Television history isn't just the high points and the famous shows. You can't get an accurate view of TV history - and by extension, popular culture - by just watching The Andy Griffith Show and All in the Family episodes over and over again. You need to see all of it. And that's why it's great for TV lovers to see S'More Entertainment bring out a forgotten little show like Lotsa Luck, starring Dom DeLuise. A genuinely funny urban sitcom from 1973, Lotsa Luck didn't catch on with the public during its single season on NBC, and that's a shame, because the scripts and performers were quite funny. Only lasting one season, a show like Lotsa Luck never had a chance to be widely seen in syndication, so after more than 30 years, it probably slipped most peoples' minds. I remember watching the show when it moved mid-season to its new night, right after Sanford and Son, but until I watched the four disc Lotsa Luck: The Complete Series box set, I had forgotten just how funny it was.
With the mammoth success of All in the Family in 1971, the face of television drastically started to change. Sure, there were still fluffy, silly shows on the schedules (and thankfully, they've never left TV), but the dominance of suburban and rural sitcoms were seriously challenged by the seismic social earthquake that was All in the Family. Suddenly, the gritty, cheap, washed-out video look of All in the Family and Sanford and Son made glossy (fun) junk like The Partridge Family look like something from the 1950s. And the controversial subjects that Norman Lear tackled via Archie Bunker opened the floodgates for other sitcoms to feature subjects that even the respected drama anthologies of the 1950s and 1960s wouldn't have dared touch. Now, Lotsa Luck is in no way in the same league thematically with All in the Family. But it does have that nervous, anxious feel of early 1970's sitcoms that regular TV watchers saw as exciting and new. Considering how long TV has been "grown up," it may not seem like much of anything for today's viewers to hear Dom DeLuise really worry about having enough money to pay his bills, but trust me, if you grew up in those economic times, and your family didn't have a whole lot of money, these shows really rang true. Here were characters that were loud and jittery and angry (in a funny sitcom way, of course), who worried if they'd have jobs next week, or had to decide what to fix -- the water heater or the furnace, as happens in Lotsa Luck ("Do you want to take a cold shower and go into a warm room, or go from a cold room into a warm shower?"). You'd never see that discussion at the Cleaver's, the Stones', or the Brady's. I remember quite clearly my father turning off an episode of All in the Family before it had finished, an episode where Archie gets laid off, throwing the house into a panic because the Bunkers weren't sure how they were going to survive. It was only later that I learned Dad, too, had been laid off. It was this kind of immediate, visceral connection with what was happening out in the "real world" that made a show like All in the Family such a startlingly new, cultural touchstone for an entire generation.
And naturally, that kind of success in TV inspires one thing only: imitation. NBC hit paydirt with Redd Foxx's Sanford and Son, an inspired reversal of the white bigot Archie Bunker, set in a Los Angeles junkyard (with not a Beaver Cleaver in sight). And these two ratings powerhouses had something in common that most of their American viewers had no idea of: they were adapted from popular British sitcoms. With the enormous success of Sanford and Son, NBC tried to go to the well again, adapting the successful British sitcom, On the Buses, that ran from 1969 to 1973, into Lotsa Luck, starring Dom DeLuise. Dom plays Stanley Belmont, an unmarried bus company employee (he manages the lost-and-found department), who lives at home with his mother (Kathleen Freeman), his sister Olive (Beverly Sanders), and her husband Arthur Swann (Wynn Irwin). Stanley has a wealth of problems, most of them centered at home. His mother, while devoted to Stanley, frequently guilt-trips him into going along with her on decisions he'd rather she not make. His slow-witted sister Olive has almost no ambition beyond getting her husband to actually make love to her. Arthur, her husband, is Stanley's biggest domestic thorn. Refusing to work - as well as to dress - Arthur slobs around the house in a robe and pajamas, stuffing his face at every available opportunity. Constantly running off to the clinic for more salve for his mysterious rash, Arthur is quite comfortable living off Stanley's wages. Olive and Stanley's mother also don't work (this was the early 70s, folks, when it was still quite common not to expect wives and mothers to work). Living next door, and working as a bus driver at his company, was Stanley's best friend Bummy (Jack Knight).
Much of the comedic situations in Lotsa Luck center around Stanley's frustration at Arthur's idleness, as well as potential economic hardships (not helped by Arthur's constant eating and zero income) that frequently loom around the corner. Often, Lotsa Luck's plots, although hardly original or even realistic most of the time, do carry over the worry and tension that was gripping the nation back in the 1970s, particularly the sense that America was changing too rapidly, and throwing off its accepted social roles too quickly for its own good (Stanley can't hack "living together" with his girlfriend because he's simply not that kind of guy). Lotsa Luck's theme song says it all:
I used to buy a pickle; it only use to cost a nickel.
