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Poker & Pop Culture: Men, Women, and Poker in Early TV Comedies

Poker & Pop Culture: Men, Women, and Poker in Early TV Comedies
  • Poker repeatedly provokes humorous "battles of the sexes" in many early television sitcoms.

  • Poker causes conflicts between men & women in "I Love Lucy," "The Honeymooners" & "Ozzie & Harriet."

The situation comedy was a staple of early American television, with many shows featuring familiar, domestic settings that besides entertaining audiences also tended to reinforce "traditional" ideas of family life, including conventional roles for men and women.

Indeed, a frequent source of humor in the sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s were scenarios in which the men's authority was momentarily challenged — when, say, the father in Father Knows Best actually didn't seem to know best — although more often than not the established household hierarchy would be ultimately restored in time for the closing credits.

As a popular recreation in particular among men, poker frequently turned up in such programs as a context for various humorous plots. Given the game's history as a mostly male-dominated pastime, it also served as a ready instigator for these light-hearted "battle of the sexes"-type stories.

Lucy Tries to Be Ricky's Poker Pal in I Love Lucy

A good illustration comes in one of the very first episodes of the most popular TV show of the early 1950s, I Love Lucy starring real-life husband-and-wife Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo.

The original show ran from 1951-1957 (with later iterations following), often topping the Nielsen ratings and being the year's top-ranked show on four separate occasions. The 1951 episode from early in the first season titled "Be a Pal" adapts an episode of earlier radio show starring Ball called My Favorite Husband — a precursor to the TV series that provided plots for several early episodes.

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It begins with Lucy frustrated over Ricky neglecting her and seeming to take her for granted. Lucy's neighbor Ethel (Vivian Vance) provides some guidance in the form of recommending a new book by a certain Dr. Humphries titled How to Keep the Honeymoon from Ending.

Though invented, the book in not unlike other guides of the era with the good doctor advising women to "dress up for your husband" and the like, making it seem as though in the face of any relationship difficulties the woman is the one needing to change and compromise, not the man.

After one early attempt at following the advice fails for Lucy, she decides to try Dr. Humphries's "Be a Pal system. "Share your husband's interests," Ethel reads from the book to Lucy, explaining the system. "Join in his hobbies. If he hunts, take up hunting. If he fishes, take up fishing. If he golfs, take up golfing."

You can see where this is headed — to the poker table, where (after a quick lesson in how to play from Ethel) Lucy soon joins a game with Ricky, Ethel's husband Fred (William Frawley), and others.

Lucy's presence in the game is hilariously disruptive, in part because she still isn't clear on the rules of five-card draw. For instance, in one hand after having already let on she has two queens, she has to be told that she is allowed to discard and draw.

"Honey, you've got to get rid of your worse cards in order to get new ones," explains Ricky. "Well, I can't decide whether to throw away my two queens or my three kings," Lucy replies — and everyone instantly folds.

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In another hand she has to have the men recount hand rankings for her, and when it's made clear to her that four of a kind beats a full house, she makes a big bet, causing Fred to fold.

"Honey, just out of curiosity, what were your four of a kind?" asks Ricky. "Oh, I didn't have four of a kind — I had a pair," says Lucy. In fact, she didn't even have that, as it is explained to her that the nine and six in her hand didn't match.

The scene is a riot, although it hardly helps much with Lucy's dilemma as it only serves to make Ricky angry with her. Things grow even more farcical from there before a rapidly-delivered kiss-and-make-up ending concludes the show.

While played for laughs, poker nonetheless is presented here — as is typical in these older sitcomes — as wholly a "man's game," with the thought of a woman taking the seat at the table itself a source of comedy.

Poker as a Game of Hide and Seek in The Honeymooners

The Honeymooners debuted in 1951 on the DuMont Television Network as a recurring sketch on a variety show called Cavalcade of Stars hosted by the comedian and actor Jackie Gleason.

The following year Gleason's contract expired and he was picked up by CBS to host a new program, The Jackie Gleason Show. Gleason took the "Honeymooners" premise with him, and during the show's four-year run sketches continued to appear, eventually being fleshed out from a few minutes to a half-hour or more.

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Finally in 1955 it was decided by CBS to create a full-fledged series, and The Honeymooners became one of the top-rated shows in the country during its brief 39-episode run, after which Gleason returned to the variety show format.

Audiences loved the stories in which Gleason portrayed a boisterous bus driver named Ralph Kramden living in a Brooklyn apartment with his wife Alice (Audrey Meadows) and their upstairs neighbors Ed Norton, a city sewer worker played by Art Carney, and his wife Trixie (Joyce Randolph).

The husbands-versus-wives dynamic serves as a recurring theme on the show, providing a ready source for laughs. Much like on I Love Lucy, the game of poker was often used as a kind of conflict-creator between the men and women, with the men's efforts to get away from the women and play often presented as a parallel "game" in its own right.

The men even belong to a lodge, the "Raccoon Lodge" or the "International Order of Friendly Sons of the Raccoons," which primarily serves as an excuse to get away from the women, often to play poker.

