Jess Oppenheimer was not one to sit down for interviews. I couldn’t find any interviews with Oppenheimer with the Academy of Television, The Writers Guild Foundation, or even talk shows. However, he did give us a treasure trove of insight about his time on I Love Lucy in his book, Laughs, Luck…and Lucy: How I Came to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time.
Assembled by his son, Gregg Oppenheimer, the book gives readers plenty of insight into the behind-the-scenes drama, excitement, and pressure that goes into making a half-hour of TV in the 1950s.
Laughs, Luck…and Lucy delves into Jess Oppenheimer’s relationships with Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, his fellow Lucy writers, and others in the industry at the time. It also gives us a look at his upbringing and life before and after the series, showing how his life experiences shaped his comedy sensibilities and work ethic that made him a very popular and in-demand TV writer.
Along with his interpersonal relationships, the book discusses TV production of the 1950s and how I Love Lucy revolutionized the way shows were filmed, edited, and distributed.
There is a wealth of information included in the Appendices at the end of the book, including I Love Lucyscripts; a script from My Favorite Husband; an unperformed episode of I Love Lucy (the only script Lucy and Desi refused to do); and articles about the production of the series.
Laughs, Luck…and Lucy is a must-read for Lucy fans and a great historical document about the Golden Age of television.
Click HERE for interviews with others talking about working with Jess Oppenheimer from the Television Academy.
Other than I Love Lucy, what is your favorite TV series of the past? Leave a comment and let me know!
Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll, Jr. began their writing careers in radio, most notably on the comedy series, My Favorite Husband (1948-1951). On the show, their paths would cross with an actress, Lucille Ball, who – upon the radio series ending in 1951 – would be doing a TV series for CBS with her husband, Desi Arnaz. The series, I Love Lucy, would initially be staffed by three writers: Pugh Davis, Carroll, Jr., and Jess Oppenheimer.
Pugh Davis and Carroll would remain with I Love Lucy for its six-year run, moving on as a writing team on future series like The Lucy Show, The Mothers-In-Law, Alice, and Sanford & Son.
Below is the entire interview with Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll, Jr. conducted by The Archive of American Television, where they talk about their multi-decade careers.
And here’s a bonus interview with The Writers Guild Foundation:
Back with another set of interviews with two more I Love Lucy writers tomorrow! Stay tuned!
On October 15, 1951, a new sitcom premiered on CBS starring Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley. The series was I Love Lucy, a show that would forever change the way sitcoms are filmed and produced. It was the first sitcom to feature an interracial couple and to show a pregnant woman (GASP!) on TV.
Married in real life, Ball and Arnaz were looking for a project to keep them together instead of traveling around making films or doing concerts. When the idea for the series fell in their lap, they jumped at the opportunity, taking the initial concept on the road to see how it was received by audiences. Assured that they had a workable idea, the show was developed into I Love Lucy.
I Love Lucy was also the birth of Desilu Productions, which would produce many notable series, including The Lucy Show, Mission: Impossible, and Star Trek. Following Lucy and Desi’s divorce, Lucille Ball would take the reins of Desilu, becoming the first female studio president in Hollywood.
Seven decades after its premiere, Lucy is as popular as ever and is an ever-present staple in pop culture. Generations of families have sat down to enjoy the antics of Lucy Ricardo in black-and-white and in color; on small tube TVs and giant OLED screens; on DVD and streaming.
Lucille Ball was a comedic genius; her influence on other female comedians over the decades is a tribute to her skills and talents as a genuine comedienne. I Love Lucy was a vehicle to showcase Ball’s talents, but we can’t overlook the comic contributions of her three fantastic co-stars. Desi Arnaz, who doesn’t get enough credit for his role as Ricky, was a great straight man and a powerhouse behind the scenes. Vivian Vance, the world’s greatest second-banana, Ethel Mertz, was a talented woman who brought her comic and singing talents to the role. William Frawley, the cranky and cheap Fred Mertz, was a character actor that never missed an opportunity to deliver a one-liner.
Despite any off-camera drama that may have occurred over the show’s production, these four collectively created some of the most memorable moments in TV history. Their chemistry on-camera is undeniable, and it’s still evident 70 years later.
But Lucy Ricardo remains silent and with no crazy ideas without the geniuses who gave her and the other characters that populated I Love Lucy life. Throughout its six seasons and 180 episodes, five writers delivered the scripts that would be turned into comedy gold by Ball, Arnaz, Vance, and Frawley each week. We owe as much to these five writers as we do to the actors who brought I Love Lucy to life.
Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll, Jr., Bob Schiller, and Bob Weiskopf are the writers whom Lucille Ball has credited many times for giving her comedy gold to work with throughout the series’ run. I can only imagine the pressure these five were under to create a fresh, creative, and funny script each week that would please Ball and Arnaz, who weren’t just the stars of the show but their employers as well. And they did it, creating comedy gold week after week, giving Lucy new motivations to get into Ricky’s show, taking the gang to Hollywood, Europe, and the country. One-liners, slapstick, physical gags, sight gags, big guest stars, and some of the best facial expressions in the business.
Lucille Ball had previously worked with Oppenheimer, Pugh, and Carroll, Jr. on her radio series, My Favorite Husband, where Ball played housewife Liz Cugat (later Cooper) for 124 episodes. Liz was a devoted, loving, and zany woman who got into comedic situations every week (sound familiar?). The series ended its run in March 1951, the same year I Love Lucy would hit the airwaves in October.
With Husband ending and Ball and Arnaz needing writers for their new series, it was common sense to use writers familiar with Ball’s comic sensibility and who came with a vast knowledge of the situation comedy formula. Obviously, bringing this trio along was a choice that helped keep I Love Lucy so widely known seven decades later.
Seasons one through four came from the creative minds of Oppenheimer, Pugh, and Carroll, Jr. Seasons five and six would see the addition of Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf, with Jess Oppenheimer leaving after season five. All five writers would continue to write in the sitcom genre for decades to come on series like Alice, All in the Family, Maude, The Carol Burnett Show, Here’s Lucy, and Get Smart.
Sadly, while these talented writers were nominated for Emmys for their work on I Love Lucy, they never won. However, I think the longevity of the series and the legacy of their work is an even greater reward.
Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of I Love Lucy. No matter what’s going on in the real world, the antics of Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel, always manage to bring a smile to my face and make me laugh even if I’ve seen the episode dozens of times. I’m sure they had no clue when director Marc Daniel yelled action seventy years ago that I Love Lucy would still be on the air today; on TVs worldwide, translated into dozens of languages, and still enjoyed by millions.
Thank you, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, William Frawley; Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll, Jr., Bob Schiller, Bob Weiskopf; directors Marc Daniels and William Asher; and the hundreds of other people who brought I Love Lucy into homes in the 1950s so that we could still enjoy the show today. Your legacies, talents, and positive contribution to the world have not gone unnoticed.
Check back this weekend for a few more posts about the writers of I Love Lucy! Stay tuned!
What are your favorite episodes, moments, lines, or characters from I Love Lucy? Leave a comment and let me know!