“I Married Joan”

I wrote about the TV show “I Married Joan” for a number of reasons. Knowing the success that “I Love Lucy” had enjoyed (and continues to), I felt it would be worth taking a look at “I Married Joan,” a show generally thought of as a rip-off. Just because it is a similar show, does that mean it is as funny as the original? I intend to address three main topics regarding the show: similarities to “I Love Lucy,” as well as differences, and lastly, comment on the character interactions / relationships and how both the characters and the actors worked with one another. To do so, I watched three episodes of “Joan.”

Basic Details / The Players
“I Married Joan” premiered on Oct. 15, 1952, just about a year after “I Love Lucy” began. A total of 98 episodes were produced through April 6, 1955, a pretty impressive run for a show little more than a “Lucy” doppelganger. Of course, there is no need to provide more than a sentence or so worth of the plot – this is quite an informal paper, so I can say right off the bat that you don’t need any plots explained, Frank [instructor]. Simple enough, however, to describe the show as the misadventures of the scatterbrained wife of a well-regarded city judge. Each week, the case that the judge was currently hearing reminds him of an incident that happened between him and his dizzy wife, Joan, and this is the cue for him to explain how he had dealt with it. Joan Davis is the scatterbrain in question, playing Joan Stevens, and Jim Backus is Judge Bradley Stevens. Beverly Wills, the real-life daughter of Davis, plays Beverly Grossman. Other significant players are Mary Jane Croft – best known from “I Love Lucy” – and Sandra Gould, who played Gladys Kravitz on the '60s sitcom “Bewitched.” Jim Backus is be better-known as the voice of Mr. Magoo from the old “Mr. Magoo” shows, and even better perhaps as Thurston Howell III on “Gilligan’s Island.”

Lucy versus Joan: The Similarities
Quite a number of aspects of “Joan” are similar to “Lucy.” Of course, considering the fact that it was a mirror image of “Lucy,” this is not surprising. NBC wanted a hit comedy show capable of producing the same ratings as “Lucy” was doing for CBS, so they figured that if they followed the format, they could “ride the coattails” to the same ratings. One similarity between the two shows is how both main characters—Lucy Ricardo and Joan Stevens—first names are the same as the actresses (Lucille Ball and Joan Davis). The titles themselves are alike as well: They are what the husband is saying about his wife. Ricky is telling us “I Love Lucy,” and Judge Stevens is saying, “I Married Joan.” Whereas one title uses the word "married," which does not really carry a very romantic feeling, the other title could be understood to mean "I love Lucy, despite all that she puts me through."

Also notice that both women are portrayed as ditzy housewives, which actually was a prominent characteristic of women in sitcoms at the time. Both shows have the women getting themselves into trouble all the time, while the husband is always some down-to-earth, common-sense guy with plenty of smarts. One likeness that “Joan” bears to “Lucy” is the sets: The rooms are almost identical. While the Ricardos didn’t live in a house like the Stevens did, it’s basically the same: bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, living room. The Stevens house looks slightly more furnished and roomy than the Ricardos’ but in the overall sense, there isn’t much difference. It’s just the basic, nicely kept-up 1950s home.

One noticeable similarity that arises between the two comedies is the “who knows who” aspect—men always know people in high places. It’s hard to say exactly how the Judge knows celebrities, but the plot doesn’t care about that. Ricky Ricardo, being an actor and a bandleader, is in show business and expected to have connections.

Lucy versus Joan: The Differences
Despite the fact that the creators of “Joan” tried to keep their ideas along the same level of “Lucy,” the truth of the matter is that the writers also tried to give “Joan” just enough discrepancies to distinguish it from “Lucy.” The show did try to establish an identity for itself, and succeeded … in part. One thing to notice is the marriages: Joan’s marriage to Judge Bradley is not cross-cultural. The Judge seems just as American-born as his wife, but Lucy’s got herself a hot-tempered Cuban. On a similar note, notice how “Joan” tried to keep controversial issues and opinions to a minimum, while “Lucy” not only embraced such taboos but made them funny. Joan Stevens would never be seen having a baby, for example.

