The Best of Benny: 1948-49 (LUCKY STRIKE Season Five)

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. Over the past few years, I’ve been 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 upon 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.)

Well, kids, I gotta level with you and pull back the curtain a bit here — no post on this blog has been bumped around more often than this one, my survey of the best from the 1948-’49 season of radio’s The Jack Benny Program. I have no good excuse, but I’ll try to explain what happened. My busy schedule during the first half of this year — my last semester at USC — forced me to slow-walk a lot of the plans I had for this blog in 2019. I originally listened to these episodes in December 2018, intending for a January or February 2019 post. Yet because my schedule didn’t permit me to take notes and adapt them right away, I not only had to find extra time later to write this entry, I also had to make sure my commentary remained fresh. So, I listened to most of these episodes again in March (spring break)… But the same thing happened; I took more notes, but I didn’t make the time to sit down and write anything out until May… and then, I only wrote the episodic commentary, fearing that I needed to do more research before I got to the seasonal essay… By this point, I knew I had dropped the ball and was self-conscious that this installment would be an obviously piecemeal, half-hearted affair, especially in comparison to past entries in our Benny coverage. But because I definitely want to move on — I want to move us to a quarterly Benny schedule, with ’49-’50 here in December before the year’s out — I’ve decided to just be honest about what happened with this post and push it through anyway, hoping that it’s still of some value for anyone reading who’s interested in the season and its best episodes. As for my seasonal analysis, I’m going to keep it brief — thanks for understanding!

This is an important year in the Benny mythos because the famed comedian transitioned networks, going from NBC to CBS at the top of 1949 in a move that has been infamously termed part of “the Paley Raids,” after the Peacock Network’s legendary president Bill Paley. You see, with television in the near horizon for radio’s biggest stars — in fact, Benny made his debut on local TV during the spring of ’49 — CBS’ moves were brilliant, for Benny (like Amos ‘N’ Andy and Ozzie & Harriet) was coming to the network just in time to make the transition over to the new medium. And he would remain on CBS for 14 of his 15 years on his own regularly scheduled TV series. (You can read much more about this historical development here.) As for how the move influenced the radio run’s quality, I actually think that there’s a big difference this particular year between the 1948 shows and the 1949 shows — not because anything major changed creatively, but rather because the fall episodes are a bit stale. Oh, yes, we’re at the peak of the show’s understanding of its characters — but story-wise, there are a lot of repeating ideas (and this lasts until the spring too, where there’s nevertheless more variety in narrative application). The move to CBS seems to reignite both the show’s excitement about itself and its story engine, as there are ideas that, true to this metatheatrical romp, capitalize on the big move and what this means for the show-within-the-show. Accordingly, you’ll notice that the move itself is better than any of the year’s other mini-arcs (like the Swiss echo bit in the fall), and episodically, the best stuff here tends to reside in the first three months of ’49… But the year is still, again, at the peak of the show’s character-knowingness, and now that the series has switched to CBS, it’s getting even closer to the identity that I think is frozen in everyone’s minds — the radio show as it existed in 1950, just as Benny started a bi-monthly TV series… We’re almost there. In the meantime, out of all 35 original episodes from the ’48-’49 season — all of which are extant — I have listed my picks for the 16 strongest (in airing order).

 

01) November 07, 1948: Jack tells a psychiatrist about the Swiss echo.

Following a month of adequate entries that showcase the era’s superiority without actually providing any episodic standouts, this is the year’s first truly memorable. In addition to boasting the BEST narrative use of the comically middling “Swiss echo” arc — as Jack visits a shrink played by Frank Nelson and successfully manages to transfer the echo to his head — there’s also an added historical value, for this is the first broadcast after Truman’s surprise re-election.

02) November 21, 1948: Jack tries to get ahold of his advertising agency.

Although there are probably funnier outings from these first few months, I’ve chosen to select this non-hilarious, but nevertheless well-crafted and character-laden installment that hangs its narrative shape around Jack’s attempts to reach his ad agency (the real-life Batten, Barton, Durstine, & Osborn) on the phone — an idea that creates several recurring gags for the next few months and features the great Elvia Allman as a cartoonish secretary.

