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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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You’ve probably heard of Thomas Edison.  You know, inventor of the light bulb, phonograph, motion picture and numerous other things for which he gets the credit.  People tend to hold up Edison as a model of dedicated genius.  What a great man, the single-minded, hardworking visionary who persevered until he achieved his goal.  Nothing beats hard work, he would say.  Yes indeed, someone to emulate, a shining example to us all. 

But in fact he really was a model of blind stubbornness.  It’s well documented that he tried hundreds of different combinations of gasses and filaments before finding success with the light bulb.  How inspiring, right?  Not really.  See, a lot of the things he tried had already been tried – and rejected – by others before him.  He would have known that had he studied their works.  But he refused to do so, seeing that as a waste of time, time that should be spent in the lab working.  But it was working pointlessly, and how much time did he waste replicating the failures of others? 

That we see his approach as a cause for pride is a distinctly American perspective, the same one that allows Libertarians to brandish their copies of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, celebrating the individual who owes nothing to anybody. What nonsense.  Nobody works in a vacuum.  Every innovation the modern age knows owes itself to previous innovations by others.  Nikola Tesla built on Edison’s work and was instrumental in the development of alternating current; too bad Edison missed the point and persecuted Tesla mercilessly because AC was more efficient than Edison’s own direct current.  Had Edison been willing to work together with Tesla, how much more innovation might they have brought to the world?  The fact is, we are all in it together.  Sorry, Randians, but that’s not a bad thing.  People working together are a source of strength. 

That’s why I spend time with other writers, seeking their feedback.  I do know writers who are pretty solitary, who rarely show their work to anyone, and certainly not before it’s “ready.”  We believe in the solitary, cloistered writer, pulling ideas whole out of his fertile mind.  But that’s not realistic.  We write for audiences, which means we have to step outside our own heads.  True, getting too many opinions can be overwhelming to the writing process, especially early on, but I gain more from the thoughts of others than I lose.  And I’m confident enough now that I have the ability to decide which advice to apply, and which to reject. 

And the most common bit of advice I get is to read.  Read as much as I can.  Every writer should be a reader.  But there’s the challenge.  The time I take to read is time I don’t spend writing.  It’s frustrating, but it’s worth it, ultimately.  Reading different writers shows me different approaches, ideas to try, strategies to consider, pitfalls to avoid.  This is what I tell my students, though they aren’t writing fiction.  I have them read a great deal of material.  And I tell them something that’s revolutionary for a classroom setting: it’s not all necessarily good.  Just because it’s in a book doesn’t make it an example of successful writing.  There may well be things the writer does that the students can learn to avoid.

Then there’s the reality that one student may like a particular piece, and another may hate it.  One isn’t “right” over the other.  Rather, they are seeing that different writers are effective for different readers.  By reading many different writers, they see many approaches they can try as they go through the process of finding their own voices.

I must do the same, and read many things.  That’s a relief, because the prospect of immersing myself entirely in Young Adult Science Fiction is a bit discouraging.  There’s a lot there that I don’t much care for.  Maybe that’s bad.  Surely if I want to write it I should love it.  But maybe my goal is different, and really what I want to do is write something better than the stuff I don’t like.  Try to improve on it.

I still have to read it to do that.  Doing so will also give me a good sense of what’s already been done, so that I avoid doing something unintentionally derivative.  Or worse, being accused of plagiarism simply because I wasn’t well-enough read to have found something that’s a lot like what I’m doing.

Actually, I’ve already encountered books with very similar elements to what I’m writing.  Twice, at least.  Initially I found that pretty discouraging, and wondered if there was any point of continuing.  But I was reminded of what I tell my students: few of them will ever create something truly original.  That’s just reality.  If it’s possible to do, it’s probably been done.  So the objective is to do something that may have already been done, but to do it in a new, better way than it’s been done before.  As one person told me, if my book is similar to something already out there, the people who liked that one will be interested in reading mine precisely because it is similar.  As long as it’s creative and engaging, I’m fine.

So, again, the key is to read.  If I encounter another writer doing something that reflects on what I’m doing, no one says I should throw my hands up in despair.  And they certainly don’t suggest I stop reading.  In the end it’s all different ways of broadening my horizons.  We all can learn from each other, even from the people with whom we disagree.

And I guess that means I can still benefit from reading YA books that I don’t like.  Even with a book I hate, perhaps I’ll find something that turns on a light in my own writing.  Let’s just hope it’s not a bulb that was already tried and rejected before I even got started.

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