The Lucy Chronicles

This article is adapted from "Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events that Made Us Who We Are Today," published this month by The Free Press. Author Steven Stark is a commentator for National Public Radio and has written extensively for the Atlantic Monthly and other publications

This spring marks the 40th anniversary of the production of the last episode of "I Love Lucy." It is an occasion worth noting. The contributions of this show to television history are legendary: First sitcom to be a hit. First show to be No. 1 three years in a row. First show to be filmed live before a studio audience. In fact, calling "I Love Lucy" the most popular television show of all time is hardly an overstatement. For years, dozens of local stations ran the show in syndication, and the cable channel Nickelodeon does today. TV Guide had it right when it wrote that Lucy has "a face seen by more people, more often, than the face of any human being who ever lived."

Above everything else, however, "I Love Lucy" stands out because its superstar was a woman. Rarely, if ever, in the history of entertainment has a woman attained a following far beyond that of any man's.

What's more, Lucy's popularity has lasted through perhaps the greatest change in the status and perception of women in history. What kind of woman had this kind of hold on the public? And what does it tell us about television that perhaps its greatest and longest-lasting star--its Elvis or Chaplin--was a woman?

There was little in Lucille Ball's background to suggest she would play this role. Before 1951, when "I Love Lucy" went into production, Ball had appeared in more than 50 movies, earning the nickname "Queen of the B's." Married to Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz, Ball left the movies to become the 1948 co-lead of a popular weekly radio series, "My Favorite Husband"--an ironic title since the Arnaz-Ball marriage, after years of career-enforced separation, was on the rocks. When CBS approached Ball and asked her to transfer the show to TV, Lucy refused unless her real husband were cast in the lead, bringing them together.

CBS, however, refused to hire a Cuban, so Ball and Arnaz went on the road in 1950 as a vaudeville act to prove their popularity. When CBS remained adamant, the duo formed their own production company and began producing scripts loosely based on their own lives. Lucille Ball would become housewife Lucy Ricardo, married to Cuban bandleader Ricky Ricardo. The cast would include another older couple--the Mertzes--their best friends and landlords, who lived in their Manhattan apartment building. Like "My Favorite Husband," the plots would center around the antics of Lucy. In the late summer of 1951, "I Love Lucy" finally went into production, with Desilu Productions assuming most of the financial burden. The show premiered on CBS on Oct. 15, 1951, and within four months it was No. 1.

Who, then, was Lucy Ricardo? She was, first, what most married women were in those days--a housewife, and then a mother. "I wanted our characters to have problems," said Ball. "I wanted to be an average housewife. A very nosy but very average housewife. And I wanted my husband to love me."

Still, Lucy Ricardo was hardly the contented matron portrayed in the popular press of the time. Long before Betty Friedan gave voice to the restless aspirations of a generation of housebound women, Lucy was trying to get her own show-business career, to get out of the house, to change into men's clothes and to make her husband appreciate her more. In this show, the women bonded against the men: "I Love Lucy," said the title, but who really loved her more--Ricky or Ethel? (Lucy certainly loved Ethel more than Fred did.) By defying her "place," Lucy rebelled against all middle-class norms. Though these crises were portrayed humorously, they were often not laughable subjects, perhaps the reason why Ball once said, "I never thought that I was funny."

Yet despite what Ball thought, she was hilarious. According to TV scholar Lynn Spigel, Lucy's TV persona had its roots in the conventions of female characters introduced into vaudeville in the late 19th century. Those vaudeville performers developed "a set of conventions by which women's humor was deemed more respectable" to a mass audience: Women always had to be the butt of jokes; they had to downplay their good looks or appear scatterbrained to seem less threatening to the audience; they always had to be linked in the public eye with a man. Thus, co-star Vivian Vance was forced to gain 20 pounds to look more frumpy for her role; the glamorous Ball would frequently dress down and tie her hair up in a kerchief for performances.

