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, especially the one for The International Jack Benny Fan Club, run by Laura Leff, whose trilogy of encyclopedias on the series is 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.)
With the world back at peace, the 1945-’46 season of Jack Benny’s classic radio program — the second year sponsored by Lucky Strike — finally feels like the emergence of a new era in the show’s history. While the “War Years,” with their changes in sponsorship, cast leaves, and big writing staff overhaul, have been singularly defined here as a transitional period, this season restores a sense of stability to the proceedings, launching the show into the more durable identity it would boast over the latter half of the ‘40s: the place where the majority’s collective conscious resides when thinking about the series. Although my aforementioned fondness for the peak JELL-O cycle of the late ‘30s is still strong, I think the refined sitcom-based storytelling of this new period (with its many indelible character-driven running gags) is more emblematic of the series at its most culturally resonant. The Jack Benny Program of the late ‘40s is The Jack Benny Program that most remember, and it begins, in earnest, here in ’45-’46… But the pivot between eras is not sharp; in fact, there are many potent reminders of where the show has been in this liminal period — the most obvious being tenor Larry Stevens, who replaced Dennis Day (he departed for the Navy in April 1944) in November 1944 and, despite never cultivating a well-defined character that could be exploited for laughs, stuck around until Day’s return in March 1946. As long as Larry’s on hand, the show feels like it’s not yet on solid footing — not only because Dennis is the superior comedic presence, but also because Larry is a perennial temp, and the scripts regard him as such. So even as the writing gives indication of this new emerging period from the season’s start, it’s not really until Day’s return in March that the ensemble reflects the show’s entry into the Lucky Strike peak, corroborating this sense of superior identity that the text had heretofore been suggesting all year.
Speaking of the text, though signs of the show’s former modus vivendi remain — there are still sketches and parodies, a more frequent attraction in the ‘30s than the years ahead, along with a couple more military-based broadcasts — there are so many new characters, storylines, and running gags that fill out the situation comedy universe the series has increasingly been shown to inhabit. Just as last year gave rise to gems like Jack’s violin instructor Professor LeBlanc (played by Mel Blanc) and Jack’s mysterious vault, guarded by mopey Joe Kearns, there are a lot of notable introductions here — starting in the season premiere with the official debuts of Sara Berner and Bea Benaderet as telephone operators Mabel and Gertrude, respectively, along with Richard Lane as Jack’s new publicity agent Steve Bradley. Other notable additions later in the year include Polly the Parrot, voiced by Mel Blanc, Artie Auerbach as Mr. Kitzel, whose famous “Pickle In The Middle With The Mustard On Top” became a novelty song (co-written by Benny writer John Tackaberry) that’s performed a few times throughout the season, and Jack’s high-class next door neighbors, the Colmans, married movie stars Ronald Colman and Benita Hume, who are game to spoof their image and rib Benny in the process. Again, all these new players and parts give the situation comedy more avenues to explore and more humorous beats to fall back upon as support. (Not mentioned yet is a great gag with Greenberg… who’s on third for a good part of the year.) As you’ll see, the telephone operators are terrific laugh providers — as are the Colmans, who headline several notable episodes highlighted below, and the iconic Mr. Kitzel, who assumes a void not filled since Schlepperman.