Every day is getting tougher; And it keeps on getting rougher.
And a bus ride use to only cost a dime.
Them days could be forgotten; the world has gotten rotten.
Lotsa luck! Lotsa luck! Lotsa luck!
A dollar isn't even worth a half a buck.
So in order to survive, just to keep yourself alive,
What you really need today is lotsa luck!
Lotsa luck! Lotsa luck! Lotsa luck! Lotsa luck!
Clearly with this theme song, the producers of the show wanted to give Lotsa Luck more than a passing resemblance to the then-king of the Nielsen's, All in the Family. And other similarities crop up. While Stanley is never portrayed as a bigot, the dynamics of his character often fulfill the role that Archie Bunker played; Stanley comes home from a rotten day at work, and is besieged by problems from his family. His sister Olive could easily fit in the "dingbat" role of Edith, as well as the Gloria role (she even cries like Gloria), while Arthur's permanent unemployment, and the resulting friction with Stanley, strongly resembles Mike and Archie's relationship.
Perhaps this resemblance was the main reason the show never caught on. Scheduled on Mondays at 8:00 P.M. opposite older viewers' favorite Gunsmoke on CBS, and younger audiences' favorite, The Rookies over on ABC, Lotsa Luck needed more than luck to break into audiences' regular viewing schedule. Lotsa Luck's follow-up show, Diana, which tried to meld sexy international star Diana Rigg with a Mary Tyler Moore Show format, wasn't a complimentary match for the loud DeLuise comedy, and failed to help draw in viewers. Even a mid-season move to Friday nights, in a prime spot right after Sanford and Son, did nothing for the ratings, and Lotsa Luck disappeared after just one season (it had some good competition from The Odd Couple over on ABC -- we frequently watched Sanford and Son, only to switch over to catch Felix and Oscar). Perhaps audiences felt that with the excellent All in the Family on the air, why bother watching an inferior copy? As well, there were a few questionable episodes (particularly Stanley and the Librarian which has Stanley negotiating with a prostitute) that coarsen Stanley's character, and which may have confused the viewers. Whatever the reason, it's a shame that Lotsa Luck didn't get another season to grow on viewers.
You may only know DeLuise from some of his frequent movie roles with Mel Brooks and Burt Reynolds, but he plays it much straighter here in Lotsa Luck. There's only a few times where he comes close to doing his patented "crazy" shtick, where he flies uncontrollably off the handle (see The End for the best example of this). Instead, he shows how well he can deliver a punch line without reverting to slapstick to sell it to the audience. Arthur, as played by Irwin, is a magnificently scuzzy creation, and a perfect foil for the quick-to-boil DeLuise. Looking as if you could literally smell him through the TV screen, Arthur sports a chronic three-day beard, rat's nest hair, and a cheap cigar clenched in his teeth, even when he's eating (which is at least five times a day). Irwin and DeLuise's chemistry is excellent, and their interplay is clearly the best part of the show. Unfortunately, the other supporting characters don't register as strongly as Stanley and Arthur. Kathleen Freeman (you may remember her from all those great Jerry Lewis movies) was a terrific supporting actress, but she badly miscast her. Only two years older than DeLuise, she's never convincing as his mother. As well, her character is poorly written, having little to do but wring her hands and cook up plates of scrambled eggs for each episode's obligatory breakfast scene. The excellent Beverly Sanders fairs no better, saddled with a truly annoying character who brings little to the show. For some strange reason, the producers decided to obscure her eyes with heavy glasses throughout the show, so we can't even connect with her as a person. And Jack Knight has a thankless role as Stanley's best friend Bummy, whose name is unfortunately funnier than anything he's given to do in any of the episodes. Still, there are a lot of laughs in Lotsa Luck, and the professional, talented cast gives it their all in each episode.
Here are the twenty-two, one-half hour episodes of Lotsa Luck:
(Note: Although the disc lists this as Olive's Present, that title would seem to describe the pilot episode's plot, and not this particular episode). Stanley and Bummy's plans for a hot double date are stymied when everyone at the Belmonts comes down sick.
The Bare Facts
Arthur is stepping out at night, and everyone is convinced he's having an affair. But who would have an affair with Arthur?
When Arthur recycles an anniversary card for his wedding anniversary, he and Olive decide on a trial separation, and it's up to Stanley to reconcile them.
