Seeds of Greatness #2: The Honeymooners

Show Title: “The Honeymooners”
Years: 1955-1956
Creators: Jack Philbin, Marvin Marx, Walter Stone 
Stars: Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, Joyce Randolph

Background: This had already been a recurring skit for five years on two different variety shows hosted by Gleason, “Cavalcade of Stars” on DuMont and then “The Jackie Gleason Show” on CBS.  

Type of Show: 1/2 hour three-camera episodic network sitcom
Structure: Three acts (all in the same room in most episodes!)  No teaster, no tag.

Irreconcilable Hero: Ralph is discontent with his small but steady wage, craving quick wealth, but is too guile-less to make any of his schemes work.
Polarized Ensemble: Ralph denies his wife anything nice until the day he can get rich quick, Norton lives on credit without a care in the world, Alice wants the find a sustainable middle ground between the two. 

Point of View: As is often the case, we begin with Alice.  The entire show is almost always set in her kitchen domain, and we never even see him at work.  He’s the main character, but we see him primarily through her eyes, with both exasperation and affection. 

Pilot Title: “TV or Not TV”
First Aired: October 1st. 1955
Type of Pilot: Center cut.

The Storylines: There’s only one “A” story with no subplots. 
  1. Act 1: Starts with Alice plunging the sink. 
  2. Upstairs neighbor Trixie visits and says that she and her husband Norton are replacing their broken television.  Alice wants Ralph to get her a TV, so Trixie suggests the “pipe and slipper” routine.  Ralph comes home and Trixie leaves. 
  3. Alice fawns over Ralph, but she overdoes it.  Ralph is dubious: “Who’s ‘Sweetums’?”  She drops the act and demands a TV.  They fight. (When Alice finally forces Ralph to come up with a reason why they can’t have a TV, he stubbornly declares: “I’m waiting for 3-D television!”)
  4. She storms out, Norton comes in, he can’t afford a new TV either.  Ralph decides that they should share a TV.  To determine where it will go, they flip a coin, and Ralph proposes “Heads I win, Tails you lose”  He wins. 
  5. Act 2: Ralph comes home and arranges a smorgasbord of snacks to eat while watching the new TV, then leaves to talk to Alice. 
  6. While he’s gone, Norton slips in to eat the snacks and watch a kiddie-sci-fi TV show, complete with his own props.
  7. Ralph comes in and balls him out, then insists on watching the fights, but the reception is bad, so Norton sends Ralph out into the hall with the antenna to find better reception.  As sooon as Ralph’s out there, Norton locks him out and goes back to his kid’s show
  8. Act 3: Ralph watches TV late at night as Alice begs him to come to bed.  When he finally does, Norton sneaks in to watch a crime movie, which wakes them up.  Ralph comes out to yell at him, then gets sucked back in himself. Alice finds them asleep and drapes blankets on them, admitting that they never should have gotten a TV.     
Statement of Philosophy/Theme: Not really. Since they were picking up from the already popular skits, they didn’t really sell the premise very hard here (there’s not even a get-rich-quick scene for once). 
Twist: None

Why We Fall in Love with Each of Them:
  1. First with Alice when we watch her plunge the sink.
  2. Then we get a scene of her trying to trick him and he outwits her, which makes them both seem appealing.  Audiences love scenes in which both characters are engaged in tricks and traps.
  3. Nobody could suffer embarrassment and humiliation with more exasperation than Gleason, using just his eyes alone.  He could be hilariously pathetic.
Does The Pilot Predict the Greatness of the Show?: Yes, in that it’s hilarious, but it’s not a very typical episode.

What Followed: After only one long season as an independent show (39 episodes) CBS and Gleason both agreed that they were already worn out.  It went back to being a recurring skit on various other shows for many more years, going as late as 1970. 

How Available Is It?:  Nice-looking but features-free DVDs collect the “classic 39” episodes as well as all the skits, which are referred to “the lost episodes”.
Read more...

Seeds of Greatness #1: I Love Lucy

Beginning: an occasional series where we examine pilots...
Show Title: “I Love Lucy”
Years: 1951
Creators: Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll Jr. 
Stars: Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Jr., Vivian Vance, William Frawley

Background: Lucy had starred in a similar radio program with a different actor.  CBS wanted to transfer it over to TV, but Lucy insisted that they re-conceive the show to star her real Cuban husband.  The network was talked into it and the rest was history. 

Type of Show: ½ hour three-camera episodic network sitcom
Structure: No teaser, two long acts and a tag. 
Irreconcilable Hero: Lucy is the ultimate example of the unfairly cloistered housewife: She married an exciting nightclub bandleader because she was looking for fun, but he expects her to do nothing but cook and clean, content to never leave the house.  They love each other too much to break up, but they have totally irreconcilable temperaments. 

Polarized Ensemble: Lucy and Ethel are pretty similar, but Ricky and Fred very much are mirror opposites: the loving newlywed and the bitter henpecked grouch.  Compare this to the rejected pilot without Fred, where Ricky comes off as too much of a jerk.  By splitting the character in two, we get to admire Ricky, while still getting to hear Fred’s complaints, suspecting that Ricky secretly feels the same way.

Point of View: Each week, we start with Lucy getting frustrated, then follow her daffy attempts to alleviate her frustration.

Pilot Title: “The Girls Want to Go to a Nightclub”
First Aired: October 15th, 1951
Type of Pilot: Center Cut, but it’s not so much a typical episode as an archetypical episode.  Few episodes would state the show’s central irony so explicitly.

The Storylines: We start out with two, but they interact from the third scene on, so it’s really just one. 
  1. Act 1: Breakfast scene: The wives want to go to a nightclub.  They vow to sweet-talk the husbands.
  2. Living room: The husbands want to go to a boxing match.  
  3. The wives arrive and all four try to sweet-talk each other, to no avail.  The men leave, but the wives threaten to find dates so they can go by themselves.
  4. Dining room: the husbands worry about their wives’ dates, and vow to find their own dates.  Ricky makes a call.
  5. Back in the living room, the wives discover that all of their old dates have kids now.  Lucy calls the same mutual friend that Ricky just called and finds out that the guys are lining up their own dates.  The girls decide that they will take the place of those dates: ACT OUT 
  6. Act 2: Living room: the husbands anxiously wait in their tuxes to meet their dates.  When the doorbell rings, they fail to recognize that their hideous man-crazy dates are their own wives.
  7. After being chased around the living room, the guys flee to the kitchen and figure it out. 
  8. The guys come back and chase the girls right back until they fess up.  To make up for teasing them, the guys agree to take them out after all… 
  9. Tag: …but they take them to the fights. 
Statement of Theme: “Ever since I said ‘I do’ there are so many things we don’t.”
Twist: none

Why We Fall in Love with Lucy:
  1. Moment of Humanity right away: Lucy insists the spot on a plate is part of the pattern until it comes off on her hand.
  2. The unfair irony of her situation. 
  3. Extremely active (aka scheming).  A big fan of tricks and traps. 
  4. She’s an amazing physical comedienne, so the more she more she gets up and moves, the more we love her. 
Does The Pilot Predict the Greatness of the Show?: Yes.  It’s hysterically funny and the characters are fully formed.  

What Followed: Six wildly-popular regular seasons followed by three more years of occasional specials.  The day after the last episode wrapped, the real-life Lucy and Dezi filed for divorce. 

How Available Is It?: Every episode is on DVD, four to a disk.  The first disk also has the original, rejected pilot. 
Read more...