Old TV shows recycled on DVDs are selling like iPods, proving among other things that television remains the most personal of "mass" media; people often buy those old shows not because the programs are great or even good but because they consider them to be part of the matrix of their lives. The quality of a program may be irrelevant.
There couldn't be a much better example than "Here's Lucy," the second of the sitcoms in which Lucille Ball starred beginning a few years after the end of "I Love Lucy," still the most durable and adored sitcom of all. Regardless, home video's lively Shout! Factory last week released, on a four-DVD set, 24 episodes of "Here's Lucy" as they originally aired from 1968 to 1974.
The scripts were generally poor and the show was produced on the cheap, although, like "I Love Lucy," it was shot on 35mm film so that the prints on the DVDs look splendid. Sadly, the comic icon who starred in the series and whose company, Lucille Ball Productions, made it, was decidedly past her prime. Ball's performances were for the most part shrill, mechanical and oddly self-contained. She rarely looked at other actors even when speaking to them, peering instead at cue cards or perhaps spying on employees to make sure none of her money was being wasted.
But bad TV can be as revealing and as representative of its time as good TV. "Here's Lucy" was awful, but it was no flop, as Ball herself says in a promotional film that is one of many extras included with the episodes. In the film, made to pitch the series for syndication after its network run, Ball says the 144 episodes averaged a 23.2 rating and a 34 share, numbers that, if achieved today, would put a show in the blockbuster league.
"CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," the CBS detective drama that is the top-rated show in American homes, averaged a 15.9 rating and a 24 share last season. That was considered absolutely huge. "Here's Lucy," of course, thrived in a three-network universe, well before cable channels proliferated like fruit flies.
"Here's Lucy" faced, and sometimes defeated, the then- awesome competition of "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," NBC's talked- about hit, but was later done in when CBS moved it from 8 to 9 p.m., opposite ABC's "Monday Night Football," somehow a more formidable opponent. In a prescient sort of touch, Ball points out during her promotional spiel the show's popularity with "the 2 to 17 demographic," because syndicators were pushing it for time periods when kids control the set. Broadcasting has changed tremendously in the 30 years since "Here's Lucy" ended its network life, but youthful demographics are more coveted than ever -- although 2-year-olds are not usually believed to have much buying power.
Beyond all that, there's the elemental fact that a bad old TV show is usually more fun than a bad new TV show. It may be particularly true of sitcoms; in earlier times, writers couldn't stoop to smut for a cheap laugh when their wits otherwise failed them. "Here's Lucy," unlike a typical 21st-century sitcom, was filmed straight through, performed much the way a live show would be, with only occasional stops when someone blew a line or a prop malfunctioned.
"Here's Lucy," of course, had something that hardly any other bad sitcoms had, and that would be Lucy herself. Lucille Ball's status as the queen of television comedy, or the queen of television, period, survived an earlier so-so series, "The Lucy Show," and would survive the fourth and worst of all her attempts, "Life With Lucy," an ill-advised comeback flop of 1986. Nobody thought of that series when Lucy died three years later, at the age of 77, of cardiac arrest after open-heart surgery. They thought of her as the star of "I Love Lucy" and as someone who had been a happy part of their lives for years.
"Long after we're gone, 'I Love Lucy' will still be playing all over," Bob Hope says to Ball in the promotional film; he helped out, apparently, as a favor to an old friend. Even then Ball's essential immortality, and its cause, were accepted facts of life.
So a big star was coasting in a rickety vehicle; "Here's Lucy" was hardly the first time that happened. Nevertheless, its history makes for a fairly fascinating story about show- business pathologies, recounted in illuminating detail in "Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz," by Tom Gilbert and Coyne Steven Sanders, published in 1993 but still in print. Gilbert and Sanders concentrate on Ball the businesswoman and executive, roles she filled -- after the end of her marriage to Desilu co-founder Desi Arnaz -- apparently by stirring up as much acrimony and hurting as many people's feelings as possible.
A tyrant, a bully and a grouch around the office and backstage at the show, Ball had the tact of an invading army. And in outtakes and rehearsal footage that are part of the "Here's Lucy" package, you see glints of this notorious behavior. In one sequence, guest star Jayne Meadows is told by the director over his loudspeaker to return to her previous position to begin a retake, but Ball intervenes, complaining that Meadows needn't go back that far. She bickers with the director, as she bickered with all the series' directors, about this trifling point, hating to give an inch.
Meadows told authors Gilbert and Sanders that she had considered Ball an old pal and was shocked to find her so humorlessly dictatorial on the set. "We were very good friends," Meadows said. "I turn up for the first day of rehearsals and she walked right past me. Didn't speak to me. . . . I've never seen anybody so bossy. No longer the friend, it was Jekyll-and- Hyde. . . . The rehearsal was very painful. I didn't know if she was a little deaf, but she made everybody scream: 'Louder, louder!' "
Some outtakes show Ball reuniting with her beloved "I Love Lucy" co-star, the long-suffering Vivian Vance, who made a few guest appearances on "Here's Lucy" after having been exhausted by Ball when Vance co-starred with her in "The Lucy Show." Ball is the one who yells "Cut!" -- not the director, as is the custom -- when a line is fluffed.
Later, Vance shows evidence of having reached a point in life where she could stand up to Ball, contributing her own sarcastic rewrite to a line of dialogue. "Oh, come on, girl," she tells Ball. " 'Sensible' my ass!" The co-workers laugh at hearing the word "ass" come out of Vance's mouth. Obviously it didn't make it into the final cut of the show.
