We all loved Lucy
|By this time, Sunday nights were family time, Ed Sullivan and the Colgate Comedy hour having become mainstays, with Fred Waring providing a hefty portion of music, Philco and Goodyear sponsoring the drama, and Billy Graham rounding out the evening with a dose of the spiritual. |
But somewhere toward evening’s end came comedy veteran Red Skelton. Having had his own radio show since 1941, Red brought with him a cast of characters and a form of gentle comedy that endeared him to all ages. Along with the physical comedy- something he’d not been able to develop on radio- he did pantomime, but truly excelled while working with other performers, where his ad-libbing guaranteed unexpectedly funny results not evident during rehearsal.
Due to his lasting popularity, Skelton was on CBS and NBC in one form or another until 1971.
Then came Monday night, and with it came “I Love Lucy.” One of the first shows to be filmed- thus guaranteeing viewers wouldn’t have to endure the crappy look afforded by kinescope- the show had a professional look that complimented its high-quality scripts and performances. And in a casting coup, producers brought together Lucy with husband Desi Arnaz, Lucy’s BFF Vivian Vance, and her perpetually grouchy husband Fred Mertz (played by William Frawley).
Unlike sit-coms based on the foibles of domestic life, Ricky and Lucy’s lifestyle as musician and wife, respectively, provided more than enough comic fodder. Sometimes the story revolved around something strange happening on the home front, while other plots involved Lucy wanting to be part of Ricky’s show, with hilarious results. Regardless, Lucille Ball was a gifted performer, moving effortlessly from slapstick to crying jags, mime and panic attacks at a moment’s notice. Add to this the mercurial Ricky, comforting Ethyl (Vance) and terminally irascible Fred, and you had the perfect comedy quartet- one that lasted until 1957.
Which brings us to a man whose talent came in under the radar, at least at first. Ernie Kovacs was his name, and remaining ahead of his time, it took years for audiences to catch up. Beginning his time on TV with NBC, Kovacs hosted a series of talk and variety shows, some with audiences and some without.
Ernie eschewed the audience presence, for his style of humor relied on visual elements, not onlookers. He also avoided telling jokes, relying instead on sight gags and satire. But regardless of technique, Ernie was a gifted comedian and mimic, his imagination knowing no bounds.
Wanting to include viewers in his antics, Kovacs would routinely step out from behind his battered, overcrowded desk to walk off the set for a drink of water (down the hall), or wander the stage as he stepped up to and around the cameras. No one or thing was safe from Ernie; cooking shows, war movies, interviews and children’s shows all received the Kovacs treatment, often with hilarious results.
Though comedy was the focus, Ernie wanted to expand his viewers’ exposure to music- especially classical. Ernie would regularly feature his wife Edie Adams singing folk songs and operatic arias, when she wasn’t joining him for various skits. Though no one could keep up with Ernie, when it came to improvisation, Edie was a talented comedian in her own right, her cheerful presence a nice balance and foil for her husband.
Ernie’s TV career went through several iterations, from 1951 until his untimely death in 1962. Some shows were only fifteen minutes in length, while other expanded to an hour or longer, as was the case with several of his TV specials. The only trouble was that network executives were never quite sure what to do with a comic genius who thought outside the box more than within it, which meant huge production cost overruns coupled with Ernie’s unwillingness to compromise.
Regardless, what remains of his recorded shows is comic treasure. Interestingly enough, his game show “Take a Good Look” survives in its entirety (from 1959-1962). The four-person guest panel featured Caesar Romero, Hans Conreid, Edie and a host of other celebrities.
The rest of the week followed, Milton Berle, Dinah Shore, Ted Mack, Arthur Godfrey, Burns & Allen and Groucho providing bigger-than-life entertainment to the masses- and Your Show of Shows bringing the weekend to a fitting end.