On my other blog, I’m writing up essays about mathematics terms. This week should be ‘V’. It’s probably also going to be late because it’s been a very busy week. I should have had a busy week for the letter ‘X’ instead; there’s so few X- words that I could miss the week and nobody could tell. Too bad. Now on to Gasoline Alley.
And she can offer a job. Pastor Neil Enpray’s happy to have them perform in church this Sunday. They’re worse at music than I am, and I’m barely competent to listen to music. But all the Traveling Truebadours can do is bluff through it. The Pye men try to figure what they can do, while the pastor lectures on the appearances of snakes in the Bible. Joe Pye figures what they can do is pocket cash from the collection baskets.
Pastor Enpray asks Roscoe Pye to bring him a box, though. And inside is a snake! They’re terrified, fairly, and run, fleeing the church. It’s a rubber snake, of course, a toy. Enpray was hoping to “make an impression” on his congregation.
So, they escape without showing how they don’t know any hymns. But they’re also hungry and homeless. And figure Shari won’t take them back. Joe Pye figures they have one hope left: go back to prison. Why not break back in to their cells? This inspired me to wonder, when someone does escape prison, how long do they wait to reassign their cell? I have no idea. If you do, please write in.
They get there as another prisoner’s trying to break out. They’re caught up by the prison guards and confess they’re escaped prisoners. Warden Bordon Gordon, a tolerably deep Bob Newhart Show cut, is having none of it. He insists their time was up and they were released. He just forgot to mention. It so happens they were let out the same night four other people escaped, which is why there was a manhunt.
The comic logic is sound. The Pyes figuring jail’s their best bet and they can’t get in, makes sense. I don’t know a specific silent comedy with this premise, but I’d bet all the A-tier comedians did something like that. I don’t fault you if you don’t buy this specific excuse.
Onward as the premise demands, though. They have to get arrested. Their best plan: steal from the grocery store. When they try to wheel a cart full of food out and admit they can’t pay, the store owner apologizes. Times are tough. Take the food. Have some soup, too. Because, you know, when you leave food in the hands of people rather than corporations, hungry people get to eat.
In the last days of October they approach a spooky old house. It sounds haunted. They run out of the place, and out of the strip; with the 30th of October we transition to Slim Skinner and the new story.
The haunted sounds are Slim’s fault, of course, but in a good way. He’d decked out a slated-for-demolition house for Halloween and that went great. There’s a bit of talk about getting the city to save the building, but that doesn’t seem to be the plot. Instead, in the middle of the night, Slim’s mother and cousin Chubby come to visit. And that’s where the daily plots stand.
For a couple weeks in September there was at least a running thread. Slim dreamed of being a Herbert Lewot, wealthy comic-book-reading bachelor who’s also the grime-fighter The Towel. (Spell “Lewot” backwards.) The setup feels very like an old-time-radio spoof of any number of old-time radio superheroes. (The ‘Tex Grxznopfski’ and talk about spelling backwards particularly feels Jack Benny Show to me.) Slim Skinner’s shown, for example, reading Yellow Jacket comics. Remember that both the Green Hornet and the Blue Beetle were respectable-enough radio superheroes. I’m sure there are more obscure bug-themed radio superheroes too. I think this is just a one-off, but if Scancarelli wants to fit a sub-strip into his strip? There’s a long history that he knows very well to support him.
I know people reading this may think I’m always writing about me getting a cold. I have reasons for this. I don’t know anything about your getting a cold. I’m sorry; I should ask about your health more. How are you? Do you have one health, reasonably sized? If you don’t have a health of your own, it’s fine to get something store-bought. We all want one that’s bespoke, but really, off-the-shelf is fine. Anyway please fill in any small gaps in our conversation with how your cold is going.
Anyway I talk about my getting colds because health-wise, there’s not much else I have going on. Other than the occasional cold my health is pretty good. The only thing I have going on that doesn’t really work for me is my knees. I’m already at the point in life I have to plan out how often I’m going to kneel down, and what for, in the coming week.