Lucy's rebellion was also less threatening because its target was a Cuban immigrant; it would have been quite a different thing to take shots at Jim Anderson or Ward Cleaver. Though CBS officials originally rejected the show because they thought mass audiences wouldn't accept a Cuban, it may be that audiences would have accepted nothing but. Everyone--including men--could identify with Lucy; few in the audience ever mistook themselves for a Desi.

Yet in a medium notorious for shamelessly copying any formula that works, television rarely returned to Lucy's slapstick-rebellious form of situation comedy. In part, that was a tribute to the uniqueness of Lucy's talent for comedy. Yet there was something else to television's failure to replicate the Lucy formula, and the clues were there even when the show was the hit of the nation. Advertisers and network executives never really seemed to like it--no small irony since Desi's business innovations (filming, syndication, establishment of the sitcom as a genre) paved the way for much of the medium's financial success. At least six agencies turned the show down cold, and CBS was forced to place newspaper ads seeking help before Philip Morris signed on. After the first show, a company executive wanted to cancel the contract, calling the show "unfunny, silly and totally boring."

To be sure, there have been other instances in television history where ratings alone weren't enough to please the network and sponsor superiors. Yet this was different, and more subtle. Despite the concessions made to conform Lucy's persona to female stereotypes, the show--at bottom--still revolved around a woman's attempts to rebel against the middle-class mold. Lucy was often portrayed displaying her independence: She smoked; she screamed; she constantly challenged Ricky's authority; she also clearly had sex, because we saw her pregnant. By the time "I Love Lucy" left the air, TV had already domesticated and desexualized its women, either by moving them into homemaker roles on shows such as "The Donna Reed Show" or "Ozzie and Harriet," or by removing from their arsenal the weapon of sharp humor. It is no coincidence that after Lucy, the networks abandoned the idea of making major sitcoms starring women, or at least ones that realistically resembled half the audience at home. In the '60s, TV had two hit sitcoms that starred women other than those featuring Lucy--"Hazel," a show about a maid, and "Bewitched," a sitcom about a housewife witch. Neither threatened the status quo in any way like "I Love Lucy" did.

That obviously mattered to advertisers--and therefore the networks--and not just because Lucy's mild rebelliousness might offend their social conventions. Advertisers saw television as a powerful medium that could "teach" housewives (with the benign acquiescence of their husbands) how to become better consumers of their products. To be a consumer par excellence, a woman had to buy into a whole series of complicated assumptions that dictated that her proper place was at home (where she watched television), bearing and raising kids (who watched more television) and spending money (for products that she heard about from television). As a real professional actress and unhappy sitcom housewife, Lucy was an implied threat to that order, which is one reason she drew viewers decade after decade as her conflicts and aspirations continued to parallel those of her changing audience.

As a woman, Lucy also illustrated something important about the medium of television that made it different from anything that had come before. You don't have to be a devotee of Carol Gilligan or Deborah Tannen to know that women express themselves differently from men. They tend to focus on emotions; they seek consensus, not conflict; they disclose more of themselves in conversation; they emphasize the personal, not the impersonal.

These attributes are well-suited to television. Because TV doesn't arrive via a public sphere--like the theater or film--but comes directly into the home (the traditional domain of women), it tends to rely on female forms of expression, such as narratives and self-disclosure. The medium's strength is going "up close and personal"; from "Person to Person" to "The Oprah Winfrey Show," its ultimate promise has often been the disclosure of intimacy. What's more, despite a multitude of changes brought on by the feminist movement, women still remain the primary consumers in the culture and television's principal audience in prime time.

Thus, it was no accident that television stumbled upon a woman as its premier mega-superstar. Nor was it happenstance that the woman happened to be Lucy. Confined yet liberated, acquisitive yet generous, she was ambivalently enough at the center of American life to appeal to everybody. "I Love Lucy" was a leader in using the new medium of television to disclose to us what we really were. But like any work of genius, its rare gift lay also in the power to reveal what we would become.

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