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 upon these characterizations, making use of the history that the show had created to develop actual scenarios and, eventually, stories. And with the scripts now following a 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.)
Jack Benny‘s final season during the second World War, 1944-’45’s collection of episodes is the first under Lucky Strike, which would remain the show’s sponsor until the conclusion of the radio series in 1955. While the General Foods era, marked by the JELL-O years and the more transitional period for Grape Nuts, was more experimentally ambitious – doing the heavy-lifting with regard to character definition and comedic quality – these Lucky Strike seasons find the show developing into more of a situation comedy, as the characters are already so well-established that putting them in story is not only easier than trotting out parodies and sketches, it’s also our preference. Now, as previous coverage has indicated, I love the excitement of the JELL-O seasons, which offer more for the developments in genre-sculpting than those under Lucky Strike — where narrative improvement occurs only because of these earlier strides. Yet, there’s no doubt that the Lucky Strike years, in general, though more rigid and formulaic, nevertheless tend to represent the Benny Program at what many fans consider its peak – or, to be more specific, simply what comes to mind when they think of the show and its high quality… However, we’re not yet at this period of excellence during ’44-’45, because as we know, the War Years all collectively signal a time of transition – three products, two writing staffs, two temporary cast enlistees, and an ongoing overhaul of the show’s traditional modus operandi, best summarized as the shift from character-driven patter-with-song-then-sketch into character-driven-story-with-pause-for-a-song (a.k.a. the aforementioned continued refinement of the situation comedy).
Not surprisingly, this season has the show moving ever closer to the sitcom style than any of the prior years; but, make no mistake, we’re still in an era of flux — movement. Although sketches are fewer, the vaudevillian flavor that anchored the series in its early days (and which will never be completely obliterated due to Benny’s own comedic sensibilities) maintains – especially as the show goes on tour to entertain the troops in their last year fighting WWII. This patriotic necessity keeps the program, with its eager staff of newish writers, from committing to a more story-based template, holding it within this liminal space between the reputations of both the JELL-O and Lucky Strike periods. (Even though, of course, we’re technically already in the Lucky Strike period.) Part of the reason that this first season isn’t a great example of the Lucky Strike era is that we’re still down the series’ best (and by that, I mean “most defined, laugh-getting, and plot-driving”) tenor, who was replaced — from November 1944 to March 1946 — with Larry Stevens, a young kid whose temp status is obvious. He gets little definition and is never used in story; he says a few words (if lucky) and sings his weekly song. Now, I understand why the show would want to maintain loyalty with Day, especially because Stevens is clearly not a comedic gem. (The few times he gets a page or two of dialogue makes this clear.) But the abbreviated ensemble sort of impedes upon the year’s ability to be as good as those prior and ahead – and so does the idea of having a character-less tenor on a character-driven show.
Yet, if Stevens doesn’t fill the void, then Day’s spot is more ably taken by the roster of funny, iconic supporting players — including wonderful folks like Frank Nelson, who says his first “Yesssss…,” Mel Blanc, who over the course of the year goes from being Herman Peabody to the more memorable violin teacher Professor LeBlanc, and semi-regular Minerva Pious, who appears a few times in her Mrs. Nussbaum character from “Allen’s Alley,” along with Benny’s famed rival himself, Fred Allen, who was on a season-long sabbatical from his weekly show. Allen pops in several weeks (most memorably in the year’s winter stay in New York City) to trade barbs with Jack. Meanwhile, evidence for the program’s ongoing evolution comes in the shows based in Los Angeles, as sitcom scenes take precedence (sometimes they last whole episodes) and indelible running gags are abundant. In addition to the continued utilization of Frank Nelson as the spokesman for the fictional Sympathy Soothing Syrup (“Yhtapmys”), which hits its apex here, there’s the introduction of the aforementioned Professor LeBlanc in two late spring excursions, the elevated prominence of the train station with the debut of the “Anaheim, Azusa, and Cucamonga” gag, and the first visits to Jack Benny’s vault… So, as you can tell, the show is moving in the anticipated direction; the war just slowed everything down. Fortunately, when we return next season, the war will be over… and soon Dennis will be back, boosting the series’ quality and reducing some of the inconsistency that plagues this year. But that’s for next time. So, without further ado, out of all 34 original episodes from the ’44-’45 season — all of which are extant (at least in part) — I’ve listed my picks for the 16 best. They are featured below in airing order. Happy listening — and check out our past Benny posts, too!
