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 ’30s 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.)
With the departure of Kenny Baker at the end of the previous year (for an exclusive contract with Texaco), The Jack Benny Program opens up the ’39-’40 season with its first major cast change since the watershed ’36-’37 season. Enter Dennis Day, a new naive tenor with an overprotective and domineering mother (played by Verna Felton, one of the most iconic character actresses of the era). Dennis, like Kenny, plays the role of the show’s juvenile, but it quickly becomes clear — at about two months into the season, after Mrs. Day is no longer needed to overtake the material given to her son — that Dennis is going to be a more amiable presence than Kenny, who despite being a simpleton, had also developed a haughtiness that was in full bloom by the time of his departure. Dennis, on the other hand, has a more likable persona — willing to participate in the hijinks and, thus, exist with comedic equivalency to his cohorts. This year doesn’t yet show how funny he’s to become over the course of the radio program, but it gives a strong indication of his possibilities. So any worries about how Kenny’s absence might affect the series (and to his credit, by the ’38-’39 season, Kenny had become a reliable source of humor), are allayed fairly quickly into the new year; and with this cast, we officially enter what many would believe to be the “Golden Era” of Benny’s time with Jell-O.
In fact, the ’39-’40 season would earn my vote as being the most fundamentally enjoyable year we’ve examined thus far, as each season has seen an uptick in the base-level of quality (the level of quality being sustained in the average outings produced). Furthermore, the year boasts a high number of truly classic installments, indicating that, in addition to a better foundation, the stories and ideas that these characters are propelling are themselves getting stronger. In terms of this year’s storytelling, although we don’t find nearly the number of “breakthroughs” as in seasons past, we nevertheless have the most artful usage of formulas and themes that have previously proven delectable — including more on the Benny/Allen feud, which needs to be addressed as a promotional tool to create buzz for their upcoming film venture, and annual episodic traditions like the burgeoning Christmas shopping and (for the first time) the New Year’s Eve entries. Also, as the show’s use of movie parodies decreases slightly, situation comedy scenes are on the rise, with mini-arcs gaining prominence. Some of the best explored ideas this year include: Jack’s rivalry with Mrs. Day, his relationship with Gladys Zybysko (whom we hear for the first time), and the trip to New York for the premiere of Buck Benny Rides Again, which begets some of the most outstanding material the show ever put forward.
Perhaps the best arc of the season is the show’s month-long series of episodes dealing with the cast’s trip to Yosemite — four straight outings of ALL situation comedy; no sketches, no mindless patter, no distractions (save the requisite weekly song from the new tenor) — just straight up character laughs. These installments point toward the future of both this program and the situation comedy in general, and they’re really exciting — not to mention very funny. (Three of the four are highlighted below. The other is an honorable mention.) Speaking of character comedy, this year finds every regular presence continuing to coast on excellence. Although Andy Devine, the mayor of Van Nuys, is now getting phased out, Mary, Phil, Don, and Rochester are all on hand every week for character-driven laughs, each one having terrific seasons. Actually, of them all, I want to single out Mary’s work this year as being among her finest of the entire run; she’s gotten funnier, and her persona is now perfect: zingy without being acidic. Some of her best and most honestly-earned laughs are found below. But, again, it’s strong all around… So, without further ado, out of all 37 original episodes from the ’39-’40 season — all of which are extant, five of which exist in both East and West Coast variants — I’ve listed my picks for the 16 strongest. They are featured below in airing order.
01) October 15, 1939: Jack is having trouble with Dennis’ mother. (EAST)
Following a solid opener that played better in its West Coast performance, the follow-up, in a design we’ll see in months to come, riffs on the results of the week prior — with a wonderful gag about reading the premiere reviews and more about Jack’s rivalry with Dennis’ mom. (Dennis also says his first “Yes, please?”) My preference is definitely for the East Coast version, for there are several mistakes and ad libs — the scene with Andy is killer — that are hysterical.
02) November 05, 1939: The cast does a parody of The Women.
One of the tell-tale signs of the show’s improving quality during this period is the strength of the movie parodies and sketches. Years ago, these moments would constitute the weakest part of an episode — now whole episodes are memorable because of the skits themselves. As with many of the best, this offering’s satire of The Women works whether you’ve seen the film or not!
03) November 12, 1939: Jack goes to the dentist for a toothache.
The bulk of this episode’s comedy — which is nevertheless consistent — comes from the dream sequence that Jack has while he’s under the dentist’s anesthetic, in which Fred Allen is his doctor and the Jell-O show is a surreal entity starring Phil Harris and featuring Mahatma Ghandi, George Bernard Shaw, and Lady Godiva. Creative — and Frank Nelson is the real dentist.
04) December 17, 1939: Jack and Mary go Christmas shopping. (WEST)
This is the third annual Christmas shopping show, and let me tell you: the results are getting better and better. While we’re not yet treated to the frayed antics of Mel Blanc, we’ve got a lot to enjoy here, as Jack and Mary’s sojourn to a department store yields several bizarre encounters. In addition to the always comedic floorwalker, I love the bit with the perfume salesman. Also, the West Coast version is funnier all around — more looseness (a plus).
05) December 31, 1939: Jack gets stood up on New Year’s Eve.
