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 Lucky Strike 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 initially 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 in the ’40s 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.)
As discussed last time, The Jack Benny Program is now in an era of creative stability, where all the particulars of the series’ time capsuled identity — the one that would stick for the duration of the comic’s television career and continue as part of his legend — is firmly established. But this year contributes some additional “missing pieces” that weren’t present in 1946-’47. For instance, this season introduces the Beverly Hills Beavers, a troop of young neighborhood boys that come into existence here via their leader, Stevie Kent (Jerry Farber), who participates in an arc that begins when Jack lies about his football prowess and is tackled and injured while playing ball with the kids. It’s also the year where Jack officially turns 39, the age at which he has since resided in the public’s collective conscious (following a half-season gag where everyone tries to get him to confess his real age, but he’s steadfast in insisting that he’s only 38). Both of these elements would become seminal in the series’ narrative and comedic arsenal, joining other classics like Jack’s rivalry with Fred Allen (who appears in the season’s finale), trips to the vault with Ed (voiced by Joe Kearns), violin lessons from Professor LeBlanc (played, of course, by Mel Blanc), train station shows (which typically give Frank Nelson a chance to shine), Mabel and Gertrude routines (featuring the delightful team of Bea Benaderet and Sara Berner), musical Lucky Strike spots by the Sportsmen, letters and calls from Mary’s family (now including the man-hungry Babe), cutaways to Jack’s geriatric fans — Emily and Martha (Gloria Gordon, Jane Turner) — and the annual Christmas shopping excursion (now with all the fixins’).
There’s also routine appearances from Jack’s plumber girlfriend Gladys Zybisco (Sara Berner), his addled next door neighbors, Ronald and Benita Colman (who appear this year in one of the series’ all–time classic arcs), and Mr. Kitzel (Artie Auerbach). These running gags, narrative templates, and well-defined recurring players all contribute to the show’s continued evolution into a pure situation comedy — as you can tell from the list, this is a season with even fewer sketches — and come together with the excellently established regulars (Jack, Mary, Don, Phil, Dennis, and Rochester) to create an entire universe of character-driven comedy. In fact, more than any other year that I’ve studied for coverage thus far, I’d cite 1947-’48 as being the most consistently enjoyable — with so many great episodes that it was hard to narrow it down to even 16 (which is, yes I know, already a large number). As we’ve discussed, the late ’30s JELL-O years were probably Jack Benny‘s most exciting, but when it comes to a baseline of reliable episodic excellence, the post-war period (where Jack’s focus is still more on radio than television — I’d say the tides start to turn around ’52) simply can’t be beat. It’s an era of “Pax Benny-ana” — not just one of aforementioned creative stability, but of harmony, where everything comes together (cast, characters, comedy) to create a terrific weekly joy ride. The 1947-’48 season isn’t the first full year to suggest this pronounced period of wonder — I’d say that honor belongs to the one prior — but it is an improvement like we’ve never heard before.
Also, there are great story arcs this year. In addition to the “Age? 38” gag that persists until Jack turns 39 and the “Stevie injures Jack in football plot” that gives rise to the Beavers, this season features many multi-episode arcs, including: Jack’s lost golf-ball, Phil’s jealousy of Robert Taylor (which culminates in Taylor’s appearance), Jack’s disbelief that “That’s What I Like About The South” is correct in asserting there’s a city called “Doo Wah Ditty,” the reveal that Jack has been the secret “Walking Man” on the show Truth Or Consequences, NBC’s cutting off of Jack’s show for going too long, the contract negotiations with the cast, and, for seven weeks from March to May, the iconic storyline where Jack borrows Ronald Colman’s Oscar and then loses it in a mugging. Yes, this is the classic “Your Money Or Your Life” scene that has come to represent the excellent character work this series has afforded the Jack Benny persona… As noted above, this was a hard list to make — there are many great ones. (I’d also like to point out that the scarcity of episodes from 1947 is due to the fact that most of the early shows are intermittently excellent; that is, only a few broadcasts are A+ from top to bottom — most have one specific section to recommend. But I have to keep the Honorable Mentions few — there are already too many listed….) So, out of all 39 original episodes from the ’47-’48 season — all of which are extant — I’ve listed my picks for the 16 strongest (in airing order).
01) November 09, 1947: Dennis and Phil trick Jack into thinking the Colmans invited him over.
In the first completely memorable show from the season, Dennis and Phil decide to play a prank on Jack as the tenor’s penchant for impressions leads to a fake phone call where “Ronald Colman” invites Jack and a date over for a party. Cue an appearance from the always delightful Gladys Zybisco (Sara Berner) and the Colmans, who decide to sneak out of their own house when Benny and his date arrive — and you know you’re gonna get a fun show.
