Lucy! I’m home!
An iconic phrase. And one that has become the calling card of a sitcom that changed the face of comedy on television, and television itself for that matter. With the one hundredth anniversary of Lucille Ball‘s birthday this past weekend, it seems only fitting that we celebrate her iconic sitcom, I Love Lucy.
There are very few shows that I look back on and say “man, I wish I was around when that was in the zeitgeist (then again, I never use the word zeitgeist, ever).” But I Love Lucy is a completely different beast. This is a show that I was lucky enough to get into as a child thanks to Nick at Night, and stick with because of its appeal.
Right out of the gate I Love Lucy was a hit. Not a juggernaut, but a hit. Think of it as the Louie of it’s day (in terms of ratings). When it started it did well. Nothing special. But then people started to catch on, a lot of people. By the end of season 1, the show had become the third most watched program in the United States and became number one for 4 of the 5 seasons that followed (it dropped to number two in season 5 against $64,000 Question).
Similar to the way Lucas maintained control over Star Wars in the 70s, I Love Lucy was able to maintain its rights under its production studio thanks to some creative accounting and became the first of its type to prove the worth of secondary syndication airings. The show has clearly maintained its popularity to this day and it can be attributed to three things: Lucille Ball’s ability to carry the series, the show’s craftsmanship at suspending disbelief and its humor style.
Ball was the first woman to ever gain a lead role on a prime-time television program, but she never let that get to her. She famously quoted during production of the show, “You cannot teach someone comedy; either they have it or they don’t,” and she clearly had it. Her ability to make the audience care about her in a time of inequality and bias is praise-worthy enough on its own, but the fact that the show was so good made the reward for Ball that much sweeter.
But more importantly, what makes that humor work is that it’s one of those shows that’s always able to make you forget that the entire story is taking place on a sound stage in front of an audience. There’s a real craftsmanship to its style, a particular craftsmanship that has been lost in today’s widescreen, HD world.
Take the “Superman” episode for example. In the climax, Lucy climbs out onto the balcony of her apartment building in order to impress the children at the party, but is suddenly made immobile because she gets stuck. It’s extremely hard to make that look right and even harder to make it feel convincing, especially considering the show was the first to pioneer the multi-cam, studio audience technique. What the live audience allowed was for immediate reaction. If something wasn’t working, the production team knew it right away. Either they laughed, or they didn’t. It allowed the show to evolve, and work out its kinks to make the set-up work.
I Love Lucy is one of those rare shows, especially in today’s landscape, that everyone points to as the definition of “classic” television. The humor is both wholesome enough and simple enough for the five-year-old to enjoy as much as the seventy-year-old who was in their twenties when the show was airing.
And that “simple” comment is not a slam. What makes the show work and what makes it so beautiful and timeless is its simplicity. Every episode boils down to the idea of Lucy getting into some funny situation. Whether she and Ethel be working at a chocolate factory, intentionally bombing a television commercial or meeting Superman, every time Lucy got into a situation, we were hooked watching her try (and sometimes fail) to get out of it.
There’s something to be said for the type of comedy Lucy went for back in ’52 versus the comedy on television today. When Lucy is having a witty battle of one liners between her and George Reeves as Superman, you feel it. You feel the heart and soul, but more importantly the innocence in a scene like that. Lines like “tell me, when you’re flying around do you have cape trouble” and Reeves responding “no, but then again I’ve had a lot more flying time than you have,” that’s just one of those things the comedies of today simply don’t go after. A sense of innocence.
Take the Community episode “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” for comparison. Here’s an episode of a television show that lives for the one liner conversations. The concept for the episode comes from a real place of innocence and whimsy. But instead of taking that approach and just doing a claymation episode set within the context of a Community story, they set the entire episode inside Abed’s head, thus removing any sort of innocence that could be had from the episode because it’s no longer a world, but a construct of someone’s insane imagination.
Or how about any episode of the new FX series Wilfred. Moments like Wilfred taking credit for killing an old lady or Ryan having sex with a stuffed giraffe so he can get out licking Jane Kaczmarek’s ass aren’t innocent, or even believable; they’re just dumb and vile.
Are these changes in how comedies today go for their laughs for the better? Maybe. It would be a tough sell for a scene like the chocolate factory that to get off the ground today without it containing some reference to poop. Imagine if Modern Family attempted something like it. You know that at some point Luke would go “why are we wrapping up tiny balls of poop?”
Still, I Love Lucy is the gold standard for television comedy even to this day. Its legacy is clear and true and you would be hard pressed to find a single person that doesn’t have at least one Lucy moment they would call their favorite, especially since there are so many to choose from.
For me, it’s Superman. For my father, it’s the Vitameatavegamin episode. For my mother, it’s the chocolate factory. Regardless, the show has a legacy that is, and will most likely remain unmatched. For the simple reason that when they were making it, I Love Lucy was just a show. It wasn’t trying to be a game-changer, it just ended up that way.
Lucille Ball never forgot that her show was just that, a show. One that brought a country together through the gift of laughter, and that’s why it will stand the test of time for generations to come.
To listen to the latest episode of Merrill’s TV Podcast, The Idiot Boxers with Kevin Carr, head over toFat Guys at the Movies.