Monday, March 24, 2014

Jack Benny Without Jack Benny, Part 1 of 6

Although I'm a former freelancer from the world of comics and the vast majority of my posts on this blog relate to the subject of comics, it's interesting to me that my single largest readership has come from the Amazing Race; also interesting is how much attention my old-time radio posts accrue, especially over time. As I've given up on the Amazing Race, instead I'll take a look at old-time radio for the next six blog posts.

You wouldn't think there could be much to say about old-time radio comedy - especially broken down into six installments about six consecutive broadcasts of the same show. Yet, here I am to talk to you about my favourite radio comedy series: the Jack Benny Program!

Performing live comedy in the 30s & 40s often meant real life intruded on the material - the sudden unavailability of cast members, muffed dialogue on the air, ad-libs and so forth. From March 7-April 4, 1943, Jack Benny missed five consecutive episodes of his own program due to illness. Due to various other unfortunate bits of timing, this should have been a crippling moment for the series - the program was appearing in New York rather than Hollywood, meaning many of the show's supporting players were absent; bandleader Phil Harris left the series the previous June to join the Merchant Marines, removing another pivotal performer from the show; further, Jack's wife Mary Livingstone remained with him during this first week of illness. And yet, ultimately, this led to an extremely memorable run of shows - Jack Benny Without Jack Benny, to coin a phrase.

You can download a copy of this episode from here (right click the link).

We begin with the March 7, 1943 show, in which Jack's very close friends George Burns and Gracie Allen head the program as they finish their U.S.O. broadcasting tour from New York. Being close friends of Jack & Mary's who had appeared on the program in the past and being similarly available in New York, Burns and Allen might seem on paper to be perfect fill-ins for Jack and Mary. But were they?

Burns and Allen actually struggled in radio for some time before finding their footing. Although by 1943 they had found a winning formula (situation comedy), it wasn't the same formula used on the Jack Benny Program (and I'm of the opinion when Benny's show later became a sitcom, it was inferior to the earlier run - not bad, merely inferior). Burns and Allen actually had a run at an M.C.-led comedy stage show very similar to Jack's - George essentially took put-downs from the other cast members (as Jack did), the bandleader was seemingly more popular than him, there were quarrels with the commercial spokesman - very much like the format of the Jack Benny Program. And it didn't work; I mean, the material wasn't particularly funny, but Burns later stated it was the wrong material for he and Gracie - the jokes were "too young" for them while the more relaxed situation comedy scenario suited them well. It's worth noting Burns had a limitation placed on him which Jack didn't have - Jack could verbally spar with his wife (Mary) without necessarily losing his audience, but George found whenever he tried to spar with Gracie, audiences considered him "cruel"; again, the gentler format of situation comedy allowed them to flourish, albeit by making George much less important to their show - usually Gracie drove the plots and took the laughs. It's interesting that while George and Gracie "outgrew" their original combative format and thereafter performed as a happy husband and wife, Jack & Mary kept up the farce of being unmarried all the way to the end.

With Jack, Mary and Phil absent, the Jack Benny Program retained only half of their regular players:

  1. Don Wilson, the rotund and erudite commercial announcer
  2. Dennis Day, the young-ish and naive tenor
  3. Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Jack's put-upon valet

Although Jack's show became a hit through advertising Jell-o, the previous fall their sponsor (General Foods) switched Jack to promoting the cereals Grape Nuts & Grape Nuts Flakes due to sugar rationing; it seemed harder for them to come up with jokes about Grape Nuts than it had been with Jell-o, but at least at this point the commercials were still quite funny (Jack's later sponsor Lucky Strikes would do its best to replace charming ads with frustrating and obnoxious ones). Interestingly, George & Gracie had previously been on the radio for Grape Nuts (their sponsor in '43 was Swan Soap); also of note, they had left NBC for CBS in 1941, hence why Don Wilson has to refer to them appearing on "another network" when he promotes them in this episode.

It must be said up front, this episode of the Jack Benny Program is really a bonus episode of the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. George and Gracie brought with them their own product pitchman (Bill Goodwin), bandleader (Paul Whiteman) and "Herman the Duck" (Clarence Nash, using his Donald Duck voice), plus Gracie's best friend Tootsie Sagwell (Elvia Allman). The presence of Don, Dennis & Rochester is like a weird anomaly in the midst of a fairly-typical Burns and Allen plot.

