This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.
The format of the American sit-com is so indelibly etched into the consciousness of its audience that it's easy to forget that the whole thing was invented in the 1950's by Desi Arnaz.
Desi wasn't much of an actor. I Love Lucy has been in continuous reruns since the 1960's, and his over-the-top reactions and finger-in-a-light-socket doubletakes don't get better with age. And when one considers that Desi Arnaz, a Cuban-American band leader married to a redhead named Lucy, was unconvincing in his portrayal of "Ricky; Ricardo," a Cuban-American band leader married to a redhead named Lucy, well, in the words of a studio executive acquaintance describing a young male star, "it;'s hard to know what he brought to the party, talent-wise."
What Desi brought to the party, talent-wise, was something unheard of since in on-screen talent: he brought financial sophistication. He knew what a half-hour television show should cost, and he knew how to make it cost just a few dollars less. He put the cameras on wheels because it was a cheap solution to cost-prohibitive multiple takes of a scene, and because it guaranteed that a sit-com could be shot in one evening with one audience.
St. Desi, the patron saint of sit-com producers, is the stuff of legend. In the old Nicodell restaurant on Melrose Avenue -- now, fittingly, flattened into a parking lot -- people would point to a certain booth (never the same one, but that's not important) and say, "That;'s where Desi told William Frawley that if he ever showed up drunk to an I Love Lucy rehearsal, he wouldn't get paid for the day." A friend of mine imagines the scene this way:
Desi: If you're drunk, Bill...
Frawley: Aw, come on, Des.
Desi: I'm serious.
Frawley: Look, I'm sober as long as you don't hire that witch Viv Vance.
Desi: Bill, she's Lucy's best friend, there's nothing I can do about it at this time.
And the most famous Desi-tale: when he and Lucy wanted to leave Manhattan -- which was, at the time, the center of television production -- for Los Angeles -- which was, at the time, too far away from network headquarters for adequate supervision, the network demanded that he and Lucy agree to a pay cut, which they did, but in return, Desi asked for 100% ownership of all episodes of I Love Lucy. The network readily agreed. After all, it reasoned, what possible value could there be in an already-broadcast episode of a sit-com?
Desi was a businessman, or as my friend the studio executive puts it, "a; businessman in The Business."
Most television producers are writers, not businessmen.
A writer friend of mine offers this distinction. Imagine you are a television writer, and you are traveling in the Brazilian rainforest. You come across an aging, though still spry, Adolf Hitler. You tell him that he is the greatest villain of the 20th century and that it will give you great pleasure to turn him in to the authorities. He tells you that he's seen your show and he thinks it is "wunderbar.;"
You say, "really;?"
He says, "Ja;, really. I think you took a somewhat tired form and you refreshed it with sharp writing and wonderful characters."
You say, "Well;, that's what we were going for! You wouldn't know it to read Tom Shales."
And he says, "Ach;, critics. Those who can't do, huh?"
And when you get back to LA, you tell your friends that you met this super nice German guy -- you omit his name -- who got what you were trying to do with your show.
See, a businessman would have turned the experience into a live reality sweeps event and made millions. A writer would float home on Varig airlines on a jet trail of flattery. Get the difference?
That's it for this week. Next week, we get cancelled. I think.
For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.