02) November 23, 1947: Jack prepares for Thanksgiving dinner.
My favorite episode from the fall of 1947, this Thanksgiving offering (preceding a notorious show in which Jack dreams that he’s on trial for murdering a turkey) is loaded with laughs. The opening patter, as Jack discusses the oft-reused topic of a movie about his life and Dennis insists that he broke his leg earlier that morning, is a hoot, and the sitcom scene, where Jack and Mary go to pick up the turkey (and they find Mr. Kitzel) is a riot. Also, Stevie Kent (and his friend Joey) are introduced, and Jack plays his violin during the Sportsmen’s number.
03) December 21, 1947: Jack goes Christmas shopping.
By this point, the Benny Program‘s Christmas shopping excursion has become a tradition, and this episode doesn’t really add much to the routine, except some institutional knowledge about what happened last year (when Jack bought Don Wilson shoe laces and then tried to return them after being indecisive over what kind of tips he should get). It’s a distillation of this template — close to what happened last season, but building on it. Not the best, but still a staple.
04) January 25, 1948: The cast takes the train home from Denver.
This is one of those laugh-loaded offerings where another Benny staple — the train show (a sibling to the train station show) — gives rise to terrific character moments. The use of running gags and self-awareness is tremendous — Rochester references how he first met Jack on a train (back in ’37), there’s a “38” joke, more follow-up on Phil’s rivalry with Robert Taylor, and the return appearance of the weepy cabbie (Hy Averback). Plus, Joe Besser guests.
05) February 15, 1948: Everyone plans to throw Jack a surprise party.
A delightful and purely sitcom installment, this entry should go down in the history books for being the first time that the public character of Jack Benny assumes his quintessential age: 39. As it happens, it’s also a well-written, character-laden script, with a handful of different vignettes about the regulars each preparing to throw Jack a surprise birthday party. The Beavers open the show (in their technical debut), but Dennis/Mrs. Day (Verna Felton) are the highlight, as are the many jokes about The Horn Blows At Midnight, which is another BRILLIANT recurring bit.
06) February 22, 1948: Jack shows off the new Palm Springs house he’s having built.
One of the things that makes the latter half of the ’47-’48 season so grand is the looseness of the company, particularly Jack, who seems more comfortable than ever before with bloopers and ad-libs. Accordingly, this sense of slap-happy fun is part of what fuels many of these shows’ appeal — although this one is also well-written, not just in the scene where Jack and Mary visit his under-construction home in Palm Springs (with Frank Nelson as the builder), but also in the opening as Dennis imitates Jerry Colonna, Jack plugs his hotel, and the jokes are fast and furious. (Also, Frank Sinatra makes his first absurdly hysterical cameo.)
07) February 29, 1948: Jack takes Gladys to the studio and argues with Phil.
This entry almost feels like two stories paired together — fortunately, both work. The first half concerns Jack and Gladys stopping at a drugstore on their way to the studio (and there are lots of character-driven gags there), while the second features a great comedic centerpiece where Jack presses Phil to explain some of the lyrics for “That’s What I Like About The South,” specifically the notion of a city called “Doo Wah Ditty,” whose existence Rochester later proves!
08) March 07, 1948: The cast is surprised to learn that Jack was “The Walking Man.”
During this season, Jack was also appearing as the mysterious “Walking Man” on the radio game show Truth Or Consequences; for two months, his footsteps were heard on the air alongside a variety of clues meant to help listeners guess his identity. (You can read much more about it here.) In this installment, which aired the night after the reveal, the writers have fun milking this for all it’s worth. There’s also more looseness — Jack’s celebration of Don’s acting is choice.
09) March 14, 1948: Jack hosts Ralph Edwards and the winner of “The Walking Man” contest.
A follow-up to the previous entry, this episode is built around the guest appearance of Truth Or Consequences‘ host, Ralph Edwards, and the winner of “The Walking Man” contest, a little old lady called Florence Hubbard, who gets some able laughs and coins a recurring joke — “lonely, but loaded.” Also, prior to their centerpiece is a fun Gertrude/Mabel bit that Jack reveals, in some era-typical ad-libbing, they’ve rehearsed and cut multiple times since Thanksgiving.
10) March 28, 1948: Jack borrows Ronald Colman’s new Oscar and is mugged.
