Why doesn't the "I Love Lucy" formula work any more?

Let me say first that I am not an old fart :wink:

Does anybody not agree that seeing Lucille Ball stuff chocolates into her blouse is funny? What about Vitameatavegamin? Can you honestly say that was not funny and still expect to go to heaven? (assuming there is such a place) No matter how many times I have seen those episodes, I still laugh. Sometimes out loud.

Why doesn’t the uncomplicated humor of yesterday still work today? Almost all sitcoms of the 80s & 90s bore me to tears. I can actually feel my IQ dropping when trying to watch 3rd Rock or any of the other mind-numbing shows that the networks splice around their commercial advertisements.

It’s gotten so that I don’t even turn on the boob tube some days. I just know it’ll be the same old garbage. IMHO, television sitcoms started to become idiotic shortly after All in the family went off the air, and have only recently picked up a little hope with Seinfeld. You might even say that Seinfeld was the I Love Lucy of the 90s.

Now compare Bewitched to the current abomination Charmed. They are similar shows, both written mainly to be funny, but Charmed does absolutely nothing for me entertainment wise. There’s no Endora, no Uncle Arthur, just a couple (actually I lost count- maybe there were three or four) teenage girls using special effects to make catsup bottles squirt on guys they’re trying to get dates with. There is also a talking cat which appears to be a hand puppet in some shots.

I never saw Lucy or Samantha during the original broadcasts (I told ya’s I’m not an old fart!), only on re-runs. I started watching these shows some time in the late 70s. This was 20 years after I Love Lucy went off the air. So my bias for these shows can’t be related to a generational preference (can it?)

Even when Lucy & Ethel pretended to be martians, it was obvious that they were just two middle aged women wearing rubber noses & swim flippers. But dammit it was hilarious. Why doesn’t the formula work any more?

I am not a TV sociologist, but I’ll be happy to play one.

First off, never forget that Lucille Ball did what she did better than anyone else. Joan Davis was a gifted comedian, but “I Married Joan” was never successful. Gale Storm could look just as stupid as Lucy, but “My Little Margie” looked and felt like a shameless ripoff.

Also, the chemistry between Lucy, Ricky, Ethel and Fred was exceptional. Lucille Ball was never able to recapture it in subsequent series.

Good slapstick is hard. Compare the original Lucy’s with, say, episodes of “Laverne and Shirley” or “3’s Company,” where a lot of their bits were pretty much direct rip-offs.

“Frazier” has had some excellent slapstick that nicely punctuates the mostly dialogue-driven comedy. And let’s not overlook “The Simpsons” if you want real physical comedy. And although you turned up your nose at 3rd Rock, I invite you to catch the series finale when it’s rerun, and watch for Jane Curtin’s classic reactions when she realizes Dick is an alien.

I could grumble that TV writers aren’t nearly as skilled as they were back in the 50s, where most of them came out of a either radio or the movies, and had a solid grounding in entertainment. But I’d venture that even the best writers and actors couldn’t succeed with a format where a wacky redhead tries to break into show business. Tastes in humor have changed too much.

Some WAGs here:
1 What you are comparing are the top shows of yesterday with run of the mill shows of today. I Love Lucy is/was a great show and it was most likly the tops in it’s class at the time it was 1st released. If you were to watch another program produced at that time you might be board w/ it.

2 Most shows today have youth and/or sex as a major theme as they attract people (but maybe are not as entertaining). Back in the I L L days marketers didn’t make that connection (remember a wag is going on here) and sex was taboo on TV (lucy and Ricky had sepperate beds and when Lucy was pregnant they never said the p word Lucy was ‘with child’

3 I think opal has something to do with it but don’t know exactly how.

My theory is that it’s all cyclical. There was a time (late 70s to early 80s) when “action comedies” were all over the place–Dukes of Hazzard, Chips, The A-Team, etc. There was a time when social commentary oriented sitcoms dominated network TV–All in the Family, MASH, Good Times, etc. Today, the dominant wave is the so-called “reality TV” (though of course that label is preposterous and usually close to the antithesis of what these shows actually are)–I think a better label for shows like Survivor, Big Brother, etc. is “voyeur TV”.

What seems like a novel idea to many is very often just a rehash of an old formula–for instance, with blooper and prank shows–Candid Camera made a big splash…then after a while people got used to it…later on, there was “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes”…and later still, “America’s Funniest Home Videos”. Back in the early 90s, AFHV got a lot of attention and high ratings even though the show’s primary distinction/innovation was the very large cash prizes…but after a while it got stale, and viewers could tell that a lot of the videos were staged.

So perhaps someday, the old goofy misunderstanding oriented sitcom formula will rotate back into the spotlight, and people will act like it’s some great new discovery. In any case, I hope that something comes along to make people get bored with voyeur TV shows very soon.

[is he a paid shill?]May I suggest the Cartoon Network? Some of the best writing is, IMHO, happening in animation. I’d rather watch a solid week of Ed, Edd 'n Eddy, The Powerpuff Girls, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Sheep in the Big City or Cow and Chicken than 30 minutes of Ally McBeal. But I’m kinda a freak that way…[/well, maybe he is, but we trust him anyway]

It has a lot to do with the actors and the writers. It has already been noted that the cast on I Love Lucy was exceptional. Before that The Dick Van Dyke Show had a great cast and writers all thrown together. All In The Family was the same. IMHO so was Cheers. It is a known fact that what made Seinfeld was the supporting cast. I guess The Simpsons (which I hate) has the advantage that the writers can make the cast do what they want them to do. So the problem is that there just aren’t enough good actors and writers or enough money to hire good ones.

