Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Life with Lucy: Lucy Makes a Hit with John Ritter



Lucille Ball and John Ritter have something in common despite the generation gap. Both were especially skilled physical comedians whose mix of physicality and acting made the comedy better. Lucy Makes a Hit with John Ritter, the second Life with Lucy episode, brings them together in what should be a meeting of titans. Instead, it showcases where Life with Lucy went so terribly wrong. 

Lucy Barker (Lucille Ball) is agog when John Ritter walks into the M&B Hardware Store, looking for antique door handles. Store employee Leonard (Donovan Scott) is also star-struck, but Lucy's frenemy Curtis (Gale Gordon) is momentarily unaware who Ritter is until he too realizes the Three's Company star is in his store. Lucy manages to injure Ritter repeatedly and offers to nurse him at home, whether he wants to be or not.

Lucy's family is mixed on their unexpected guest. Her daughter Margo (Ann Dusenberry) is aroused, her son-in-law Ted (Larry Anderson) slightly jealous, and their kids Becky (Jenny Lewis) and Kevin (Philip J. Amelio, II) a bit puzzled over who he is. Ritter is determined to be in Soldier's Song, a dramatic World War I play that will premiere the next day in Pasadena. In a huff, his costar Mary (Sally Kemp) quits due to artistic differences. Who can fill in on such short notice?

Lucy cajoles Ritter to cast her as his now-much older nurse/romantic interest by reminding him that she saved his life when she performed the Heimlich maneuver on him. Predictably, Soldier's Song is a disaster when Lucy gets distracted on stage and causes Ritter to swallow a harmonica. Ultimately though, everyone can have a laugh about it.

Lucille Ball once hosted a Three's Company retrospective episode, praising the show and Ritter for his comedic gifts. Now, Ritter appears on Life with Lucy playing himself. Both are actually good with each other, particularly when Lucy forces Ritter to eat one of health food concoctions that make everyone gag. When Ball and Ritter are together, they can play off each other well, and the episode is dominated by the two comic legends. It is to where the rest of the cast is almost irrelevant. Both Margo and Ted appeared in just one scene, with Curtis barely making it to two. Somehow, the show also manages to shortchange another guest star: Ruth Buzzi, who appears only in the opening and adds nothing to the plot. Once Ball and Ritter get together, the rest of the Life with Lucy cast basically disappeared. 

Ritter is the clear standout in Lucy Makes a Hit with John Ritter, showcasing his deft physical comedy. Of particular note is when he is at the hardware store, struggling desperately to not lose his balance as he straddles two ladders. He also has a great moment when the McGibbon family observes the television star on their couch. As they make various comments about someone that they think is asleep, Ritter's facial expressions show his shifting moods depending on the comments. 

However, Lucy Makes a Hit with John Ritter shows why Life with Lucy was a mistake. Ritter was 38 years old at the time the actor guest starred on the show, while Ball was 75. As such, the audience does not think much on having this relatively young man doing pratfalls. They would not fear for Ritter's health and potential injury as much as they would if say Ball tried the same schtick.

The second half that focuses on Soldier's Song does two things. First, it reminds us that John Ritter was perfectly capable of doing drama. While his Jack Tripper is now a beloved character, Ritter's talents were never fully appreciated. Granted, his lovelorn and shell-shocked soldier was not strictly dramatic (he does swallow a harmonica), you could see that he could have made a good dramatic actor. 

Second, it shows that episode writers Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madelyn Davis were writing from another world entirely. Ending the episode with Ball and Ritter playing Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits when pressing on Ritter's chest was not funny. 

Not that much of Lucy Makes a Hit with John Ritter was actually funny. Early on, Curtis bizarrely claims to recognize Ritter as a man who was on the news as having stolen Girl Scout cookies. Even Gale Gordon's skills could not sell the idea that Curtis would make that kind of mistake. Kemp's diva-like costar was also too over-the-top, as if she knew this was idiotic and wouldn't bother to even try. 

It might have been funnier if for example, Lucy managed to injure Mary, forcing the Soldier's Song crew to somehow hire her as the understudy. She might have even been doing Soldier's Song for her local community theater, where Ritter is somehow roped into being in the show. There would have been some logic to things there. As it stands, there is nothing there. 

To be fair, there is a funny line with Soldier's Song director Randy (Greg Mullavey). When Mary goes on and on about her character's motivation, Randy reminds her that John has not mentioned such things. "He's a big star and he never knows what he's doing", he tells Mary. 

Lucy Makes a Hit with John Ritter is a waste of everyone's time and talents. It is odd that while John Ritter was the guest star, he was on screen more than most of the cast. Lucy may have made a hit with John Ritter, but she made a flop with everyone else. 


Next Episode: Love Among the Two-By-Fours

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