03) December 26, 1948: Jack and the company prepare to make a move.

As noted below, this period in the season has several remakes that are good on general terms, but fail to exceed their earlier iterations and therefore don’t excite, because there’s nothing new. This entry, on the other hand, embodies the aforementioned turnaround in quality that accompanies the big network change, for this — Jack Benny’s last broadcast for NBC — is a plot-lite delight, with an air of excitement clearly correlated to this huge (and discussed) change.

04) January 02, 1949: Jack looks for Bill Paley ahead of his first CBS show.

Once Jack makes his move to CBS — which is official here, the first show of 1949 — the season enters a period of heightened creativity that persists for the next few months, besting anything that came in the fall (while on the OTHER network). With jokes about the heavy ad campaign accompanying the move, the show really benefits from the metatheatricality that’s long been baked in to the premise, for the writers have great freedom to acknowledge the change and mine humor (and story) from the happening. Also, Amos ‘n’ Andy appear!

05) January 09, 1949: Jack annoys Jimmy Stewart at the Brown Derby.

In one of those sitcom centerpieces that’s only just starting to become a staple on the Benny series (and eventually elsewhere — like on the many Lucy shows, which also use the Brown Derby as the setting), Jack makes a nuisance of himself with a big star while out at a restaurant. Here, it’s congenial Jimmy Stewart, and the well-written teleplay — plus the nimble looseness of the performances — make this one a fresher joy than expected.

06) January 16, 1949: Ronald Colman dreams that he and Jack have switched places.

In traditional Sitcom Tuesday coverage, this is something that we’d call a “Victory In Premise,” for it’s an idea-led show that’s less character-driven than it is merely a funny story for story’s sake. But because the Benny show still is something of a variety series, there’s greater room for material like this — especially when it’s as comedic as this one, in which Ronald Colman and Jack Benny each get to “play” the other in a dream sequence (of Ronnie’s). There are some really big laughs here and best of all — they come from our understandings of these two well-defined, and opposed, characterizations. This is a fan favorite — deservedly.

07) January 30, 1949: Don’s contract negotiations continue as Jack visits the Beavers.

As the middle in a trilogy dealing with Don negotiating his contract and Jack locking him in the den — which turns out to be an effective tactic — this funny outing not only succeeds in that sequence, but also in the later sitcom centerpiece where Jack goes to a meeting with the Beavers, a group whose narrative prospects generally seen more gimmicky than my usual preference. But it’s all character here, and the hahas are well-earned.

08) February 06, 1949: Jack tries to replace Vincent Price in a show with Claudette Colbert.

More wonderful guest star turns abound in this offering, in which Jack attempts to convince Claudette Colbert to let him play alongside her in an episode of the Ford Theatre, already set to star Vincent Price. It’s a choice premise built on all of Jack’s comedic character flaws, and in this case, both the guest performances and the terrific, jokey writing make it a riot. (And this premise, borrowed from a 1940 Gulf Screen Theatre Guild show, is certainly broad!) Also, Don settles his contract in the conclusion of this familiar, but never before as well-handled, arc.

09) February 13, 1949: It’s Jack’s 40th birthday… or is it?

This is one of those nearly seminal outings that derives some of its value from how it plays into the series’ overall mythology, for the Jack Benny character, forever remembered as being 39, has been, as we’ve seen, not always 39. And indeed, this superlatively fun excursion predicates itself on the notion that he’s turning the big 4-0. Of course, there turns out to be a “mistake,” according to a well-timed letter from Jack’s sister. Hmm… Lots of laughs.

10) February 20, 1949: Jack wants to perform The Horn Blows At Midnight on the radio.

In this riotous loosey-goosey affair riddled with flubs and ad libs, Jack Warner appears for an inspired story — first introduced the week prior (the birthday episode) about Jack trying to persuade the famed motion picture producer to let him appear in a Ford Theatre broadcast of The Horn Blows At Midnight, his infamous 1945 flop film that has provided some of the best and most fruitful gags over the past several years. This one is great fun.

11) March 06, 1949: Jack and the gang visit the race track.

