I Love Lucy

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I Love Lucy

I Love Lucy is, without question, the most popular and influential television comedy of all time. Since it's debut on CBS on October 15, 1951, the show has been translated into almost every language in the world and has run continuously in international syndication in over 100 U.S. markets and virtually every country in the world for almost half a century. When the show first began to rerun episodes in 1959, its ratings outperformed most of CBS's new programming that year. Such is the continuing popularity of the show that each episode is also available in Spanish, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, and French. The program has also become a popular culture phenomenon inspiring worldwide fan clubs, web sites, retrospective screenings, and memorabilia for avid collectors. Post cards featuring classic scenes from the show, CDs of music from the show, dolls, lunch boxes, T-shirts, pajamas, aprons, and videotapes of the show continue to sell at a phenomenal rate.

In 1983, a Los Angeles television station honored Lucille Ball on her 72nd birthday by airing a 13 hour I Love Lucy marathon running from nine o'clock in the morning until ten o'clock at night. The station vaulted to number one in the ratings and stayed there for the entire day with each half hour winning its time period. The show has also been honored by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and by the Museum of Television and Radio.

The secret of the show's continuing popularity beyond the fact that it was incredibly funny and unceasingly creative is that it held up a mirror to every married couple in America and although the mirror was more of the fun house than the cosmetic type, it was still unstintingly honest in its depiction. "We just took ordinary situations and exaggerated them," Ball admitted.

Additionally, the unpretentious family oriented sitcom virtually revolutionized the production and distribution of television shows, setting the standard for all of the TV shows to follow. The show was one of the first comedies performed before a live audience. It also originated the concept of producing a program on film instead of broadcasting it live. Shot with three cameras, the show could be fully edited before it was shown. Using film permitted the rebroadcast of high quality prints of the show at a time when most of its competitors were rerunning their programming on poor quality kinescopes of live shows photographed off of the TV screen. The use of film hastened the move of the television industry from New York to Los Angeles which, during the 1950s, became the hub of filmed programming. It also popularized the concept of reruns, and proved that recycled programming could have renewed life on local stations once its network prime-time days had ended.

Despite the later success of I Love Lucy, the show was viewed by many as a long shot when it began. In the late 1940s Lucille Ball had been playing opposite actor Richard Denning on a popular radio show My Favorite Husband. CBS-TV became impressed with the show and wanted to bring it to television, but Ball would only agree if her real husband Desi Arnaz could play opposite her in the Denning role. According to a number of sources, this demand was a ploy on her part to save her marriage, which had been gradually deteriorating. Although Ball and Arnaz had been married since 1940, they had been separated by the demands of their work with him touring with his band while she was confined to Hollywood making films. According to Ball, if both stayed in one place and did a television show, the process of working together would help their relationship. Unfortunately, CBS executives and the program's potential advertisers didn't buy the idea, feeling that casting a thick-accented Latino as the husband of a typical American wife would not sit well with U.S. viewers.

To convince them otherwise, the two performers formed Desilu Productions, put together a 20-minute skit and took it on a cross-country barnstorming tour. When the TV show did not immediately materialize, however, Lucy went back to radio and Desi returned to his band. By the end of 1950, CBS relented somewhat, agreeing to let them do a pilot of the proposed show but declined to finance its production or the air time. Undeterred, Ball and Arnaz raised the money themselves and came up with a script about a successful bandleader and his movie star wife. Yet, the show could not find a sponsor willing to put the show on the air. The basic problem was that the pilot was too vaudeville-esque with an over-emphasis on rapid repartee and one liners.

At this point, composer Oscar Hammerstein, Jr., who had toured with Arnaz, stepped in and suggested that the show be re-written. He lobbied to keep the comedic sense of the show but to shed the movie star trappings and to make the characters appear more like an ordinary couple. Arnaz remained a band leader but, would be a struggling one, like many Americans, he would occupy his time trying to get his big break. When the show began, his character was earning $150 a week leading the house band at New York's Tropicana night club. Ball's character would be an ordinary housewife harboring visions of breaking into show business that she would act upon almost weekly with inevitably comic results.

Another stumbling point for the show was the title. Arnaz was an unknown quantity, while Ball had a popular following from her motion pictures and radio work, so CBS wanted to call the program The Lucille Ball Show. Ball objected because Arnaz's name was not in the title so an advertising agency executive working on the show suggested the "off the wall" title I Love Lucy. Since the I stood for Arnaz, Ball quickly agreed feeling that the almost equal billing would help her marriage. Not only was her husband's name in the title but with this format he was actually listed first.

