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 era’s 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.)
The 1941-’42 season of The JELL-O Program Starring Jack Benny is momentous for a variety of reasons – the first being that it’s the last year hocking this famed product. While the next two seasons will indeed be sponsored by General Foods, no longer will the cast be promoting the finest of gelatin desserts. What exactly does this mean for the show? Little, actually – besides providing audiences a natural place to conceptually divide Benny’s radio run. (In fact, when I started covering the Benny series last summer, I only promised to do the JELL-O years, although I’ve decided to continue.) But ’41-’42 is much MORE than just the last year of JELL-O, which only becomes a story arc in the season’s final three excursions. ’41-’42 has much larger implications for both the country and the world, as on December 07, 1941, the United States of America entered into the global conflict soon titled World War II. Everything felt the impact – including the Benny program, which broadcast a live episode on the afternoon of the attack (highlighted below). The series was then plunged into “The War Years,” which span three different sponsorships and constitute a bridge between the experimental and progressive JELL-O seasons and the classic and character-driven Lucky Strike seasons, which further hone the development of the situation comedy in preparation for the switch from radio to television.
These War Years, in contrast to other eras, suspend the show’s natural evolution as a result of more pressing concerns – like enlisting cast members and entertaining the troops, a trend that begins this season. However, ’41-’42 is different from all the other transitional years in this transitional era, for the War doesn’t even assert its presence until December, meaning that it’s “business as usual” at the start of the season, and even throughout the rest of the year as the show navigates, with the country, these odd, changing times. The remarkable thing about this particular season, however, is that in addition to being a fascinating historical document of this crucial time (which always fuels entertainment value for me), there’s no loss in quality. Although I ragged on last season (’40-’41) for being the first that didn’t make palpable improvements over its predecessor – despite some really great, terrific material (no denying that) – the year still well-represented the JELL-O era’s knowledge of character and structure. This strength continues here in ’41-’42 without skipping a beat, and while every season goes through ebbs and flows in which quality (as I see it, anyway) wavers, the bursts of inspiration are more evenly distributed this year than they were during the others, specifically ’40-’41. So, once again, the last year under the JELL-O sponsorship is another truly fine collection of episodes, illustrating why Benny’s show, though no longer the #1 most-heard program, was the finest radio had to offer.
But before we get to my list of favorites, I just want to mention some of the arcs explored throughout the season. As always, I must reinforce the strength of the supporting players – especially, as usual, Rochester, who is so reliably comedic that the audience anticipates his weekly call (if there isn’t a scene set at the house) and is never disappointed, and Dennis, a goofy kid who loves to befuddle his boss, becoming an entirely more comedic character than any of the other tenors. (Heck, there are some episodes here where Dennis doesn’t even sing; he just does comedy!) Meanwhile, characters like Phil get solid arcs – his going back to school – Mary’s poems make a comeback, and Don, although perhaps decreasing in importance as a result of Dennis’ ascent, is morphed into a more amusing presence, as his reluctance to perform the corny commercials that Jack writes becomes the tubby announcer’s seasonal shtick (even more than last season). Other running gags ensue – “I can go along with a gag,” “they love me there,” Belly Laugh Barton, “Blues In The Night,” and of course, the ever-present Benny-Allen feud, which gets reignited in a bigger way than we’ve seen lately thanks to the latter’s move to the time slot on Sunday nights following Benny! (Needless to note, there are a lot of laughs there.) And of course, there’s more promotion of Jack’s film endeavors — like To Be Or Not To Be, which doesn’t get its full due as a result of Carole Lombard’s untimely passing, and George Washington Slept Here, which gets the annual set visit. So, without further ado, out of all 35 original episodes from the ’41’42 season — all of which are extant — I’ve listed my picks for the 16 strongest. They are featured below in airing order.
01) October 12, 1941: The cast reflects on their time in New York.
The season opens in New York for the 1941 World Series and an episode that critics then (and audiences today) agree was not up to the show’s usual standards. Quality bounces back in this installment, the year’s second, which like all post-premiere outings, gets to riff on the happenings of the week prior, utilizing a self-awareness that has always made the show unique!
02) October 19, 1941: The cast takes the train back to Hollywood.
Yes, the Benny Program shines when it gets to revisit established constructs — the train trip being one of the best. This is another classic installment in the format, with terrific character moments for all involved, launching a few mini-arcs, like Phil going back to school and Jack meeting the Boy Gag Writer, Belly Laugh Barton. Some terrific lines here — everybody shines.
03) November 09, 1941: After the World Series, Leo Durocher visits.
Leo Durocher, manager of the Dodgers, who just lost the World Series, guest stars in this episode as himself — having to face the slings, arrows, and barbs stemming from his defeat. It’s an amusing climax to an already laugh-a-minute episode, which features more of Belly Laugh, and delightful talk of Jack’s released Charley’s Aunt and his upcoming film with Lubitsch.
04) November 30, 1941: The cast parodies Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde.
Without a doubt, the Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde sketch is the season’s most memorable film parody, for, as previously mentioned, this era has seen a considerable reduction in sketches in favor of genuine sitcom scenes/dialogue. It’s a hilarious episode all told — before and during the sketch — and even treats the audience to the return of former semi-regular Andy Devine.