One of the best written shows of the season — with rich character moments peppering a setting-based story (Jack and the gang go to the track, a place they’ve been before, but never so effectively) — this entry boasts the first appearance of Sheldon Leonard as the race track tout. And while his part is not to be missed, some of the best laughs come in the moments with the Colmans, who are also on hand to lose money thanks to one of Jack’s bad tips!

12) March 13, 1949: Jack has nightmares after losing money at the track.

As with the above dream sequence episode, this silly offering employs that narrative contrivance to great comedic benefit. Although it can’t claim to be as predicated on character as the switch in characterizations, it’s still an effective (and appropriate, for this quasi variety series) comedic riff on the situation in the preceding installment, as Jack has a surrealistic nightmare inspired by last week’s hijinks at Santa Anita. Nice, jokey script!

13) March 20, 1949: Jack and Van Johnson double date with Mabel and Gertrude.

I’m a sucker for Mabel and Gertrude, voiced by the hysterical Sara Berner and Bea Benaderet, even when they don’t get all their laughs. Fortunately, in this offering, which also features Van Johnson and centers itself around a double date between the two phone operators and Van and Jack, they’re pretty funny, and despite some material being recycled from one of Johnson’s earlier appearances, this straightforward sitcom outing is exactly what Jack Benny does best!

14) April 24, 1949: Jack goes to trade in his Maxwell.

If I were to choose an MVE (“Most Valuable Episode”) for the season, it would most likely be this one, which claims a terrific premise associated with one of the series’ classic icons — Jack’s old beat-up Maxwell — that in turn is funny because it’s based on one of the lead character’s primary flaws: his frugality. But that’s not all — it’s also filled with riotous jokes and includes great guest turns by Emily and Martha (who don’t appear as much this season, sadly), Jim Backus (yes, Thurston Howell III, himself) as the car dealer, and, of course, good ol’ Mel Blanc as the sounds of the junky Maxwell. Even though Dennis doesn’t appear, this is the closest thing to a perfect episode from the ’48-’49 season.

15) May 08, 1949: Jack is upset with the cast and then has a run-in with Eddie Cantor.

Following the previous week’s show, in which there was an unusually high number of flubs, this creative outing decides to riff on that event during its first scene, as the show picks up immediately following the broadcast as Jack chastises the cast for their behavior. It’s not hilarious, but it’s a good example of the show’s inherent metatheatricality… Actually, though, this one makes this list for the diner sequence with Eddie Cantor. A+ joke writing here, folks!

16) May 15, 1949: Jack visits Professor LeBlanc’s house for a violin lesson.

I love all the appearances of Mel Blanc as Jack’s suicidal violin teacher Professor LeBlanc, but for the past few years, they’ve been pretty formulaic, with the same basic set-up: after a brief lesson, the professor is stuck waiting as Jack goes down to his vault to get money for payment. What I like about this entry, which is filled with some great stuff and some so-so-stuff (like the Hoagy Carmichael cameo that, surprisingly, goes nowhere), is that it gives us something NEW: we go to LeBlanc’s place for the first time, and we get to meet his wife, Bea Benaderet.

 

Other notable episodes that merit mention include: the closest to the above list, the February 27, 1949 show, which guests Claude Rains and has a bunch of evergreen ideas, like LeBlanc, Nelson as a radio host, Allman as the secretary, but also continues the story of Jack wanting to do The Horn Blows At Midnight. I also like April 03, 1949, which is the annual train station show — a templated routine, but nevertheless quite funny, and April 17, 1949, a low-concept Easter broadcast where the ensemble is trotted out one-at-a-time to do character shtick. And I’ll mention two installments referenced above, January 23, 1949, which starts Don’s contract arc, and May 01, 1949, which is the flub-heavy broadcast that features one of the year’s few skits. (Also, I noted above a lot of remakes — none of which are as good as the originals. Those would include November 28, 1948; December 19, 1948; and April 10, 1949. The one case that I think IS actually funnier than its original counterpart, from 1944, is an unaired test show that the company did for CBS on December 22, 1948.)

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And don’t forget to come back on Tuesday for more sitcom fun!

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