The show's production location became yet another source of contention. CBS wanted to broadcast from New York City, the center of the fledgling television industry in 1950 but the Arnazes were reluctant to leave Los Angeles and their show business connections in case the show failed. CBS objected because broadcasting from Los Angeles would mean that the rest of the country would be able to view the show only through the use of kinescopes. Arnaz suggested that if the show were shot on 35 millimeter film as motion pictures were, CBS could distribute high quality prints to network affiliates throughout the country in a manner similar to the distribution systems employed by most movie studios. The production costs would be higher but the overall product would be much better.

The network agreed but was still faced with the never-before-attempted problem of actually filming a 30-minute TV show. To overcome this hurdle, CBS hired Oscar-winning cinematographer Karl Freund (The Good Earth, 1937) who collaborated with Ball and Arnaz on treating the show like a stage play and filming it before a live audience, a rare occurrence in 1950. It was also decided to film with three cameras, each shooting from a different angle, and then edit the best shots into the finished product. Director Marc Daniels, one of very few directors to have experience with three cameras, was hired to direct the show. Daniels also had a background in the theater working with live audiences.

To provide counterpoint for Ball and Arnaz's married couple, another couple who lived upstairs joined the cast of characters. After a number of actors and actresses were considered, the parts went to Vivian Vance and William Frawley. However, both were considered risky choices at the time. Vance was coming off a string of stage successes but was not nationally known (in fact, the Arnazes had never heard of her when her name was proposed); Frawley was rumored to be an alcoholic and unreliable. But, the producers took a chance on both.

The show's four lead characters of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo; Fred and Ethel Mertz (Frawley and Vance) related to each other amazingly well. The combination of the younger, more affluent Ricardos and the older, fixed-income Mertz's gave the show's writers a number of opportunities to take the show in different directions without beating the same themes to death week after week. One episode might find Lucy and Ethel involving themselves in a crazy scheme with Ricky and Fred attempting to teach them a lesson. The next might feature the two men planning a secret outing with the women attempting to crash the party. The Mertzes provided a mainstream older couple to offset the always volatile mixed marriage of the Ricardos.

The Ricardos portrayed a recognizable American family. Together, they explored the dynamics of their relationship in a manner that was new to television sitcoms. They were able to convey the fact that while they were adversaries in many of Lucy's "break into show business" shenanigans, they were also deeply in love with each other at the same time. Though bonded as a couple, each character maintained his own unique individuality.

Lucy, with her natural clown-like features reflected a combination of Yankee bravura with a touching vulnerability. Although, true to the times, she was cast as a housewife, she displayed a striking independence and was unafraid to speak her mind to her macho Latin husband. For his part, Ricky Ricardo represented a spectrum of familiar characters. Beginning with the macho hubris of a Latin lover, his expressive face and brown eyes ran the gamut from childlike vulnerability to fiery Latin anger that expressed itself through an hilarious accent that mangled the English language beyond repair.

Lucy, was a stage-struck schemer, possessed with a hyperactive imagination. The character relied on an arsenal of visual and vocal tricks in her effort to execute her wild schemes to crash the world of show business or to outsmart her husband when she got caught. The first was her tendency to drop her jaw in an open-mouthed stance to express her disbelief at what was occurring. If this didn't work, she would hold both arms straight out in front of her and then drop her forearms to indicate that something had gone wrong. Vocally, she would adopt a high pitched voice that erupted in a shriek when she was caught in an embarrassing moment. Then came the cry, monumental in nature, which would rise from her gut and then slowly wail its way up the register to the pitch of a police siren. This would be followed by a blubbering whimper that would constitute her final plea for sympathy and understanding. If her adversary happened to be Ricky, as was most often the case, she would then throw his mangled English language back at him as he attempted to read her the riot act.

The writers used the characters' differing ethnic backgrounds to great comedic effect. Ricky Ricardo's accent and nationality formed the nucleus of some of the show's more popular running gags. In addition to his mispronunciation of words, which was a very real occurrence for Arnaz as well as his character Ricky, the Cuban actor also erupted in a string of Latin epithets whenever he got mad. As Arnaz admitted in an interview, he had to walk a fine line in his use of the language to make sure that it came across as humor instead of rage. "It was the most difficult problem I faced while playing Ricky," he said. "It helped to overemphasize the Latin use of hands and arms when I was excited. Most of all, the rat-tat-tat parade of Spanish words helped me tread that thin line between funny-mad and mad-mad." He augmented this with an ability to pop out his eyes in an inimitable expression of incredulity in reaction to Lucy's antics.

The Mertzes, on the other hand, provided a calmer counterpart to the fiery Ricardos. Ethel and Fred were, first and foremost, older than their downstairs neighbors and somewhat more passive. The Vivian Vance character provided a "girlfriend" for Lucy and a partner in crime. Fred was a pal of Ricky's and someone who helped him in his schemes to thwart Lucy. He also provided one of the series' recurring gags with many jokes and episodes being built on his tightness with a buck. He simply did not like to spend money—a fact that would send the other three characters into a tizzy.

