‘The Mothers-In-Law’: Just for Good Measure, We’ll Give Everyone the Intelligence of a Radish

“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.

TV Show: The Mothers-in-Law

DVD: The Mothers-in-Law: The Complete Series

Director: Desi Arnaz, Elliott Lewis

Cast: Eve Arden, Kaye Ballard

Release Date: 2010-07-27

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/columns_art/b/barrett-mil-cvr.jpgThe 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.

Keep Up With Us, Now

It’s a minor point, but I also the like the way scenes frequently use jumpcuts for abrupt transitions in time and place, without bridging music or shots or any cues whatever. Older shows used fade-outs and fade-ins between scenes and locations, whereas future sitcoms became more “sophisticated”. Consider how Mary Richards or Bob Hartley never went from home to office without a bit of music and an establishing shot of the outside of the building to ease us into it. That was an MTM Productions thing. Jerry Seinfeld’s show exaggerated this to manic proportions. Consider the elaborate visual patterns used in Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, with the screen breaking up into squares or other jazzy swipes, or even the heart-shaped opticals on Love American Style. Think of the planets flying through Third Rock from the Sun.

The no-frills approach of The Mothers-in-Law actually feels modern in a jagged, no-nonsense way. It says keep up! I hesitate to suggest that a TV sitcom was getting this from films of Richard Lester (who also worked in commercials) or Jean-Luc Godard, but the naked jumpcut was definitely of that era.

Characters in TV shows watch TV unless it’s for a crucial plot point (satirical cartoons like The Simpsons and Family Guy are exceptions), but here’s at least one show that observes America becoming zombified TV viewers. The characters also make topical cracks about Laugh-In (“sock it to me”), the Smothers Brothers, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and other bits of TV hipness.

I don’t know whether my innoculation was wearing off under the relentless invasion of loud antibodies, but I found myself warming somewhat to the second season. The outsize Carmel was replaced as Roger by Richard Deacon (Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke Show), and while one online reviewer bemoans this and finds the wind taken out of the sails, I find Season Two slightly funnier and more credible. They have more guests and get outside of their own pettiness more often. Some episodes even have nothing to do with the premise of busybody mothers.

The second season premiere features Jeanette Nolan as Kaye’s Italian grandma Gabriela Balotta, whose sudden arrival from the old country prompts the gang to stage a phony wedding for her benefit. (She’s been told the kids had a year-long engagement instead of eloping.) “Why does everything always get spoiled?” cries Suzie in a moment that feels surprisingly real. It’s soundly ignored, because the only answer would be “We’re written that way.” Nolan re-appears later as Scottish nanny Annie McTaggert in an episode showing that everyone is somehow a master of the bagpipe and the highland fling. I’m sorry they got rid of her.

One episode has Paul Lynde, another vet who can deliver lines as if they’re funny, walking through a guest role as a man who runs a computer dating service. The next episode, which wraps up with the whole family in an encounter session, has a funny bit where the mothers impersonate each other. (The therapist is played by Arden’s husband, Brooks West.) The next episode is a flashback to when the families met, back when Roger wrote bad radio shows. Another episode turns on dream sequences about an Alaskan igloo. A show about pet-sitting has funny cross-purpose dialogues about pregnancy.

Then there’s a show where the mothers’ own perfectly reasonable mothers-in-law, Frances Buell (Barbara Morrison) and Clarita Hubbard (Doris Packer), descend on them for a visit. This one ends with an extended Dixieland jam session from an all-female band. Speaking of bands, Kaye always reminisces that she used to sing for one Ossie Snick. In one episode, the non-legendary Snick shows up in the person of Ozzie Nelson, making a curious crossover from the world of polite, orderly sitcoms. They perform his song “North Dakota Moon” and he proves pretty good with the slapstick.

This particular segment highlights a subject occasionally mentioned on the series. The Buells are always coming over to watch the Hubbards’ color TV, including a Peyton Place-type serial for which Roger writes. The TV is broken in this episode, and Kaye asks in desperation, “What will we do? We always watch TV at night!” Eve asks, “What did we do before we sat like lumps in front of a TV?” and Roger answers “Sat like lumps in front of a radio.” Several other episodes refer derisively to people “sitting on their spines” in front of TV.

