Life with Lucy: A Look at Lucille Ball’s Last Series, 33 Years Later
This month, 33 years ago, the Queen of Comedy, Lucille Ball, debuted what would be her fourth and final television series, ‘Life with Lucy’. The show was initially a much lauded comeback for Ball who had just come off of a highly successful dramatic role in the television movie ‘Stone Pillow’.
The comeback though, would be short-lived.
In 1985 Lucille Ball won critical acclaim for the dramatic turn she had taken with her role in ‘Stone Pillow’, portraying a homeless woman living on the streets of New York. The movie showed Ball in a way audiences had never seen her.
Gone was her trademark red hair, bright red lipstick, long black lashes and endearing mishaps. In their place was a gray-haired, anything-but glamorous, jaded woman, trying to get through after having lost everything. The movie was a ratings boon for ABC and won Ball critical acclaim for the quality and range of her acting.
Less than a year later, on September 20, 1986, ‘Life with Lucy’ would premiere on ABC.
It seemed like a no-brainer. Stars from previous eras of television were seeing a sitcom resurgence (‘The Cosby Show’, ‘The Golden Girls’) and Ball’s previous sitcoms had all been runaway successes for CBS. The comedienne spent 26 consecutive years on television with her previous sitcoms ‘I Love Lucy’, ‘The Lucy Desi Comedy Hour’, ‘The Lucy Show’ and ‘Here’s Lucy’. And with the success of ‘Stone Pillow’, Ball had proven that even at 74 years old, she could still command a television audience.
The premise of ‘Life with Lucy’ saw Ball remaining true to her “Lucy” character while simultaneously evolving her, as she had in her previous shows. This time, Lucy was a grandmother moving in with her daughter’s family. Now with the last name Barker, this incarnation of “Lucy”, had recently suffered the loss of her husband Sam and taken his half share of a hardware store, co-owned by Ball’s longtime television straight man, Gale Gordon.
‘Life with Lucy’ started out as a success.
The show won its time slot the night it premiered and ranked at number 23 in the Nielsen television ratings for the week but the critics were harsh.
The Washington Post called the show an “embarrassment”. The Associated Press referred to it as “silly” and “sad”, asking, “How could she do this to herself?” The New York Times was not as unforgiving but noted, “Life With Lucy is almost frantically determined to demonstrate that the old gags and routines still work best.”
Ball was devastated.
In 1986 she appeared on ‘The Late Show with Joan Rivers’ to promote the series and told Rivers how dejected she’d been by the “lousy notices” she received. “I can take critique about the show, I’ve done that for years, but to be critiqued for coming back at all, that threw me. I cried, my god I cried.” She added, “I didn’t know that I could be that frightened and hurt.”
Things never got better for the show. While Ball’s previous sitcoms almost never left the top 10, ratings for ‘Life with Lucy’ plummeted following its premiere, and it fell to being among the worst rated on television. ABC cancelled the show, electing not to even air a full season. The network only aired 8 of the 13 episodes filmed.
The problem with ‘Life with Lucy’ may have been something Ball herself had spoken about almost a decade before in a 1977 interview with Barbara Walters. During the interview when Walters asked Ball why she left television, she responded by saying, “I’d been on long enough I thought and I’ve kind of always prided myself on knowing when to get off.” She added, “I just felt that I had outgrown that stage and also with the new shows, I began to feel a little old-fashion.”
She echoed that sentiment on ‘The Tonight Show’ with Joan Rivers as a guest host in 1985. When Rivers asked Ball if she would do a new sitcom, Ball responded, “No, I wouldn’t try to top what we did.”
An indication of why Ball ultimately decided to change course and do the new series seems to be found in those interviews as well. With Rivers in 1985, Ball told her, “I like to work, I miss not working.” She told Walters in 1977 that ending her multi-decade television run was “traumatic”, adding that immediately after leaving television, she was “in limbo” and “in shock”. “There wasn’t anything I wanted to do but go back to work,” she said.
