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, 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.)
Finally! After years of instability brought about by the Second World War, The Jack Benny Program‘s 1946-’47 season ushers the series into a period of harmony and consistency not seen since — well, ever. For while those late ‘30s JELL-O seasons are electric for their slow-but-steady cultivation of the series, its regulars, and the overarching brand that audiences would enjoy on a regular basis for over three decades, that accompanying sense of experimentation made the particulars of identity more malleable. Here, post-war and with all the ingredients for success on hand and ready for usage, Jack Benny’s classic series settles in for a stretch of general excellence — fostered by an understanding of story, character, and as usual, comedy (one that’s not really disrupted until Phil Harris’ departure in ’52… even though, as we may see, some years are still better than others). But this, for all intents and purposes, is the Golden Age, and — again, though perhaps not as groundbreaking as the late ‘30s — it’s The Jack Benny Program that would exist in our collective conscience for the rest of time, with a stable roster of players: Jack, Mary, Phil, Don, Dennis (back for his first FULL season on the show since ’42-’43), and Rochester as regulars, and support from iconic voice actors like Mel Blanc (Professor LeBlanc), Frank Nelson (“Yeeeesssss?”), and Artie “pickle in the middle” Auerbach. This, once and for all, is the show you remember and it’s absolutely as good as you remember.
While I’ve been generally enthused with every season we’ve covered here — even if a year wasn’t as strong as its predecessor, there were enough episodic delights to dull the weight of any real concern — I have to say that ’46-’47 exceeds expectations by the sheer virtue of its own smart decisions. In addition to reaping the rewards from past discoveries — including last year’s introduction of phone operators Mabel and Gertrude (Sara Berner and Bea Benaderet, who appear at the top and bottom of this season only due to the latter’s pregnancy) and its first utilization of Ronald and Benita Colman, Jack’s next door neighbors (who appear in some of this era’s funniest episodes) — this season continues on in the show’s grand tradition of semi-serialized storytelling by launching a six-month arc in which Jack tries to get rid of a singing quartet — the Sportsmen — that Don has hired. It’s amazing that such a small idea could drive so much comedy for over 26 weeks, but it’s a testament to the strength of the established characterizations; that is, the arc is grounded in things we know about the players — like Don’s eagerness to promote the product, and Jack’s finicky mania (WAIT A MINUTE!!!!). The same basic joke is repeated week-after-week, but we laugh because of either the character-driven familiarity or the surprise, when the formula is occasionally tweaked. As a result, I actually look to this as one of the best of the show’s season-long arcs — simply because it illustrates how masterful this crew (and the scripting foursome has remained unchanged, too) has become at blending character, story, and basic product promotion for the sake of boffo laughs.
Of course, much of what’s celebrated this year are elements we identify as being associated with the “situation comedy,” which, with commercial television then on pace to eclipse radio, was soon to adopt the tropes and traits it still has today — traits and tropes that The Jack Benny Program, as we’ve heard, was among the first to successfully embody. And in addition to the year’s main arc, there are (as usual) many running gags that speak to the sitcom’s utilization of established personas for laughs — like the truth-based runner that Jack is jealous of Phil and Dennis for both having their own shows, the introductions of Emily and Martha, two geriatric dames who are really “sent” by Jack, and the now amiably familiar aggravation that Jack inspires in some of his frequent guests (particularly Blanc and Nelson, who both appear here in a seminal Christmas outing). However, the year holds on to some elements of its past; aside from a parade of guest stars (which would be a carryover for some sitcoms going forward) — like Edward G. Robinson, Bogie & Bacall, Burns & Allen, Boris Karloff, Frank Capra, Al Jolson, and many others — approximately one in every five shows features a skit, usually a parody of some film, like The Killers or The Egg And I. These, as always, tend to be riskier than the straight sitcom fare, but they occasionally strike gold, and the series’ ability to incorporate such material alongside patter, story, and song supplies a sense that anything still goes, even as the structure, in the vein of the sitcom, becomes more templated… So, this is a great year of a great program. Out of all 35 episodes from the ’46-’47 season — all of which are extant (at least in part) — I’ve listed my picks for the 16 strongest (in airing order).
