Jack Benny Sees Out The Year 1943


The comic writer/critic Ian Shoales (Merle Kessler) wrote once that he thought allegory was an art form that’d gone out with the Middle Ages, “except for certain episodes of The Twilight Zone”. It’s true in spirit, even if allegories lasted a bit longer than the Middle Ages. Allegorical stories are still around, although they’re not so formally structured as your classic Middle Ages/Twilight Zone structure.

The Jack Benny Program was for many years an exception. Benny’s show would do, for the New Year’s broadcast, a deliberately allegorical piece. Benny would play the Old Year, giving advice and explanations to the New Year. It makes for a curious pop-cultural filter on years of history: the sketches are stuffed full of news, hopes for the coming year, wishful thinking for the present, up-to-the-minute pop culture references. (The song Benny as Old Year sings is “Pistol Packin’ Momma”, which was everywhere in 1943. I think Jack Paar mentioned how sick USO crews got of the song, since whenever they arrived at a new base the soldiers and sailors wanted to hear it.) It can make for striking moments of understanding life in a time gone far by.

I’m not sure how many years they did this. But I wanted to share an example. This one’s from the 2nd of January, 1944. It’s dominated by war news, of course. Even there it gets strange, turning the war news of 1943 into a baseball game, with gags like how Mussolini got knocked in the head in the sixth inning. The premise feels odd, though it’s saved by earnestness and sentiment. There are some laughs that I, comfortably seventy years on, have which the original audience wouldn’t.

(There’s some racially charged jokes in this. You probably suspected that going in. I cringed most at Rochester’s segment. The character’s treatment on the show got better in time, but the show as a whole was probably at its best during World War II. I do feel bad closing out 2015, a year that saw so much celebration of white racism, with that Rochester sketch. But I don’t feel right editing it out and pretending it’s not there.)

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

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