I was so nervous when I knocked on Gregg and Debbie Oppenheimer’s door last month. You see, Gregg’s father, Jess, z”l, was one of my favorite writers of the 20th century.
I should probably explain that Jess only wrote one book. Sadly, he had only written the beginning of his memoir when he died in 1988 at the age of 75. But for me, Jess actually wrote 153 books, each one more delightful and unforgettable than the next.
Who was Jess Oppenheimer? He was a hilarious Jew from San Francisco who happened to be the creator, head writer, and producer of “I Love Lucy.” And each of these 153 “books”, for me, was an episode of the legendary series.
I only had one chance to make a first impression with Gregg, who completed his father’s memoir in 1996 and graciously agreed to let me interview him for this week’s Father’s Day cover. . Unsurprisingly, I blew it.
As soon as Gregg opened the door, I blurted out, “Hi, Jess!”
He smiled and told me that this sort of thing happens all the time. I told him he could call me Toby, Totie, Tammy or Arnold, just to even the odds.
I had always wanted to interview Gregg and write about his father. “I Love Lucy” holds a very special place in my heart. It’s loved by millions around the world, but thinking back to my childhood as a newly arrived refugee in 1990s America, I now understand why I needed “I Love Lucy” so badly: to make simple, when I arrived in this country, I was uncomfortable. , broke and unable to assimilate. I watched contemporary TV shows (as much as basic cable allowed), such as “Beverly Hills 90210” (the original), “Full House” or “Saved by the Bell” and salivated over the appearance, clothing and social networks of the young characters. Lives. And I knew I could never reach any of them.
But “Lucy” was different; it wasn’t a constant reminder of how I was inadequate or how I was supposed to look, talk or act in the early 90s because it was filmed in the 50s. If anything, compared to how everyone dressed on “I Love Lucy,” I looked downright cool in my Kmart dress and Payless shoes. Plus, it was one of the greatest television shows of all time.
And there was something else: “I Love Lucy” was the only show I could watch with my mom and dad (newly arrived refugees themselves) that we all loved and understood. You didn’t need to speak English to figure out that an ambitious housewife ingested too much alcohol from a product during a rehearsal for a TV commercial. In fact, one of the first words I learned in English, right after “discount” and “Nair”, was “Vitameatavegamin”.
Not many people know that “I Love Lucy” was actually based on a radio comedy show called “My Favorite Husband” starring Lucille Ball and Richard Denning (and written by Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, Jr., which all wrote “I Love Lucy” a few years later). Many of the TV show’s famous plot lines and jokes were originally used in “My Favorite Husband.”
But to really understand how “I Love Lucy” came to be, you have to read the life of its creator, Oppenheimer. His memoir, “Laughs, Luck…and Lucy: How I Came to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time” (Syracuse University Press, 1996) is not only one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read; it should be standard reading for anyone considering a career in writing, acting, or otherwise. Most of the memoirs were lovingly penned by Gregg in the 1990s. To find out how he was able to take on the monumental task of writing in his father’s voice and sharing incredible stories about old Hollywood, read the article cover this week. I’ve never worked so hard on a cover story, and never had so much fun researching and writing one.
I happily annotated the entire book, including my favorite line, Oppenheimer’s observation at the beginning of the memoir: “I strongly believe that having some sort of severe childhood maladjustment that gives you of life is one of the most important prerequisites for a comedy writer. How deeply I understand this wisdom.
Oppenheimer’s favorite episode of “I Love Lucy” was “LA at Last!” (1955), in which a dazzled Lucy meets William Holden at the Brown Derby. It’s also Gregg’s favorite episode. I have my own favorites, including when Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel visit Ethel’s hometown of Albuquerque; or the moment Lucy accidentally films Ricky’s Hollywood pilot with incredibly poor home movies. But, if you ask me, for a sampling of Oppenheimer’s greatest writing, it all comes down to the 1952 episode, “Lucy Gets Ricky on the Radio.”
Mistakenly believing that Ricky is a genius when it comes to trivia, Lucy signs them both up for a husband and wife radio quiz show. Mortified, Ricky replies, “All I know is that Christopher Columbus discovered Ohio in 1776.” Desperate to save face, Lucy visits the show’s host and steals the answers to several Questions. Unbeknownst to her, during the live program, the host changes the questions. Here are some of the best scripts in television history:
First question: “What is the name of the animal that clings to you and drains you of your blood?”
Lucy confidently blurts out, “The Internal Revenue Collector.”
Question 2: “How long is a senator’s term of office?”
Lucy responds with an answer she had memorized on the trees: “The sap flows every two years.”
Ricky begs her to let him answer the following question: “Why did the French put Marie-Antoinette under the edge of the guillotine?”
When Ricky can’t answer, Lucy whispers her memorized answer in her ear, and Ricky happily declares, “To scrape the barnacles out of her hull.”
As a kid, I laughed at Lucy and Ricky’s responses. But it wasn’t until I became an adult and understood the depth of the jokes that the episode made me scream. The jokes, Gregg told me, were probably first written for “My Favorite Husband.”
During our interview, I asked Gregg if I could photograph him holding his father’s Emmy (Oppenheimer won two Emmys for “I Love Lucy” and was nominated for five). Surprisingly, Gregg asked me if I wanted to hold it. I was overwhelmed.
As I looked at the listing (“Best Situation Comedy of 1952: I Love Lucy, Jess Oppenheimer, Producer and Head Writer”), I channeled Oppenheimer, the bald comedic genius who changed television forever… and me. I held the Emmy in my hands for a long time and gazed lovingly at its 70-year-old shine, slightly faded in one or two places. How fast I started crying holding this statue close to me.
It was only in America that a Jewish refugee from Tehran who arrived in this country in the late 1980s had the chance to win the Emmy of a brilliant Jewish writer from San Francisco, who wrote about the antics of a redhead and a Cuban in New York.
It was only in America that a Jewish refugee from Tehran who arrived in this country in the late 1980s had the chance to win the Emmy of a brilliant Jewish writer from San Francisco, who wrote about the antics of a redhead and a Cuban in New York. And more than 70 years ago, to boot.
Oppenheimer bequeathed so much to Gregg and his daughter, Joanne. I don’t have an Emmy, but I do have a fantastically annotated copy of “Laughs, Luck…and Lucy” to pass down to my kids.
Isn’t it amazing that seven decades later, everyone still loves Lucy? That includes me. But the comic genius that I have really treasure?
It’s easy. I love Jesse.
Tabby Refael is a writer, speaker, and civic action activist based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @TabbyRefael