Lessons from Lucy

Ask anybody to give you their short list of “greatest television shows of all time” and every one of them, without exception, will include I Love Lucy at or near the top of the list. This includes people who may never have actually seen more than clips of the show. This continued accolade over half a century after the series aired is not unjustified. It was groundbreaking in every sense of the word. At the center of the show was the immensely talented Lucille Ball, who started in movies as an ingénue (people tend to forget that she was a strikingly beautiful woman), but developed a flair for physical comedy, matched by a total willingness to do anything for the laugh. She was as fearless as she was brilliant.

But her brilliance was matched, even exceeded, by her then-husband and costar, Desi Arnaz. Between them, they basically invented the modern sitcom, pioneering such elements as the three-camera setup and the presence of a studio audience, things that became so standard that now shows that use single-camera and eschew an audience are considered iconoclastic.

Lucy and Desi were equally adept in business; even after they divorced they maintained a cordial relationship that lasted the rest of Desi’s life, and Lucy learned a great deal from him. Their modest little Desilu studios quickly grew into a major player, giving the greenlight to a number of well-regarded series, including Mission: Impossible, about which Lucy famously insisted that she didn’t understand it, but she could tell it was good, and a little thing called Star Trek. It was Lucy who believed in the show so much that she pressured the network into commissioning an unprecedented second pilot after the first one was rejected. The rest is, as they say, history. And when she finally sold her studio in the late sixties, she made a substantial profit upon which she could have retired comfortably. She didn’t.

After the end of I Love Lucy, she kept working, producing sitcoms that anchored the Monday night slot she had previously occupied, running well into the mid 1970s. The Lucy Show ran through most of the 60s, maintaining the same comfortable formula of light, character-driven comedy and physical hijinks, despite seeming to reconfigure the format every year. It was innocuous, comfortable fare that didn’t strain anybody’s sensibilities, the kind your grandparents would sit and watch happily after dinner.

Here’s Lucy kept the same tone, taking improbable contrivance to heights that were almost surreal. But all was not well. While still winning its time slot, by the end of its run, it had fallen in the ratings, its harmless fun no match for the growing trend of realistic shows like Mary Tyler Moore and M*A*SH, and topical, edgy comedy, exemplified by shows such as All in the Family and Maude. Lucy had no great esteem for shows like that, and wanted no part of it. So finally, already well into her sixties, she brought her show to an end, and suddenly there was no more Lucy on TV. And by the end of the decade, the sitcom format itself had been given up for dead in favor of gritty, stylish dramas.

But the story doesn’t end there. There was one more show to come. You’ve almost certainly never heard of it. Called Life With Lucy, it aired in the mid 1980s, running a whole nine episodes before being cancelled. The sitcom wasn’t dead after all. It had been single-handedly resurrected by a former TV star named Bill Cosby. His show became one of the most well-received series in history, rivaling I Love Lucy. So it seemed natural that the great Lucy herself could do the same thing. The network was so sure Lucy couldn’t fail, they commissioned an entire season without requesting a pilot or test screenings, and guaranteed to pay Lucy for the whole season, regardless of whether it ever hit the air. The result: one of the biggest bombs of all time, Lucy’s only failure in an illustrious career.

What went wrong? Everything. The landscape had changed, as had the world. Lucy hadn’t. The show drew on the same cornball formula that had served her so well in previous decades, but was hopelessly out of fashion by this point. Even worse, Lucy proved tone-deaf to the way television production had changed. She had total control over every aspect of the show (who could have said no to Lucy?). She brought in the head writers from I Love Lucy, who were still using the same old gags. She coaxed long-time costar Gale Gordon out of retirement at age 80 by giving him the same pay guarantee she had been given. For the production, she used the people she had worked with in the past, although most of them hadn’t worked in years, and were completely out of touch with contemporary television production techniques. She even hired her long-time soundman, despite the fact that he had become hard of hearing (she allegedly found the idea amusing).

Her missteps extended to herself. She wore a bright red, curly wig often compared to a fright wig, and had makeup so garish that more than one person said (not to her face) that she looked like a kabuki dancer. To hide signs of her age, she insisted on having the entire show filmed through soft focus lenses of the sort that hadn’t been used since the 60s, and even then only for glamor sequences. And watching a very frail-looking woman in her seventies doing elaborate stunts was cringe-inducing.

Audiences tuned in to see the great lady’s triumphant return, but then tuned out. The ratings took a nosedive and the network pulled the plug with half a dozen completed episodes yet to air. They have never been shown. Lucy was so devastated by the fiasco that she retired from public performance entirely, convinced that America no longer loved Lucy. She died within a few years, a sad end to a great career.

What lesson can be learned from Lucy? Times change, never moreso than in the world of entertainment. What worked before may no longer work now. You have to pay attention to what’s happening today, work within those parameters, or you won’t make it. Whether in television, film or publishing, you have to embrace the way it is now, and not cling to outmoded ways, no matter how much better you think they were. Maybe you’re right, but that’s irrelevant. Keep up, or get out of the way.

Sure, you can try to be an instrument of change. You can see what’s wrong with the current model and push for something better. You’ll meet resistance, but innovators always do. But innovation must always look forward. Improving things by trying to take them back to the way they once were is a fool’s errand. There is no more certain way to fail. If it can happen to Lucy, it will happen to the rest of us.

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