Friday, July 28, 2006

Classic Comedy Lookback - I Love Lucy

I am, on the whole, finding this summer rather boring even if it is punctuated by occasional discoveries like Project Runway and hopefully, Psych. And then, over at Blogcritics I saw something that inspired me. What it was was a rather subjective ranking of the best situation comedies ever (even if it was titled "The True and Objective List of the Best Situation Comedies Ever"). And so, like all good creative people associated with Television, I took the idea and modified it enough to make it my own. I won't be presenting a list of the Best Situation Comedies Ever - subjective or objective. Instead I want to look at two sitcoms from each decade from the 1950s to the 1990s that have fascinated me. No judgement calls here, but maybe, just maybe, a few dark sides. I hope to do two a week, probably Tuesdays and Thursdays although since the idea just came to me toady this week is going to be a bit rushed. And so, without further ado I Love Lucy.

I Love Lucy

If you want to see the ancestor of the vast majority of sitcoms look no further than I Love Lucy - well at least on TV. The live studio audience and the three camera film technique were all invented for I Love Lucy - primarily because Desi Arnaz didn't want to move his family to New York and CBS and Philip Morris Tobacco which sponsored the show (this was in the days when a show was controlled to no small extent by a single advertiser) didn't want the show going to most of the United States as a poor quality Kinescope (live action filmed off of a monitor) of the sort that the west coast had been subjected to since network TV began there. That insistence on staying in California also created an asset that could be exploited by someone with business acumen. While others thought of TV shows as being transitory Desi Arnaz understood that these half hour movies that he and his wife and the rest of the cast had made didn't become worthless after one viewing (a lesson that so many have forgotten ever since - like the people who got rid of the early Doctor Who episodes, the ones who got rid of the Plouffe Family tapes in Canada, or the ones who blanked the early Carson Tonight Shows). I Love Lucy created the rerun. And like George Lucas getting all of the revenue from licensing for Star Wars, Desi Arnaz was able to build an empire out of exploiting the short sightedness of others.

The basic format was anything but new. The wacky wife-straight man husband - or vice versa - with funny neighbours format had been around since at least Fibber McGee and Molly on radio in the late 1930s (probably earlier than that but as I understand it most of the radio material still in existence comes from a period starting in around 1939). Indeed Lucille Ball herself had done that exact format with her radio show My Favourite Husband with Richard Denning. If all that I Love Lucy did was to port that format over from radio to television with Desi replacing Denning then I suspect that while the show would have been a hit at the time its eventual fate could have been summed up by what Lincoln said about his Gettysburg Address "The world will little note nor long remember what is said here." But the truth is that Desi and Lucy understood - because they came from the movies - that television allowed for visual as well as verbal humour. The show thrived on gags. In fact they even hired Buster Keaton as a gag consultant, although they never gave him an onscreen credit. And it was often the sight gags that got the biggest laughs. Reportedly the longest laugh in TV history occurred in an episode where Lucy tries to learn to dance ballet and gets her leg stuck in the barre. It was so long that the scene had to be cut to fit the show but still contain the sense that it was that funny. Everyone remembers sight gags from the show: the chocolate conveyor belt scene, the gigantic loaf of bread pinning Lucy to the kitchen wall because she didn't know how much yeast to put in bread, William Holden lighting Lucy's wax nose on fire, Lucy stomping grapes. While the show never reached the stages of sheer anarchy of The Three Stooges, it had moments of pure brilliance.

This is not to denigrate either the cast or the writing. The show had incredible writers who understood the characters and could work with the actors' qualities. They could work with Desi's accent to the point that "Lucy, you've got some splainin' to do" (usually combined with Lucy pulling a face and saying "eeewww") is not only still remembered, it's still funny - or at least gets laughs of recognition. Two of the writers - Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Pugh Davis - would stay with Lucy for the rest of her career, writing her last show Life With Lucy in 1986. They produced some exceptionally well written shows although for me their best bit of writing was probably the "Vitameatavegimin" commercial in which Lucy's repeated practice of the script, using the product, doesn't make perfect it just makes her drunk. It's not simply that the writers were creating something funny it was that they had an understanding of what their actor could do

As for the cast, the most import was Lucy but but right along side her has to be Desi. The series was something that they did for him - Lucy wanted to keep Desi at home rather than touring with his band and if that was going to happen Desi wanted a way to keep the band together with a little more exposure than working as the house band for the Bob Hope radio show (a job Lucy had got him). Ricky Ricardo served as both Lucy's straight man and her nemesis in trying to develop a showbiz career. He's an ineffectual rein for her most hare brained schemes. Vivian Vance as Ethel Mertz also serves as straight man to Lucy, an even more ineffectual barrier to her schemes who is often converted from hindrance to Lucy's ideas to reluctant (and sometimes not so reluctant) accomplice. The final member of the primary cast, William Frawley (playing Fred Mertz) balances show by giving Ricky an ally/accomplice against the team of Lucy and Ethel, although even working together they are no match for Lucy alone. The characters have their own well developed traits; Desi with his fiery temper that inevitably caused him to lapse into rapid fire Spanish, Fred's cheapness, and Ethel's ongoing longing for the better things in life that she knows Fred's too cheap to buy her. The characters have their basic traits and although they grow some these are at their bedrock.

One interesting aspect of the show is how, through the course of six seasons and the hour long shows thereafter, how the lives of the Ricardos reflects the American dream. The original concept for the show was pretty much Lucy and Desi's lives - a glamourous movie star and a successful musician - but they were told that it wouldn't work. Instead they start as a band leader working in a club and living in a small walk-up apartment in a brownstone. They have a baby, get a better apartment and become a bit more successful. Then Ricky gets his big break. They (and their friends) go to Hollywood and hobnob with the movie stars of the day (the Hollywood episodes include such people as William Holden, Van Johnson, and John Wayne as well as Lucille Ball's friend Hedda Hopper). Ricky's success allows them to travel to Europe, and when they return to the United States Ricky's able to open his own nightclub - Club Babaloo - and the family (including the Mertzes) are able to move to a farm in Connecticut. Deliberately or not the show progresses and has a sort of weak continuity that so many later comedies lack. I Love Lucy is not merely a funny show it is a template for so much of what followed.

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