|Reprinted from the|
Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television
Vol. 18, No. 3 (August, 1998)
Laughs, Luck...and Lucy:
How I Came to Create
the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time
by Jess Oppenheimer with Gregg Oppenheimer
Syracuse University Press Softcover
(312 pages, 53 illustrations), plus 72-min. Audio Compact Disc
$19.95 ISBN #0-8156-0584-6 www. lucynet.com
by M.K. MacMurraugh-Kavanagh, University of Reading
IT IS IRONIC THAT JESS OPPENHEIMER, in the unpromisingly-titled Laughs, Luck...and Lucy: How I Came to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time (prepared for posthumous publication by Oppenheimer's son), announces that his book offers an 'incomplete history' (p. xvii) before proceeding to offer a 'history' of magnificently complete proportions. The prolific television writer outlines in this volume an account of his work on CBS Television's seminal situation comedy, I Love Lucy (1951-1957), whilst simultaneously presenting a first-hand account of American broadcasting history.
Oppenheimer's reach extends from the chaotic shambles of 1920s local radio (at KFRC) on through 1930s Hollywood, where programmes were produced almost entirely by advertising agencies, through the arrival of television and its deadly consequences for radio and, finally, to the triumph of one of its definitive forms (sit-com) in I Love Lucy, a show that effected union between film and televisual practice in its status as 'a Hollywood television film series' (p. 194). Throughout, Oppenheimer also supplies a technological history of crucial television revolutions (including the use of the 'three-camera' technique and the birth of the Jayo Viewer [TelePrompTer], the latter being the author's own invention) and offers first-hand appraisals of a cast of characters including Groucho Marx, Marlene Dietrich, Fred Astaire and, of course, Lucille Ball, whilst supplying any reader with a particular interest in formative US sit-com (or formative US radio and television in general) with a feast of facsimiled documentation of which any written archive would be proud.
All is delivered in the engagingly humorous idiom of the most influential television comedy writer of his generation. The book opens with the dramatically satisfying emphasis upon the cultural penetration of I Love Lucy as proven by the fact that the fictional account of the fictional protagonist's delivery of a fictional son in January 1953 was watched by 40 million viewers, 15 million more than the viewership for President Eisenhower's inauguration screened on all three networks the following day. Having secured his reader, Oppenheimer then moves backwards in time to an autobiographical account of his formative years perceived through undiagnosed and socially crippling double-vision. That these sections are as compelling for the reader as the later material dealing with the Lucy phenomenon, for which the book will presumably be bought, is testimony to the fluidity with which Oppenheimer writes. Here, personal reminiscence is interwoven with showbusiness anecdotes from later years in a constructed stream-of-comedic consciousness, skillfully paced in its placement of dramatic moments and crucial encounters.
In fact, as such reminiscences find later echoes in various Lucy episodes, usefully transcribed at length here, it becomes increasingly apparent that the sections of autobiographical narrative are often more rewardingly comic than the scripts in which these life-incidents found subsequent expression. Forty years on, these transcribed sections from My Favorite Husband (the show on which Oppenheimer's association with Lucille Ball began in 1948) and I Love Lucy seem curiously 'carnivalesque' at best, and gravely unsophisticated at worst, while the extracts from Baby Snooks scripts, written by Oppenheimer for Fanny Brice in the 1940s, now suggest territories of a more dubious nature still. This is not to diminish these series, but to note that their value lies less in their status as triumphs of comedy than in their historical function as definitive sociocultural barometers. In effect, Oppenheimer here supplies evidence suggesting that, while a society's sense of comedy and tragedy remains broadly constant, the expression of that 'sense' is immensely mutable since it is conditioned by historical and cultural shifts in consciousness. Whilst emphasising the taste for 'low-brow', 'screwball comedy' in 1930s Hollywood (p. 89), and the appreciation of 'ham' or 'clown' performance in the Lucy shows, Oppenheimer simultaneously offers an entire social 'history' illustrated through the movement of comedic culture.
The value to the reader of a book written in this generally autobiographical, 'insider' mode is enormous. Readers especially interested in the I Love Lucy phenomenon and secondarily in its 'prototype' My Favorite Husband will find here a stream of 'hands-on' knowledge, including the evolution of characters, of certain scripts and of situations, which would be unavailable from any other source. Oppenheimer's narrative concerning his creation of the show and his subsequent work upon it also provides direct routes into analysing the reasons why the series impacted upon mass consciousness in so unique a manner; here, the writer's emphases upon the programme's 'realistic' basis (by no means antithetical to its 'carnivalesque' excesses), its concern for social extension and its constant reach towards points of audience identification are all raised as issues of note. Such issues offer the researcher numerous keys to unlocking the Lucy phenomenon.
In addition, the usefulness and inherent interest of a lengthy appendix which includes transcribed or facsimiled copies of original scripts from My Favorite Husband and I Love Lucy is obvious to even the most casually interested reader. In the case of reprinted facsimiles, scripts are presented complete with corrections and amendations scribbled as the writing and performance processes were under way, this supplying the reader with a fascinating series of historical documents. Since these scripts have usually been discussed at length in the book itself and are included in their performed versions on the CD which is packaged with the book, the reader is in a position to inspect the script, hear it performed and learn of its genesis within the same volume. The appendix also includes an unperformed script and a transcription of out-takes from My Favorite Husband (again included on the accompanying CD). Yet another bonus is the fact that the book is packed with rarely published photographs taken during rehearsals and backstage breaks, facsimiles of letters from John Steinbeck and James Thurber and reprints of crucial Lucy documentation. As a historical compendium, therefore, Oppenheimer's book is outstanding.
Taken as a whole, the volume does contain minor flaws, though none prove damaging to the overall project. Occasional inaccuracies are detectable: for example, Oppenheimer implies that CBS Radio's My Favorite Husband gave birth to situation comedy, an implication that ignores earlier candidates for this distinction such as The Goldbergs (NBC and CBS, 1929-1945). In addition, the author's clearly benign personality perhaps causes him to falsify via omission certain tensions and struggles circulating within the shows in which he was involved. It is, however, this book's perhaps unexpected status as a valuable research tool for all readers interested in issues of form, authorship and formative US broadcasting practise in general that deserves emphasis. As such, the phrase 'incomplete history' ultimately comments more upon Oppenheimer's instinctive, unfeigned modesty than upon the content of this auto-biographical, 'archival' treasure-trove, which makes fewer claims to authority than it surely has a right to do.
|Laughs, Luck...and Lucy: How I Came to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time|
by Jess Oppenheimer with Gregg Oppenheimer
© 1996 by Gregg Oppenheimer. All Rights Reserved