It’s hard to say just why my knees are so bad. A leading candidate is that I used to be really quite obese. Until I was 39 I moved mostly by plate tectonics. My two brothers once went three years without seeing each other just because I happened to be standing in the way. And I know what you old-time-radio fans are thinking: that I just stole one of Jack Benny’s jokes about Don Wilson there. I did not. That joke came loose and fell into my gravitational well all on its own.
Anyway, I lost all that weight. Well, I “lost” all that weight; I know just where I put it. (It’s in the walls of my parents’ old house; don’t tell the new buyers!) But the damage to my knees was done. Oh, also, I have very tight hamstring muscles. Like, they’re tight enough that I can not straighten my legs unless I also bend my knees. My yoga instructor watched me trying to do anything and said, “But … how?”.
The cold has been a mild one. The biggest hazard is not mentioning it in front of specific friends. One of these is the zinc friend. You know, the one who isn’t just fond of zinc but so very sure it’s the fix for every problem that, really, I’m the difficult one if I don’t carry around a cinder block of zinc to lick every time I wipe my nose.
The other hazard is the soup friend. I like soups more than I did as a child. Especially when I have a cold. I can’t have enough to satisfy my soup friend. There’s not enough soup in the world to take all my soup friend’s advice. There’s barely enough me. Nevertheless I do appreciate letting a long boiling-hot ribbon of water flow down my throat.
Because the main thing I have is a cough. It’s not one of those coughs that accomplish anything. You know, the working coughs that you can respect even if you don’t like them. My cough is nothing like that. There’s this sore section in my throat, exactly where it can’t be reached by that viscous cherry spray ever. What I really want is something that can scratch that spot and give me maybe ten seconds of sweet relief. The threat of choking is holding me back, though, which is why I’m only thinking of how nice it would be to dangle, say, a miniature porcupine on a thread and let it press into my throat.
No good, though. The only cough lozenges anyone makes are all smooth things, as if I needed more smoothness in my throat. I’m taking them, certainly. They’re great for making every part of my throat except the one that I want to cough up feel smooth. It’s getting a bit much. Normally I’m pretty selective about what I put in my mouth. At least ever since the Steve “Pre” Prefontaine waffle incident in Singapore a few years back. With cough drops, though? That caution is out the window. I’ll put any translucent gob in my mouth. I’m pretty sure I’ve swallowed some eight-sided dice. I’m on about 46 lozenges just this hour. When the medical examiners find me, they will wonder how it is that I made it to this age with such tight hamstrings and a throat that’s a menthol fossil.
The Lux Radio Theatre was a longrunning radio specialty. The show presented hourlong, audio-only renditions of popular movies. The compression for time, and the adaptation to reflect that everything has to be audible, make for sometimes fascinating differences. There’s a version of The Wizard of Oz where the Cowardly Lion is played by … I don’t know, but it sure sounds like Thurl Ravenscroft (Tony the Tiger; the singer declaring you’re a mean one, Mister Grinch) to me. And it’s not bad, but it highlights how Burt Lahr was just an enormous fuzzy ball of lovability. The adaptation of Jack Benny’s then-infamous (and not that bad) flop The Horn Blows At Midnight dropped the framing device and improved the film by at least one full letter grade. For a dozen years it was hosted by Cecil B DeMille, who performed just as you might imagine if you were writing a comedy sketch about an old-time Hollywood director introducing movies he didn’t make. By the mid-40s DeMille stepped down and William Keighley and then Irving Cummings took over hosting duties. But the DeMille thing is what’s being riffed on here, the fourth episode of The Stan Freberg Show, originally aired the 4th of August, 1957.
And here’s the rundown:
Cold Open. Freberg talking with a bongo player who’s sensitive to how loud the show is. The sensitive bongo player’s from Freberg’s Banana Boat (Day-Oh) record, which was also released in 1957 and is how I know he’s a bongo player; that information’s not given here. I don’t know whether the record or the show came out first and so which was promotion for or callback to the other. Freberg expressing fear that he might be mistaken for a commercial might reflect how the show hadn’t got a sponsor, which you’ll notice now, and would become a minor recurring theme in the show’s run.
Great Moments In History. The story behind Paul Revere’s Ride. The punchline is the same as the story behind Barbara Fritchie, in the second episode. Historical researcher Robert E Tainter is mentioned again, described as having to mail his piece in.
