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Ethel, I've Got an Idea!

New Bio Gives the Godmother of Sitcom Second Bananas Her Due

By Heather Joslyn | Posted 10/28/1998

The Other Side of Ethel Mertz: The Life Story of Vivian Vance

Frank Castelluccio, Alvin Walker

Like many former Hollywood starlets, Lucille Ball entered middle age anxiously. In 1951, at age 40, with her career as a celluloid sex bomb over and her musician husband chasing skirts, she began work on a new program in a shaky new medium, television. Her personal and professional insecurities came to the fore when her spouse, producer, and co-star, Desi Arnaz, hired a vivacious stage actress (who specialized in playing "the other woman"--on the boards and in her wild real-life youth) only two years Ball's senior to play her sitcom sidekick, Ethel. When Desi first dropped Vivian Vance's name, Lucy asked, "Who the hell is she?"

It was nothing personal, she assured Vance at their first meeting. It's just that, for the part of the show's landlady, Ball envisioned "a dumpy, fat woman in a chenille bathrobe and furry slippers with curlers in her hair."

Reading through the pilot script, Ball was further rocked by how much of the spotlight she'd have to share with the newcomer. "Lucy's idea was for Fred and Ethel to stick their heads in the door every script for a couple of lines and they'd be gone, then she'd carry the show," I Love Lucy script clerk Maury Thompson recalls in The Other Side of Ethel Mertz, the first biography of Vance. "It shocked her when she saw how much was in the script for Ethel Mertz."

Nearly everyone around the fledgling series--except Arnaz--agreed that Vance would steal the star's thunder. "Her eyes are bigger than yours," Ball's agent told her. "You'll have to let her go." Former I Love Lucy staffers whisper privately that Ball tried hard to get Vance fired, authors Frank Castelluccio and Alvin Walker report, but even now--nine years after Lucy's death--none will go on the record. Though the book refutes the longtime rumor that Vance was contractually obligated to pack on extra weight to make her look less attractive than the star, she did volunteer to dye her hair darker than Ball's; wardrobe and makeup artists were ordered to dress her in frumpy cotton housedresses, apply a lighter base to Vance's face to age her, and to never, ever apply false eyelashes. Thompson tells the story of how Ball once spotted her rival wearing the forbidden accessory and exploded. "I've been wearing them for six months, so just leave me alone!" Vance retorted. Ball backed down, Thompson says: "She knew what she had in Vivian, especially after the show was successful."

As the years passed and Ball realized how dependent her comedy was on Vance's support--Viv reluctantly followed the star to I Love Lucy's successor, The Lucy Show, and did cameos on the next series, Here's Lucy--their relationship thawed. Nevertheless, The Other Side posits that Vance never considered Ball a close confidante, though the Queen of Comedy did rely more on her lady-in-waiting's friendship as they both grew older. ("Unfortunately, Lucy loved Viv a lot more than Viv loved her," Vance's friend Lou Ann Graham says.)

But more important than any personal tangles was Ball and Vance's onscreen rapport. The wary adversaries evolved into the first great made-for-TV comic duo, setting a pattern for every successful star-and-sidekick sitcom pair that followed. Without Lucy and Ethel there might be no Ralph and Ed, Andy and Barney, Mary and Rhoda, Roseanne and Jackie, Jerry and George, or Frasier and Niles.

The importance of the second banana to the television cosmos is one reason why the appearance of The Other Side of Ethel Mertz is worth celebrating. The tendency to undervalue supporting players probably explains why it's taken so long (nearly 20 years after Vance's death) for the first Vance biography to see light. Actors and first-time authors Castelluccio and Walker show their inexperience with a slowly paced narrative (especially in covering, woodenly and in too much detail, Vance's early theatrical career) and a maddening tendency to let some juicy, cryptic sentences lie without elaboration. But they're to be commended for doing the legwork, interviewing dozens of Vance's friends, relatives, and colleagues (including Lucy and Desi's daughter, Lucie Arnaz), and for telling a surprisingly inspiring personal story: Vance battled mental illness for years and was open about her successful psychoanalytic treatment decades before celebrity confessions were commonplace.

