Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday and the conclusion 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 helping to establish 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.)
I’ve been dragging out the publication of this post because the 1951-1952 season is the last with Phil Harris — a demarcation that I’ve long used to tab the end of the period where The Jack Benny Program was at its most worthwhile and therefore ideal for discussion, for we began our coverage with 1936-’37, a transformative year for the show that not only saw the introduction of the Benny vs. Allen feud, but also marked the start of that funny bandleader’s tenure. And so, with our exploration of this series beginning with Harris’ entrance, it’s fitting to wrap, as planned, with his exit. That’s not to say that nothing from the last three radio seasons would be laudable — on the contrary; many of those episodes are remakes of previously successful ideas, and in this regard, they still represent the kind of cultivated brand of situation comedy that has come to exist on this quasi-sitcom (which I call “quasi” because it’s also retained its vaudeville-rooted variety sensibilities as well). In fact, there’s a part of me that would be interested in continuing, if only to examine how — for the first time since 1939, really — The Jack Benny Program was forced to introduce a new regular (Bob Crosby) and build for him a unique characterization that could be mined for laughs. Indeed, Bob Crosby does have a developed personality, and that’s a testament to the character-forward quality of Jack Benny’s writing, for even in an era where its storytelling is less fresh and not as creative, it still exemplifies some of the tenets that made this show special during its genuinely more exciting and formative phases. To that point, another reason for stopping with Phil Harris’ departure is simply that the show was best with him on it (as opposed to his replacement), and, again, his leave makes for a natural and appropriate line in the figurative sand. That’s not to say he caused it though — rather, I think there were a lot of factors for this down-shift in quality, like the fact that Jack Benny’s television career was ramping up. In 1951-’52, just like 1950-’51, Benny’s TV appearances were erratically scheduled — almost like specials. The following year, he appeared in planned rotation — once every four weeks. From then until 1955, when the radio show ended entirely, Benny’s focus gradually moved from radio to television, where he would stay until 1965.
Now, personally, I think the Jack Benny radio show is far superior to the TV iteration — for several reasons, including the lack of a full ensemble. That is, there are fewer regulars who appear in every episode of the television show and thus fewer elements of the “situation” that can be utilized with consistency for laughs and story. Oh, yes, when these characters do appear, they still enjoy the deep history of continuity they’ve earned from the long radio run, but they’re no longer as central. What’s more, while The Jack Benny Program’s sitcommery truly seemed above the genre’s baseline while on radio — due to its great character work — mid-’50s television just had too many other, and better examples of greatness in the genre. Next to shows like I Love Lucy, Burns & Allen, and even Mister Peepers, where regulars existed every week in narrative ideas they helped motivate/earn/enliven, Benny’s TV effort was less compelling as a definable situation comedy, and this side-by-side comparison only emphasized the ways in which it differed from them, retaining so much of its comedy-variety (non-sitcom) attributes that it was now almost impossible to view it as part of the same format — at least, not without an asterisk. Additionally, the best ideas on television tended to be remakes of those employed on radio… and on that note, we’re back to discussing the 1951-’52 season of Jack Benny, which, to an even greater extent than 1950-’51, similarly offers so many episodic notions that we’ve just heard before… and with more creative vitality and comic spontaneity than evidenced here. Furthermore, while the year’s central arc — about Jack writing a song called “When You Say ‘I Beg Your Pardon,’ Then I’ll Come Back To You” — is amusing and does provide some situational color for weekly story to hold onto, every usage of this idea essentially hinges on one singular joke: that the song is not very good. It’s funny at first, and perhaps speaks to Jack’s vain sense of self-delusion regarding his own talents (both as a songwriter and a singer), but there’s never any variation on it. It’s obviously less satisfying than past arcs, which tended to either develop characters or contend specifically with relationships…
With all that said, the 1951-’52 season of The Jack Benny Program is probably best classified as mediocre compared to the best years of the show — like those electric JELL-O seasons of the late ’30s, where scripts were teeming with experimental joy, helping define the sitcom genre through a variety structure that was intrinsically malleable; or the smart years of the late ’40s, particularly 1949-’50, where the intelligent utilization of these well-defined leads met a pattern of clever, motivated, and character-showcasing stories. Sadly, the radio series’ uninspired trajectory will continue from here — even though Bob Crosby’s inclusion does create a rare spark of something “new” for the show’s final stretch — and although Phil Harris’ departure is not directly responsible for the shift, this, I reiterate, simply marks the end of a long period of general excellence that began with his arrival. Thus, by wrapping up our coverage now, we’re basically completing our look at the era in which Jack Benny was at its most influential, and most enjoyable. Oh, I’m a bit sad to finish — and maybe I’ll wake up one day and decide to close out the last three seasons (frankly, that’s unlikely because these posts are very time-consuming and the demand for them I believe has already peaked) — but since we’ve long followed the history of how this program developed traits associated with the situation comedy, as we now reach 1951-’52 and the year I Love Lucy premiered on CBS-TV, our mission feels complete: the sitcom, as we know it, has arrived. So, I’m eager, for one last time, to share a list of favorites. Out of the 38 original episodes from this season — only 33 of which are extant (I’ve read the scripts for the missing five) — I have listed my picks for the 16 strongest (in airing order).