What Is Yogurt? If there is a funniest-in-retrospect bit of comedy, it’s people not understanding foods that have since become commonplace. Recommended other examples of this genre: articles from the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40 explaining what a “bagel” is; the way “pizza” was a reliable laugh line about something someone might eat from about The Honeymooners through the Kinks’ Soap Opera album.
Anyway, this is just a way to get Peggy Taylor in early to sing “I Like The LooksLikes Of You”. I’m assuming that’s the title of the song. Searching on the lyrics didn’t pin down, for me, a clear idea of what song this was.
Hi-Fi. Doctor Herman Horn explains Hi-Fi. It’s a fine bit of nonsense, with a bunch of weird sounds and odd explanations. I love the low-key nerd correctionism in Horn warning that “Hi-Fi” is two words and he won’t tell you again, which he doesn’t.
Lox Audio Theater. The melodrama Rock Around My Nose, all about the terror of a man who can’t get close to his son. If you’ve wondered where the phrase “nose full of nickels” come from, you’re fibbing. (The particular cadence for chanting “nose full of nickels” reminds me of a running gag on The Jack Benny Show. I don’t know whether that’s a deliberate reference, a coincidence, or if both are a reference to something I’m not getting.) I love the line about how “that 73 cents bothered me”.
The sketch has an example of that motif where the child is “really” a cranky old man, part of a line of jokes that would include Baby Herman, from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Of course, the kid is really played by June Foray, which makes the sketch sound even more like a Aesop and Son piece from Rocky and Bullwinkle Daws Butler (whom, an anonymous commenter points out, is using the Elroy Jetson voice).
The close of the sketch, in which all the actors start fighting, is a direct riff of the close of Lux Radio Theater episodes. Those always featured, of course, the cast talking about what a great time they had and how they use Lux Soap all the time.
The close teases that the next adaptation will be Love Thy Neighbor. This is conceivably a reference to the 1940 Jack Benny/Fred Allen comedy based on their famous radio feud. I wouldn’t think so, since the movie was 17 years old at that point and I can’t imagine it lingering in the public consciousness, but I’ve been proved wrong about Fred Allen’s lasting reputation in recent weeks so what do I know. And Freberg and his writers might not have cared if they referenced anything anyone recognized as long as they were amused. But I’d bet on it just reflecting that it’s funny to say “love thy neighbor” in the midst of a brawl.
Last time I checked in, Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley seemed to be running new strips on Sundays. After months of reruns every day of this week this was a good sign. It didn’t get the strip back to its full healthy serial-comic main nature. But it was evidence that Scancarelli was at least alive and well and getting the strip, in its 99th year, back on its feet. The daily strips — the ones that run a serialized, comic story — were running repeats from 2007. They’re not, anymore. It looks to me that since mid-June the comic strip has been new, telling what as best I can tell is an original story. But let me get those old stories out of the way.
Corky’s Diner. The perpetually drunk and incompetent Suds wants his dishwashing job back. The perpetually perky and incompetent Joy and Dawn want the dishwashing job. They’re having a race to see who can clean the most dishes. Joy and Dawn win by one plate, which they accidentally break while celebrating their victory. Joy and Dawn decide they don’t want the dishwashing job anymore. They thought it might be “the fast track to management”, and instead they’re washing dishes. So they quit, to try to their hand somewhere else, because they still believe in capitalism. And Suds has his job back.
New story. It started the 15th of May. It, too, started at Corky’s Diner, for a fairly graceful transition. The problem: Slim Wallet can’t sleep. The exhausted Slim does nod off at work, under a car. He bangs his head but good when he’s startled awake. He can’t stop hearing bells, a symptom baffling to everyone around him, who expected this was going to be a Sitcom Amnesia storyline. Right? I mean, doesn’t that write itself?
Still, it’s a good chance for him to get to the emergency room, and to do a couple week’s worth of old hospital/doctor jokes. “The form asks ‘sex’? I’m putting ‘none of your business’,” that sort of thing. The doctor prescribes some pills for Slim’s massive concussion. He’s shown with little bells orbiting his head even weeks later. It’s great visuals, but, like, it’s not like he’s a professional football player and we can pretend head trauma isn’t a thing.