Filming the promotional spot with Hope, Ball squints at distant cue cards and grumps, "Why the hell not use the bigger ones?"
Of course we don't see atrocities as dramatic and appalling as those recounted by witnesses in the Gilbert and Sanders book. Ball was such a hellion that she even managed to reduce Joan Crawford to tears during rehearsals for a guest shot on "The Lucy Show," while studio co-workers, visiting the set to see the two divas in action, watch in sorrow. Crawford later said: "My God, they tell me I'm a bitch. Lucy can outbitch me any day of the week!"
Jack Benny told Herbert Kenwith, who directed some of the "Here's Lucy" shows and episodes of the earlier series, "Herbert, you ought to call a psychiatrist for her." The DVD set includes Ball rehearsing a "Here's Lucy" musical number with a weary-looking Benny, whose career was nearing its end. Ball gives him orders as if she's directing as well as producing the show, and he dutifully obeys, with no suggestion of warmth between them most of the time. At one point, things do lighten up somewhat. Ball, in a flapper costume, loses the heel of her shoe and Benny pauses while she retrieves it. She in turn becomes annoyed at his silence.
"For God's sake, say, 'What happened?' " she tells him, feeding him his next line. Benny, faintly smiling, says loudly, "Well, we have to do this goddamned thing all over again!" The crowd laughs, but one can sense the real exasperation behind his comedic exasperation.
Most of the "Here's Lucy" episodes are simply and stubbornly unfunny, but there is a glorious exception: the first episode on the disc and a season premiere: "Lucy Meets the Burtons." Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were the most glamorous and gossiped- about couple in the world, and Ball landed them for a guest shot to get the season off on a ratings high. A virtual co-star was a highly publicized diamond ring that Burton had recently given Taylor. The ring became the focus of a funny plot devised by veteran "I Love Lucy" writers Madelyn Davis and Bob Carroll Jr., returning at Ball's request after several years of estrangement from her.
The actual ring, not a duplicate, was used for the filming and gets its own tenderly inserted close-up. Ball is, of course, playing another character named Lucy: this time Lucy Carter, who works with her bombastic brother-in-law (the one-note Gale Gordon) at his employment agency. In the course of the plot, Lucy Carter gets the famous ring stuck on her finger. Hilarious antics really do ensue.
On "Laugh-In," Ball's tough competition, comic Arte Johnson regularly took sly potshots at Ball's show. In his German soldier get-up, he would end the show with "Good night, Lucy," a catchphrase for him along with "Verrrrry interesting." Included on one of the DVDs is the original ending for the Burton- Taylor episode, in which Liz does an impression of the "Verrrrry interesting" and "Good night, Lucy" lines. But it was decided not to plug competition that was doing enough damage already, and in the finished episode we see that those references are gone.
Gorgeous as Taylor looks, she -- like virtually everyone appearing on these shows -- is a victim of the hideous fashions of the time, a sort of commercialized aberration of '60s styles gone berserk. The costumes and sets for "Here's Lucy" are among the ugliest ever committed to film, and Ball was so cheap that many guest stars and cast members were expected to wear their own clothes on camera.
As with several "Here's Lucy" episodes, a funny sequence in the Burton-Taylor episode was lifted out of "I Love Lucy": Ball sticks her hand through a curtain and it becomes one of Taylor's hands when they appear before the Hollywood press with "the Ring" still on Lucy's finger. This, of course, harks back to the "I Love Lucy" episode in which Lucy Ricardo is accidentally handcuffed to her husband, Ricky, and Ricky has to make a TV appearance. A "Here's Lucy" that guest-stars Johnny Carson has Lucy spilling food all over him in a restaurant booth just as she had done years earlier to William Holden on one of the funniest of all "I Love Lucys."
The DVD set's extra features include a running commentary, on a few of the episodes, by Ball's children, Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr., who has now dropped the "Jr." when referring to himself. Unfortunately referring to themselves is what these two famous offspring do most in their comments, Lucie almost creepily obsessed with her own hair. "Rhoda! I look like Rhoda!" she bellows at one point. "I didn't want anybody to see my ears," she says of her hairstyle in another episode. "I have much better hair now," she later declares. Could anyone possibly care?
While they watch themselves romp through a hokey musical number about the generation gap as it might have existed during the days of the Roman Empire, Desi goes on and on and on about how fearful he was that his genital pouch would peek out from beneath his toga. These two offer very little that is in the least bit insightful. In fact Desi's analysis of his mother as merely a "clown," and Lucie's theory that Ball was acting out the childhood she never had in her recurring Lucy character, seem like baloney sliced thick. During a more productive sequence, Lucie reminisces about growing up with her famous parents in Beverly Hills in the days when Benny lived right next door and used to complain about her brother's loud drum- playing. For a moment it all sounds blissful and enchanting. But when the marriage broke up, it all kind of went sour, and Ball's performing genius began to look bloodless and robotic. For all that, "Here's Lucy" on DVD tellingly transports you to a distant era in a sometimes moving, often absorbing way, revealing sides of Lucille Ball that had previously been confined mainly to such books as Gilbert and Sanders's.
For anyone interested in the annals of Lucyana, it's a must -- if also a decidedly dubious treasure.
Lucille Ball not so much as the queen of TV
comedy but as the queen of mean.Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton brought Hollywood glitter to the series, which aired from 1968 to 1974. New York Jets great Joe Namath did his bit, too.