“Life With Lucy” (1986)

Far more often than any other, the question that comes to my mind when watching programs for this blog is “How did this happen?” It is remotely possible to make and release a movie with a small crew, and no studio interference. You might end up with a hilarious disaster, a la The Room, or Neil Breen’s Fateful Findings, but it can, in the most basic sense of the phrase, be done. Short of finding a slot on a public access network, however, launching a TV show requires multiple hands on deck, every step of the way. It’s a long, elaborate process to pitch, write, film, produce, and air a show. There are numerous opportunities in that process for someone to say “Wait, that’s not a good idea,” or “Perhaps we should try something different,” or “This is a fucking nightmare,” and yet, as numerous failed sitcoms have illustrated, either nobody speaks up when those opportunities arise, or no one listens to them.

On paper, Lucille Ball making a TV comeback was a perfectly fine idea. It had been more than ten years since Here’s Lucy ended, and she had spent much of that time mostly just appearing on talk shows, sharing tales of old Hollywood in her signature raspy voice. Thanks to The Cosby Show, sitcoms suddenly meant big bucks for television producers again, and Aaron Spelling, despite having already earned enough money to build a 123 room house for four people, wanted a piece of that for himself. He proposed a new sitcom to Ball, who was initially reluctant, until Spelling agreed to give her complete creative control over it. What did that mean? Exactly what it sounds like–Ball’s husband, Gary Morton, despite knowing nothing about television production, was given an executive producer credit (and paid $50,000 more per episode than Ball for his questionable services). In addition, Ball brought in her own writing crew, and demanded that Gale Gordon, her comic foil since The Lucy Show, be added to the cast (Gordon himself refused to come on board until he was promised to be paid for a full 22 episode run, even if only one made it to air). She even insisted that the network hire her sound man from the I Love Lucy days, even though he was nearly 80 years old and hard of hearing.

It was certainly a kind and noble gesture for Lucy to ensure that her old cast and crew was still getting work in a rapidly youth oriented industry. One can hope that it was that kindness that made people outside of Ball’s immediate circle reluctant to point out areas where the new show, Life With Lucy, fell short. On the other hand, someone at ABC was so certain it was going to be a smash that it went to air without a pilot, or even test screenings. Instead, it was a cringing debacle, the failure of which left Lucille Ball so dispirited that she all but retired from show business after that.

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Life With Lucy repeats the standard Lucy formula, in that a lovable scatterbrain wreaks havoc upon everyone around her. Here, she plays Lucy Barker, a recent widow who inherits her late husband’s half of a hardware store business. Rather than make the reasonable decision to continue living comfortably on the profits from the store, she decides that she’s going to start overseeing the day to day operations, despite not knowing anything about hardware, let alone running a business. This means she’ll have to work closely with her husband’s partner, Curtis (Gale Gordon), who despises her for reasons which are never quite made clear, except perhaps because she’s a kooky free spirit, and he looks and acts as if someone is constantly farting in his presence. Wanting to be closer to her grandchildren (one of whom is played by future indie rock queen Jenny Lewis), Lucy moves in her with her daughter, who just happens to be married to Curtis’s son. Not wanting his grandchildren to be exposed to such a negative influence as Lucy, Curtis also moves in with the family.

Exhausted yet? Well, that’s just the premise of the show itself, we haven’t even gotten to the quipping, the celebrity guest appearances, and the endless slapstick comedy.

In the second episode, John Ritter, playing himself, drops in to Lucy’s hardware store. Lucy is so overwhelmed by his presence that she accidentally injures him, several times. Lucy is a human wrecking ball–even when she tries to help, she just makes things worse. Nevertheless (and inexplicably), John agrees to recover at her home, where Lucy force feeds him a dish she calls “health in a bowl,” consisting of wheat germ, tofu and sauerkraut juice.

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By this point, while one assumes Lucy’s antics are supposed to be fun and wacky, she comes off as a frighteningly pushy old lady who doesn’t know when to quit, a sledgehammer away from being a senior citizen Annie Wilkes. Later in the episode, she interrupts John’s play rehearsal, and manipulates her way into replacing his co-star. Does she clumsily ruin the play, physically assaulting John several more times in the process? You bet she does. Does John, who has sustained the following injuries:

  • a smashed right hand
  • a smashed left hand
  • a sprained ankle
  • a cracked rib
  • a bump on the head
  • inhaling a foreign object

come to find joy in Lucy’s behavior? You bet he does, and the episode ends with them laughing and hugging.

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Earlier in the review, I suggested that merely reading the premise of Life With Lucy could make one exhausted. “Exhausting” is the best word I can use to describe Life With Lucy overall. Everything is done in a very big, theatrical way, as evidenced in every single character reacting to John Ritter’s presence with hysterical shrieks, like Ed Sullivan’s audience during the Beatles’ first U.S. appearance. The slapstick humor is drawn out to punishing lengths, with it taking more than five minutes just to get an injured Ritter out of the hardware store, as Lucille Ball and Gale Gordon mug and shout over each other. Of course, the studio audience, as it’s their dedicated purpose, howls with laughter at every line reading, every unnecessarily broad reaction, and every pratfall. You wouldn’t think that John Ritter merely saying he’s looking for doorknobs is hilarious, but the audience reacts to it like it’s a punchline to a joke that was later edited out before broadcast.

While Aaron Spelling lost nothing from this fiasco, Lucille Ball was crushed by the bad reviews, most of which focused on her advancing age. It would be inaccurate to say that that isn’t at least a small part of the problem with Life With Lucy–there was simply no reason that Ball, a beloved elder stateswoman of television comedy, had to still work herself into a sweat soaked frenzy to still get a laugh, when she could have given ABC its own version of The Golden Girls instead. Considering that she was at the helm of every creative decision made for the show, evidently Ball felt that audiences wouldn’t want to see her in any guise but the stuffing her mouth full of chocolates, falling off a ladder Lucy, even at 75 years old. The fault here lies with whoever it was who told her she was right.

Original airdate: September 27, 1986

Watch it here

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