But the ringing does go down, and he tries to get through his insomnia, for which the doctor prescribed sleep. And Slim even gets to sleep, dreaming of being on a deserted island with some Kissing Women. This dream Clovia wakes him from, unaware of the astounding thing that’s happened.
The astounding thing is that, when this storyline first ran in 2007, Slim didn’t have this dream. He had a string of things getting him out of bed, including construction next door. They put in a basketball court, causing late-night basketball games that keep him awake. This lead Slim on a long and daft storyline in which he buys a meteorite off eBay and gets a friend of his to drop it from his helicopter. The hope is to destroy the basketball court in a way that couldn’t be traced back to him as long as nobody ever tried. Not Slim’s finest moment here.
But no; from the 14th of June, the strips are — as best I can tell — new. Whatever caused Jim Scancarelli to step away from the strip in early November seems to have passed. He did not resume the storyline about Rufus courting the Widow Emma Sue and Scruffy’s Mother. That storyline left off on the news that Elam, Rufus’s rival for her affections, had proposed marriage and got turned down. I have no information about whether the storyline will resume up or what the fate of Emma Sue, Scruffy, and their Widowed Mother might be.
With the 18th of June started the current, and best I can tell, new storyline. It’s about Walt Wallet, the original star of the comic strip from 1918 — a date he mentions in his first word balloon. It started with a bit of daft old-guy cranky conspiracy theorizing that I saw confusing a lot of comics readers. Walt’s thesis: toothbrushes have more bristles than they used to. That is, from the front to the back of the toothbrush there’s more bristles. Why would toothbrush makers do that? It’s obvious. Everyone puts on enough toothpaste to cover all the bristles. So the only point to putting more bristles on is to make people buy more toothpaste. As corporate conspiracies go this is … eh, you know what? At least it would be an honest corrupt conspiracy. You would at least get clean teeth out of it. I’ll take it.
Anyway this nonsense barely gets started. Walt’s got an invitation from the Old Comics Home. This is one of the reality-breaking, slightly-magical aspects of the comic strip. The Old Comics Home is this boardinghouse for the characters of retired or cancelled comic strips. Now and then Walt Wallet visits, letting Jim Scancarelli do a bit of work with Major Hoople or Buster Brown or Little Sammy Sneeze or whoever.
The Old Comics Home is having a roast. They want him to be a speaker as they poke fun at Little Orphan Annie. “Will she think it’s funny,” asks Walt’s caretaker Gertie, and a fair question. But an important part of the behavior of the hew-mon is that your friends have license to insult you, and you accept these insults as love. In hindsight, “chimpanzees with anxiety” was a bad foundation on which to build the human species. Next time around maybe we should try basing humans on, I don’t know, “pheasants with gemütlichkeit” instead.
Walt’s preparation comes to thinking of the jokes you would think of about the comic strip. He takes notes of stuff like how Gertie thought as a girl the strip was named “Little Arf an’ Andy”. I am sure that at least one time when Walt Kelly’s Pogo was riffing on Annie they called the comic strip that. But I’m too lazy to check, so will go ahead and give the strip credit for a multifaceted allusion.
Other jokes are less deep cuts: how do the characters see without pupils? They’d bump into each other all the time! Or: Daddy Warbucks leaves Annie unsupervised an awful lot! What if Child Protective Services investigated the billionaire war-manufactures oligarch, as though law constrained the rich? Or: Little Orphan Annie had a jingle when she was on the radio; what if they changed some of the words? Well, if I understand, the point of a roast is for everyone to tell dumb insulting jokes about someone as a show of how much they love them. They don’t need to be insightful commentary that changes one’s view of things. They just have to exist.
At the tuxedo rental, Walt and Skeezix run into who else but Frank Nelson. This is a good chance to share some of the insult patter conversations Nelson did so well with Jack Benny. And that’s where we’ve got to by the end of the past week.