Cue the fanfare — here it is — the iconic “Your Money Or Your Life” scene, where Jack is mugged. This would be reenacted several times (this season even) and remembered, falsely, as being one of the longest laughs in radio history. It isn’t — but that’s a testament to the legend of this fine characterization, as the comedy of the line, and particularly Jack’s as-famous response, is brilliant because of everything we know about the Jack Benny persona. It’s a terrific example of what a situation comedy is, and the episode, despite the clumsy set-up of having Colman allow Jack to borrow the Oscar, is funny throughout, as Jack gets a script commitment from Harry Warner and wants Colman to appear with him.
11) April 04, 1948: Jack tries to snag Bing Crosby’s Oscar to replace Ronald Colman’s.
The show is clever about how it follows up the introduction of the Colman arc — through a star turn from Bing Crosby (he’s been on this show several times before — usually to great effect, as he, like Bob Hope and Fred Allen, are ad-libbing fools), whose Academy Award Jack hopes to borrow. As anticipated, there’s an abundance of laughs here, and more evidence of the show’s proficiency with recurring gags when “Doo Wah Ditty” makes another appearance.
12) April 18, 1948: The company redoes a sketch that was cut-off by NBC the week prior.
As the second of a two-week Palm Springs jaunt (as Jack “hides out” from Ronald Colman), this episode derives the majority of its comedy from what happened the week before — when Jack’s latest version of the “Murder At The Racquet Club” sketch with guests Paul Lukas and Charlie Farrell was cut short by NBC due to time. This installment wisely makes a meal out of that occurrence and decides to re-present a modified version of the skit, this time with Farrell and guest Sam Goldwyn. Obviously, it’s all wonderful lunacy — as is the second Sinatra cameo.
13) May 02, 1948: Jack tries to get Frank Sinatra to replace Dennis.
After two brief but memorable cameos earlier in the season, Frank Sinatra takes an official guest starring role in this entry, which continues the year’s familiar “contract negations” thread as Dennis decides not to show up for the program, necessitating a temporary replacement. Admittedly, much of this one’s memorability comes from the incorporation of the now iconic crooner, but the script employs a lot of character comedy, and that’s why it’s here.
14) May 09, 1948: Ronald Colman reunites with his Oscar and Jack learns the truth.
If I’m being completely honest, I find the conclusion of the stolen Oscar story to be a bit of a let-down, for the reveal that Colman staged the whole mugging to teach Jack a lesson feels familiar to another staged robbery storyline from ’45 that publicity agent Steve Bradley concocted. Nevertheless, the Colmans are always very funny and there are enough laughs in the teleplay to sell the ending, especially because we know of the neighbors’ relationship.
15) May 16, 1948: Robert Taylor guests on the show in Jack’s temporary absence.
Robert Taylor, who guested on the show back in 1938, finally appears after a couple of references earlier in the season about Phil’s jealousy towards him. He theoretically is here to sub for Jack, who’s in New York, but Mary actually serves as the emcee and does a capable job. Phil’s reaction to Taylor — along with Dennis’ — forms the crux of the comedy (not unlike Herbert Marshall’s fill-in appearance), but there’s also an amusing centerpiece with the energetic Frank Nelson as a photographer that also helps make this one of the year’s funniest.
16) June 27, 1948: In New York, Fred Allen pops in to ask Mary to fill-in for Portland.
The season finale, this comes after a three-episode tour that stopped for broadcasts in Detroit, Cleveland, and now, New York City. Each is memorable in its own right (they all have jokes about the contemporary Republican National Convention), but this is the funniest, for although the prior entry (an Honorable Mention) featured some great ad-libbed interplay between Jack and Bob Hope, who talked so much that the show was again cut off early by NBC, there’s no one who compares to Fred Allen, and his material here with Jack is as top-of-the-line as usual.
Other notable episodes (of many great ones) that merit mention include: October 19, 1947, which introduces Norman Krasna and the lost golf ball story (a great sitcom idea); December 07, 1947, in which Jack studies with Professor LeBlanc, goes to the vault to visit Ed, and is tackled by his next door neighbor while playing football (this was the CLOSEST to the above list); January 11, 1948, in which Jack again visits Ed before he heads down to the train station to leave for Denver; February 08, 1948, in which the show parodies “Allen’s Alley” again; May 23, 1948, in which a fun looseness enlivens a tweaked revival of last year’s The Egg And I sketch; June 06, 1948, which is another train station show (as the company prepares for Detroit) that features fun stuff from regular guests Blanc and Nelson; and June 20, 1948, which comes alive in the final few moments with an ad-libbing mic-hogging Bob Hope.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And don’t forget to come back on Tuesday for more sitcom fun!