It’s a recurring theme by creator/writers Davis and Carroll (who had also written for radio), and it’s another moment of odd self-consciousness in this series. Did they partly dislike what they were a part of? One thing that characters in TV shows rarely ever do is watch TV unless it’s for a crucial plot point (satirical cartoons like The Simpsons and Family Guy are exceptions), but here’s at least one show that observes America becoming zombified TV viewers. The characters also make topical cracks about Laugh-In (“sock it to me”), the Smothers Brothers, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and other bits of TV hipness.

One 1969 episode has the show’s single strange, uncomfortable brush with “relevance”, a buzzword for sitcoms one or two years later. (I’m not counting the moment when Eve makes a gratuitous reference to Ho Chi Minh.) A ragged-looking hippie accuses the moms of prejudice because they won’t rent the garage apartment to him without six months’ advance (they’re trying to drive away all tenants). They brush him off, but the next tenant is African-American lawyer Solomon Elkins (Scoey Mitchell), and he assumes they’re racially motivated. “I am not prejudiced. I didn’t even notice you were black!” exclaims Eve.

He threatens to sue them and notify all kinds of agencies. “I wish I could hate him without being prejudiced,” she says. Nor does this episode forget that Kaye often accuses everyone of hating Italians, so that gets linked into the topic. “Let’s have one race riot at a time,” says Eve. To double the yuks, the men have secretly engaged a “houseboy” for the month, and guess what assumption they make about Solomon? This is the kind of edgy, in-your-face, bad-taste situation we could expect later in All in the Family or other sitcoms about pressing hot social buttons.

In this season, the show finally took advantage of its LA/Hollywood setting to borrow another page from the Desilu handbook: big guest stars appearing as themselves. Don Rickles and Jimmy Durante both get into the act, and the finale has singer Marni Nixon (best known today for dubbing the singing of famous women in musicals, like Natalie Wood, Audrey Hepburn and Deborah Kerr). By the way, another guest on the finale is Mary Jane Croft, a regular on The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy. (As of this second season of The Mothers-in-Law, The Lucy Show had shut down and been replaced by Here’s Lucy.)

In the episode of 9 January 1969, Suzie gives birth to twins Hildy and Joey, a fact not mentioned in the standard reference books. It comes as a total surprise to all, which doesn’t speak highly of the gynecologist. Or the mom, for that matter. Whenever babies join a show, they’re usually played by twins, but here’s a rare example where the show had twins. Were they played by quadruplets? Of course they’re not actually on the stage before an audience; we only see them as briefly inserted close-ups, dropped in from another universe.

The penultimate episode might have been lifted wholesale from I Love Lucy, as it concerns the women’s ill-fated attempts to get jobs after their husbands shout at them for spending too much money on credit cards. As has often been made clear, the women have no money and depend entirely on husbands who expect dinner on the table when they come home. The husbands sometimes encourage them to find part-time work to “keep themselves busy” but they always resent it when nobody’s home, since guys are incapable of boiling water or washing a dish. More than any other element on the show — more than people dressed as animals, more than Don Rickles playing violin in a pink negligee — this convention of helpless, well-dressed women without any personal cash must seem the most alien to the post-Friends generation. At least we hope so.

Among those who make multiple appearances are Judy Franklin (a few brief moments as Suzie’s friend Cynthia), Bruce Kirby (a few episodes as neighbor Bill Trumbull–a distant relative of Lucy’s Mrs. Trumbull?), June Whitley (twice as his wife Betty Trumbull), Herb Voland (a few episodes as Dr. Butler, the gynecologist), Harry Hickox (twice as neighbor Vic Cornell), Shirley Mitchell (twice as his wife Margaret), Jerry Hausner (Ricky’s agent on I Love Lucy, here twice in different roles), and Joe Besser of the latter-day Three Stooges.

Other guests include familiar faces who were all over TV at the time: Rob Reiner, Larry Storch, Percy Helton, Alice Ghostley, Avery Schreiber, Terri Garr, Joi Lansing, Beverly Garland, John Byner, Jerome Cowan (always a stuffy banker or official), Jay Novello (the mayor on McHale’s Navy), Alan Reed (Fred Flintstone’s voice), Stafford Repp (Commissioner Gordon on Batman), Jeff Donnell (a woman who’d been a 1940s ingenue, here a middle-aged secretary), Donna Loren (who sang in Beach Party movies but not here), Bilko regular Herbie Faye, and Mel Blanc as the voice of a mynah bird.

