And to close out August I have an episode of an actual TV show to share. Courtesy of archive.org let me show off The Jack Benny Program and an episode labelled “The Carnival Story”. If the IMDB is to be relied on it first aired the 6th of March, 1955. And it was titled “Jack takes the Beavers to the Fair”. They went for fairly literal, descriptive titles back then. Of course, the title card at the end says copyright 1954.
I think Jack Benny is still, at least, a familiar name even if people don’t actually listen to or watch him anymore. That’s forgivable. His heyday was seventy years ago, after all. But he was really popular for a really long time, for the best of reasons: he was really funny. He dominates the comic acting of the whole episode and without having many punch lines. He just knows how to be the center of the show.
And it’s a well-crafted show. The writers for Benny, on radio and television, mastered the running gag. A good joke you can count on returning, in fresh variations, for not just the one episode but as many as they could get away with. Done well, as it often was, this meant many seemingly independent joke threads would weave together to a killer climax. And that’s probably why you don’t really see good Jack Benny quotes in those books of funny things people said. They’re not funny, not without context, and books of funny things people said don’t have the fifteen minutes of setup needed.
There’s drawbacks, of course. Once something became a running gag it would have to come back over and over. Later episodes of the radio program can feel claustrophobic, as the various recurring gags have to be visited like the Stations of the Cross.
This episode is a bit of a format-breaker. Most of the regular cast is absent, as Benny takes his scout troop to the fair. This troop was a running gag on the radio program too, for years. But you pick up on the relationship he has with them fast enough. And a couple of the show’s running gags appear in the action. The most prominent is Mister Kitzel (Artie Auerbach), who appears first as the hot dog seller. He’d been going since the 1940s on the curious catchphrase “pickle in the middle with the mustard on top”. I don’t know. The 1940s was also the decade that gave us the Hut-Sut Song and doubletalk.
Frank Nelson turns up, guessing Jack Benny’s age for a quarter. His catchphrase was a simple introductory “yyYYyyyesssss?” that’s lingered in the pop culture, the past quarter-century surely because The Simpsons picked it up. And speaking of them, one of the kids — Harry — is played by Harry Shearer. You remember him from delivering at minimum three of the last five Simpsons quotes to run through your head. Mel Blanc may surprise folks by appearing here with an actual body, not just voice acting. He’s the fellow running the ring-the-bell game that Benny tries to bribe.
The show does fairly well at presenting the illusion of a fair or amusement park, considering it has to fit stuff onto a soundstage. It carries the whole business off with a carousel and some game stands, plus stock footage. I’m also curious abut where the carousel came from. It runs clockwise (as seen from above), British-style. American-made carousels normally run the other way. Where did it come from, and how did it end up on CBS television in 1955? I think I’ve seen that carousel in other productions, mostly movies, but that could just be fooling myself.