Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, I’m once again excited to resurrect a forgotten segment from this blog’s eight-year run. Here’s how it works: I’ll provide a link to the original piece and then offer a bit of updated commentary. But, as I always caution, please be gentle; this early article is from a long time ago, and my standards have changed as I’ve changed — I’ve improved as a thinker, a communicator, and a television-watcher.
So, let’s revisit… The Ten Best THE LUCY SHOW Episodes of Season Three: https://jacksonupperco.com/2013/11/05/the-ten-best-the-lucy-show-episodes-of-season-three/
As discussed last week, Garry Marshall and his then-partner Jerry Belson contributed scripts for the middle two years of The Lucy Show — the first of which (Season Three) was the last to costar Vivian Vance and the first without head writers Madelyn Davis & Bob Carroll Jr., a pair who had been with Lucille Ball since radio, even before the halcyon days of I Love Lucy. These veteran scribes were replaced by Jack Benny’s Milt Josefsberg, who opened up his door to freelancers like Marshall and Belson. This was an important gig for the latter duo, and although Marshall initially wasn’t enthused, he would later call his work on The Lucy Show instrumental to Laverne & Shirley, particularly this last Viv year, which first gave him the opportunity to write big block comedy scenes for an iconic female power couple… Well, kinda… By this point, Vance was starting to be phased out, and Three was getting more comfortable showcasing Lucy by herself, evolving the series closer to its Hollywood move, when it would develop into a parade of guest stars who’d be featured alongside Ball in comic (or musical) moments that rendered trivial the characters and the premise, as now funny ideas for Lucy and/or her luminaries were king, with mechanical help from Gale Gordon’s Mr. Mooney, with whom she shared a one-dimensional dynamic. When Marshall met Lucy in Three, this transformation had already begun, as Vance’s diminished involvement was both a side effect and propellant of this unideal shift. Of course, The Lucy Show was never the great masterwork I Love Lucy had been, even when it had the same authors, and if I were covering this series for the first time today, I would dive deep into why. For this post, I’ll be brief: the inferior character work. That is, I Love Lucy is brilliant because Lucy Ricardo has a clear objective that inspires the majority of her plots, and even when it isn’t applicable, the simple act of having a precise goal makes it possible to extrapolate out a fuller characterization for her that can motivate story, along with the broad physical centerpieces that Ball’s formative TV sitcom is interested in offering. Additionally, the rest of the ensemble is designed in relation, and this both strengthens her depiction and focuses the rest of theirs, enabling I Love Lucy to become, easily, the most character-driven sitcom of the 1950s, with strong but sensical leads earning both the jokes and the slapstick.
Yet most of the credit for Lucy Ricardo belongs to Jess Oppenheimer, the I Love Lucy head writer who had crafted a character for Ball on her radio series (My Favorite Husband) that took the cartoonishness of Baby Snooks (which he had also written) but tempered her extremes by contextualizing them within routine domestic narratives for a “typical” middle-class wife, thereby rendering her both heightened and relatable. This was still fairly banal, though, and would have been banal on TV too, if not for his choice to give her an added goal — the desire to be in showbiz, or more generally, to be more than a “typical” wife (and, later, mother). That was key to not only motivated stories, but motivated stories from a character as hilariously rich as the gags themselves. So, while early Lucy Show benefits from former I Love Lucy writers who know the kind of humor that Ball and viewers expect, it misses Oppenheimer’s crucial decision to grant her a sustained “want.” Without it, plot inherently becomes more situational, dependent on manufactured weekly problems. Oh, you might try to cite this as an evolution towards the lower concept character-driven writing displayed by Carl Reiner on The Dick Van Dyke Show, which premiered the season prior and boasted well-defined leads whose “wants” were smaller and more episodic, but couched within a surprisingly realistic world (for this era) that had a heretofore unmatched emotional continuity based on an attention to comic details, proposing that, even within sketch-like shtick, the most reliable laughs exist from behavioral choices supported by emotional continuity and comic details — approximated truth. However, not even in Season One is The Lucy Show believable enough to claim such ingenuity — it’s always less honest, more formulaic (Carroll and Davis’ comic sensibilities never progressed out of the ’50s) — so this comparison falls flat… Nevertheless, I mention One because it’s the only year where the concept of Lucy and Viv being single moms living together and trying to raise their kids (the original Kate & Allie) regularly inspires plot, allowing ideas to be propped up by a foundational goal–implied premise, if not characterizations that go beyond the basic “Lucy is a heightened but relatable comic menace” cliché born in radio — a persona that will persist for the rest of her TV career in scripts that progressively heighten her, making her less relatable.
Accordingly, Season One is the best year of the show, taking the most advantage of its tangible “givens” — people, places, and things — while also having funny writers who know Ball and Vance, and are not yet as tired as they will be in Two… which I think is a major comedown from its predecessor. In fact, when I first saw Two, I was so disappointed that it skewed my perception of the series’ trajectory, forcing me to adjust my expectations with Three so that the year could impress. This made it difficult to properly distinguish what is now obvious: Two may be a big letdown from One, but it’s still better than Three, which can’t help but accelerate Two’s trends. Indeed, despite the switch in writers, Two predicts Three by adding Gordon’s Mooney, an antagonistic force for Lucy who controls her money and, because he’s used a lot, invites a recurring story pattern where she’ll constantly be pestering him for cash and/or taking odd jobs. It’s an easy way to generate the second act set piece that every Lucy episode demands, but note that her “want” here is rather generic, something anybody might have, and it’s largely unrevealing — sparked by circumstances, not an actual inner drive, like Lucy Ricardo’s. What’s more, the “odd job of the week” template has little to do with any so-called tangible “givens,” moving plot away from both premise and character. And, naturally, with scribes who are running out of steam — reusing old ideas — Two can’t even stand close to One in terms of classic Lucy segments. Comparatively, Season Three is more creative — since it’s now available to freelancers, including Marshall/Belson, and story is coming from a wider variety of sources — but none of these new writers know the Lucy persona as well as her former crew did (missing objective aside), and this loss of familiarity and continuity, along with Vance’s decreased usage, further divorces episodic plot from, again, premise and character. Now, it’s just Lucy being funny… sometimes with Viv, sometimes with Mooney, sometimes with guest Ann Sothern (stepping in as a tryout replacement). There’s less character, and thus, less of what made I Love Lucy such a revolutionary situation comedy — more than just a collection of pratfalls. As for Laverne & Shirley, it’s going to be more like The Lucy Show than I Love Lucy, but I’m excited to find the moments of genuine inspiration (and perhaps outright copycatting); stay tuned…
Come back next week for the second half of our latest Clip Show post, where we’ll highlight some of Garry Marshall’s best work on both The Odd Couple and the aforementioned The Dick Van Dyke Show! Also, stay tuned tomorrow for a new Lucy-themed Wildcard Wednesday!