01) October 27, 1946: Jack dreams that he’s on trial for murdering the Sportsmen.
In the gray area between skit and sitcom, this installment pulls out a classic trope (one that’s been used prior) — the dream. A great way to have surrealistic fun while also exploring some of the unspoken (or in this case, spoken) fears and desires of the characters, it’s also used here to continue the year’s primary arc — involving the Sportsmen. Before this, though, is a scene with Nelson at the drug store, where Mary makes an immortal flub: “chiss sweeze sandwich.”
02) November 17, 1946: Jack throws a poker game and gets a visit from Leo Durocher.
Among the most solid entries on this list, this was bumped up from the Honorable Mentions below not for the guest appearance by Leo Durocher (who’s appeared before) or even for the guest appearance of the Colmans (now recurring), but because it’s got great character-wise interplay, with some of the best stuff going to the guests (and, unsurprisingly, Rochester).
03) November 24, 1946: The cast performs The Killers with Edward G. Robinson.
Initially announced at the end of the November 03 broadcast, the show’s version of The Killers finally arrives in this outing — and it’s one of this era’s finest parodies, enjoyable even to those who aren’t familiar with the picture. Famous celluloid gangster Edward G. Robinson, though not in the film, appears in the sketch and gets some classic Benny laughs!
04) December 01, 1946: Jack takes a violin lesson, goes to his vault, and argues with Phil Baker.
There are at least two memorable set pieces here that would become (if they aren’t already by the time) Jack Benny mainstays — Jack’s violin lessons with Professor LeBlanc (voiced, of course, by Mel Blanc) and his bi-annual (sometimes tri-annual) trips to his underground vault, where he visits with Ed. Here, Phil Baker, whose show Jack was just on, comes on to riff and spar.
05) December 08, 1946: Jack and the gang go Christmas shopping.
Although the Christmas shopping narrative has been utilized before (and already become routine), here it takes its most famous form with Jack exasperating Mel Blanc (this time over a pair of shoelaces — the item will vary in years to come), Frank Nelson acting as the floorwalker, and other delightful bits that re-prove the viability of this formula and this season’s charms.
06) December 15, 1946: Jack and Mary’s sister return some shoelaces.
Mary’s absences become slightly more frequent this year, and in this offering, her sister Babe (playing herself) is the substitute. Babe is green, but her husky voice provides some fun, which is already in great supply thanks to the success of the prior episode, off of which this entry capitalizes as Jack goes down to return the shoelaces and must deal with Blanc’s “wife.”
07) December 29, 1946: Jack takes Gladys Zybisco on a double date with Mary and Dennis.
A straight sitcom entry that (thankfully) eschews the maudlin New Year’s sketch that’s become a (misguided) tradition, this episode is another solid affair that projects a real knowledge of how to use the regular characters for comedy — along with running gags like Gladys Zybisco, who’s always a hoot. (Also, note the use of the recurring Rodney Dangerfield joke.)
08) January 05, 1947: Jack rehearses with Lauren Bacall and gets a visit from her husband.
This popular show doesn’t operate with the same amount of logic as many of the others here. (It’s a twisted logic that only makes sense for these characters and the rules of this, mostly realistic, universe.) But we take leaps in character behavior here — primarily for the guests — because the script is funny, and the delight of hearing Bacall and Bogie with Jack is worth it.
09) January 12, 1947: Gracie Allen interrupts The Jack Benny Program.
In contrast to Jack Benny’s program, which was at its best on radio (as opposed to television), Burns & Allen’s show probably made best use of its stars in the visual medium. Although it’s always a joy when they visit their good friend, Jack, the two universes’ rules aren’t exactly the same, and sometimes, again, credulity is stretched. As with the above, however, the laughs — particularly in the second half (following a long George/Gracie scene) — prove worthwhile.
10) February 16, 1947: Jack’s birthday party includes the Colmans and Isaac Stern.
