Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, I’m pleased to present my selections for the best episodes from the first year of the two season sitcom, The Mothers-In-Law (1967-1969, NBC). I’m also thrilled to announce that every single episode of the series has been released on DVD.
Eve and Herb Hubbard’s daughter, Suzie, marries next-door-neighboors Kaye and Roger Buell’s son, Jerry. But marital bliss seems difficult with the constant interference from the mothers-in-law! The Mothers-In-Law stars EVE ARDEN as Eve Hubbard, KAYE BALLARD as Kaye Buell, ROGER C. CARMEL as Roger Buell, HERBERT RUDLEY as Herb Hubbard, JERRY FOGEL as Jerry Buell, and DEBORAH WALLEY as Suzie Hubbard Buell.
The Mothers-In-Law is one of a trio of new 1967 sitcoms that were produced with multi-cameras (when most shows of the time were only shot with one) in front of a live audience. This made sense; its two stars both came from the theatre (and one had already enjoyed a nice career on television), and its creators came from I Love Lucy, the show that pioneered the multi-cam technique. But while the other two new series, He & She and Good Morning, World didn’t make it past the season, The Mothers-In-Law did. Why is that? Well, for starters, it was on NBC instead of CBS, which meant it had less in-network sitcom competition. Of course, a cast headlined by Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard is also a major asset too — meaning better ratings than for shows featuring Joby Baker or Richard Benjamin. And then we have the renowned Desi Arnaz at the helm — still a television giant (even if his wife now owned the studio). So even out of the gate, this series fared with slightly better chances than most.
Quality is a different story. Creatively, the series hinges on a premise that just can’t sustain good story ideas beyond its initial 13 episodes. That’s not to say the rest of the series is bad; it merely means that most of the episodes are of mediocre quality. With two of Lucy’s writers at the metaphorical wheel, comparisons to the famous redhead’s series were abundant. And that’s precisely why this series isn’t as superb as He & She: we’ve seen all this before. After the first few episodes that establish the show’s premise, the stories become typical sitcom fare, with Arden and Ballard — two SUPREMELY talented comediennes — assuming the figurative shoes of Ball and Vance. And, frankly, regardless of their enormous talents, the increasingly inferior material becomes an insult to both ladies. Meanwhile, though Rudley and Carmel are expectedly solid, the two kids lack real personalities. This is a major handicap, as the plot-point that separates this series from normal two-couple sitcom hijinks (think Ricardo/Mertz or Kramden/Norton) is the fact that they’re in-laws. Instead, the stories are forced to solely be about Eve and Kaye in wacky predicaments. And while this has humor, it all feels redundant.
I don’t mean to harp on the series’ shortcomings. As I said, the two mothers-in-law are wonderful, and every now and again (more regularly at the very beginning) the series pops up with a delightfully original story idea. Along the way, there are more than a few laughs — especially if you’re a physical comedy fan like myself. So, it was actually a challenge to narrow down my list of choices. Many of them were viable candidates, indicative of a series that, though rarely outstanding, can at least attest to some semblance of consistent amusement. This, plus Arden and Ballard, is why this series is here on Sitcom Tuesday. So, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify the season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 1: “On Again, Off Again, Lohengrin” (Aired: 09/10/67)
Following a fight between the Hubbards and the Buells, Jerry and Suzie announce their engagement.
Written by Bob Carroll, Jr. & Madelyn Davis | Directed by Desi Arnaz
The pilot episode is actually one of the series’ funniest — shrewdly setting up the premise, the conflict, and the characters. Ballard’s over-the-top theatricality sticks out like a sore thumb, yet her exuberance clearly makes her the MVP of this episode. But both mothers-in-law prove to be in fine condition for comedy, especially in a hilariously climactic scene involving a piano and a thunderstorm. This series, especially early on, is great at delivering physical bits and sight gags, and this episode boasts a few!
02) Episode 2: “Everybody Goes On A Honeymoon” (Aired: 09/17/67)
The Hubbards and Buells share a hotel room after they both coincidentally meet at the resort where the kids are having their honeymoon.
Written by Bob Carroll, Jr. & Madelyn Davis | Directed by Desi Arnaz
Sitcom episodes in which characters repeatedly and “coincidentally” meet each other are hokey. But (with that excitingly colorful theme song), The Mothers-In-Law almost seems in on the gag: this is a late ’60s sitcom — it ain’t Shakespeare! And, truthfully, this is a very funny — and very theatrical — installment. The bulk of the comedy comes from the extended sequence in which our four leads are forced to share the same hotel room. Like the pilot, there’s lots of great slapstick here.
03) Episode 4: “A Night To Forget” (Aired: 10/01/67)
Eve and Kaye are locked in an empty department store after hours and end up connecting via telephone with a Spanish bullfighter.
Written by Bob Carroll, Jr. & Madelyn Davis | Directed by Maury Thompson
I’ll spoil the MVE Award now… this episode is easily the best of the series. Not only is it directly rooted in the series premise (the fact that Kaye and Eve are meddlesome mothers-in-law), but the storytelling is divinely original. Kaye and Eve are locked in a department store (thanks to their established nosiness) after hours. They have one dime to call the guys — but they end up dialing a wrong number. Who should answer, but
executive producer bullfighter Desi Arnaz? From there, absolute hilarity ensues. If only the series could have kept up this level of excellence. Hysterical installment!
04) Episode 9: “How Do You Moonlight A Meatball?” (Aired: 11/05/67)
While catering an event, Eve and Kaye fear that they’ve lost Suzie’s engagement ring in a batch of meatballs.