I trust the next couple of weeks will get the roast organized. Maybe Annie will go missing and need to be found or something. And the visit to the Old Comics Home will probably show off Smokey Stover or Ignatz Mouse or so on. It seems like time with the Old Comics would be a natural feed-in to Gasoline Alley reaching its hundredth year. But it won’t reach that until the 24th of November, four months off. A serial comic can drag its story out, but something this slight for that long? It’s hard to envision.
Meanwhile. The Sunday strips are their own little thing. Standalone gags that don’t play off the weekday continuity. Many of these have sported a nice Gasoline Alley 100th Anniversary sticker in the title panels. These came out of reruns first, and were the first signs that whatever kept Jim Scancarelli from writing and drawing the strips might pass. You can dip in and read any of them. I would swear last Sunday’s was an adapted Jack Benny-and-Phil Harris bit, but I can’t pin that down.
But the important stuff. The Old Comics Home. Old-time radio riffs. Elaborate bits of doggerel for the Sunday strips. Yeah, Jim Scancarelli is back. If I ever hear where he’d gone, I’ll pass that along to you. Thanks for checking in.
Mexico! Mysterious artefacts in the Yucatan! The strange and wonderful wildlife of Central America that we somehow haven’t killed yet! Maybe even a Sunday informational panel about cacomistles. All this and more in James Allen’s Mark Trail, if Nature hasn’t gone and killed us yet!
Do you know what time it is? Or what day it is, anyway? Because if it’s later than about December 2017, this isn’t an up-to-date report on the current plots of Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley. I’m writing this in mid-August 2017 and try to avoid making unfounded guesses about where stuff is going. So if it’s gone far enough that I’ve written a newer story summary, it should be at or near the top of this page. Thanks for reading.
In accord with the Law of Christmas Mysticism, the attempt to play Santa Claus crashes on the shoals of physical comedy. But a mysterious figure dressed as Santa Claus and explaining that of course he didn’t forget about the children delivers a pair of bicycles. But wait, you say, Joel is still dressed as Santa Claus and stuck on the water wheel! Who was that mysterious Santa-y figure giving presents to children? Hmmmmm?
Hm. Well, Rufus goes back home to find his cat’s had a litter of kittens. Emma Sue And Scruffy, the poverty-stricken kids he tried to give bikes to, see them too. Rufus’s reasonable answer to whether they could adopt them (“you have to ask your mother”) inspires Joel to ask why he doesn’t try marrying The Widow Emma Sue And Scruffy’s Mom. Rufus tries to dodge this plot by going fishing. Emma Sue And Scruffy do too, biking to the fishing pond.
There they find a codger, drawn realistically enough that when he tells them to scram they scram. Or they do until And Scruffy drives his bike down the embankment and learns it was a mistake not to also ask Santa Claus for bike helmets. Rufus did warn them about biking without protection, and honestly, when Joel and Rufus are the voices of wisdom …
Emma Sue goes seeking help. The codger, bringing his fish back through the fourth wall, finds And Scruffy. This promptly melts his heart, so the codger picks up the crash-victim and moves his spine all around bringing him back to the old mill. The codger — Elam Jackson — introduces himself and offers the fish he’d caught for a meal. Plus he offers to cover the medical bill to call a doctor for And Scruffy.
Rufus calls Chipper Wallet in from the Physician’s Assistant public-service storyline. Chipper examines, judging And Scruffy to be basically all right, and leaves without charging. This short-circuits the attempts of both Rufus and Elam to win the heart of The Widow Emma Sue And Scruffy’s Mom by paying her family’s medical bills. Rufus shifts to bringing two of the kittens as gifts to Emma Sue and Scruffy. Elam shifts to fixing the water wheel, offering The Widow Etc the chance to grind cereals as the public needs. I admit I’m not sure whether The Widow Etc and family are actually legit tenants of the old mill or if they’re just squatting.
And for another thing I can share anytime but that feels timely today: a New Year’s Eve broadcast from The Jack Benny Program. Through the early 40s Jack Benny had a tradition that was antiquated even then. The final sketch of the show would be a little allegory of the old year briefing the new year on what the state of the world was.