One of my absolute favorites from the entire season, this is all about character, as Jack’s birthday party (he’s turning 38, incidentally) is a chance for terrific gags and one-liners enhanced by the regular crew, but also recurring guests Ronald and Benita Colman (who interact with the full ensemble for really the first time) — and master violinist Isaac Stern. Very funny!
11) February 23, 1947: Jack gets so fed up that he fires the Sportsmen.
The arc involving the Sportsmen reaches a crescendo in this episode, which finally uses the year’s recurring bit to its narrative advantage when Jack reaches his figurative boiling point and fires them… much to the consternation of his sponsor. This heavier form of storytelling is earned by the foundation laid earlier and the comedy — particularly in the call (“but… but… but…”) — is divine. Also, there’s an ad-libby, blooper-filled looseness here that’s always fun!
12) March 16, 1947: Don assembles a famous trio to join Dennis as Jack’s new quartet.
Hoping to make things right, Don brings together three well-known singers — Andy Russell, Dick Haymes, and Bing Crosby — to sing with Dennis and form the new quartet. The star power, though, isn’t why this excursion is on the year’s top shelf. It’s here because it’s among the funniest — starting with some great material about Jack having just emceed the Academy Awards. As usual, there are killer one-liners and a choice ad-lib from Crosby. A gem.
13) April 06, 1947: Jack visits Samuel Goldwyn and runs into “Hugo” Carmichael.
Another installment I’d put at the top of this year’s output, this entry also boasts some star power — composer Hoagy Carmichael and producer Sam Goldwyn, who’d just accidentally referred to the former as “Hugo” at the Oscars. That gag is couched in great character-driven comedy though, as Jack heads down to the studio to meet with Goldwyn about a picture.
14) April 27, 1947: Jack coerces the Colmans to join him for a live broadcast of his show.
As is often the case with this series, this excursion is uneven — the first half is relatively dull, with nothing that stands out, while the second half is a laugh-riot that elevates the entire broadcast and makes it worthy of this list. It’s pure situation comedy, as Jack manipulates the Colmans into attending a broadcast of his show. Ronnie and Benita’s scene alone is A+ (there’s a terrific joke about Phil’s band), as is the final centerpiece where Jack picks them up in his car.
15) May 04, 1947: Jack and company prepare for their train trip east.
Part train station show, this offering, the year’s last in Los Angeles, kicks off the final month of broadcasts — which come from the East Coast. Aside from all the anticipated gags down at the station (with Blanc and Nelson), the episode boasts a lot of guest stars, as we hear all the regulars at home getting ready — Dennis with his mom (Verna Felton) and dad, Don with his wife, Mary with her sister Babe, and Phil with his wife Alice Faye. Classic Benny.
16) May 25, 1947: Jack gets a visit from Fred Allen and meets his summer replacement.
Fred Allen joins his long-time rival Jack Benny in this finale, the second broadcast from New York. Although there have been better meetings of Benny and Allen before (some even from last year), their banter is enough to carry an episode, even when it already claims another “Allen’s Alley” sketch (which is as funny as ever) and a moment with summer replacement Jack Paar!
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: October 20, 1946, which is strong until the laugh-lite sketch, when the show parodies The Whistler (with “The Fiddler”), February 02, 1947, in which Jack meets Frank Capra and has an It’s A Wonderful Life hallucination (I almost highlighted it above, but I find it uneven — there are some great moments, and some terrible ones), March 09, 1947, in which Jack visits a talent agent (Frank Nelson) to find a replacement for the Sportsmen, and May 18, 1947, which is uneven, but really jells during the hilarious interaction between Jack and guest Al Jolson. The closest to the above list, however, was the premiere, September 29, 1946, which features lots of great jokes about Dennis and Phil having their own shows, the introduction of the Sportsmen, and a choice scene between Mabel and Gertrude (…not to mention a fun running gag — “Eastern Columbia, Broadway at Ninth”).
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And don’t forget to come back on Tuesday for more sitcom fun!