What We Really Need Today Is… LOTSA LUCK

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post highlights my picks for the best episodes from the single season multi-camera sitcom Lotsa Luck (1973-1974, NBC), which was created by Carl Reiner, Bill Persky, and Sam Denoff, and starred Dom DeLuise, Kathleen Freeman, Wynn Irwin, Beverly Sanders, and Jack Knight. Loosely based on a successful British series, On The Buses, Lotsa Luck was an attempt by NBC to cash in on the kind of “low income” and “in your face” fun of its then hit, Sanford And Son (1971-1977, NBC) — coming to Sitcom Tuesdays in December. DeLuise played a balding bachelor who works at the lost and found department of a New York bus company. Most of the episodes center upon his home life, where he lives with his meddling mother (Freeman), his ditzy sister (Sanders), and his lazy (and chronically unemployed) brother-in-law (Irwin). Knight played his friend at the bus company. Though the show only lasted one season, I’m pleased to announce that every episode has been released on DVD.

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Having seen the entire series, I can confirm that the show is not an undiscovered gem. However, it’s often very funny, and, quite a contrast to the Persky and Denoff stuff to which we’re accustomed, it’s often rude and crude (for ’70s standards). In fact, the show was deemed so angry in its early episodes, the producers were forced to lighten the show and make it more appealing. Not surprisingly, this neutered the tone (read: the comedy), and while the writing was fairly engaging throughout the season, the funniest stuff definitely comes in the first two months of its airing. On the longterm, the show’s biggest problem is that the characters aren’t really multi-dimensional. That is, they feel like sketch characters: one-note and only good for peddling a joke. Mama is a guilt-tripper. Olive is an idiot. Arthur is a bum. It’s all the same; rarely do we see any depth here. Also, since those three characters are confined to the home, coming up with interesting stories would prove difficult. The writers managed to dream up 23 plots for the first year (some based on British scripts), but I wonder if they could have sustained another full year. However, the entire cast is great (such funny performers), even if the women aren’t utilized to the best of their abilities.

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But, again, the show is sometimes VERY funny. And since it’s all been released on DVD, I want to share my picks for the best episodes. Surprisingly, I was able to make a full list of ten (with honorable mentions). For newbies, this’ll give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises. As usual, they’re listed in airing order, and please note that every episode in the list was directed by Alan Rafkin, unless otherwise noted. (He directed 20 of the 23 produced episodes.)

 

01) Episode 1: “Olive’s Present” [a.k.a. “Pilot”] (Aired: 09/10/73)

When Olive breaks the toilet, the family decides to get her a new one for her birthday.

Written by Carl Reiner, Bill Persky, and Sam Denoff | Directed by Bill Persky

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This episode is listed as the pilot on the DVD set (if it’s not there, seek a replacement disc), and has, for many years, earned a reputation for being hysterical. Well, it doesn’t necessarily live up to the hype. Rather, it’s a 25-minute experiment in “crudeness” — all about the once taboo TV subject of toilets. The biggest laughs come from the physical bit of Olive getting her toe stuck in the toilet tank and the pure sight gag of the orange bowl (with a purple lid).

02) Episode x: “The Family Flu” [a.k.a. “Olive’s Present” — DVD Title] (Aired: Unknown)

Stanley must nurse Olive and Ma back to health when they come down with the flu.

Written by Bill Persky and Sam Denoff | Directed by Bill Persky

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It’s called “Olive’s Present” on the DVD, but that’s a mistake (see the above entry). Actually, no one seems to know when this episode, which should be called “The Family Flu” aired (that’s why I didn’t give it a number). My guess is that was either pre-empted at the last minute or aired in a different timeslot (as at least one other episode did in Fall of 1973). At any rate, it’s an amusing installment that makes use of its ensemble.

03) Episode 2: “The Bare Facts” (Aired: 09/17/73)

Stanley is convinced that Arthur is cheating on Olive — but with whom?

Written by Saul Turteltaub

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One of the show’s standout installments, this episode concerns the family’s suspicions that Arthur is stepping out on Olive. The truth is much funnier, and newbies, please scroll down. SPOILERS AHEAD: He’s posing nude for an art class. Much comedy is mined not only from the aforementioned reveal, but from the hijinks that precede it; after all, who would want to sleep with Arthur? Great episode — one of the best.

04) Episode 3: “Trial Separation” (Aired: 09/24/73)

Stanley must share a bed with Arthur when the latter separates from Olive following a fight.

Written by Norman Barasch and Carroll Moore

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This is a very ordinary premise: husband and wife squabble, forcing the husband to spend the evening elsewhere. In this case, it’s with Stan. Of course, this is really what this episode is all about: setting it up so that Stanley must share a bed with somebody he detests: Arthur. That’s what makes this installment comedic. As is the case with these early episodes, it’s loud and “in your face,” but there are laughs to be had.

05) Episode 4: “Stanley And The Librarian” [a.k.a. “The Librarian”] (Aired: 10/01/73)

Ma sets Stanley up with a librarian who may not be all she seems.

Written by Norman Barasch and Carroll Moore

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The story of the episode is built around a guest star, Jackie Joseph, who plays Stan’s love interest. Ma is proud to finally set Stanley up with who she thinks is a good girl. Little does anyone know that… SPOILERS AHEAD: the girl is actually a prostitute. The funniest scene (in the entire series, as far as I’m concerned) involves an extended bit with Stanley and his sleeping date’s wig. It’s the reason why I made it my MVE. (Of course, the entire episode is consistently funny as well.)

06) Episode 6: “Mom’s Secret” (Aired: 10/15/73)

Ma’s hiding the fact that she’s got a new boyfriend.