Consider, also, how the plots of “Joan” run—unlike Lucy, there are often times in which a story will be told in one episode, and then in the subsequent episode, that same story will be continued and followed. Lucy’s adventures in Europe and Hollywood sort of followed a main plot and went in chronological order, but generally the stories weren’t actually a continuation of what had happened last time. On a separate note, who all notices how Joan and Judge Stevens are less argumentative than Lucy and Ricky? In all fairness, though, Joan didn’t have a short-fused Cuban as her spouse.

Something else I notice is that “Joan's” plots are a bit more simplistic. Plot turns are more subtle and revolve around one main story line, while “Lucy” takes one major story but gives it a million different twists and turns. (Not that it’s a bad thing!) The “Joan” stories and plots also tend to depend more on words—one-liners and puns—than physical comedy. Not that “Joan” doesn’t employ the physical comedy, but “Lucy” incorporated much more. Does anyone also notice, just for the record, how Joan acts a bit more subservient to her husband than Lucy does? Lucy is more of a rebel and likes to disagree with her husband’s ideas, while Joan tries to “sidestep” her husband and not completely oppose his wishes.

Notice that the jokes in “Joan” – the spoken lines, that is – seem less realistic and less likely to be said by someone in real life. Of course, Lucy gets herself into some pretty unlikely places and problems, but when Joan and company speak, their lines often sound scripted and bland. They’re funny, no doubt, but improbable and not acted out well.

Character Interactions
So much to say, so little … well, never mind. But one thing that is characteristic of both shows is that the main couples (Lucy and Ricky / Joan and Bradley) don’t mind kissing scenes—often somewhat passionate. Of course, I guess you have to do it, since there likely isn’t a single person in the world who doesn't kiss his/her spouse.
Notice that on both shows, the men and the women have decidedly-different ways of scheming. When the men have an idea, they have well-calculated, precise, detailed plots. The women have general ideas of what they’ll do but play it by ear and their schemes are more silly.
Additionally, on “Joan,” many characters’ interactions seem forced and acted with little inspiration or emotion; Lucy and Ricky, for example, really do hit it off working with each other. Fred and Ethel, though the actors hated one another’s respective guts, worked brilliantly on-screen. Joan and the others seem more like they’re reading lines while staring at the other person.
Speaking of characters, ever notice how the secondary, one-time characters (anyone who only appears in one episode) are more frequent on “Joan” and interact with each other more? “Lucy” had lots of minor character roles, but they didn’t really interact with each other but rather directly with the lead players.
On “I Love Lucy,” the redhead always had Ethel at her side as the trustworthy conspirator, but Joan never got an accomplice. Actually, now and then she would plot something with her husband, but even then it was infrequent. Joan’s neighbors seemed distant, as though they were observing the action from the sidelines.

All said, “I Married Joan” can be related in many ways to “I Love Lucy.” Joan” did try to establish a separate identity for itself. It became somewhat of a cult classic, in the sense that it has its own little crowd of admirers who think it equal to or better than the “Lucy” show. It never attained the same popularity, though, and it lasted about 3 years. Not bad for a show that was little more than a clone, though it never won awards, never had spin-off (or subsequent) “sequel” sitcom shows, and never got very high ratings. Admittedly, though, it is a pretty fun show to watch. It’s missing the slapstick sense of humor that “Lucy” had…that zest for life where Lucy’s show seemed completely immersed in whatever it was doing but still keeping in touch with reality. “Lucy” took reality and bent it to fit a certain fantasy; “Joan” took reality but never put a unique spin on it to make it memorable. “I Married Joan” tried to take flight but never flew high. “I Love Lucy,” on the other hand, grew wings and soared like an eagle.