Since this show emphasizes its visual production, we should mention photographers Robert De Grasse (premiere), Henry Cronjager (early episodes), and Henry Freulich; art directors Pato Guzman, Carl Brounger, and Howard Hollander; set decorators Arthur Jeph Parker and Carl Biddiscombe; and special props to costumer Marjorie M. Henderson.

The extras on Disc 8 are good and plentiful, with a few rare treasures. The unaired pilot for The Mothers-in-Law is basically the same as the premiere except for a different actress as Suzie. There are home movies from one episode. There are commercials of the period, including a few with The Mothers-in-Law characters; these had been dropped into some of the episodes. Most of the commercials are aimed at women’s self-consciousness about dandruff or clean clothes. (Procter & Gamble was the sponsor, telling us this Sunday night series was apparently aimed at whatever female audience wasn’t watching The Ed Sullivan Show or The FBI.)

Ballard is interviewed and even sings Sammy Cahn’s previously unheard lyrics to Jeff Alexander’s manic theme music. She mentions three plot ideas that came from her own loud Italian family, and she observes that The Mothers-in-Law and The Doris Day Show got her typecast as a loud Italian when she’d previously had a more sophisticated reputation. Even so, she loved working on The Mothers-in-Law and recalls it fondly.

Lucille Ball interviews Eve Arden on two charming 15-minute episodes of a daily radio series called Let’s Talk to Lucy (1964-65), which are illustrated with Arden’s photos and home movies of the family and their trip to Italy. These make it clear that Arden is infinitely pleasant and intelligent, making me all the sorrier that the sitcom uses her as a dumb screecher. Her first Desilu series, Our Miss Brooks, is the one that needs to be released immediately. It was a pioneer working-woman sitcom, and Miss Brooks at her most desperate would never have gotten stuck with Herb Rudley.

There are clips of Ballard on The Hollywood Palace and The Mike Douglas Show and a lovely clip of Arden singing and dancing with Cyd Charysse on a Startime special. Charysse’s TV work includes classic specials with Fred Astaire and it all deserves to be on DVD.

There are two unsold pilots made by Arnaz. He produced and directed The Carol Channing Show, also written by Carroll and Davis. It’s not quite That Girl but points in the general direction. Like The Mothers-in-Law, it’s based on slapstick, but its heroine is likeable and cheerful. Channing plays a Pollyanna-type trying to break into show biz in New York, and her efforts to find work create havoc. She lives with a friend (Jane Dulo) and the friend’s policeman husband (Richard Deacon again). This has mod credits, a theme by Hello Dolly‘s Jerry Herman, photography by Maury Gertsman (The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy, once again) and a sequence that wonderfully shows off Channing’s dancing. Since that sequence comes after the main plot and makes the show run several minutes overtime and none of its cast is listed in the credits, I surmise that this material was shot a bit later and inserted to give the thing more variety.

Land’s End is a two-fisted, half-hour adventure about a man who owns a resort in Baja, California. It stars Rory Calhoun, who apparently intended to anticipate Magnum P.I. by playing the whole series in tight short-shorts and semi-unbuttoned shirt, with a cravat yet. Also seen are Gilbert Roland as the Mexican police captain, Leigh Chapman as eye candy, ex-boxer Sonny Tufts as a local salt, and Martin Milner as the guy behaving suspiciously. Arnaz seems to have a cameo as the guest who wants to cash a check. Gerald Sanford’s uninspired script depends on colorful location photography by Fouad Said (I Spy) to put it over. Arnaz directed, co-created, co-produced, and even wrote the theme music, a tune called “I Love You” that he also performed on The Mothers-in-Law. This pilot, which apparently was broadcast, even includes commercials.

Had I been conscious and capable of choices while The Mothers-in-Law was on the air, I’d probably have been watching Ed Sullivan like everyone else (and I suppose I was, since my parents did). No, strike that — as a tyke, I loved all physical comedy without reservation, and the simplicity and vividness of this show might have burned into my brain like Gilligan’s Island. Even now, I feel a bit wistful after the ordeal is over.

Shows like this created their own world within a larger world. That larger world is gone, baby, gone, with only its reflection glimpsed in the gaudy, distorted aspic of the little worlds like this. Reason enough to preserve them.