But as fans, the authors fully understand Vance, and Ethel's, real place in the TV history books. The book's heart is its two chapters on the actress' pairing with Lucille Ball, chock-full of gossip and insight. (In the former category: Ball learned about Vance's mental-health history after Viv objected to the word "crazy" in an I Love Lucy script and began using the word at every opportunity to goad her; Vance grinned and bore it to keep her job, telling Maury Thompson, "I'm going to learn to love that bitch.") Vance's dry-humored line readings counterbalanced Ball's broad physical comedy, and her horrified reactions to Lucy's antics goosed the laughter. Furthermore, her Ethel usually served as the unwitting catalyst to each episode's antics. "The older and wiser Ethel shared the ways and rules of marriage with the younger, more inexperienced Lucy Ricardo," Castelluccio and Walker write. "Often, this well-meaning advice planted a strange seed in the over-active mind of Lucy Ricardo"--these brainstorms being signaled by Lucy's phrase, "Ethel, I've got an idea!" But while sitcom sisterhood was certainly powerful, it wasn't unconditional. "Though [Ethel] went along with Lucy Ricardo's schemes to 'teach the boys a lesson,' or 'prove women deserve equal rights,' she would also attack Lucy for getting her into another mess when things didn't go as planned."

Other writers have noted how I Love Lucy--product of the contentedly domestic '50s--got its comic energy from the combined mischief-making power of two frustrated housewives. "On this show, the women bonded against the men," writes Steven Stark in his 1997 essay collection Glued to the Set. "I Love Lucy said the title, but who really loved her more--Ricky or Ethel?"

Thus, Lucy and Ethel set the tone for the best first-and-second-banana pairs to come. Nearly always, the second banana was the same gender as the star, making the characters funhouse-mirror reflections of each other. If female, the sidekick tended to be dowdier than the star--heavier, droller, less traditionally feminine, though often boy-crazy. If male, the sidekick tended to be weedier than the leading man (see Norton, Ed or Fife, Barney), insecure with women (see Constanza, George), and less traditionally masculine, though often power-mad. The Mary Tyler Moore Show's Rhoda Morganstern gave voice to the despair of millions of fat girls who can't compete with the lithe Mary Richards of the world when she contemplated a high-caloric treat: "Why do I bother eating this? I should just apply it directly to my thighs." Frasier's Niles Crane once memorably boasted of his "swimmer's build"--a delicious phrase made up of equal parts self-effacement, vanity, and self-delusion.

But Vance gave more than a physical model to her sitcom successors. As Ball feared, Vance also got plenty of laughs on her own, and gave second bananas a license to steal. (In The Other Side, writer Bob Carroll credits Vance with pulling the longest laugh ever recorded on I Love Lucy from the audience, in the episode "Lucy Does the Tango," with her wonder-struck reactions while Lucy dances with a blouseful of eggs.) On The Honeymooners, which began its run as a series in 1955, Art Carney's Ed Norton engaged in even bolder scene-theft, milking bits of business until Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden bellowed at him in frustration.

It's the big open secret of sitcoms--the second banana makes less money and enjoys less glamour than the star, but often gets the best lines and the most laughs. Frasier is funniest not when the imperious title character is front and center, but when it focuses on his fussy little brother Niles (played by David Hyde Pierce, perhaps the best comic actor currently on the tube). Increasingly, sitcom-makers and the networks have gotten wise to the fact that audiences sometimes prefer the second banana to the first and have pushed them to the fore, sometimes to the detriment of the show. (Kathy Kinney's Mimi was vastly overemphasized last season on The Drew Carey Show.) Networks--especially NBC--sometimes use second bananas more than stars to sell sitcoms--witness the new Will & Grace (see page 31).

The first and second banana also, as Lucy and Ethel did, form the heart of a sitcom. The Mary Tyler Moore Show's warmth was best expressed by the scenes between Mary and Rhoda, two insecure single gals convincing each other they're gonna make it after all. Seinfeld's dark, chilly heart lay in Jerry and George's endless selfish scheming; George's bottomless neuroses made Jerry look comparatively well-adjusted.

Of course, the real cost of second-bananahood is that it's hard to move into the first seat. It's too early to tell how the careers of Pierce or Seinfeld's Jason Alexander will play out, but Valerie Harper has never fully escaped Rhoda Morganstern's shadow, Don Knotts Barney Fife's, or Carney Ed Norton's. Vance never got away from Ethel Mertz--or Lucille Ball. (Much, apparently, to her chagrin. The new bio's alternative title could be Don't Call Me Ethel!) In 1959 she starred in a sitcom pilot, Guestward Ho!, which did not sell. In The Other Side, director Ralph Levy recalls how, filming the first scene, Vance stood still after he shouted "Action!": "All of a sudden she collapsed laughing. I didn't know what was wrong, so I asked if she wanted a doctor. Her reply was, 'This is the first time that I ever felt my light.'"

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