March 12, 1944, in which the cast talks income taxes, along with December 19, 1943, which starts wonderfully but derails in the overly broad comedic centerpiece involving Jack and Phil visiting Don (who’s got a job as a department store Santa). Also, although it requires an outside knowledge, the April 16, 1944 installment, in which the show spoofs Bob Hope’s program, is highly entertaining, too!
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And don’t forget to come back on Tuesday for more sitcom fun!