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.)
The 1949-’50 season of The Jack Benny Program is the year that I think comes the closest to representing a qualitative peak in the famed comic’s 23-year radio run. In past posts, I’ve referred to this season as something of a reputation-setter: the moment where the show’s identity freezes in the public’s collective conscious, before Benny, and several of his cohorts, transitioned mediums, moving from radio to TV. But that’s too general a notion — I certainly can’t speak for what everyone out there thinks of when they recall the show in its aural-only form. So, I’ll reframe the discussion by saying that 1949-’50 is the year where everything important about the series and these characters has finally been established, allowing every notable part of the show’s radio identity to be reinforced with regularity (and for the duration of a whole year). The season’s fully rounded understanding of itself is proven by the returns: the high number of episodic gems. (Frankly, I usually pick 16 favorites; I could easily pick 22 this time around!) Additionally, though it’s true the show will both continue on radio for five more years and jump to TV in the fall of 1950, with changes galore in both formats — on radio, Phil Harris will be replaced by Bob Crosby and Mary Livingstone will be minimized, while on television, this lack of a full supporting cast will force the show to become more variety-based and sketch-driven, forever limiting the TV version from being considered a full-on situation comedy — ’49-’50 is a favorable depiction of the series: the MOST favorable you’ll find given what’s to come, with pretty much everything good about the radio run over the past 18 years on display.
Here’s an incomplete list of the recurring gags, people, and elements of the show’s identity that this year offers: the Beverly Hills Beavers, Andy Devine, Mr. Kitzel, Frank Nelson, Mel Blanc, train station shows, iconic flubs, Babe jokes, the Colmans, Fred Allen, radio spoofs, dream sequences, the Christmas Shopping show, a New York trip, Buck Benny, violin lessons, the vault, Mrs. Day, Steve Bradley, guest stars, musical Lucky Strike spots, flashbacks, 39 jokes, and, now for the first time with regard to a full year on radio, Jack Benny is a CBS employee (not NBC), which is what most of us remember him being. (The Paley Raids are an important part of the Benny mythos; it happened last season, but this is the first year to operate with it implicitly.) And that’s just off the top of my head! Furthermore, the characterizations of the principals — Jack, Mary, Don, Phil, Dennis, and Rochester — are sharper than ever. For instance, there are several times this year where the leading man’s well-established frugality is played against, like when the Benny character is allowed to splurge on new clothes, tip a porter a whole dollar, or even give 50 cents to a bum on the sidewalk. Yet instead of undermining what has become a very well-defined character trait, these bits strengthen it, for they couldn’t exist — and wouldn’t be funny — without his durable persona already in place. The fact that the show is so confident in his definition that it can break from it for comedic gain is a sure sign of EXPERT character comedy, the kind that would propel the American sitcom as it moved to TV…
Speaking of which, this year has some of the best purely “sitcom” episodes of the run, like an arc where Jack hits his head and becomes a spendthrift, and even though there remains a good array of movie parodies and guest star cameos that connect the show to its earlier vaudevillian roots — and will become again more pronounced on the TV show — these are breaks from what has otherwise been the show’s post-war modus operandi: a collection of well-built weekly character interactions among cast members on The Jack Benny Program, a show-within-a-show that has long given lovers of metatheatricality fodder for discussion. Now, we’ve seen how basically every year since 1936 has gradually strengthened the show’s claims on being a situation comedy, for as its characters became better defined, the writers kept coming up with stories that could maximize their usages (like the Christmas shopping show, for one), and if the series never fully drops some of its variety-esque elements, Jack Benny is nevertheless the best character-led comedy on radio and has actively carried the figurative torch farther than anything else. That it stops short of being exclusively a sitcom is probably both a function of Benny’s own history — again, he’s a vaudevillian — and a necessity born from the emergence of the TV show, with its palpably diminished roster of sustaining characters (therefore limiting the situational possibilities)… Fortunately, there’ll all here in this year of his radio series, and they’re never used better. So, out of the 38 original episodes from the ’49-’50 season — all of which are extant — I have listed my picks for the 16 strongest (in airing order).
01) September 11, 1949: A tour bus visits Beverly Hills on premiere day.
One of the most famous episodes of the entire series, this season opener is best remembered for only featuring its star in approximately four minutes at the end of the half-hour. The fact that the series could do this — and still produce a wonderfully funny, memorable show in its own right — is a testament to the strong, well-defined characters surrounding Jack.
02) September 25, 1949: Jack and Mary bump into stars on the CBS lot.
Mostly a cross-promotion for some of the other big stars on CBS — namely, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Amos ‘n’ Andy, and Red Skelton — this amusing excursion continues the running gag started the previous week about Mel Blanc and his Jolson impression, and also includes a classic flub by Mary (the first in a season FULL of them). Lots of fun.
03) October 02, 1949: Jack and Rochester take inventory of the pantry.
This straightforward sitcom episode — which takes place at Jack’s house and largely concerns his and Rochester’s attempts to inventory the pantry — launches a legitimate story arc (with repercussions that last until the middle of the following month) wherein a tomato juice can falls on Jack’s head and prompts a peculiar change in behavior: he’s no longer cheap…
04) October 09, 1949: After a hit on the head, Jack is a spendthrift.
The direct continuation of the previous broadcast, this is the installment in which Jack’s behavior is fully inverted, and instead of being the notorious miser that we know him to be, he’s a big spender who even decides to purchase a yacht! This narrative is probably one of the finest of the entire series — and this entry is its pinnacle — because it’s totally built for the Benny persona, and only works because of how well-established his character has been.
