For a Laugh, Invite Home ‘The Mothers-in-Law’ on DVD

Ever hear the one about the mothers-in-law who had their own hit sitcom in the late ’60s? If you have (or even if the series is new to you), you’re in luck! MPI Home Video is taking us all back to the groovy days of dial telephones, portable typewriters and LP records — not to mention raucous comedy.

After a 41-year absence from TV screens, The Mothers-In-Law is at last being released on DVD in an impressive eight-disc set featuring all 56 episodes from its two-season run.

The show follows the misadventures of two couples — three if you count their kids, young newlyweds whose marriage is the reason for the program’s title. Eve Arden and Herb Rudley are the strait-laced, conservative Hubbards. (Yes, Eve is referred to as “Mother Hubbard,” but you have to wait until the fifth episode to hear it.)

Their neighbors are the Buells, played by Kaye Ballard and Roger C. Carmel in the first season, and Ballard and Richard Deacon in the second. Kaye’s a loud, rather high-strung, tortellini-touting mama, and Roger’s a large, burly teddy-bear of a man, so… let’s just say if the Hubbards are white-bread, the Buells are more cannoli!

Ballard, now 85, explains, “There was an Italian and a WASP who didn’t quite understand each other.” She reminds us that the show ran shortly before 1971, when another groundbreaker (reportedly influenced by this one) called All in the Family changed the farcical face of TV with more confrontational subject matter.

“Ours was gentle humor compared to what was going on there,” she observes.

Indeed, there is something tremendously sweet about one’s daughter marrying the boy next door. This bunch merely mined the potential of such a match. The result was that on Sunday nights from 1967 to 1969 on NBC, executive producer Desi Arnaz and company were given free rein to use every mother-in-law joke in the book — and did so beautifully.

The cast played any and every situation — no matter how outlandish — with a kind of expertise practically unheard of in TV today. Then again, their writers were Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll Jr. — the same team who gave the Ricardos and the Mertzes their best lines in I Love Lucy.

This may sound like fightin’ words to some, but the average episode of the The Mothers-In-Law contains more genuine guffaws than does I Love Lucy — the series that it’s most frequently compared to.

Much of the humor in both is based on the age-old battle of the sexes. Similarly, more than a few segments center on musical performances, beginning with “Career Girls,” in which Eve and Kaye try their interpretation of country music. Even in the last episode — “The Not-So-Grand-Opera” — they wreak havoc as chorus members in a Wagnerian spectacle, complete with a runaway horse!

Ballard notes one of the episodes with Arnaz that is “really hilarious.”

“Eve and I get locked up in a department store, and we only have a single dime to make a call,” she says. “She keeps dialing and dialing and gets Barcelona, Spain! You know, I hadn’t watched it in 30 years, but suddenly I was screaming with laughter all over again!”

The show was among the first to be filmed in color from the outset, which explains the bright, at times even strident, use of contrasting tints and tones in the sets and costumes. The Hubbards’ living room is a curious mix of mint-green walls, pale purple curtains and bold orange and yellow furniture.

“Eve did it herself,” Ballard says of the décor. “And I wouldn’t blame the room if it did it back to her!”

To preserve the episodes’ authenticity, many include sponsor-based commercials delivered by the characters seemingly as part of the action, which are featured as extras on the special bonus disc. There’s also a brief introduction by Desi Arnaz Jr. (who appears in numerous episodes), as well as the long-lost original pilot.

In Ballard’s autobiography, How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years, she reveals that it was longtime Desilu collaborator Vivian Vance who advised that each Mothers-in-Law actor should share his or her real name with the character  they played. Her reasoning came from her experience of constantly being referred to by her own character’s name, Ethel Mertz. Obviously, Arnaz, too, was well-acquainted with this situation. His character on the shows he did with Lucille Ball was named Ricky Ricardo.

So Kaye Ballard’s character was called Kaye Buell, Eve Arden would be Eve Hubbard, Herbert Rudley would be Herb Hubbard, and so on. (That is, until the second season when Richard Deacon took over the part of Roger Buell from Roger C. Carmel.)

The only other exception to the naming game was the Hubbards’ daughter Suzie, played in the pilot by actress Kaye Cole (who later found Broadway fame as part of the original cast of A Chorus Line). Sharing the same name as her mother-in law was bound to be confusing, so the creators simply changed it, and when Cole was replaced by Deborah Walley (popular from the Beach Party movies), the name was kept.

Ballard recalls Carmel with particular fondness. “I adored my ‘first’ husband — he was wonderful!” she says with a smile, relating the unique comic chemistry they had together. “The shows I did with Roger C. Carmel were the best!”

Ballard said that “working with Eve Arden was fun, almost like Mutt & Jeff.” She described Arden as “a real professional and a darling, darling woman.”

Arden later went on to find fame with a whole new audience when she appeared in Grease and Grease 2.

But she and most of the rest of the cast are no longer with us, including Walley, who died of cancer in 2001.

Jerry Fogel, though, who played Suzie’s husband, was something of a staple on Kansas City talk radio until his retirement in 2001. (His son is popular Chicago on-air personality Dave Fogel.)

Meanwhile, Ballard is still performing. She has appeared in some notable revivals, including the Paper Mill Playhouse version of Follies. She is now preparing a new production titled Broadway Ladies for debut later this year.

Nonetheless, it seems that everywhere she goes, Ballard is still remembered for The Mothers-in-Law.

“I get e-mail all the time — from Germany, from Switzerland — all over the place, asking ‘When is it coming out?” she says.

Happily, the wait is over. The Mothers-In-Law: The Complete Collection is ready to be discovered or experienced all over again, thanks to this digitally remastered compilation, available wherever DVDs are sold.

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