Is comedy funnier in color?
Traditionalists would likely answer no to that question, citing a rich history of black-and-white comedy in both movies and television.
For more than a few generations, black and white was actually synonymous with comedy. “The Little Rascals,” Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers were all in black and white. And we encountered them all on the TV we grew up with.
These comedy greats were packaged for syndication on TV, but television’s own rich black-and-white heritage was put on display right alongside them, represented principally by “I Love Lucy,” “The Honeymooners,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and a few others.
And to my knowledge, no one ever said: “You know something? These shows were pretty funny in black-and-white. Can you imagine how much funnier they would be if they were in color?”
Every year at this time, CBS airs episodes of “I Love Lucy” that have been colorized, including one that happens to be a Christmas episode. This year's colorized classics aired in prime time this past Friday.
They were accompanied by two “newly colorized” (according to CBS) episodes of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (starring Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke, colorized above).
Both shows are among the most admired in all of television history. The quality of their comedy -- starting with the “situations” created for them that helped define the very concept of situation-comedy -- is undisputed.
When Lucille Ball gets gradually inebriated in that Vitameatavegamin commercial, for example, it does not matter one bit that this sequence -- and a hundred other ones -- is in black and white. It is hilarious.
In fact, some might argue that a TV show like “I Love Lucy” is funnier in black and white or, at the very least, it comes across as funnier in its original format, at least in part, because we are so accustomed to seeing it in this way.
To take this line of thinking a step farther, one might argue that presenting classic television and movie comedies in color that were seen originally for decades in black and white robs them of a crucial element that made them so special in the first place.
Or to put it another way, colorizing “I Love Lucy” has the potential for lowering this classic, seminal TV series to the level of a thousand TV comedies that came after it -- until the antics of Lucy and Viv are perceived as no different from, say, “Laverne and Shirley.”
Where “I Love Lucy” is concerned, cinema historians are often eager to remind the rest of us that the show's director of photography was Karl Freund, an immigrant from Germany who was a star cinematographer in the Golden Age of German silent pictures whose credits include “The Golem” (1920) and “Metropolis” (directed by Fritz Lang, 1927). In America, Freund shot “Key Largo” (1948), among other black-and-white classics.
The fact that this guy was hired at the behest of Lucille Ball to shoot “I Love Lucy” and, in the process, establish standards for black-and-white cinematography in the new medium of television, is history worth noting.
Elsewhere in prime time this holiday season, NBC annually airs the 1946 Frank Capra classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” -- in glorious black and white. This movie deserves to be seen this way for the simple reason that that's the way it is.
The same could be said for our old TV shows. They remain fixed in our memories as a shared heritage in black and white. So why change them?