05) October 30, 1949: Frank Sinatra stops by as Don celebrates his 25th radio anniversary.
During the 1949-’50 season, Don Wilson was also acting as the announcer for Frank Sinatra’s radio program, and so to celebrate the rotund fellow’s 25th anniversary on radio, the Benny company is joined by frequent guest Sinatra, who benefits here from a typically funny teleplay and a jovial “Don Wilson’s life story” centerpiece. Memorable.
06) November 20, 1949: Jack is annoyed that everyone prefers Ed Wynn over him.
Jack Benny almost made the transition to TV at the top of the 1949 season, but he was deterred by the poor kinescope technology, best evidenced that year by Ed Wynn, whose own variety show was seen live in Los Angeles and carried by “kine” on the East. So, it’s fun to see Wynn here plug his show, with that subtext, and a solid script that plays on Jack’s vanity.
07) November 27, 1949: Andy Devine visits as Jack reads a book about “The Farmer’s Son.”
Former recurring player Andy Devine, who hasn’t been a staple on this program in nearly ten years, returns for this amiable offering that has some choice character moments in its first half but culminates in one of the year’s funniest sketches, which packs a lot of laughs (some of which are still being derived from Mel Blanc’s Al Jolson gag).
08) December 18, 1949: Jack and Mary go Christmas shopping.
The year’s annual Christmas shopping show is one of the finest within the series’ sub-genre, with all the regulars in top form, and many of the repeating bits that we love so much — the unrefined perfume salesman, being just one — used to great advantage. As the show’s peak season, you’ll be glad to know this annual treat is representative of that peak.
09) January 08, 1950: Lots of stars show up for a murder mystery sketch.
Best known because of a flub Don has early in the show — he calls Drew Pearson “Drear Pooson” — this classic outing features Frank Nelson making an iconic callback to that blooper later in the show, along with a murder mystery sketch enlivened by the guest appearances of Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Rosalind Russell, and Prince Michael Romanoff.
10) January 15, 1950: Jack and Fred Allen have different memories of their first meeting.
Although no longer star of his own regular series, Fred Allen remains a frequent target of Jack’s barbs, all stemming from the legendary feud that both comics created back in 1937. This smart installment takes us back to their first meeting, with a Rashomon format that shows us their contrasting memories of the event — with expert character-rooted comedy.
11) February 26, 1950: The company does their version of The Whistler, called “The Fiddler.”
We’ve seen this sketch used before — the popular Whistler radio drama done à la Jack Benny and retitled “The Fiddler” — and it’s as affable and fun as it was before. But this offering gains extra points for a wonderful opening, where Jack recalls his visit to the White House and his encounters (or non-encounters) with the popular political figures of the day.
12) April 02, 1950: In Palm Springs, Al Jolson pays a visit.
The second in a two-week sojourn to Palm Springs (the first of these entries is the primary Honorable Mention cited below), this unforgettable episode mostly gains distinction because it finally pays off one of the year’s long-running gags — for Al Jolson finally appears as himself, allowing Mel Blanc’s hilarious bit to reach a climax and be retired in a satisfying way.
13) April 09, 1950: Jack feels good after giving 50 cents to a bum on the street.
As mentioned above, this classic season has fun tweaking the Benny persona by having him NOT be as cheap as we suspect — like here, when he gives a half dollar to a bum (John L. C. Silvoney, voiced by Frankie Fontaine) who approaches him on the street. It’s hilarious because it’s so out-of-character for Jack, and his small act of charity makes him feel so full of himself that he has a dream where he’s honored for his generosity!
14) April 23, 1950: The Beverly Hills Beavers put on their version of The Jack Benny Program.
It’s impossible to deny that this is built around a gimmick — the idea of young people, with their young voices, performing what would otherwise seem to be a typical script for The Jack Benny Program. But it works because it’s totally reliant on our awareness of the strong personalities being imitated, which therefore makes this a surprisingly character-rooted affair.
15) May 21, 1950: Jack is nervous as he prepares a dinner party for his sponsor.
What I like best about this outing, the season’s penultimate broadcast, is that it’s an unabashed situation comedy, with the entire half-hour concerning Jack’s jitters before, and foolishness during, a dinner party to which he’s invited his company and the sponsor… with whom he’s anxious to talk business. Everyone is just themselves here… and that’s why it’s effortlessly great.
16) May 28, 1950: Jack tells a reporter how he met each member of his cast.
The series has devoted time before to exploring how Jack met some members of his ensemble, but the value of this, the season’s finale, is that it goes through these origin stories (minus Rochester’s and Don’s) quickly, with tight in-and-out segments that emphasize big laughs motivated by the core personalities. It’s well-done, and lots of fun.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: March 26, 1950, the Palm Springs entry that guest stars Bob Hope (who’s always fun — this show was the closest to the above list; I wish I had room for it), along with November 13, 1949, which has a tired centerpiece but some nice hahas in the beginning where Jack chastises the cast for the prior week’s flubs, and January 29, 1950, a train station show that gets its jollies by playing against our expectations and driving Jack crazy because of it. Of more Honorable Mention quality, meanwhile, are: October 16, 1949, in which Jack is sick in bed and addled by a homely nurse and Frank Nelson as the doctor, March 12, 1950, which enjoys spoofing radio of the era, and May 14, 1950, the year’s fourth and final offering featuring the bum, John L. C. Silvoney, whose routine, as in all his appearances, is more hilarious than the rest of the script. (He’ll recur next year as well.)
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And don’t forget to come back on Tuesday for more sitcom fun!