In one episode ("A Dog's Life"), Ralph explains to Alice how he has to get over to the lodge for "another emergency meeting." Alice complains they just had an "emergency meeting" the night before. Ed — or "Norton" as he's often called — arrives and while Ralph is getting ready she complains to him about all of the lodge meetings. "I'm beginning to think those emergency meetings are nothing but a poker game," she says.

"Wait a minute, Alice... I'm surprised you even think a thing like that," responds Norton. "An emergency meeting is an emergency meeting... never a poker game. An executive meeting... that's a poker game!"

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One of the earlier extended sketches ("The Man in the Blue Suit," from 1952) begins with a late-night poker game hosted by Ralph when Alice is away visiting her mother. Ralph manages to come away the big winner, taking $73.85 — "the biggest killing we've ever had in this game," comments Norton.

Afterwards Ralph says he has to hide his winnings, and Norton asks if he's afraid of burglars.

"Burglars... nothing," says Ralph. "I'm afraid of Alice!"

Ralph hides the money in an old suit he hasn't worn in five years, then the next day lies to Alice about how much he won. He gives her five dollars, claiming it to be all of his winnings. Meanwhile Alice has unwittingly given the suit away to a visitor collecting for charity. That sends Ralph on a wild chase to recover the suit and the money hidden inside, his efforts hindered greatly by the fact that he can't reveal to Alice the reason why he's so eager to get the suit back.

As it turns out, the man from the Needy Society returned the money to Alice while Ralph was gone. That causes the episode to resolve into a kind of bluffing game between Ralph and Alice in which both know each other's "hand" but won't reveal to the other that they do. She knows he's lied about his poker winnings but doesn't let on, while he knows the money returned to her is actually his but he won't tell.

On a surface level, the setting and situation resemble the contemporaneous A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) in which poker similarly inserts a kind of wedge between men and women. There the situation proves more serious — grave, even — but here, too, poker is presented as a kind of "refuge" for the men which they have to "defend" versus occasional incursions made by the women.

Poker Versus Romance in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet

Finally, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was another very popular show of the era, running for 14 seasons on ABC from 1952 to 1966. It starred the real-life family — Ozzie Nelson, his wife Harriet, and their sons David and Ricky. Like other television comedies of the day the show presented an amusing, somewhat idealized version of a "typical" happy family, with poker frequently coming up as a favorite entertainment of the men on the show.

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One notable 1954 episode from the second season featured guest star John Carradine joining the family in a reading of Hamlet before playing poker with Ozzie and others (and proving himself a surprising shark). That episode involves an attempt to extricate Ozzie from the family activity by neighbor Thorny (Don DeFore) who humorously champions the great game of poker as a preferable alternate to Elizabethan drama.

"You're gonna miss out on a very interesting evening," says Thorny when Ozzie insists he has to honor his family obligation to read Hamlet.. "Playing cards, jokes, laughs, good fellowship. You're not gonna let William Shakespeare come between you and culture, are you?"

In that early episode Ozzie is described as a novice player, but over the course of the series he plays frequently, including in one episode from 1958 titled "Harriet's Dancing Partner." In that one Ozzie he hosts a game, but soon finds his fun being disturbed by a growing awareness that his poker-playing could perhaps be interpreted as his neglecting his wife — not unlike Lucy and Ricky's situation in "Be a Pal."

The episode's backstory involves Harriet having won a dance contest with another man, Ted Poindexter, back when she and Ozzie were dating. Poindexter turns up in their lives again — coincidentally on the night of another dance contest — and after Ozzie begs off going in order to play poker, Harriet seemingly is about to enter another contest with her earlier partner.

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Ultimately Ozzie abandons the game to join Harriet, and they win that night's contest. But the scenario would be repeated again multiple times over the course of the series.

In "Hayride" (from 1964), Harriet and other wives organize a romantic hayride, but Ozzie and the men are planning a Saturday night poker game. It starts as a seemingly minor disagreement, like a small-pot hand, but the stakes get higher after it grows into a larger men-versus-women battle.

A variation on the same idea came later that year in "Rick and Kris Go to the Mountains" when son Ricky (now married) plans a poker game with his buddies at his in-laws' mountain cabin, but his wife Kris mistakenly thinks Rick is planning a romantic vacation for the two of them — their first since the honeymoon.

"He even gave up a poker game," Kris tells the Nelsons of the plans. "Sounds like you've got him trained pretty good there," says Ozzie.

Rick finally sorts it out with Kris, and he and his buddies go up to the cabin for the game. But eventually all like Rick feel guilty about leaving their significant others, and they abandon the game — with one even throwing the cards in the fireplace to burn, making it impossible for them to change their minds.

As in all of these shows, the conflict is resolved without too much drama. Again, though, the story positions poker as a cause for antagonism between the sexes.

From the forthcoming "Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America's Favorite Card Game." Martin Harris teaches a course in "Poker in American Film and Culture" in the American Studies program at UNC-Charlotte.

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