Written by Fred S. Fox & Seaman Jacobs | Directed by Desi Arnaz
It’s around this time that the series’ creative well begins to figuratively dry and the storylines become increasingly routine. Heck — we’ve already had two show-within-a-show episodes. (Now, you all know I’m a musical man. But not when it gets in the way of the comedy!) This episode has distinction, despite its so-so premise, because of a few more great physical bits: Eve and Kaye stealing meatballs from guests at the party, and the final gag (that I won’t spoil) with the garage door.
05) Episode 10: “I Thought He’d Never Leave” (Aired: 11/12/67)
A bank robber holds the mothers-in-law (and the fathers-in-law) hostage in the Hubbard home.
Written by Ronald Axe & Sydney Zelinka | Directed by Elliot Lewis
My regular readers know how common criminal activity seems to be in comedy. And this ‘stick-up’ episode is about as routine as they come. But with consummate performers — including a typecast Larry Storch — and characters that do indeed contribute some ever-so-slight nuances, this episode manages to rake up a decent helping of laughs. Essentially, it becomes one of the more memorable episodes of the season; heightened premise, with heightened comedy.
06) Episode 16: “Everybody Wants To Be A Writer” (Aired: 12/31/67)
The wives try to teach Roger a lesson after he harshly critiques their attempt at screenwriting, but their scheme backfires.
Written by Bill O’Hallaren | Directed by Desi Arnaz & Elliot Lewis
Once again, the appeal of this episode correlates with its originality. I like to see episodes in which the stories seem like they could ONLY happen to these characters. This episode uses Roger’s career as a TV writer, and has Eve and Kaye engaging in hijinks as they attempt to produce a good script of their own. There’s a fluidity about the plotting, like in an episode of He & She, that makes it very amusing — building to an unexpected final sequence which sees Kaye and Eve crashing the set of a soap opera wedding. Very funny (and original)!
07) Episode 21: “I’d Tell You I Love You, But We’re Not Speaking” (Aired: 02/04/68)
An all out family brawl is sparked when the kids have a disagreement over which mother-in-law does the most interfering.
Written by Robert Daniel & Mark Howard | Directed by Desi Arnaz
Conflict is story, so it stands to reason that conflict should also be comedy. The trick to making conflict into comedy is motivation; even if the reason for the clash is arbitrary, it must have logic. The idea of having the kids argue about which mom is the most meddlesome is almost meta, and it works perfectly. (It is easy to see how this could lead to a fight.) The crescendo has all of the feuding parties in a single room with a shrink — where hilarity is guaranteed to ensue. And, fortunately for us, it does.
08) Episode 23: “Bye, Bye Blackmailer” (Aired: 02/25/68)
Eve and Kaye get to scheming when a loan from Herb to Roger threatens the couples’ friendship.
Written by Bob Carroll, Jr. & Madelyn Davis | Directed by Elliot Lewis
One thing about this show that is both a benefit and a hinderance is its inescapable theatricality: bright colors, few sets, lots of dialogue. At its worst, it feels claustrophobic; at its best, it feels incredibly human. In regards to this episode, like a lot of episodes from the end of the first season, this one has a fluid dialogue-heavy story thats contained to a few locations. There are slightly more laughs than the surrounding episodes, and the foursome each give great performances — with Carmel’s frugality (a la Mr. Mertz) being quite amusing. The cast, in particular, makes this episode notable.
09) Episode 24: “The Wig Story” (Aired: 03/03/68)
Kaye’s attempt to spice up her marriage with a blonde wig backfires when she assumes that Roger would rather be married to a blonde.
Written by Michael Morris | Directed by Desi Arnaz
Yes, I do believe a variation on this story has been used numerous times in situation comedy, but, and this is a high compliment coming from me, I actually think The Mothers-In-Law does it best. Simply, they have the most fun with it. They ham it up, dance about, throw in tongue-in-cheek jokes about Lucille Ball, and have us laughing throughout the entire episode. It’s an example of a classic multi-camera situation comedy, and it’s divine. One question though: why does Eve need to put on a wig to be a redhead? Am I colorblind, or isn’t she already a ginger?
10) Episode 26: “I Haven’t Got A Secret” (Aired: 03/17/68)
Roger’s afraid that blabbermouth Kaye will jinx his new soap opera deal if she blabs it to the rest of the family.
Written by Peggy Chantler Dick | Directed by Desi Arnaz
Like several of the above episodes, we can attribute this episode’s success to its ensemble of performers — chiefly Ballard, who clearly has a riotous time and, not unusually, steals the episode. This is typical Mothers-In-Law all the way, coming during a string of episodes that are good but hardly exceptional (and you’ll see many of them listed below). Again, this episode has distinction because of the fun the performers are having. When they have fun, we’re more likely to have fun too.
Other notable episodes that didn’t quite make the list above include: “All Fall Down,” in which the wives end up with a pair of broken legs, “The Newlyweds Move In,” in which the mothers-in-law intrude on the kids’ new garage apartment (featuring memorable gags with a shower and the garage door — and most deserves to be included in the above list), “Who’s Afraid Of Elizabeth Taylor?” in which the husbands and wives fight over the formers’ attraction to Liz Taylor, “The Great Bicycle Race,” in which the in-laws get lost on a bike race, “The Not-Cold-Enough War,” in which the couples fight over a defunct refrigerator (a la the Ricardos and Mertzes), “You Challenge Me To A What?” in which an argument escalates into a scheduled duel between the husbands, “Don’t Give Up The Sloop,” in which the couples fight over possession of a boat, “It’s Only Money,” in which Herb gets fed up with Roger’s frugality, “The Long, Long, Weekend,” in which all three couples end up in the same snowed in cabin, and “How Not To Manage A Rock Group,” which is most notable for its ’60s sensibility, including a then popular rock band, The Seeds.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of The Mothers-In-Law goes to…..
“A Night To Forget”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Two! And tune in tomorrow for another Wildcard Wednesday post!