01) October 08, 1944: Jack hopes to hire Frank Sinatra as Dennis’ replacement.
Following a good-but-not-great season premiere that’s actually better than most (they have a tendency to be a letdown) — even if it pushed a little hard while addressing the change in sponsorship — the season’s second episode offers listeners a more typical representation of the year. Of course, most will delight in hearing young Frank Sinatra, whom Jack is courting as a replacement tenor, an arc that lasts throughout the good-but-not-great October.
02) October 29, 1944: Jack and Fred Allen head down to Allen’s Alley.
I really debated about whether or not to include this installment on the list, for while we delight in hearing Jack Benny swap insults with Fred Allen (who, on the Benny Program, is usually given the better retorts), I think enjoyment of this episode is determined based on your favor for Allen, as the second half is a long visit to “Allen’s Alley,” a staple of his show in this era.
03) November 12, 1944: Jack negotiates his new tenor’s salary.
Larry Stevens made his debut in the entry prior (discussed below as an Honorable Mention) and makes his first appearance on “the show” here, in this casually strong entry — the funniest of the season thus far — that delights partly because the series now seems complete, with a singer, and partly because the script just packs in the laughs. It’s the start of a wave of superiority.
04) November 19, 1944: Jack and Don argue over the origin of “don’t give up the ship.”
One of the more memorable mini story arcs of the entire show — let alone this season — is the debate that erupts between Jack and Don (a consistent presence who’s not as good for story as some others, and therefore deserves to be praised when he’s allowed to participate in a strong one) over the origin of the quote “Don’t give up the ship.” It’s small, trivial (you might say Seinfeld-ian), and perfectly relatable, with the characterizations ably taking the forefront.
05) November 26, 1944: Jack and Don’s argument spills over into Thanksgiving at Mary’s.
As with its direct predecessor, this episode is one of the season’s funniest, when the argument over “don’t give up the ship” continues into this week’s flashback to Thanksgiving, hosted by Mary (who, incidentally, has replaced Butterfly with a new personal maid, Pauline). With another big-laugh teleplay, this is a highly quotable installment with lots of looseness from the players. My favorite stuff involves Frank Nelson as Mary’s hired butler. Hilarious — the fall’s best!
06) December 03, 1944: A reporter inquires about Jack’s real age.
Jack’s not yet “39” (according to Jack, of course) in the ’44-’45 season, as this installment has him claiming to only be 36 when a man from Esquire (voiced by Mel Blanc) insists on knowing. (The story will continue in the following episode, which is highlighted below as an Honorable Mention.) Also, Mary receives and reads a letter from Dennis, confirming the show’s loyalty.
07) December 17, 1944: Jack and Mary go Christmas shopping.
While the Christmas shopping shows have become an annual Benny tradition that dates back to the late ’30s, they’ll really come into prominence (creating our memories of the amusing regular template) in the upcoming Lucky Strike era. This isn’t one of the best in the genre, but it’s filled with classic guests, earns some fine laughs, and represents a strong period for the year.
08) January 07, 1945: Jack goes to his vault before leaving for New York.
This episode is a notable one in The Jack Benny Program‘s mythology, for it introduces several important elements. As discussed above in the seasonal commentary, this entry finds Jack visiting his vault for the first time (with Joe Kearns as the guard, Ed) and going down to the train station (where Mel Blanc as the announcer says “Anaheim, Azusa, and Cucamonga”) — running gags that will be repeated many times to come, including later this year. Also, Jack first encounters the racetrack tout, voiced here by Benny Rubin. A sign of what’s to come.
09) January 14, 1945: In New York, Fred Allen visits the program.