Ball largely disappeared from the public eye following the failure of ‘Life with Lucy’, aside from what would be her final public television appearance, at the 61st Annual Academy Awards in 1989. She, alongside fellow presenter Bob Hope, received a nearly minute-long standing ovation.
Ball would pass away one month later of heart failure.
Since then, ‘Life with Lucy’ has largely drifted into obscurity. It became the only Lucy show that had never been released for purchase (in October, the full series will be released for the first time) and, aside from a one-time stint on ‘Nick at Nite’, never aired in syndication.
The show was donated, by its producer Aaron Spelling, to the Lucy-Desi Museum in New York.
All of this begs the question, was ‘Life with Lucy’ really that bad? In short, it wasn’t terrible but it needed work.
One of the key problems with the show seemed to be less with Lucy herself and more with the supporting actors (with the exception of Gale Gordon and Donovan Scott). They all seemed to be overacting, shouting their lines, and not really offering much to the show.
Lucille Ball was also in a tough position with a TV comeback. She had portrayed the same type of character for over two decades, to great success. If she had returned to television, particularly to a sitcom, playing a different type of character, and it failed, the criticism would likely have been that she should have stuck with the formula that worked for her for so many years, playing a character audiences loved. The logical approach would seem to be that if it wasn’t broke, it didn’t need fixing. The problem is, by failing with this approach, the inevitable criticism became that she was using a dated format that no longer worked. It was almost a no win situation.
Another issue might have been Lucy’s age and ageism.
Show producer Aaron Spelling once said that while watching one of the physical comedy routines Ball did for the first episode show, the audience did not laugh - they gasped. “They were afraid she was going to fall at this age,” he said.
Initially I reacted the same way. It was not that Ball had slowed down, actually quite the opposite, but it was jolting seeing a 75 year old woman doing physical comedy bits on a rolling ladder, even if that woman was Lucille Ball.
That said, after a moment, I adjusted to not being accustomed to seeing someone that age do the things she was doing, and it became funny (possibly even funnier). A typical portrayal of a grandmother might see them baking or knitting in a rocking chair. That was not Lucy as a grandmother.
Toward the end of the first episode, Lucy accidentally floods the store with foam from an industrial strength fire extinguisher, after accidentally starting a fire in a trashcan. At one point all you can see is foam and the very top of Lucy’s red hair as she attempts to make her way to the machine to turn it off - and it is absolutely hilarious.
On the episode titled, ‘Lucy Gets Her Wires Crossed’, Lucy attempts to repair an electric recliner. Once she believes she has it repaired she attempts to show the family that she fixed it. The chair begins to malfunction and toss her around. It is hysterical.
It reminded me of antics from characters like Steve Urkel on ‘Family Matters’ and Raven Baxter on ‘That’s So Raven’.
The conventional wisdom on the commercial failure of ‘Life with Lucy’ is that the show presented a dated program to an audience that had moved on from that style of comedy, but as I kept watching it, I started to feel like it was quite the opposite.
Viewing ‘Life with Lucy’ in a modern context, it is easy to see Lucy’s flooding of the hardware store as something Steve Urkel would have done on ‘Family Matters’. It’s not hard to imagine Raven Baxter getting stuck in a malfunctioning recliner on That’s So Raven (and even now on ‘Raven’s Home’). These shows came years after ‘Life with Lucy’.
While shows like ‘Family Matters’ and ‘That’s So Raven’ used physical comedy similar to Lucy’s final series, to great success, other new shows have mirrored the show in other ways. ‘Life with Lucy’ depicted a multi-generational household, something that is only now beginning to make its way to sitcoms with shows like Netflix’s Tia Mowry series ‘Family Reunion’ and ABC’s ‘Black-ish’.
If ‘Life with Lucy’ had premiered in modern times, it’s not hard to imagine it doing well on Disney Channel, ABC Family or Netflix.
Ultimately, ‘Life with Lucy’ may have in fact been an anachronism, not because it was behind the times but perhaps because, in many ways, it was ahead of them.
A version of this story appeared in The San Diego Monitor News and Business Journal.