05) December 07, 1941: The cast reacts to Jack’s work in last week’s sketch.
Broadcast on the day of Pearl Harbor — this particular recording coming at 4:00 PST — this episode has an historical importance that’s irrespective of quality, as both musical numbers are interrupted by news bulletins. Perhaps surprisingly, the tension that listeners today (and even then) supply to the episode does not hamper the material itself, which is loaded with laughs.
06) December 14, 1941: Jack and Mary go Christmas shopping.
Utilizing another classic template, this episode is the Annual Christmas shopping show, and it delights as all entries in this holiday tradition does. (And don’t worry, Mel Blanc ain’t there yet, but Frank Nelson is!) Also, this is the first installment to directly mention the fact that America is now at War, marking the beginning of this distinct period in the show’s history.
07) January 04, 1942: Jack goes to the Biltmore Hotel for New Year’s Eve.
In many ways, I consider this a good-but-not-great episode, for there are some jokes that I find especially easy. But it nevertheless stands as one of the year’s more memorable, and I think it’s due to the sentimentality associated with the passing of a New Year, one that will see Americans going to war. There are indeed laughs too (I love the Lockheed gag), especially for Jack.
08) January 25, 1942: The cast does a murder mystery and Jack deals with lawyers.
Following an all-music program in honor of the late Carole Lombard, this episode picks up where the week prior did — Rochester got into a car accident. With a rather routine murder mystery sketch, this installment looks to become merely adequate, but it’s saved by a creative visit from Jack’s singing lawyers (the Sportsmen) who crash the skit and discuss the case.
09) February 01, 1942: Humphrey Bogart visits to finish last week’s sketch.
The mediocre sketch continues in this unforgettable entry that also manages to enliven its proceedings — this time, with a guest appearance by Humphrey Bogart, who browbeats Jack into relinquishing the lead role for the rest of the murder mystery. Also, this entry boasts the first appearance of sound effects man Virgil Reimer, played by Frank Nelson; he’s hysterical.
10) February 08, 1942: Jack learns Fred Allen’s show is moving to Sunday nights.
A rather casual episode in comparison to some predecessors, this offering consists of a lot of very funny cast patter (featuring more of Virgil Reimer), but concerns itself mostly with the revelation that Fred Allen will be moving to Sunday nights soon, a fact that Jack tries to protest. Naturally, this direct utilization of the classic Benny-Allen feud makes this a winning standout.
11) February 15, 1942: Jack is the recipient of a Surprise Birthday party.
There’s nothing really spectacular about this excursion, which is more quiet and character-driven than most. Of course, this is something that I really appreciate — especially when most of the comedy lands. My favorite moment here is Jack and Rochester’s a cappella duet of “Blues In The Night,” a running motif throughout the rest of the season. Also, Schlepperman guests.
12) March 01, 1942: Jack is upset about losing the Academy Award again.
With a classic premise about Jack being angry over losing the Academy Award again, this amusing installment gains distinction for a kookily absurd — as this show was occasionally wont to do — dream sequence, involving Fred Allen (voiced by Peter Lind Hayes), Gary Cooper (also voiced by Peter Lind Hayes), and the Warner Brothers (voiced by the Sportsmen). Terrific!
13) May 03, 1942: The cast visits Jack and Ann Sheridan on the set of their new film.
If you’ve been following our coverage this past year, you know I’m a fan of the set visits, which are generally (if they can keep Jack’s actions motivated) seasonal highlights. This excursion is no exception, with so many great gags — the rehearsal with Rochester, the calls for Errol Flynn, the snarky makeup man, the infamous Ann Sheridan kiss; wow, this is a classic!
14) May 10, 1942: In Sacramento, Jack reveals this is their last season for JELL-O.
This is the first of three top-notch shows performed at camps for the boys serving the country — their enthusiasm is infectious. (They also respond to the occasional risqué joke, which is a novelty and a treat!) But this installment has a function, as well, for it has to alert the audience as to the changes that will be occurring before next season, and a flashback is used to tell the story.
15) May 17, 1942: In Santa Ana, Jack asks his cast for gas money and mocks Fred Allen.
One of the strongest episodes of the entire season, this episode is just as funny (if not funnier) than the above, with many terrific bits, including a running gag about Jack asking his cast for gas money since he drove them (in the Maxwell) from Sacramento to Santa Ana. But the real meat of this entry is Jack’s spot-on parody of Fred Allen’s recap of the Benny program.
16) May 24, 1942: At Camp Callan, the gang celebrates the birth of Phil’s daughter.
As the penultimate episode of the season (the finale is a glorified clip show), this casual entry reveals that Grape Nuts Flakes will be the next sponsor and celebrates the birth of Phil’s first child with wife Alice Faye. Additionally, the entry boasts the return appearance of the always funny Andy Devine, who’s only around for a scene, but makes the most of it. Fun audience too.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: December 21, 1941, in which the cast prepares for Christmas, January 11, 1942, which is broadcast for the boys at March Field, March 08, 1942, which is broadcast from San Diego and guest stars Joan Bennett, and April 05, 1942, in which the cast recounts Jack’s embarrassment at the Easter Parade.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And don’t forget to come back on Tuesday for more sitcom fun!