The show premier won unanimous critical approval. It achieved the 16th position in the ratings within eight weeks and climbed to number three by the end of the season with an average of 29 million viewers watching the show each week. The premise was established in the pilot show when Lucy disguised herself as a clown to sneak into Ricky's nightclub act. Throughout the rest of the season, she continued to rebel against the confines of her life as a housewife and the unfair restrictions of a male-dominated society that seemingly conspired to thwart her dreams of breaking into show business. Each of her attempts to enter into the entertainment world ended in a spectacular mess and she is inevitably forced to backtrack into the shackles of home and hearth.

The show was so popular that department stores, doctors, and dentists canceled their Monday night hours because viewers would not leave their TV sets. During the presidential elections, candidate Adlai Stevenson's office was flooded with hate mail when he cut in on I Love Lucy for a five-minute campaign spiel. This mistake was not repeated a decade later when CBS was tempted to pre-empt morning reruns of the show to televise the Senate Vietnam War hearings but backed away due to fears that viewers would be outraged.

In succeeding seasons the show continued to build on the basic premise as their on-screen married life evolved. In the second and third seasons the show centered on the birth of Little Ricky, which was the most popular episode in television history for many years (interestingly, more people watched the birth of Little Ricky than watched the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower as 34th President of the United States and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth of England, all in 1953). Predictably, the biggest adjustment for Lucy lay in the impact of motherhood on her dreams of crashing into show business. The fourth season found Ricky landing a screen test with a Hollywood studio and devoted a number of episodes to a cross country trip from New York to Hollywood where Lucy became involved in a number of adventures with celebrity guest stars including a now famous encounter with William Holden in a comedy of mistaken identities.

The fifth season found the family returning to New York but quickly taking off on a laugh-filled adventure tour of Europe. The final season revolved around the exploits of now five-year old Little Ricky and the couple's move to the suburbs. Ricky purchased the Tropicana and renamed it the Club Babalu and the family grew in affluence and began to tackle a variety of family issues.

One of the prime secrets of the show's success in addition to the chemistry among the four regulars was that the production team stayed relatively intact over the full run of the show. The writer/producer Jess Oppenheimer and the two regular writers Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, Jr. came over with Ball from the My Favorite Husband radio show and only three directors were employed during the show's original production: Marc Daniels (1951-52), William Asher (1952-56), and James V. Kern (1955-56).

By 1957, however, Ball and Arnaz had grown tired of the weekly grind of series TV and ceased production of the program. But that was not the end of the characters. The characters were featured over the next three years, a series of 13 one-hour episodes airing as specials and as episodes of the Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse which ran from 1958 to 1960. Their production company, Desilu, which was started primarily to produce I Love Lucy, grew from 12 employees in 1951 to 800 in 1957 and branched out into producing a number of well-regarded programs including The Danny Thomas Show for other networks and producers. In 1958, the company purchased the old RKO Studios and continued to be one of the most influential producers of the 1950s and 1960s.

The Arnazes divorced in 1960 and Ball went to New York to appear in a Broadway show Wildcat. She married comedian Gary Morton and returned to network TV in 1962 with The Lucy Show, which also featured Vivian Vance and Gale Gordon. The show ran until 1968 when it was retitled Here's Lucy and featured Ball's real life children Lucie and Desi, Jr. Vance made only sporadic appearances between 1968 and 1971 but the show continued until 1974 as part of the CBS Monday night comedy block that dominated the ratings for the entire period that Ball's show ran.

—Steve Hanson

—Sandra Garcia-Myers

Further Reading:

Andrews, Bart. The I Love Lucy Book. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1985.

Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946 -Present. New York, Ballantine Books, 1995.

Hill, Tom. Nick at Night's Classic TV Companion. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1966.

Horowitz, Susan. Queens of Comedy. Australia, Gordon and Breach Publishers, 1997.

Krohn, Katherine E. Lucille Ball: Pioneer of Comedy. Minneapolis, Lerner Publications, 1992.

McClay, Michael. I Love Lucy: The Complete Picture History of the Most Popular TV Show Ever. New York, Warner Books, 1995.

Mitz, Rick. The Great TV Sitcom Book. New York, A Perigee Book, 1983.

Oppenheimer, Jess. Laughs, Luck and Lucy: How I Came to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time. New York, Syracuse University Press, 1996.

Waldron, Vince. Classic Sitcoms. New York, Macmillan Publishing, 1987.

Warner Bros. Warner Bros. Presents Television Favorites. Miami, Warner Bros. 1995.