The three camera set up. Filmed before a live audience. Respecting the writer as a source of creative impetuous. Drama that defied expectations rather than playing to them. These were all hallmarks of television’s fascinating infancy. It was an era of invention and accommodation, a constant struggle between the formulas inherent in entertainment and the people who wanted to push beyond them. While some of the best examples of silly and seriousness have yet to find a formidable presence on DVD, the 12 shows highlighted proved the intrinsic power of the electric in-home companion. And cinema had a right to be worried—the innovation originally provided by motion pictures was being usurped by the fledgling format.
I Love Lucy
Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, William Frawley, Richard Keith
(CBS; US: 15 Oct 1951)
You can argue it until you’re red in the head, but I Love Lucy was—and remains—the first true situation comedy. Ignoring its radio wave past and plowing through all the early boob tube broth to reach this consensus, it’s an argument that’s hard to beat. Clamor for The Honeymooners all you want, but aside from the occasional “get rich quick” scheme or major mess made out of a misunderstanding, the Kramdens and the Nortons were people first, potent pratfalls second. Ozzie and Harriet may have stayed around longer, and fostered the family-based funfest, but their interrelated follies were often couched in the cautionary, not the comic example. No, when it arrived on the air, I Love Lucy set standards that are still used today (benchmarks like filming before a live audience, using three cameras to capture the chaos), while proving that, as long as you had set personality traits in place, the circumstances could clearly dictate the clever. Certainly other shows mined the endless vein of vaudeville and variety to come up with risible reasons for their stars to slip on the banana peel. But I Love Lucy was different.
As people, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo were complex and crafty, not physical comedy props. Along with their lifelong friends and neighbors, Fred and Ethel Mertz, the entire social dynamic was represented: old and young, famous and common. Placed together with absurdist notions of acceptable human behavior and those ever-ripe, overly complicated plots, this joke-filled juggernaut ruled the airwaves from the start… and technically hasn’t stopped. Over 53 years later, I Love Lucy is still one of the timeless classics of television, old or new. And thanks to Paramount, which has released the entire run of the celebrated show in content packed full-season sets, we get a chance to witness the daunting magic made by actors Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, William Frawley, and Vivian Vance. As a foursome, they were formidable. As an example of how the media managed both the human being and the humorous happenstance, no show was/is better.
The Ed Sullivan Show
(CBS; US: 20 Jun 1948)
It marked the creation of “event” TV, an hour out of each and every week where families simply stopped what they were doing to sit down and experience a collection of vaudeville style variety acts. As modern entertainment, The Ed Sullivan Show was as old fashioned as Uncle Milty in drag. But as a standard bearer of cultural relevance, as a mirror reflecting the changing face of all the artforms, the former gossip columnist turned TV host knew no rival. His was the stage where Elvis Presley’s swiveling hips received a standards and practices censorship mandate. It was where The Beatles began the British Invasion of our shores and where follow-up acts like The Rolling Stones were asked to change their “racy lyrics”. While it was also the home of opera singers and jugglers, a tiny Italian mouse named Topo Gigio and various name and nightclub comics, there was one consistent aspect of Sullivan’s showcase: if you made it there, you were destined to be a superstar. For nearly 23 years—from 1948 to 1971—the stone faced MC with the stiff, statue like mannerisms was America’s tastemaker. There is nothing remotely like him today.
As for The Ed Sullivan Show‘s DVD legacy, there is good news and bad news. Not surprisingly, most of his earliest programs no longer exist. In sharp contrast, many classic rock performances were preserved, in large part, due to contractual requirements with record labels and the talent themselves. You can readily find various compilations of the Sullivan series on the digital format. Most center on a single entity (Elvis), idea (music), or theme (Broadway performances). In such small doses, and without the weekly excitement of anticipating the evening’s entertainment, the catch-all concept—dog act followed by a dramatic reading further accented by a folk group singing protest songs—represented an overview of the cultural signs of the times. Sullivan knew that, to keep audiences coming back, he had to consistently present what was new, what was hot, and what was hip. Some of these talents failed to endure. Others remain as eternal as the show itself.
Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, Joyce Randolph
(CBS; US: 1 Oct 1955)
The Honeymooners got its start as a sketch as part of The Cavalcade of Stars in 1950. Over the course of the next five years, the segments grew in popularity. Hoping to capitalize on its success, star Jackie Gleason crafted a standalone half-hour sitcom. The setup of the show was simplicity itself. Ralph Kramden an overweight, loudmouthed, hard-working bus driver lives in a small apartment in Brooklyn with his kind-hearted, put-upon wife Alice. Ralph’s best friend is Ed Norton, a ditzy soul who works in the sewers. His wife is the ex-burlesque dancer Trixie. The wives are also gal pals, both in their domestic drudgery and husband-hampered existence. But these married couples sincerely love each other and express their emotions freely and openly. Debuting in 1955 and only lasting one 39-episode season, The Honeymooners was never a huge ratings triumph and Gleason returned to the variety show format. But over the course of time, something odd happened. In reruns and reverie, The Honeymooners’ cult developed into a universal legion of devoted followers. Even with the release of “The Lost Episodes” in the mid-‘80s (from Gleason’s own private collection), fans and scholars still returned to the Classic 39 to experience comedic perfection at its most sublime.
Paramount provides The Honeymooners: The Classic 39 Episodes in a five-disc DVD presentation that is short on bonus features but long on transfer polish. Some websites have argued that more care should have been taken with the prints offered, as there are numerous scratches, dirt, flaws, and age issues to be found here. And this critic was about to complain. But when TV Land hosted a marathon of The Honeymooners in honor of Art Carney’s (who played Ed Norton) passing back in 2003, all proposed visual complaints disappeared. After seeing the shockingly poor quality of the episodes offered on the cable channel, the DVD suddenly looked incredible. The bonus features are underwhelming, to say the least. There are 20-some minutes from what appears to be a much longer Honeymooners television special and the original Buick sponsorship opening and closing to the show. For a series of this importance, the studio should have offered more than a few interviews and a couple of commercial castoffs. But the chance to finally own these classic comedy jewels more than makes up for the lack of special considerations… for now.
The Andy Griffith Show
Andy Griffith, Ron Howard, Don Knotts, Frances Bavier
(CBS; US: 3 Oct 1960)
Let me climb out on a short limb and assert that the late Don Knotts’ immortal comic creation, The Andy Griffith Show’s Barney Fife, is not only the most interesting character in television history (Tony Soprano is a close second), but surpasses in complexity most characters in serious literature as well.
Excitable, self-important, self-deluded, childlike, deeply incompetent, profoundly insecure, cowardly and cheap, Barney Fife was a provincial nit-picker whose idea of a vacation was a week at the YMCA watching others play ping-pong and eating tapioca pudding for dessert. Yet he would give his life for his beloved Andy or any other citizen of Mayberry, was a dedicated (if utterly unqualified) mentor to Opie, always managed to bounce back from his innumerable humiliations, and conducted a mysterious relationship with a shadowy slattern named Juanita even as he maintained a perhaps excessively wholesome relationship with the endlessly understanding Thelma Lou.
Now, that’s a character worth preserving in an eight-season, 40-disc set.
It helps, of course, that Andy Griffith and the series’ writers and producers created, in Mayberry, an appealing imaginary world where strife was nearly non-existent; what few criminals there were enjoyed basket lunches prepared by Aunt Bee and could free themselves by taking advantage of either Barney’s credulousness or a skeleton key helpfully hung near the cells. The safety, quaintness and quietude of Mayberry is part of the show’s charm, and the fact that it existed at the height of both the Cold War and the Jim Crow era (neither of which the show bothered to acknowledge) is less a commentary on its obliviousness than an explanation for its timelessness.
Of course, it goes without saying that there were a few “types” on display in Mayberry, such as the boozehound Otis and the bumpkins Gomer and Goober. (Though watching those two snap to attention when marginally less moronic Barney instructed them on the finer points of criminology is one of the many comic delights of the show.) But for the most part, the characters, whether appealing (the avuncular straight-man Andy himself), unappealing (his saccharine girlfriend, Helen) or simply inexplicable (Floyd, the vaguely deranged barber) were one of a kind. So was Opie, one of those rare TV children who are neither precocious nor bratty, just a genuine-seeming kid portrayed by an actor whose growth into a major Hollywood director has regrettably coincided with the film industry’s loss of interest in creating the kind of indelible, multi-dimensional characters that he and his castmates once exemplified.