“The idea was stale, the jokes weren’t funny and the song was terrible,” says Eve Arden at one point. She adds, “I may not like the material but I’m still a trouper.”
Is this a self-conscious moment in the forgotten sitcom The Mothers-in-Law, or am I reading too much into it? Certainly it should give us pause that one of the characters is a TV scriptwriter who makes a good living churning out tired clichés while his neighbors mock him for it.
The Mothers-in-Law is a show that fairly demands to be compared and contrasted with I Love Lucy, and in this case a comparison is fair and instructive. The Mothers-in-Law ran for two seasons (1967-69), and all 56 episodes are now on DVD, burnished with all the Day-Glo color of which so many late ‘60s show were proud. It’s a curious animal. I can’t honestly say I like the show as comedy, since I probably emitted only five or six chuckles during the entire set, yet I have a sometimes masochistic fascination for sitcoms and what they tell us of their era.
The Mothers-in-Law: The Complete Series
Eve Arden, Kaye Ballard
(US: 27 Jul 2010)
The show concerns two neighboring families in a Los Angeles suburb. Eve Hubbard (Eve Arden) is an elegant housewife, never seen doing a lick of housework, whose hubby Herb (Herbert Rudley) is an attorney, never seen on a case. When in repose, Eve sits upon her hideous sofa and drops what are supposed to be clever one-liners. We can tell because Arden’s career was based on delivering dry witticisms. She’d become such a master that she could get by on attitude, and here she has to. Her posture and tone imply for all the world that she’s firing off like Oscar Wilde. Alas, the writers keep giving her blanks. During some of these stale throwaways, sharp ears can detect that the studio audience has been “sweetened” to produce the required titters.
Herb is a superior sort who glowers and mugs and bosses and bullies his wife about putting supper on the table and minding her own business, then flies into childish tantrums like everyone else on the show. If the series has a modus operandi, it’s that the characters are cartoonish kids pretending to be grown-ups.
From the beginning, the Hubbards make it clear via expository dialogue that they can’t stand their neighbors, the Buells. We’re supposed to believe this even though every plot has them spending every waking moment together as if under an ancient curse, or as if they’re in Hell and this is their damnation. Roger Buell (Roger C. Carmel, Harry Mudd on Star Trek) is the narcissistic TV writer who’s big and fat and cheap. The running gag is that he’s always helping himself to Herb’s cigars. Priceless!
His wife Kaye (Kaye Ballard) is the shortest, angriest and most unpleasant character of the four, and it’s because she’s Italian. (That’s the show talking, not me!) Quick to take offense, she bellows, rants in the mother tongue, and makes rude gestures with thumbs and teeth. She’s a little theatrical pit bull with bangs. Her running gag is that she keeps pounding her fist, seemingly quite painfully, into her husband’s chest or shoulder. Trenchant! Modern viewers may be uncomfortable with what’s now called physical abuse, but it’s supposed to be funny from the tiny woman against her towering hubby.
There’s a third couple, literally between them in the Hubbard’s garage apartment. In the first episode, Hubbard daughter Suzie (Deborah Walley) marries the Buell boy, Jerry (Jerry Fogel). Possibly the blandest young couple in any sitcom, they’re frequently reduced to cameos just to remind viewers that they’re still in the series. The exist because the show’s premise is that mothers-in-law are naturally meddlesome, and so two mothers-in-law with instant access to their kids are twice as meddlesome, and mothers-in-law who get on each others’ nerves in the first place increase the madness exponentially, and just for good measure, we’ll give everyone the intelligence of a radish.
The idea behind this idea is that the mothers-in-law have now married each other. This is literalized in a relatively subtle gag in the premiere, when the dreamy mothers are shown walking down the aisle hand in hand. Indeed, they end up having a raucous four-way “honeymoon”, and one of the early episodes even has the gals sharing a bed just because they’ve both broken their legs. For the record, sitcoms had evolved to the point where this show routinely depicts couples in the same bed, and there’s even an episode where a woman screams “I’m pregnant!” to a roomful of people. Lucy Ricardo, you’ll recall, wasn’t allowed to be “pregnant”, only “expecting”.
The comparisons between The Mothers-in-Law and I Love Lucy are obvious: patronizing attitudes toward housewives without an outlet for their energy (a topic discussed out loud in The Mothers-in-Law), a double-act between two married couples with an emphasis on the antics of the women, the presence of a quick-tempered Latin foreigner. Eve Arden is even made up somewhat to resemble Lucille Ball, something underlined at one point when she quips about herself “It ain’t Lucille Ball!”
None of this is accidental. The Mothers-in-Law was created and largely written by Madelyn Davis and Bob Carroll, Jr. They’d been defining writers on I Love Lucy and also worked on early seasons of Ball’s follow-up The Lucy Show. They left that series and re-teamed with Desi Arnaz, whose Desi Arnaz Productions maintained its office at Desilu Studios after he sold his interest in Desilu to his ex-wife. The Mothers-in-Law was even filmed there at Desilu, where The Lucy Show was also being filmed. Wilbur Hatch and his orchestra scored both shows, as he’d done for I Love Lucy. Talk about friendly relations.
