Monday, February 16, 2009

Third Time's Not Particularly Charming

The news that MPI will be releasing season sets of Here's Lucy (along with a more interesting show, Desi Arnaz's The Mothers-in-Law) reminded me of some lyrics I used to sing to the theme song when it was played over the closing credits:


Here's Lucy,
Over the top,
Here's Lucy,
Why won't she stop?
Once she used to be funny;
Now she's here for the money.
No passion,
All that she does
Is rehashin'
All that she was.
When you see
Here's Lucy
You'll never know why Lucy is here.


I'm always glad when any show gets season sets -- every show has fans, and fans deserve the chance to get complete sets -- but the best-of set is enough for me. And yet I've always liked the concept behind Here's Lucy; her kids were both good-looking and had potential as actors (Lucie became a fairly successful stage actor, and Desi Jr. played the groom in Robert Altman's A Wedding). The Lucy Show suffered from not having the kind of solid, believable relationship that she had with Desi on the original show, the kind of thing that could give some kind of emotional foundation to the comedy. The presence of her kids could, theoretically, have brought that back, but the show wasn't written that way; it was the same show as The Lucy Show, only with teenagers.

That was enough to make it a top ten hit for the first few years, and it's a tribute to Ball's star power that she was able to keep her ratings so high that CBS couldn't cancel her, even as they canceled all their other older-skewing shows.

There's also a theory among some Lucille Ball fans that Milt Josefsberg, the head writer of Here's Lucy and the later years of The Lucy Show, was a jinx (despite his success writing for Jack Benny); not only did Ball's shows go downhill after he joined, but he ran Laverne and Shirley in the season where they moved from Milwaukee to California, and was a big presence in the later, worser seasons of All in the Family (and Archie Bunker's Place). I'm not sure how much of this can actually be blamed on him, but he's arguably the Ted McGinley of comedy writing.

8 comments:

Anthony Strand said...

I've never seen the show, but I've always been kind of curious. I mean, I think I Love Lucy is vastly overrated (although not bad by any means) and I don't think The Lucy Show is much good at all.

It seems like this was just kind of a parade of guest stars.

Jim B. said...

I can't see how much of a jinx Milt could be if he was writing a TV show in the ten 10. I think Milt accepted reality: fans typecast artists. Lucy's fans wanted to see her doing the same old schtick, nothing else, so that's what he had her do. Likely she felt comfortable doing it.
I thought the Nichols-Ross-West team was the best for All in the Family and the show had long moved into a touchy-feely direction by the time Milt got there. Probably just as well as I can't see him writing social satire.
I saw The Mothers-in-Law in first run. The parts were greater than the whole. Kaye Ballard, Eve Arden and, later, Richard Deacon are funny people and if they had been given something to do, could have had a great show. But other than Kaye biting her fist, I can't remember anything about the characters.

J Lee said...

Sometime in the late 70s Lucy went on some talk show and was asked what her favorite episode of "I Love Lucy" was, and she responded by saying it was the episode with Dean Martin, which totally flummoxed the host (I think it was Merv or Mike Douglas) because he couldn't remember what episode she was talking about. Of course, she was talking about a Lucy Show episode that featured Dino -- it was her favorite show, but nobody else's which was the problem.

If you look at Season 3 of "The Lucy Show", when Vivian Vance started appearing less and less on her way to leaving the show, you can see this broad, celebrity-intensive 60s-Hollywood/Vegas type schtick was what Lucy wanted in her show, and what the final three seasons of Lucy and the run for "Here's Lucy" were all about.

People wanted to see, if not the original Lucy-Desi combo, at least the Lucille Ball of the early years of TLS getting stuck in a shower or walking on stilts, but she had other ideas and it was her show. Milt Josefsberg was more just the one holding the wheel on the Titanic, he wasn't the captain or the navigator (far more than Milt's name, you should run screaming from any "Lucy" episode that carries -- anywhere in the credits -- the name of husband Gary Morton, who was to the 1960s and 70s what Tom Arnold was to the 1990s).

James said...

Can't agree that Milt Josefsberg was blameless in the deterioration of Ball's later TV work. Granted, The Lucy Show, in its later seasons, and Here's Lucy both went overboard with big-name guest stars. (Sometimes with an appalling lack of continuity: Lucy Carter encounters Jack Benny three times, and on neither of the second two meetings is there the least indication that the two have ever seen each other before.) Ball just never recovered from the loss of I Love Lucy writers Bob Carroll Jr., Madelyn Davis, Bob Weiskopf and Bob Schiller following the second season of The Lucy Show. Later writers simply never understood the Lucy character, tending to make her either rather stupid or turning her into an ersatz Gracie Allen. They tended to write block scenes that were too mechanical, not requiring Ball to do anything but react to the sight gag. Her original quartet understood how to write scripts where the block comedy scenes seemed logical--almost inevitable, something they learned from the brilliant Jess Oppenheimer. The point of the script may have been just to get Lucy and Vic trapped in that shower, but they knew how to do it in such a way that you don't question it when it happens. Too many of Ball's later scripts simply threw her into situations with litle regard for whether or not the whole thing made any sense. Josefsberg may have done brilliant work for Jack Benny, but his Lucy scripts are pretty consistently mediocre, as his All in the Family and Laverne and Shirley contributions tend to be.

J Lee said...

Milt may not have been blameless, but my point was even before he arrived on scene, The Lucy Show in the 1964-65 season was already changing into a who's who of longtime TV stars/Vegas stage show regulars being brought in to supposedly boost the ratings and the comedy. The move of the show's location to Los Angeles for the '65-66 season cemented that path.

Josefsberg may have lacked the writing talent, and/or the clout and integrity to push the show back into actually being funny or to just leave his job, not only with Lucy but with AITF and L&S. But in all three cases he was coming on shows ranked at or near the top of the ratings and with stars who had developed into 500-pound gorillas as far as exterting control over where the show was going to go. He's not blameless, but in all three cases he took over shows where the star(s) demands played a large part in how the show negatively evolved.

Anonymous said...

I wonder too if the short-lived "Life With Lucy" (Ball's final kick at the sitcom can) will ever see the light of day on DVD.

James said...

Josefsberg joined the staff of The Lucy Show as head writer and script supervisor at the very beginning of the 1964-65 season, so whatever wrong turns the series took that year, he was on hand for them and was a participant in them. He wasn't handed a situation that had been established before he arrived on the scene.

The show's "guest star" quotient did rise considerably that year. In the first two seasons of The Lucy Show, Ethel Merman had been the only really big name to appear on the series. The fourth season saw guest shots by Jack Benny, Arthur Godfrey, and Danny Kaye, plus several appearances by Ann Southern. The latter was brought in to "team" with Lucy and take up some of the slack left by the absence of Vivan Vance in several episodes.

Rob Bates said...

I used to love the "Mothers In Law" as a kid. What I've seen on Youtube has not really lived up to those memories, but I'd still be interested in purchasing the DVDs.

I agree about the complaint with "block scenes" in "The Lucy Show" -- at times, if you watch that show, the whole first part of the show is un-necessary, and just a set-up for the wacky high-jinx in the second.

I remember really hating "Here's Lucy" ... even the opening credits were annoying, and set Ball up a this regal star, instead of the lovable goofy housewife we'd come to know.