Fred Allen appears again in the season’s first of four broadcasts in New York. (Collectively, these installments don’t have the excitement or high quality of past trips to the Big Apple, but they’re strong within the context of this season.) Although Minerva Pious is on hand for some laughs, Allen steals the whole episode as he steps in to do the Lucky Strike commercial.
10) February 04, 1945: Jack drags Mary along to see his cameo in Hollywood Canteen.
One of my favorite entries from the latter half of the season, this underrated outing just works from start to finish, with a jokey script featuring several memorable lines (like one about Jack’s donated blood making the recipient soldier into a cheapskate), a great scene with the always funny Rochester, and an extended sequence where Jack drags Mary along, again, to see his cameo in the star-laden Hollywood Canteen, where they find Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa.
11) March 04, 1945: Jack and Mary go to pick up her suitcase from the train station.
Back in Hollywood for the first time since the first week of January, evidence of the show’s perception of that prior (mentioned above) installment’s quality is made clear here, as the show once again visits Ed down at the vault and returns to the train station for more of addled Mel Blanc as the train announcer. The script hits these beats harder and gets more laughs.
12) March 11, 1945: Jack recalls how he first met Rochester.
These “How Jack Met X” shows will become a staple in our collective perception of the Benny Program (on radio and television), and the spring of ’45 features a tetralogy in which Jack recounts to a reporter how he met each of his core players (Rochester, Mary, Phil, and Don). I think doing all four of these periodically throughout the next few months is a bit lazy and uninspired, but most of them have character-based hahas. This first one, about Rochester, rewrites the “train porter” truth with a story involving Amos and Andy (and Kingfish, too)!
13) March 18, 1945: Jack recalls how he first met Mary.
Immediately following the above Rochester offering, this installment shows us how Jack met Mary — at the May Company. The excursions highlighted directly above and below have better laughs, but I consider this one of the most successful sitcom scenes of the season, with Jack immediately attracted to the wisecracking girl behind the counter. Not excellent, but memorable.
14) April 01, 1945: Jack recalls how he first met Phil.
My favorite of the year’s “How Jack Met X” episodes (the other one, about Don, is good enough to be a de facto Honorable Mention — keep that in mind), I think this one packs in the most laughs. Not only do we hear how Jack first saw Phil Harris in performance, but also how he met the oft-mentioned Gladys Zybysko, an always comedic presence who never disappoints.
15) April 22, 1945: Jack and company do a sketch about Twentynine Palms.
This offering contains one of the year’s few sketches — and, I believe, the only one featured on this list — as the company performs a truly amusing skit on the history of Twentynine Palms, the city from which they’re broadcasting. This isn’t as distinguished as others here, but it’s smooth and strong, with fun jokes about The Horn Blows At Midnight and Jack’s chest hair.
16) April 29, 1945: Jack takes a violin lesson and goes on the Sympathy Soothing Syrup program.
Probably my favorite installment of the entire season, this entry is jam-packed with wonderful ideas. We start with Jack reading Rochester’s diary (which allows for great laughs stemming from our knowledge of this very funny supporting player), and move into Jack’s first lesson with Professor LeBlanc, who’s driven to mania by his pupil’s playing. LeBlanc will become more popular over the years — and is even used again in May (but not as comedically or originally as here). But, while this may seem like the comedic centerpiece, the episode goes a step further and moves us to the fictional Sympathy Soothing Syrup program, hosted by Frank Nelson, where Jack goes to promote the product and hopes to play his violin. Amazingly funny — throughout.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include solid entries like December 10, 1944, which succeeds because it comes during a particularly sharp period of comedy for this rather inconsistent year, January 28, 1945, which guest stars Ann Sheridan and throws Minerva Pious some laughs, and February 18, 1945, which is memorable merely because it comes from St. Joe. The entry closest to the above list was November 05, 1944, in which Jack meets and hires Larry — it’s terrific up until the new tenor’s final scene, which really hinders the entry’s narrative and comedic standing. As usual, I enjoy all four of these Honorable Mentions!
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And don’t forget to come back on Tuesday for more sitcom fun!