Jell-O Gets Ribbing,
On Jack Benny Program
Lincoln, Me. (DG)—
Sunday, October 14, 1934 at 7 PM over the stations of NBC’s Blue Network marked the beginning of a weekly institution. This was the first broadcast of THE JELL-O PROGRAM starring Jack Benny.
The program opened with the singing of the famous “J-E-L-L--O!” jingle (if jingle is what you want to call it). After the opening, announcer Don Wilson identified the program; who was to appear on the program; and the opening musical number. While the music was playing, Wilson delivered a serious commercial on Jell-O and how wonderful the wiggly product was to have for dessert. He also mentioned that if the listeners wanted Jell-O, they should pick up the box with Jell-O printed on it--- and accept no substitutes. There were many brands of gelatin, but there was only 1 “Genuine Jell-O.”
On a typical broadcast, Wilson began and ended each broadcast with a serious message about Jell-O. However, the middle commercial was another matter. It usually took place during a comedy routine. Instead of taking time out for the commercial, Wilson entered the conversation between Benny and the other cast members. Although the subject matter wasn’t anything resembling Jell-O, Wilson slid in the sponsor. The conversation turned to some humorous ribbing of the product. When Wilson left, Benny and the cast members continued their comedy routine.
An example of how Jell-O slides into the program without interruption took place on a 1937 broadcast. Benny left the program momentarily to make a telephone call. Instead of the listeners hearing a lot of “dead air,” Wilson stepped in and delivered his commercial for Jell-O. With Benny still talking on the phone, Wilson cleverly converted his commercial message into a telephone call to all the radio listeners . He said, “Always dial J-E-L-L-O, and if the ‘lime’ is busy, you can still get strawberry, raspberry, cherry, orange, and lemon. Good-bye.”
Jell-O’s 6 famous flavors (strawberry, cherry, raspberry, orange, lemon, and lime) played a key role in this middle commercial from a 1938 broadcast. This program took place in New York City instead of Hollywood. Wilson was unable to make it to the east coast, so Harry Von Zell substituted as the announcer. As you already know, Von Zell was the announcer of TOWN HALL TONIGHT, starring Benny’s radio archrival Fred Allen. (for the record, Allen also appeared on this broadcast) .
Von Zell didn’t get the middle commercial off to a good start, because he forgot the sponsor’s name (a tactic Von Zell later used on Fred Allen’s infamous “Eagle Show”). Benny, becoming flustered, told Von Zell the product was “Jell-O for Heaven sakes!” Instead of just saying Jell-O, Von Zell repeated word for word what Benny said and continued the commercial. Once again, Von Zell hit another stumbling block with Jell-O’s 6 flavors. To Benny’s chagrin, Von Zell stated the 6 flavors were “strawberry, raspberry, cherry, orange, cherry, and strawberry.” Benny complained that lemon and lime were missing. Von Zell tried it again, but left out orange the second time around. When the commercial was coming to its conclusion, Von Zell closed the commercial by asking the listeners to “Insist on Genuine Jell-O. Look for the big red letters on the orange.” An excited Benny yelled out, “THAT’S ON THE BOX!” At least, Von Zell mentioned the missing orange.
Poking fun at a sponsor wasn’t exactly a new idea. Before Jell-O, Benny had a reputation of ribbing his sponsor. This “playing with fire” type of attitude goes all the way back to his very first radio program in 1932 on NBC’s Blue Network. It was a variety program sponsored by Canada Dry Ginger Ale.
Instead of the style of comedy he made famous during the Jell-O years and after, Benny only served as M.C. of this program. Ed Thorgerson was the program’s announcer, but it was Benny who presented the commercials. When it was time for the Canada Dry Ginger Ale commercial, Benny combined the commercial presentation together with some funny comments. The result was Benny taking gentle potshots at the sponsor. It wasn’t exactly the ribbing Henry Morgan and Arthur Godfrey made famous in their commercial presentations in later years, but the sponsor didn’t care very much for Benny’s comments. You have to remember this was the early 1930’s. Network radio was starting to take full flight as an important means of communication. Any and all radio commercials presented at that time were supposed to be informative and serious--- WITHOUT the product being made fun of. Despite the program’s impressive C.A.B. (Co-operative Analysis Of Broadcasting) Ratings, Benny had 3 different sponsors in his first 2 years over the airwaves. Enter Jell-O.
Jell-O sponsored Benny’s program until Sunday, May 31, 1942. Once again, the sponsor became involved with the comedy. On the Sunday, May 10, 1942 broadcast, Benny went to see the president of General Foods. To Benny’s surprise, the GF boss informed him it was to be the last season Jell-O was sponsoring the program. This bombshell left Benny on pins and needles for the remaining shows for that month. The season’s (and Jell-O’s) final broadcast featured “The Cavalcade Of Jell-O.” It consisted of the numerous comedy highlights of the previous shows. At the program’s end, Benny was relieved to learn that Grape-Nuts Flakes, another General Foods product, will take over sponsorship when the program resumed in the fall.
The reason for this sponsor change had nothing to do with the ribbing Jell-O received on the program. It was a serious matter known as World War II. After the United States entered the war, sugar became rationed. To conserve the sweet stuff, the production of Jell-O was cut back during this time. With Jell-O being sold in a very limited supply, General Foods had no other alternative but to remove Jell-O’s sponsorship from Benny’s program. In order to keep Benny’s program in the General Foods fold, Grape-Nuts Flakes was to be the new sponsor.
With the sponsor change to Grape-Nuts Flakes and eventually to Lucky Strike Cigarettes, the ribbing about Jell-O continued. There were no commercials, but the Jell-O name was mentioned in the comedy routines from time to time. Normally, the sponsor of a radio program took exception when someone mentioned the name of another product on the program. Since Benny’s program was among the most popular, there was an exception.
An example of how Jell-O was remembered took place on a 1944 broadcast sponsored by Lucky Strike. After an argument with Don Wilson, Benny walked off his show (this was a comedy routine, not the real thing). When he got home, Benny was greeted by Rochester, his valet. After Benny explained why he was home early, Rochester stated that walking off the show was taking a big chance. In a clever use of spelling, Rochester managed to get both Lucky Strike and Jell-O into the conversation. He said to his boss, “If LS/MFT finds out that you were A-W-O-L, you’ll be glad you saved all those boxes of J-E-L-L-O!” Rochester’s comment was met with hysterical laughter and a round of applause from the studio audience.
The Jell-O people proved they were good sports in the ribbing their product received over the years--- and even those years when it wasn’t Jack Benny’s sponsor. Maybe this attitude shouldn’t be very surprising, because Jell-O was made to be fun to eat. Its wiggly texture and fruity taste put a lot of smiles of people’s faces, just as Benny and his cast did during THE JELL-O PROGRAM years.