01) September 23, 1951: The cast does a take-off of Captain Horatio Hornblower.
A decent sketch is preceded by a terrifically funny discussion about the differences between the cast’s “real” lives and the characters they play on the show — a wonderful display of the program’s inherent metatheatricality and how scripts use that for big comedy.
02) October 14, 1951: Jack takes his new song to a publisher.
Unfortunately, the first two episodes in the year’s “song” arc are missing as of this publication. This is the third and the first to remain extant, meaning the jokes that will soon get repetitive and tired in future broadcasts are at their freshest and funniest (for us, anyway).
03) October 28, 1951: The Colmans discover Jack’s song.
The “song” arc pretty much devolves into a parade of different guest players hearing/singing Jack’s awful ditty — which he earnestly believes is good — and this outing provides us with the reaction from two funny fan favorites, Ronald Colman and his wife Benita Hume.
04) November 04, 1951: George Jessel hosts a sketch about Jack Benny’s life.
With a sketch about Jack himself, this entry inherently emphasizes his guiding characterization, taking advantage of the many comic traits and running gags that have been established as part of his history and persona — making this akin to character-based sitcommery.
05) December 02, 1951: Jack does his annual Christmas shopping.
Although this isn’t the finest episode from this popular subcategory of shows (now an annual tradition), the 1951 Christmas shopping excursion works for the same reasons that the others do: it puts the great Jack Benny character in scenarios where his definition shines.
06) December 30, 1951: Jack goes to a nightclub for New Year’s Eve.
There are several outings this season that take Jack to a nightclub for the main centerpiece — or “sitcom” scene — and while none truly end up tops, all are enjoyable, with this one being the best of that bunch, and boosted by a funny opening scene about Rochester’s eggnog.
07) January 06, 1952: The cast does a parody of Suspense.
A solid half hour, this segment features the characters riffing on the Rose Bowl before culminating in a sketch that parodies the radio show Suspense. It’s one of this season’s best skits — a vestige of its variety show origins that are still a real part of its identity.
08) January 20, 1952: George Burns appears on the show to sing Jack’s song.
The ever-hilarious George Burns briefly guest stars in this offering to sing Jack’s song, with the comedy not only coming from Jack’s deluded belief in his own personal talent, but also George’s deluded belief in his own personal talent. It’s a lot of fun — a highlight.
09) February 10, 1952: The cast prepares to take the train to New York.
In addition to some fun meta continuity regarding a flub that Don Wilson made on Jack’s latest TV show, this episode provides an opportunity to take the action down to the train station — an evergreen locale where our star can be addled by a bevy of recurring nuisances.
10) February 24, 1952: Jack plans to trade in his Maxwell.
This is a direct remake of a hysterical broadcast from 1949, and while that version was much superior (because the novelty of this idea made the sitcom scene more comedically exciting and less predictable), it still stands out here as a funny use of the main character.
11) March 02, 1952: Special guest stars appear to sing Jack’s song.
George Burns, Danny Kaye, Groucho Marx, and Frank Sinatra all guest star in this loosey-goosey half hour that represents the climax of Jack’s “song” arc and therefore the peak of this season’s central narrative — the most memorable episode on this entire list.
12) March 16, 1952: The tax men are back with questions for Jack.
The mini-arc about Jack confounding the IRS agents from last season is trotted out again for this one installment, and it’s just as comical as ever. Meanwhile, the opening dialogue where Phil reveals he’s been diagnosed with an alcohol allergy is a lot of character-specific fun.
13) March 30, 1952: Jack visits a navy base and does a sketch about his war experience.
With the Korean War in action, The Jack Benny Program did a handful of on-location shows for a military audience — a staple of the program during the WWII years. This is the best of the outings in this year’s small service collection, with another affable sketch about Jack’s past.
14) April 27, 1952: Jimmy Stewart guests for a new Buck Benny sketch.
Jimmy Stewart (who will appear frequently on Jack’s TV show) is a fun guest in this unique installment that brings back the old Buck Benny sketch — one of the early gags that helped the program ascend into comedic excellence in the formative 1936-’37 season.
15) May 04, 1952: Jack and Mary go to a baseball game.
This is just a straightforward example of the show during this era, with a sitcom scene set at a ballpark — a common locale for Jack Benny that affords him the chance to run into a variety of recurring guests, including episodic menaces voiced by Mel Blanc and Frank Nelson.
16) May 25, 1952: Jack prepares for a trip to London.
Another showcase for many of Jack Benny’s best bits, this installment contains guest appearances by Mel Blanc as Jack’s violin teacher, Professor LeBlanc, and Verna Felton as Dennis’ bellowing mother, while Joe Kearns returns as Ed, the guard down at Jack’s legendary vault.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: October 21, 1951, which has great character dialogue before a mediocre centerpiece, January 13, 1952, which continues the “song” arc, February 03, 1952, which has some fun with Don and also guests Wolfe Gilbert, March 09, 1952, which enjoys a decent hospital sketch, April 13, 1952, which remakes the memorable Easter show, May 11, 1952, which utilizes the Beverly Hills Beavers, May 18, 1952, which boasts an amusing rural sketch, and June 01, 1952, which is the year’s solid but unspectacular finale.
Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Ellen!