But beyond these new players, I think the real legacy of ’45-’46 is the restored utilization of serialized narratives. The first is Jack’s mugging (no, it’s not the famous one everyone quotes), which occurs in late October after his publicity man, Steve Bradley, puts out a false report that Jack won a lot of money at the race track. The next few weeks continue this arc, with Jack being threatened by the robber, having to hire a bodyguard (Joe Louis), and then learning that the whole thing was a Bradley scheme. Personally, I’m not terribly fond of this arc, for the episodes it provides are hit-and-miss and the pay-off, though not illogical, is a bit of a let-down. But this storyline leads into the year’s second major narrative — a publicity stunt dreamed up by Bradley (but really the show itself, which had been down in the ratings) in which listeners would write in with their best responses to this prompt: “I Can’t Stand Jack Benny Because…” Yes, the “I Can’t Stand Jack Benny” contest is a famous moment in the show’s lore, for it capitalizes on all the flaws the series had established for its title character, whose self-deprecating sense of humor is used for triumph. The gimmick even gets Fred Allen, back on the air with his own show, involved as the judge! Lasting two months — introduced in December and concluded in early February with Ronald Colman’s recitation of the winning entry — this famed storyline gives these broadcasts some sense of forward momentum and prognosticates the kind of character-rooted arcs the show will employ throughout the rest of the ‘40s, where the series’ situation comedy elements will grow more pronounced. But I’m getting ahead of myself. In the meantime, out of all 35 original episodes from the ’45-’46 season — all of which are extant (at least in part) — I’ve listed my picks for the 16 strongest (in airing order).
01) September 30, 1945: Jack misses his first show of the season.
The series’ first post-WWII season opens with a terrifically fun metatheatrical outing in which a time change results in Jack Benny missing the premiere for his own program (a storyline that carries through to next week). The script is clever and fast-paced, introducing the hilarious team of Mabel and Gertrude, along with Jack’s new press agent Steve Bradley. A favorite.
02) October 07, 1945: Jack is afraid the sponsor will cancel his contract.
Continuing the story from the episode prior, this installment deals with the potential ramifications of Jack having “missed” his premiere broadcast. There’s more of all three new characters introduced in the week prior (and their comedic identities are all firmly established), and while the sketch is only good, the debut of the “Greenberg’s on third” joke is memorable.
03) December 02, 1945: The show introduces the “I Can’t Stand Jack Benny” contest.
If you’ve noticed on this list, there’s a stretch of nearly two months from which I’ve decided not to highlight anything. Those episodes contend, starting mid-October, with Jack’s mugging — a storyline that I don’t think pays off like it should. (However, these entries are memorable, so several of them are highlighted as Honorable Mentions.) This installment is the launch of the year’s second major arc — the “I Can’t Stand Jack Benny” contest, which is primo.
04) December 09, 1945: Jack goes to the Colmans’ house for dinner.
More introductions! This time we meet Ronald Colman and his wife Benita Hume, a hilarious duo whose high class mannerisms contrast comedically against those of their neighbor, Jack Benny. In this winning entry, the Colmans accidentally invite Jack over for dinner. It’s the start of a beautiful antagonism. (Writer George Balzer called this the “classiest” episode they wrote.)
05) December 23, 1945: Jack invites the Colmans over to his house for dinner.
A mere two weeks after the successful broadcast with the Colmans, this Holiday-themed excursion turns the premise around, as Jack reciprocates his former hosts’ generosity by inviting them over. The impetus for the comedy remains the same, but now the rest of the ensemble gets in on the action. Of note: Mel Blanc plays Jack’s hired English butler, Nottingham.
06) January 06, 1946: Jack and company go to the Rose Bowl game.
While the company goes to the Rose Bowl in years both past and future, this may be the most distinguished, for not only is the series riding a wave of renewed excellence — thanks in part to the contest — but also because Artie Auerbach makes his debut as the hot dog vendor, soon to be named Mr. Kitzel, who first says “pickle in the middle and the mustard on top.”
07) February 03, 1946: Jack and Mary attend an Isaac Stern concert; the winning letter is read.
In the week prior, Fred Allen began announcing the winners to the “I Can’t Stand Jack Benny” contest, and in this installment, we finally get to hear the winning contribution, read by new recurring charmer Ronald Colman. With more humor coming from Jack annoying the Colmans and a bevy of violin jokes (fostered by the Isaac Stern appearance), this entry is also a winner.
08) February 10, 1946: Jack hopes to stay in Eddie Cantor’s Palm Springs house.
Eddie Cantor returns to the program for this funny installment that benefits sublimely from Jack’s established cheapness, as the company has made their now (nearly) annual trek to Palm Springs, where Jack hopes Eddie will let him stay at the Cantor house. The interplay between the two comics is unforgettable, as is the return of the hot dog vendor with his famed catchphrase.
