UPDATE: I’m on The National tonight at 9 p.m. on CBC News Network and at 10 p.m. on CBC talkin’ Lucy.
Miss Lucy’s 100th? You’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.TCM has done it again by scheduling a Lucille Ball marathon in honour of the 100th anniversary of her birth. Smart programming–but why doesn’t Comedy Gold, Deja View or any of the other specialty channels devoted to classic TV work a little Lucy into their mix? I Love Lucy is TV’s most enduring sitcom, the blueprint for every studio audience comedy that followed. Would it kill these nostalgia channels to spend a few dollars once in a while, bump reruns of Full House or Three’s Company out of their constant rotations and actually salute a classic?
I was born the summer I Love Lucy went off the air but those black & white reruns were a constant part of my childhood. I laughed at the slapstick but was captivated by these oddly relatable characters. Lucy and Ethel (Vivian Vance) reminded folks in my family of my Aunt Mary and my mother, always scheming, looking for a bargain, trying to get on television. Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo was an original and an underrated comedy foil. William Frawley looked like Ethel’s dad, not her husband, but he was such a great character actor he just sold the part and made crabby funny.
It`s a lot harder to find Lucy on TV today. The Simpsons or Seinfeld top most Best All-Time Sitcom polls nowadays. Episodes where Fred wonders if Ricky has taken a sock at his wife seem more shocking than funny 60 years after the series premiered. Many other episodes hold up, however, provoking laughter with audiences of all ages.
The one and only time I met Lucy was at one of my first TCA press tours. She was there promoting her disastrous final series, Life with Lucy. It was 1986, a dozen years after his previous series had ended, and Ball was 74. Aaron Spelling, the J.J. Abrams of his day with several shows spread over three or four networks, had talked her out of retirement. The series was sold to ABC without a pilot; they saw it as their chance to grab a little Golden Girls glory. When the series did air that fall it was clear that too much tempus had fugit. Stefan Kanfer, in his 2003 biography Ball of Fire, wrote that she had trouble memorizing lines and depended heavily on cue cards.
Even thought we had not seen a pilot, reporters could smell it was going to be a stinker at the TCA press session. The critic from San Francisco leaned over to me and whispered something about rounding up a posse and lynching Spelling for what he was about to do to a comedy legend.
Maybe today they could have found a way to make it work. Betty White may be adorable in Hot in Cleveland, but, back then, nobody wanted to see Lucy as a slapstick granny.
Ball stood before critics and surveyed the room, straining to find a familiar face. Almost all of the press cats who covered her back in the day had retired. Finally she spotted Kay Gardella, a New York reporter and a TCA legend. “Whaaaaaaaa!!!” went Lucy, swear to God.
It was a poignant moment. Ball’s ex-husband and I Love Lucy partner, Arnaz, was gravely ill. Vance passed away in 1977. Frawley was long gone.
I asked her if she had seen a test of a reported attempt to colourize I Love Lucy. Advancing (but far from perfected) computer technology had led to a colourization craze in the mid- ’80s. Ball said she had seen a test and–can you believe it?–they didn’t even give her red hair.
Ball died in 1989 at age 77. As a footnote, several years ago, I won an eBay bid on a 16mm print of an I Love Lucy episode. Shortly after the auction closed, I got an email from somebody who had failed to bid but was offering more than I paid for the print. The fellow turned out to be Gregg Oppenheimer, son of Jess Oppenheimer, the true showrunner of I Love Lucy.
The eBay win turned out to be a syndicated print, not the network original Oppenheimer was hoping for (he was involved with CBS Video in tracking down the original animated titles and cigarette commercials as bonus DVD material). That didn’t stop Oppenheimer from sending me an autographed copy of the 1996 book he wrote with his dad–Laughs, Luck…and Lucy.