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 previous season of Jack Benny’s popular radio program has heretofore been defined as the peak of the series’ existence as a creatively formative example of the situation comedy — the era’s best showcase for how well-defined personalities could exist within episodic stories that make sense based on the sustained continuity of their established depictions. We’ve spent the last few years on this blog tracking the show’s development, listening as it refined its characterizations, discovered popular narrative templates, and came palpably close to representing the “sitcom” of 1950s television (and some of its radio predecessors of the late ’40s). I say “close to” because Jack Benny has never fully shed its vaudevillian roots, but its humor has increasingly depended upon an ensemble of consistent, identifiable players, and with this as its engine, even the series’ looser format has enabled the cultivation of (and its reputation as) a type of situation comedy. With this evolution now complete by 1950, my reason for coverage is basically done, for there’s nothing new added to the recipe; the Jack Benny we saw in 1949-’50 is the furthest the radio program can evolve (swaps and losses notwithstanding — those will prove to be detrimental, not beneficial). All that’s left to occur — and all the 1950-’51 season has to offer — is the company’s mounting preoccupation with television, which started in early ’49 when Benny made his debut locally in Los Angeles but blossoms this year alongside the start of his actual regular series, which began very gingerly in October 1950 with the first of just four live telecasts (from NYC) on CBS-TV. Whole episodes here are built around Jack and the other characters preparing for this change in their lives — it’s really the only recurring story of the season (outside of a stretch of shows involving Jack and the IRS) — and it’s hard not to view these new encroaching mentions of television as an existential threat, for not only was the medium actively overtaking radio, but hindsight reveals that Benny’s move to TV would also come to reflect a lesser form of the excellent character comedy seen last year.
Oh, yes, his characterization is able to remain intact for the rest of his life. But a diminished ensemble of recurring players — no Phil, and very little of Mary and Dennis — would also force the TV iteration to focus more on guests and sketches, embracing the writing’s more variety-like sensibilities and with fewer opportunities to emphasize the regular characters in motivated situations. Or, to be fairer, the Jack persona definitely is put in motivated situations, but the series can no longer progress its development of the sitcom genre, leaving other shows (like the forthcoming I Love Lucy, derived from radio’s My Favorite Husband) to become the dominant examples while Jack Benny settles into its own version of a comedy-variety show — not terribly different from what it was on radio, mind you, but no longer as sustained by characters in narrative structures. And at a time when sitcoms were showing more fidelity to characters in narrative structures — witness the well-built, uncompromised world of the aforementioned Lucy, for one, with created figures like Lucy Ricardo who were as fleshed out as Jack — Benny’s TV effort simply would become less interesting, less vital, less creative. To what extent is what will happen on the TV show previewed here in the 1950-’51 season of his radio program? Well, we’ve heard everything before — again, nothing new is added — but with characters as well-applied as Benny‘s, there’s always so much to enjoy, especially in the context of this era, meaning, this is still among the best of the radio comedies… even if its attentions are slowly being diverted, and would gradually become more diverted as Benny increased his commitments to television and therefore replaced his focus completely. In 1950, TV was the new, exciting thing (and there’s no doubt it was here to stay), but the radio series remains the tried-and-true, steady, and most accessible home for Jack Benny and his pals. And, of course, it’s peak-adjacent, so despite there not being quite as many gems as last season, the quality is pretty high. But see for yourself; out of the 38 original episodes from this season — all of which are extant — I have listed my picks for the 16 strongest (in airing order).
01) October 01, 1950: Jack goes down to the police station after his Maxwell is stolen.
After a swell diner scene and a great bit between Sara Berner and Bea Benaderet as the telephone operators, this episode boasts a sharp sitcom set piece with Gale Gordon — Jack goes down to the police station to report his stolen car. He’s done this before, but this affable story provides ample opportunity for character-driven moments that play into the Benny ethos.
02) November 05, 1950: The cast takes the train back from NYC after Jack’s first TV show.
One of the strongest entries of the year, this fun half hour was broadcast the week after Jack made his national TV debut in New York, and as usual, the “train ride home” format is a chance for the characters to bounce off each other with ease — and lots of laughs. Incidentally, this aired the night that The Big Show premiered, NBC’s (failed) attempt at combating Benny.
03) December 10, 1950: Eddie Cantor crashes the Palm Springs murder mystery skit.
Although there are guest appearances by Eddie Cantor and Charlie Farrell, this installment is most notable for capitalizing on the famous “grass reak” flub that Mary made at the end of the prior broadcast. The murder mystery sketch is ordinary but for that riffing, while the intrusion of Cantor is fine lunacy, proving that Jack Benny never sheds its amenable variety-esque feel.
04) December 17, 1950: Jack and Mary go Christmas shopping.
Ah, the annual Christmas shopping show is as delightful here as ever — by now the series has it down to a science, and though I typically like to award originality on these lists, it’s hard to deny a supreme episode when it comes along. Simply, this is a format that works almost every time, and this year’s is no different. For the record, Jack buys Don golf tees in this iteration.
05) December 24, 1950: Jack has everybody over to his house for Christmas.