The plot of the episode is somewhat-meta (as Benny's show often was) as Don Wilson sets out to bring George & Gracie on Jack's show, but Gracie has developed pretenses of being an "artist" and refuses. Even with Jack gone, jokes about his stinginess continue, the first being:

Don: "Naturally he knows that your time is valuable and he doesn't expect you to do it for nothing."

George: "Oh, now Don..."

Don: "He wants me to tell you that while he's lying bed, he'll knit you a muffler."

George: "Ah, good old Jack."

Don: "Now all you have to do is buy the knitting needles and four balls of yarn."

George: "Isn't four balls of yarn a lot of yarn for a muffler?"

Don: "Oh, Jack wants one too!"

George takes a moment to reflect on the material Jack uses, noting "hm!" "yipe!" and "I do not Mary, and shut up!" always seem to get laughs; of course, George doesn't even attempt to deliver these lines as Jack would have.

Soon after, Gracie seems to breeze past what could have been a decent joke - responding to Don about how much George would like to appear on Jack's program, Gracie answers: "I don't know why - George doesn't know a soul in St. Joe." If Jack had been present, there would surely have been one of his recurring "St. Joe! They love me there!" lines, but Gracie says it so quickly the audience doesn't have time to react.

Instead of the usual format integrating the arrival of the show's performers on the scene one at a time to banter with Jack, we have only the opening vignette with Don, George and Gracie - Paul Whiteman then, from out of nowhere, introduces Dennis' song (Whiteman does likewise with his own numbers - just as he did on Burns & Allen). However, Bill Goodwin gets a good introduction, mocking Don Wilson (calling him "fat boy") when he thinks he'll get to be the announcer on Jack's program. Don overhears this and they have a good back and forth with Bill managing to sneak in some veiled references to Swan Soap while Don does his Grape Nuts commercial.

Next up, Gracie goes into a routine with her "son," Herman the Duck, when Rochester appears and is instantly smitten with Herman, whom he identifies as "poultry" (probably a joke about black people enjoying fried chicken).

Gracie: "That's my little son, Herman."

Rochester: "Uh, son?"

Gracie: "Well, yes, don't you think he looks like his daddy?"

Rochester: "Don't believe I ever met the bird!"

Rochester's incredulous attitude toward Herman being Gracie's "son" while simultaneously sizing up "the fat little rascal" for dinner is pretty good. After the next musical number, Dennis joins the story properly and does his usual schtick of being a terrible suck-up (laughing at George when he's not being funny) and completely scatterbrained (much like Gracie). Dennis and Gracie's shared naivete makes for some funny material as he (barely) tries to convince her to appear on Jack's show:

Dennis: "I don't blame you, Miss Allen! Mr. Benny says some terrible things about your brother Fred!"

Gracie: "Oh, no, Fred's not my brother, Dennis! And please, don't call me 'Miss Allen.' I've been Mrs. Burns since one day years ago when a tall, handsome, charming man came along and pronounced George and me man and wife."

Rather than convincing Gracie to appear on the show, Dennis is soon swayed to Gracie's side, impressed at meeting an "intellectual."

Gracie: "Dennis, you're the first person I've met who's my intellectual equal."

Dennis: "I guess there aren't many of us."

Just as Gracie believes she should be a concert pianist, she convinces Dennis could be a poet. Dennis' poetry recital is about as lousy as Gracie's playing, while Gracie's friend Tootsie arrives and, believing she could be a singer, is likewise swayed by Gracie into thinking she's talented. Ultimately, the three of them crash George's attempt to run the program and simultaneously offer terrible reciting, terrible singing and terrible piano playing. A defeated George apologizes: "Honestly, Jack, I did the best I could."

This program is really a mere oddity in the broadcast history of the Jack Benny Program, but I'm covering it for the sake of building up to tomorrow's post, where I'll examine the 2nd of 5 consecutive episodes Jack missed. Tomorrow, the March 14th episode: the show returns to Hollywood, Phil Harris returns and they find a guest host who is - shockingly - a great replacement for Jack. Orson Welles. That's right, Orrrson Welles.

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