Academic journal article Film & History

The Horror of "Honey, I'm Home!": The Perils of Postwar Family Love in the Domestic Sitcom

Academic journal article Film & History

The Horror of "Honey, I'm Home!": The Perils of Postwar Family Love in the Domestic Sitcom

Article excerpt

The 1950s Sitcom in Memory, Fantasy, and Fact

In the 1970s, Rick Nelson (The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet; ABC, 1952-66) and Desi Arnaz (I Love Lucy; CBS, 1951-7) hosted NBC's Saturday Night Live (NBC, 1975-present). Nelson had been a "nice boy" role model and Arnaz's Ricky Ricardo was among the prototypes for the 1950s domestic patriarch, but, after their television heydays, both were associated with substance abuse, criminal activity, and infidelities (Arnaz; Bashe 207). (1) Since SNL's baby-boomer writers satirized the hypocrisy that they saw in the older generation, they solicited the talents of Nelson and Arnaz for their remarkable shared capacity: to evoke the past and to register its troubled passing, virtually on sight (Shales and Miller 60; Gray, Jones, and Thompson 23).

Dan Ackroyd--impersonating Twilight Zone (CBS, 1959-64) host Rod Serling--introduced a sketch, itself called "The Twilight Zone": "Meet Ricky Nelson, age 16: a typical American kid in a typical American kitchen in a typical American black-and-white-TV family home." Nelson--now Ricky again, as he was called on Ozzie and Harriet--is lost in suburbia, trying to locate his house in time for dinner. He enters a kitchen, grabs a bottle of milk, and meets June Cleaver of Leave it to Beaver (CBS, 1957-8; ABC, 1958-63), who offers him a brownie and an invitation--"I don't care who you are; you must stay for dinner"--but encourages him to wash first. Realizing that he is in the wrong house, Ricky leaves, and Ackroyd's Serling interrupts: "A 16-year-old teenager walking through Anytown, USA, past endless Elm Streets, Oak Streets, and Maple Streets, unable to distinguish one house from the other, for he's just entered a strange neighborhood, a neighborhood known as the Twilight Zone." Ricky now finds himself at the Andersons' of Father Knows Best (CBS, 1954-60), where he is also offered a brownie, dinner, and the suggestion to wash. The pattern continues, so that, having excused himself from the Andersons, Ricky mistakenly visits the Williamses of Make Room for Daddy/The Danny Thomas Show (ABC, 1953-7; CBS, 1957-64) and finally ends up in the midst of one of Lucy Ricardo's raucous kitchen meltdowns in I Love Lucy.

SNL's "The Twilight Zone" skit represents the typical intellectual treatment of 1950s domestic sitcoms as interchangeable, milquetoast fantasias of conservative social norms (Halberstam 583; Donaldson 131-2; Himmelstein 88; Newcomb 121; Lears 1420; Denis and Denis 48; Marc 140; Jezer 196). Though the other characters have never met Ricky (Nelson), his appearance barely phases them, so trapped are they in their routines: Eddie Haskell is obnoxiously obsequious, Betty Anderson has a date, the Williamses make fun of Danny's nose, and Lucy spectacularly fails to satisfy expectations for domestic management. The sitcom universe is strange--a "Twilight Zone"--precisely because of these endless repetitions.

However predictable its elements--the ruined dinner and the celebrity guest--I Love Lucy is often seen as an exceptional vehicle, starring a truly funny woman who will not fall in line with the brownie-bearing sitcom wives. Television critics' assessments have largely failed to differ here, (2) and that critical conformity might account for the bold parodies of I Love Lucy when Desi Arnaz hosted SNL, because Arnaz's skits dramatized a repetition that critics typically have ignored, thus insulating audiences and performers alike from its implications. The most poignant of these "episodes" is "I Loathe Lucy," which begins like an average I Love Lucy episode. Ricky comes home from the club, and the Ricardos embrace and engage in cute chitchat, only for Ricky to turn suddenly on Lucy, shoving her, throwing a drink in her face, pulling her in for a kiss only to push her down, while berating her, as the live SNL audience roars with laughter. But the "I Loathe Lucy" skit is uproarious, perhaps, because it elevates one of I Love Lucy's most persistent tropes--Lucy's fear of her husband--to thematic, and therefore hyperbolic, level. …

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