These always sound as odd pieces. Dennis Day even says as much. (I forget if he’s confused the same way every year.) The tradition they’re writing in is just not present anymore, at least not in pop culture. I imagine someone’s doing good web comics or sketches or such like this, but I don’t know them. But as we see out the most trying year I remember going through here’s a glance at how a particular bit of pop culture viewed its joining into a dark and deadly valley.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
This time the Another Blog, Meanwhile index was unchanged because it was a real and proper holiday and everybody expected to spend it not doing the trading thing. Also we’re sure we’re going to get a spare set of keys for the floor so we don’t again have a thing where we get an unexpected day off. Wait, that’s stupid.
So for one thing I’ve come to realize I ought to spend some time petting our pet rabbit. The easy thing to do is brush his head and ears until he indicates he’s had enough by some standard expression of bunny joy, such as doing a little happy shake or biting me to get me out of the way. So I’ve been busy with that for the last 196 hours straight. Also after last weekend when it turned out I didn’t have a 1933 Jack Benny Program where he did a “real old-fashioned style minstrel show” on my old podcasts list, I ended up listening to some 1942 Jack Benny Program where he went ahead and did that anyway. I’m hoping to get back to some nice safe ones like where Jack Benny’s polar bear is eating boarders.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The Another Blog, Meanwhile index gained a point, which has got investors all excited about how there’s clearly a new trading floor somewhere around 140 and it’s just impossible we’ll ever see a bear market ever again. They’d probably have gained two points if it weren’t for that whole Jack Benny Program fiasco.
So I found there were some ancient Jack Benny Program podcasts that my iPod somehow had for some reason and I got to listening. And they had some real obscure ones, like from his show before Jell-O picked him up as a sponsor and before his writers had invented Phil Harris and everything. And the show was weird back then, since he didn’t have any of his famous cast except Mary Livingstone and she was still mostly doing Dumb Dora. And then they got to what sketch they’d do on the next week’s show. “Next week, folks, we’re going to do a real old-fashioned style minstrel show!”
So I had to cry out, “NO! DON’T DO IT, JACK BENNY PROGRAM OF 1933!” and throw myself at the iPod, smothering it with my body and saving my whole platoon from the imminent racefail. And while my iPod’s Otter case was strong enough to withstand my falling all over it, and the next episode turned out to be one from 1944 and everything was normal, I’m still not quite up to par. Jack Paar was Benny’s summer replacement host for 1947. But you can see why this has me all off my schedule.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
Traders were feeling optimistic about the Another Blog, Meanwhile Index given how they were able to remember all the Next Generation episodes mentioned yesterday except the drunken-singalong one, and that they really are all legitimate episodes and some of them even good ones. Also that you could too win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Hairstyling, just like if you were going to make a joke about technical Emmys.
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.)
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.
For today’s Color Classic cartoon from the Fleischers I’d like to present Time For Love, released the 6th of September, 1935. It’s immediately familiar from the opening for using as the main theme “Love In Bloom”, marginally known as the Jack Benny tune, at least among the people who still remember Jack Benny. Folks should; you could run a course in how to write just based on how his shows were structured.
This cartoon hasn’t got anything to do with Jack Benny besides the musical reminder, though. It’s a pastoral cartoon, something a bit out of the Fleischer Brothers specialty, but it does mean the gorgeous three-dimensional sets in back can be ones of natural beauty.
The story, of a swan being seduced by a superficially impressive (black) swan who proves to be cruel, and needing rescue by her lover, does not present her in a very good light, it must be admitted, though her original lover comes out looking admirable. It struck me, though, as having essentially the structure of a certain strain of Popeye cartoons, ones in which Olive Oyl leaves Popeye for the apparent charms of Bluto, and you know where that’s going — cartoons like I Never Changes My Altitude or Beware of Barnacle Bill or The Man On The Flying Trapeze. The action isn’t as intense as those — a couple swans we never saw before aren’t going to have the narrative energy of Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto, and “Love In Bloom” isn’t as rousing a song as “The Man On The Flying Trapeze” — but I’m intrigued by how strongly the action is transposed to new characters.
I don’t suppose the Fleischers were thinking to do a Popeye cartoon in feathers here. If they were, well, we’d know it, by the swan’s lover being more of a presence. But there is this correspondence, and it makes a sweet little sentimental cartoon a touch more when you notice it.