Written by Norman Barasch and Carroll Moore

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This is probably the only episode that centers the brilliant Kathleen Freeman, as Ma has been secretly dating. This is a very funny episode that features Harold Gould as Ma’s verbally challenged date (you’ll see what I mean when you watch). If only the series could have kept up this quirky BIG laugh kind of comedy for the entire run, even with shallow characters and dismal ratings, I would have deemed it an undiscovered gem and included it on Sitcom Tuesdays.

07) Episode 8: “The Family Plot” (Aired: 10/29/73) 

When the cemetery in which Pop is buried is going to be converted into an airport runway, the family must seek out a new burial plot.

Written by Norman Barasch and Carroll Moore

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Another triumph in creative storytelling, this hysterical episode concerns the crass task of relocating Pop and seeking a new burial plot for the family. Naturally there are plenty of twists and turns, and though several critics of the time found the logistics of this story to be insufficient, I am unbothered. After all, it’s a situation comedy — and the situation is comedic. It’s yet another of this series’ best — probably my MVE runner-up.

08) Episode 9: “The Shrink” (Aired: 11/05/73)

Stanley visits a shrink to combat his insomnia; the advice: make nice with Arthur.

Written by Roy Kammerman

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Here we have a classic sitcom setup: a character can’t sleep. Here we have a classic sitcom premise: said character visits a shrink. Here we have a classic sitcom payoff: said shrink tells said character to make nice with someone the character hates. In this case, the character is Stan, the shrink is played by (the talented, but here straight-man) Elliot Reid, and the hated character is, you guessed it, Arthur. As you can see, the stories are growing predictable, but the laughs haven’t… yet.

09) Episode 12: “The Bellmont Connection” (Aired: 12/03/73)

The cops believe that drug deals are going down in Stanley’s lost and found department.

Written by John Boni

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Regular readers may have picked up on the fact that I find stories like these to be inferior, largely because the comedy comes from a situation (here, the attempt to arrange a sting and bust a drug deal) rather than the characters. It’s no exception here, but there are a high quotient of laughs — always a good way to make my list — and it marks probably the last time that this series is this consistently funny. (Good episodes come after, but they’re not hysterical.)

10) Episode 18: “You Oughta Be In Pictures” (Aired: 02/08/74)

Stanley auditions for the role of Driver Dan in the bus company’s commercial.

Written by Gordon Farr and Arnold Kane

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Of all the episodes in the second half of the year, this is clearly the most memorable. Featuring appearances by Ronnie Schell and Jerry Belson (both of whom had sitcoms that debuted in 1967, both of which were covered here), this episode has Stanley auditioning for a TV commercial. As you can expect, lots of comedy is to be mined from this situation, and the episode doesn’t disappoint. (Also, it’s not as predictable as you might think.)

 

Other notable episodes that narrowly missed making the list above include: “The Suit,” in which Arthur goes to look for a job, “The Winning Purse,” in which Stanley tries gambling, “Arthur’s Inheritance,” in which Arthur stands to become a rich man, “A Little Order Of Law And Order,” in which the family gets a guard dog, “Stan’s Assistant,” in which Arthur goes to work with Stan, and “Get Off My Back,” in which Stanley injures his back. They’re all good episodes, they just don’t have quite the number of laughs that the ones above do. If I had to pick a favorite from this paragraph, it would be any one of the first four mentioned.

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*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode of Lotsa Luck goes to…..

“Stanley And The Librarian” [a.k.a. “The Librarian”]

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Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!

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2 thoughts on “What We Really Need Today Is… LOTSA LUCK

  1. I was hoping you’d cover this series. I bought the DVD set a few years ago at a discount. I saw this at least once as a boy but mostly just remember the theme song from it then. I watched a few episodes, including “The Librarian” IIRC, and I also watched the extras. Dom DeLuise completed them while he was still living. I couldn’t get into this show much mainly for the same reason I’ve never been a big Sanford & Son or Honeymooners fan: for some reason I find their lower-class lives somewhat depressing, especially when the characters can never seem to get ahead. They are good for some good laughs sometimes. Since I’m a slapstick lover, I loved when Arthur went face-down in a cake in one of these episodes.

    • Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I think the comparison to THE HONEYMOONERS is an appropriate one. Both series share similar flaws — chiefly the lack of depth in the ensemble characters. (Understandable, since THE HONEYMOONERS was essentially just an extended sketch.) I do think Gleason was more sympathetic as a performer, and his presence, coupled with fresh writing, made the show quite remarkable.

      LOTSA LUCK is repetitive and the characters never evolve. (But we could say that about many shows.) However, the series is only original in some of its crasser stories. And while these are good for easy laughs, the cheapness of the scripts can be repelling in a way that THE HONEYMOONERS, which is all in good fun, never actually was.

      As for SANFORD AND SON, I’ll be starting my coverage on Sitcom Tuesdays in December. As you know, LOTSA LUCK was an attempt to create a series with a similar appeal. Unfortunately, SANFORD AND SON has two things going for it that LOTSA LUCK does not:

      a) The fact that it’s really the first sitcom with a black cast in which race plays a factor in both the stories and the characterizations (and in my mind, it’s the least contrived — and most fun — of all the other African American sitcoms of the decade)

      b) Redd Foxx, who could elevate the worst of scripts (and the series had quite a few) with his unique personality

      While all three series deal with people on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, and all three shows appeared to be one-dimensional and without gravitas, THE HONEYMOONERS and SANFORD AND SON had better scripts and a bit more heart. And ultimately, I think that’s why they were more successful.

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