09) February 24, 1946: The cast responds to a critic by performing the show with kindness.
Still in Palm Springs, this mildly metatheatrical outing was sparked by a review from critic Gilbert Seldes that called radio humor sarcastic and insulting; hoping to prove a point, the Benny program invited Seldes on the air to show him what an episode would be like if no one was sarcastic or insulting! It’s a gimmick, but the idea is comedic and laughs are a-plenty!
10) March 10, 1946: The company spoofs The Lost Weekend with guest Ray Milland.
Although the show is evolving to become much more of a pure situation comedy than ever before, it must be noted that this season features several terrific sketches (including some not mentioned here, like a two-part “State Fair” parody). This entry includes an ingenious take on The Lost Weekend, starring Oscar-winner Ray Milland, who splits his role with Jack. Funny!
11) March 17, 1946: Dennis Day returns and the show parodies “Allen’s Alley.”
Most notable for the official return of Dennis Day, following Larry Stevens’ last installment, this broadcast is more symbolic of the show’s emergence into a new era than any other episode here that actually makes a stronger case for the change. However, with the smart parody of Fred Allen’s classic “Allen’s Alley” (something they’ve done before), this is an easily likable show.
12) March 24, 1946: Jack reads a book called “I Stand Condemned” with guest Peter Lorre.
Peter Lorre guest stars in this episode’s sketch, a fictional crime drama called “I Stand Condemned.” But it’s really the strength of the script that earns this installment its position here, especially in the broadcast’s first half, which starts with a company rehearsal and features a terrific joke about The Horn Blows At Midnight (1945) that Mary actually flubs — leading to another quick joke from Jack later in the program. It’s all loose and fun.
13) April 07, 1946: The cast parodies Weekend At The Waldorf with guest Van Johnson.
Another joy-filled romp, this outing features M-G-M star Van Johnson, who inspires a riotous sketch that riffs on his picture Weekend At The Waldorf: “A Fortnight At The Acme Plaza.” Once again, the text is particularly strong and laugh-filled, hitting all the right notes — including the bouncy number between Van and Mary, as they introduce “I’m Gonna Fall In Love With You.”
14) April 14, 1946: Ronald Colman is disturbed by Jack’s violin lesson.
Sort of a classic tried-and-true Jack Benny episode, this entry once again features the year’s new MVPs — the Colmans — who find themselves expectedly annoyed by Jack’s violin playing next door. Adding to the laughs is the always hysterical Mel Blanc, who once again voices Jack’s addled violin instructor, Professor LeBlanc. Just a solid offering from this solid period.
15) April 28, 1946: Jack has a run-in with Danny Kaye after seeing his latest picture.
Danny Kaye appears as himself in this hysterical offering that takes place after the company has seen Kaye’s latest picture, The Kid From Brooklyn. It’s a treat to hear the two funnymen going back and forth over each other’s film careers — there’s another great The Horn Blows At Midnight reference — and the Wonder Man ghost angle is amiably goofy, if nothing else.
16) May 05, 1946: The company prepares to head east to Chicago and then New York City.
The last episode broadcast from California for the season — the last three shows come from Chicago and then New York — this is another example of the Jack Benny program in its classic distilled form, filled with many of the running gags the year has established (Phil’s daughter, Steve Bradley, “I Stand Condemned,” Mr. Kitzel, the Colmans, etc.) along with several true-blue beats, like Verna Felton as Dennis’ mom, Jack visiting his vault, and the notorious “Anaheim, Azusa, and Cucamonga.” Lots of laughs and character moments abound.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: October 14, 1945, in which Ingrid Bergman joins the company for a parody of Gaslight, October 28, 1945, which launches the fake robbery arc, November 25, 1945, which concludes the fake robbery arc (and teases, briefly, the upcoming “I Can’t Stand Jack Benny” contest), and February 17, 1946, in which the show addresses a real-life occurrence earlier that week when Rochester was temporarily lost at sea!
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And don’t forget to come back on Tuesday for more sitcom fun!