Seinfeld anyone?

Talent, baby, talent.
When Lucy was on, you had what, 3 networks beaming work across the U.S. 3 networks picking the best writers and comediennes to demonstrate their art.

I can’t even tell you how many exist now-- 2 dozen including cable networks? That’s room for a lot more crap-- just like any major sports league that’s gone through expansion.

But good stuff does exist. Check out Buffy the vampire slayer, sex and the city, the Sopranos, for 3.

um, exsqueeze me? Have you watched the show? Charmed is a demon-butt kicking drama ala Buffy lite. No talking cats, no teenage girls, no squirting catsup to get dates. It and Bewitched may both involved witches, but that’s where the similarity ends.

I think perhaps Attrayant is referring to Sabrina, the Teen-Age Witch with Melissa Joan Hart. Talking cat, yes.

See? There’s so much crap on teevee that I can’t even remember which crappy show was the crappiest. Yeah, maybe it was Sabrina. Who knows. The valid point was made that there is so much crap showing now, that the amount of crap has increased while the amount of non-crap has more or less stayed the same. It’s the needle-in-the-crap-stack problem.


I just hope that Philosophocles’ cycle theory turns out to be right. If not, that means things wiull just keep going downhill.

Voyeur TV is pretty dull.

I have to admit, very few shows on TV really excite me anymore. I was watching a rerun of “Friends” that I’d seen only once before, a few weeks ago, and I have to say it was probably the most boring thing I’ve ever seen. It just irritated me.

There is “The Simpsons” but its gone downhill too…and “Futurama” but the season’s over now. I’ll second OxyMoron’s bid for Cartoon Network. Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Laboratory are great shows. :slight_smile:

I never really got into “I Love Lucy” but I do watch (on Nick-At-Nite) “The Jeffersons” and “All in the Family”- shows that I do find myself actually laughing at. Perhaps the whole sitcom thing has gotten old and tired. At any rate, I know voyeur TV has. Except for The Mole, I liked that one.

Now animation, that’s where old formulas still work-quite well, in my opinion. For example, Sheep in the Big City shows the Bullwinkle formula (wacky serial with clever writing and puns) is alive and well.

(I also like the idea that certain words sound funny. I read an interview with creator Mo Willems where he mentioned he puts certain words in the show just because they sound humorous. His favorite word? Oxymoron.)

I don’t have cable so I can’t comment on the fare there, but I’m glad that the formula crap of the 70’s and 80’s is over. Whenever I tune in to a sitcom in which the entire plot is based around some covered up lie or deception, I change the channel. I Love Lucy invented that formula, but Three’s Company reinvented it and took it to a new (nauseating) level.

Another thing that’s beginning to bother me are sitcoms that are just excuses for a string of one-liners.

The old shows I do like are few. I’ll watch MASH over and over again even though I’ve seen every episode. I can sit through Andy Griffith and Beverly Hillbillies. Other than that, I’d rather watch golf. (And I hate golf.)

The new ones I like are mostly on Fox. I think That 70’s Show and Titus are great. I will actually make time to tune into them. The Simpsons and The Family Guy, of course, just for their satire. One suprise I had was tuning into Dharma and Greg - it actually has some good writing, although they still resort to the “coverup” plot driver occasionally.

One refreshing change was when I was surfing and stopped at Nikki (for obvious reasons) - the plot was about how her husband felt guilty for lying to his wife for the first time, and he confessed.

I found Seinfeld funny for the gags, not the characters, even though I recognized they made the show work. But there seem to be a lot of copycats that try and use the character hook, but not the gags. I’m thinking of Everybody Loves Raymond (except me) and Will and Grace.

I really believe that both “Dharma and Greg” and “Will and Grace” at least attempt to use the “I Love Lucy” format. At times the first season I half expected Greg to break into a a Cuban accent.

“Friends” too had moments.

Okay, am I the only one who laughed at this line? :slight_smile:

A few more WAGS:

There is a serious squeeze going on in Hollywood, where writers older than about 45 find it harder to find work than their younger, and more inexperienced, counterparts. Learning to write well takes experience and practice, and by the time you hone your chops, you’re considered too old.

Also, writers in the '50s had a number of areas from which to spring: movies, the few TV shows, and particularly radio. All of which were perfect for developing the snappy one-lines the shows required. Not so nowadays. Television writers are brought up on television. Like comic book writers and artists brought up with limited exposure to anything outside that field, television writers are equally limited. That form of incest cripples creativity.

I agree with previous posters that the Lucy show was something special: the right combination of talent. Subsequent Lucy series were not as good, and near the end, embarassing to watch.

You also have to consider what else was one during that time. Like today, TV had its share of real stinkers.

TV advertisers are also driving the medium, wanting shows that appeal to that all important demographic group (18-30? 16-35? I forget now. Yes, I’m 41 and therefore unimportant). Also a limiting factor.

I’m surprised that no one has yet mentioned Malcolm in the Middle. If by the “I Love Lucy” formula you mean simple, mostly physical humor resulting from characters being put in silly, awkward situations, than Malcolm certainly qualifies. Of course, it’s more of a family sitcom than a husband/wife/neighbors thing, but the episodes definitely have a kind of Lucy flair about them. Besides, it’s truly hysterical.

I think that Malcolm in the Middle was inspired by Camus The Stranger, especially the little kid.