As the last episode of the 1930s, there’s a poignancy to this offering that sort of sneaks up on the listener, for the first three-quarters of the show are absolutely riotous. Every cast member is on figurative fire (especially Mary), and the gag that finally introduces us to Gladys Zybysko is very memorable. A perfect episode to end one of the most seminal decades of Benny’s life.
06) January 14, 1940: The cast does their version of Intermezzo.
Both parts of this episode are very strong. Aside from the parody of Intermezzo, which allows a great coming together of the film’s barebones design and the personalities on the Benny program (another example of the ideal sketch), the patter that opens the show is phenomenal as well. There’s more talk of Gladys Zybysko, who’s running to be Miss Vine Street.
07) February 04, 1940: Jack and the gang head down to Yosemite.
Part I of the aforementioned Yosemite tetralogy — which I shared before on this blog last year — sets the template for the character-driven situation comedy scenes that are to come in the weeks following. Every character is written in character and with believability, all the while poised for great laughs. One of the year’s most consistent — representative of its high quality.
08) February 11, 1940: The gang is getting closer to Yosemite.
Easily the best of the entire Yosemite arc, this offering has some of the biggest laughs of the season. (Jack arguing with the parrot in the diner always gets me!) Rochester is particularly sharp this week — capable of eliciting true guffaws — while a gag in which it’s intimated that Dennis is answering nature’s call illustrates how precisely unlike anything else on radio the Benny program was at the time. Were I to pick an MVE for the season, it might be this one.
09) February 25, 1940: Jack recovers from his skiing accident.
After the third part of the tetralogy, the only one fully at Yosemite (featured below as an honorable mention and obviously recommended to those who want to enjoy the arc), this episode finds Jack in bed recovering from his accident. To make matters worse, it’s his birthday (it’s actually on the 14th), and Frank Nelson is the doctor. You can imagine how that goes.
10) March 17, 1940: The cast does The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Orson Welles.
Orson Welles, who’ll have a more famous stint on the series several years from now, makes his first appearance on the program in this terrifically solid episode that features a sketch just perfect for the talents of the legendary actor — The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, with Jack, of course, playing the hunchback. It’s yet another strong episode from a period of excellence.
11) April 21, 1940: The troupe is in New York for the premiere of Buck Benny Rides Again.
If there was anything this season that could rival my appreciation for the Yosemite arc, it would be the trilogy that the cast spends in New York for the premiere of Jack’s latest picture, Buck Benny Rides Again. This episode kicks things off in the Big Apple, as the excitement about being in the city is palpable — one of the year’s funniest. Also, we get to meet Logan Jerkfinkel.
12) April 28, 1940: Buck Benny Rides Again has premiered a few days before.
Standing next to the second part of the Yosemite tetralogy as my favorite episode from the season, this installment finds the cast so giddy and loose — making plenty of mistakes and enjoying the heck out of them — that it’s truly infectious. The return of Logan Jerkfinkel is not-to-be-missed and his “Sing it, kid!” line to Phil elicits one of the longest laughs of the year. This is precisely why I love the Jell-O years of this program, and here’s a classic.
13) May 05, 1940: Still in New York, Jack and company imitate Fred Allen’s program. (EAST)
For the last episode broadcast from New York City, Jack and his cast decided to do an imitation of Fred Allen’s program, Town Hall Tonight, which is comedic whether or not you’re familiar with the show (although I recommend that all Benny fans seek out some of Allen’s work for study). The West Coast performance is both incomplete and less energetic than the East’s.
14) May 26, 1940: Jack invites the president of General Foods over for dinner.
One of the things that makes Benny’s program so special for the era is the metatheatricality, and this episode, which is nevertheless a straight situation comedy, has Jack inviting over the president of General Foods (which, through Jell-O, is his sponsor), in the hopes of being picked up again for next year. The set-up is pure sitcom as the gang forgets to serve Jell-O for dessert!
15) June 09, 1940: Jack and company discuss vacation plans.
This is the penultimate episode of the season and the slightly evident fatigue breeds an appealing looseness, obvious in this uncomplicated outing that has several things going for it. In addition to a Hawaiian motif (as Jack plans to vacation there), the series is laying more groundwork for the upcoming Benny/Allen cinematic collaboration, which Jack “refuses” to do, and also features the return of Andy Devine, who hadn’t been heard since late March.
16) June 16, 1940: Jack is jealous of his summer replacement series.
Season finales are hit-and-miss for me, as sometimes I think they run on figurative fumes, but I appreciate this entry both for its continued metatheatricality (Jack being jealous of Henry Aldrich taking over his spot during the summer is inspired) and for the way the script exists as the perfect summation of the season — with more on the upcoming Benny/Allen picture and the return of Mrs. Day. An easily funny episode — great mirror for the season.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: January 07, 1940 (WEST), which guest stars Barbara Stanwyck, January 21, 1940, in which Jack tries to phone Gladys Zybysko, February 18, 1940, the third installment from the Yosemite tetralogy, and June 02, 1940, in which Dennis tries to renegotiate his contract with Jack. All four were close contenders when making the above list — the sign of another great season! (There are many more of “honorable mention” quality too — very few are average or below.)
Come back next week for another Wildcard Wednesday! Tune in this April for the best from the 1940-41 season of The JELL-O Program Starring Jack Benny! And don’t forget to come back on Tuesday for more Murphy Brown!