The format of this Christmas-themed excursion is very loose — it’s merely a chance to visit all of the leading characters (and the Beverly Hills Beavers) in private before they arrive at Jack’s house for the holiday. The Phil scene with the oft-mentioned Remley is a highlight, as is the stuff between Dennis and his mother, played by the ever-hilarious Verna Felton.
06) January 07, 1951: Deborah Kerr joins the company for a King Solomon’s Mines parody.
Deborah Kerr (er, Karr) appears in the first of two consecutive segments for an extended King Solomon’s Mines parody. Now, this is probably the best “sketch” of the season, but the comic idea and the way all the characters can use their personas to mine laughs in the take-off of that classic film wears thin after one week, so the second part is decidedly lesser.
07) January 21, 1951: Jack goes to the doctor for a checkup.
Here we have a solid Jack Benny episode from this era, with a winning diner scene, a bit with the Maxwell, and then a visit to the doctor’s office, played by — who else? — Frank Nelson, one of the show’s funniest peripheral players, always there to aggravate Jack and drive up his mania. There’s a broadness to the outing that’s too obvious, but it’s well-written and played.
08) January 28, 1951: Jack is in New York for his second national TV broadcast.
As mentioned above, the season’s only sustaining idea is Jack’s initial foray into television, which constituted four live broadcasts that all emanated from New York, necessitating that he travel cross-country just as many times. Airing the night of his second show, this entry uses a lot of great Acme Plaza jokes and features a guest appearance by Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
09) February 04, 1951: Jack gets calls from bank robbers planning a heist.
From top to bottom, this is one of the season’s funniest (and most consistently funny) outings, with a brisk pacing that makes time for all the characters to shine, while weaving in a creative narrative about Jack Benny getting a series of “wrong number” phone calls that all turn out to be a stunt cooked up by good old press agent Steve Bradley. Fresh.
10) April 01, 1951: Jack prepares to go back to New York for his next TV show.
As with the Christmas show, this is an excuse to visit the regulars in separate scenes as they prepare to head to the train station where they will be going to New York for Jack’s third TV broadcast of the season. Only, Mary is still on her extended sick leave (which began in February), and is replaced for the second week in a row by the husky-voiced Babe, who’s a hoot.
11) April 08, 1951: Jack is visited by the IRS.
This offering launches the year’s only quasi narrative arc, which lasts for three shows (and then comes back two weeks later for a joke — plus a surprise return as the main attraction of an installment aired next season, March 1952) and constitutes a welcome bit of dramatic continuity. It’s especially laudable because this whole business of the IRS being shocked that Jack deducted so little for entertainment is rooted in his character’s primary trait: frugality.
12) April 15, 1951: The IRS agents interview the Colmans about Jack’s taxes.
The IRS arc continues and becomes even funnier in this agreeable entry, which includes the year’s best (and most original) usage of the Colmans, who star alongside Jack and Mary in the flashback sitcom scene where Ronnie recounts their double date at the Mocambo, which is the subject of a question: how did Jack only spend $3.90 at this ritzy club? It’s a good one.
13) April 22, 1951: Jack takes the Beavers to the circus.
There’s an amiable slaphappy quality to the beginning of this outing, with a lot of fine moments that really tickle the studio audience, but I must admit the centerpiece where Jack takes the Beavers to the circus isn’t up there with the best of what this season has to offer. Still, it’s the third and final significant show of the IRS arc and the script benefits from it.
14) April 29, 1951: The company performs from Nellis Air Force Base.
Performing for a huge crowd of servicemen, this installment is a throwback to the war era, and while that period was often dismissed (even a bit by me) for halting the progression of the series’ development of its characters in an increasingly sitcom-like format, the energy is always up when there’s a rowdy response, and there are some wonderfully big laughs here.
15) May 13, 1951: Jack packs to go back to New York for his last TV show of the season.
This is simply an easy, breezy half hour, acknowledging that Jack must once more go back to New York for his final original television broadcast of the 1950-’51 season, but it features a couple of memorable bits, chief of them being Don’s commercial, which Jack instructs him to do in a very unique way. This is one of the rotund announcer’s best entries in a long while!
16) May 20, 1951: The cast wants to negotiate their new contracts with Jack.
On the short list of the season’s funniest, this outing includes Bob Crosby (the guy who’ll eventually replace Phil Harris and, through no actual fault of his own, signal a period of decline for Benny’s radio program), but it’s a whole lot of character-driven fun, utilizing the old-yet-perfect idea of the cast battling with Jack over their contracts. One of my favorites.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: November 12, 1950, which has a fine opening but isn’t hilarious in its sketch with Richard Widmark, November 19, 1950, which guest stars Dinah Shore and also has a better first half than sketch, December 03, 1950, which features Mary’s “grass reak” flub at the end, March 04, 1951, which has so much to enjoy… until the centerpiece where Jack takes a Beaver to the dentist, March 25, 1951, where Babe subs for Mary in a Sunset Boulevard sketch that’s memorable, if not terrific, and May 27, 1951, which was the closest to the above list, as Jack goes to the eye doctor and meets Speedy Riggs.
Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Monday for a musical rarity!