Arnaz directed many episodes; the other director is Elliott Lewis, who replaced Al Lewis as producer after early episodes. Arnaz also appears four times as Count Raphael del Gado, a Spanish matador, and the show really feels (nicely) like a throwback when he regales us with a little song and dance. He still had it. On two of these shows, he’s joined by Desi Arnaz Jr.
With all these similarities between I Love Lucy and The Mothers-in-Law, we may ask why the former is a masterpiece while the latter is a shrill pill. To be fair, I must admit that The Mothers-in-Law has its admirers. You will find glowing reviews of this show elsewhere online. Your reviewer’s octagenarian mother often laughed at the spectacle of the slapstick, declaring it “so silly, it’s funny”, though she later admitted to getting a little tired of the show. It’s fatiguing, especially in marathon. Still, you can’t argue with laughter, and the burden of proof may be on me to explain why it doesn’t click for this viewer.
This is a series based on chaos, just like I Love Lucy or Sgt. Bilko. One could argue that these other shows are also about loud, obnoxious, one-dimensional stereotypes, but here we find an important distinction. Careful examination of I Love Lucy reveals that the Ricardos and the Mertzes never (or rarely) do anything stupid. They do wacky things, perhaps unreasonable things, but they are never stupid people. On the contrary, they are outright brilliant. I believe the record will also show that these four characters are both original and likeable.
The two great structural devices of I Love Lucy are:
1) Like a game of cat’s cradle, the alliances shift constantly and seamlessly among schemers in perpetual war against the world and each other, from women vs. men, to neighbor vs. neighbor, to three against Ricky, to Lucy contra mundum. These combinations, changing from episode to episode or within each episode, made the show protean. It wasn’t always battle of the sexes, or Ricky vs. Lucy.
2) Each plot is based on a series of reversals and counter-reversals such that it becomes impossible to predict who will come out on top. We most vividly remember Lucy as the ridiculous goat because she was such a gifted clown, and we forget that just as many episodes are about Lucy triumphant. All four characters are so resourceful and ingenious, whether working in tandem or against each other, that someone will often triumph in the teeth of disaster. Lucy, and the others, succeed as often as they are chastened. This made the show endlessly fresh, even in its thousandth rerun. The show became about its eternal struggles and what they represent, not a series of foregone conclusions.
Here is where The Mothers-in-Law falls down. There’s no getting around it: all four parents are morons. There are no displays of ingenuity and resourcefulness that miraculously deliver anyone from anything. Their crises are contrived by themselves, and their own irritating stupidity leads to their slapstick humiliation. Of course humor is personal and subjective, but alas, we’re not talking about humor. We’re talking about fools who scream at each other, predictably and repetitiously. They are unpleasant figures in a loud landscape. Many people won’t want to spend 30 minutes with them, even to see them covered with glop or breaking their limbs or tumbling through roofs or getting arrested, again.
Is it really as bad as all that? Mostly, and yet there are moments. Even viewers who don’t think the show is funny must recognize its surrealism. The ‘60s were the most surreal decade on TV, and this show has scenes as bizarre as any sitcom, even without castaways or martians or robots or talking animals or reincarnated automobiles. The characters often have wacky get-ups for this or that reason, and even their everyday clothes aren’t subdued. It takes a certain kind of brain to invent the image of a bag that jumps in the air (there’s a dog in it) while headless people walk by (it’s a gag by the hubbies because, oh never mind). It may be cheesy and ridiculous, but its absurdity is so wild and pure that whether it’s funny might be beside the point.
One of the saving elements borrowed from the Desilu comedies is the idea of performance. Arnaz’s musical background comes out in the show’s devotion to the concept of “pure entertainment”. Since Ballard was and is a singer, many episodes toss in some kind of local performance. Ballard is usually joined by Arden, and just as often it’s all four (or six) of the regulars. When episodes drift into these productions, unmoored from the mechanics of plot, it can actually become pleasant. This is especially true when they’re doing a classic song instead of one of Roger’s terrible originals. In her interview on Disc 8, Ballard gives credit to Arden for these musical numbers, but just as often there are bits when Ballard sings alone, as when she gets carried away with “Rockabye Baby” and begins belting it out dramatically. She’s burlesquing it, but she knows she’s good.
A more unfortunate performance episode seems to aim at a younger audience. A real rock group called the Seeds (as the Warts) shows up to perform their one hit, “Workin’ Too Hard”. This one works too hard to make the parents look like squares. They trip over mod lingo like “far out” and “groovy” and suggest the boys get haircuts and wear tuxedos; these gags were stale by 1968. They also suggest the band perform novelty songs like “Two Little Fishies” (“and they fam and they fam all over the dam”). The singer asks if they seriously want people to hear those lyrics. I’m reminded of how Steve Allen used to lampoon lyrics like “Yeah Yeah Yeah” and Frank Zappa riposted with lyrics to this song and “Mairzydoats and Dozydoats”. Notice that The Mothers-in-Law is self-conscious enough to make that point, but the irony is that the series is pitched squarely (as it were) at the very stay-at-home middle-aged viewers who must have agreed with the Hubbards and Buells even as the show made fun of them.