Stanley and the Librarian
Stanley's date with a sweet, attractive librarian turns naughty when he finds out she's a prostitute.
Arthur finally agrees to work (!), so Stanley borrows a suit from Lost and Found for Arthur's big interview. But what happens when the owner comes to claim it?
Ma is going to the laundry every night, until Stanley finds out that she's really dating a romantic stranger. Will Ma run off with Stanley's new stepfather?
The Winning Purse
Bills are overwhelming Stanley, so he makes the mistake of listening to Arthur's horse-racing picks -- or are they mistakes?
The Family Plot
The city demands that the Belmonts move their deceased father from his grave plot, so the Belmonts try and figure out what to do with the extra money from its sale.
Stanley can't sleep at night, and it's affecting his work attitude, so he sees the company psychiatrist. His diagnosis? Be nice to Arthur!
The New Stan
Stanley endures a makeover - including a toupee! -- to succeed in the fast-paced world of singles bars.
Arthur becomes a man of leisure when his uncle leaves him $20,000. But Stan plans on giving Arthur the bill for seven years of freeloading.
The Belmont Connection
The Lost and Found department is being used as a drug drop, and Stanley's pressed into service by the cops to smash the drug ring.
Will You Marry Me?
Stanley asks Marsha to marry him, but she'd rather "live together." Will Stanley really move out on Ma, Olive and (especially) Arthur?
Do Me A Favor
An old friend of the family has hit it big as an entertainer, and tickets to his show give Stanley the chance to make a big impression on a special girl.
Stan and the Wealthy Widow
A girl that Stan used to know is now a wealthy widow, who wants Stan to work at her company -- for a price.
The Talent Show
The bus company's annual talent show pits Bummy against Stanley when they have a falling out over the offered prize.
A Little Order of Law and Order
After the Belmont home is broken into, Stanley gets a watch dog, and boy, is he some dog of a watch dog!
You Oughta be in Pictures
The bus company's promotional campaign featuring "Driver Dan" catches Stan's eye, and he tries out for the coveted TV gig.
Stan hires Arthur to be his assistant down at the Lost and Found, but Stanley loses his mind when Arthur turns out to be better at his job than he is!
Arthur Makes His Move
Arthur's bum friend Monroe convinces Arthur to move out, and Olive soon follows. Will Stanley really try hard to get them back?
While Bummy's out of town, Stanley watches over his girl -- a little too closely.
Get Off My Back
Stanley throws his back out at home, and tries to scam the insurance company by claiming workman's compensation.
For a thirty-four year old show, Lotsa Luck looks pretty good. Sure, the video looks hot at times, and colors tend toward jaundice, but that's how it looked back then, too. This full screen transfer is about as good as you can expect.
The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack accurately reflects the original television presentation.
On disc one, there's a copy of the original pilot filmed for Lotsa Luck. I say "copy," because it's obviously a second or third generation video capture. Considering how good the show's original episodes look, this master must be the best available copy for the pilot. As to the pilot's merit, it's amazing that the show was ever sold to the network based on this loud, unfunny skit. DeLuise plays Stan as a boorish, yelling clone of Archie Bunker, with little sympathy for the audiences' ears. It's really quite a terrible episode. There's also a 19 minute discussion with Dom about his career and Lotsa Luck. Filmed in what I assume is his kitchen (as are all the other extras that feature Dom), Dom is personable and fun, recalling his varied career. On disc two, there's a six minute bio documentary on Dom DeLuise. If you only know Dom from the Mel Brooks movies, you'll be surprised at the varied career he's had in entertainment. On disc three, there's a three minute segment called Dom's Bird Tricks, where his bird performs for the camera. It's really weird to see Dom put that bird's head in his mouth. There's also a Lotsa Luck Trivia game, which is kind of fun. On disc four, there's a three minute segment called Breakfast with Dom, which has Dom discussing eating on the show -- while he eats. I love Dom, but frankly, it's kind of gross watching him eat and talk. I would have preferred a commentary track. There's also a photo gallery feature, with stills from the show.
I think it's great that S'Mores Entertainment took a relatively obscure, but worthy, show like Lotsa Luck: The Complete Series and put it out on disc. A funny little slice of 1973, Lotsa Luck isn't profound, but it delivers quite a few solid laughs in each episode, thanks to the expert timing and delivery of Dom DeLuise and Wynn Irwin. If you want to see what the average TV comedy looked like back in1973, you'd do well to buy Lotsa Luck.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.