Peter Bacon Hales
Americans nationwide tuned in to CBS at 9pm on Mondays to watch a prison drama of sorts, in which four loudly inflated, joyously self-pitying cellmates schemed to escape their circumstances and slowly, undramatically, those circumstances changed without enlarging the scope of the characters, granting them serenity, wisdom, contentment. (Even at the height of American success, having moved to Hollywood, perched on the verge of true celebrity while Ricky made his movie, still Lucy and Ethel managed to snatch petty defeat from the jaws of success– getting caught stealing at Grauman’s Chinese, trespassing on the fame of others, misidentifying their favorite stars.) Everything changed and it changed in real time; nothing changed, and that happened, too, at the pace recognized by viewers from their own lives. (Of course, within the show’s Monday slot, time had to be compressed– a whole week, cut and pressed into 26 minutes or so. That was part of the fun of Lucy: even a cutaway to commercial had a flavor of delightfully anxious suspense, for while we were away looking at refrigerators or Chevrolets, crises continued to brew in the lives of the Ricardos and Merzes.)
I Love Lucy almost wasn’t television at all; at least as television existed at that moment, or even as it would evolve into its current iteration. If one can talk about a true golden era of television, I Love Lucy might well be argued to be the sum total for its decade: exploding one genre (domestic suburban situation comedies); embracing, combining and transcending others (the screwball comedy, the vaudeville sketch within those popular variety shows, the battling-spouses sitcom, the road movie...); making an irresistible model for television that ingratiated, reflected, deflected, and transformed the experiences of its makers and its viewers; inventing a new form of American consensus by providing, week after week, a common fund of experiences to be shared across regions, classes, generations; proposing a role for television that would over the next decade become so imbedded in the expectations of creators and consumers alike that it would seem essential to the medium– television as escape into the lives of others, different than us but, in the end, like us.
Lucy came out of the 1951 fall season with a roar. It premiered on October 15, 1951 for CBS, in a plum spot– Monday at 9pm, up against DuMont’s long evening of wrestling matches, NBC’s quickie half-hour drama-suspense show Light’s Out, and ABC’s weekly presentation of second-hand, second-rate Hollywood movie tossaways, Curtain Up! . The Hollywood Reporter announced that Lucy “fulfills, in its own particular niche, every promise of the often harassed new medium.” In its weekly roundup, Variety declared it “one of the slickest TV entertainment shows to date... Monday’s preem was a resounding click.” Within weeks, every major newspaper and most magazines had concurred. By February, Lucy was getting major play in the big-circulation weeklies. On Friday, April 18, 1952, the Nielsen ratings declared that Lucy had pushed Milton Berle out of the number one slot and muscled the long-running and hugely popular variety hour into the corner. By April, Lucille Ball was on the cover of Time, upstaging the great battle over Communism in America, Chambers v. Hiss.
Just about everyone with a television was tuned in to Lucy. Neilsen pegged audience share at nine-and-a-half million homes. At least as important was what was occurring inside each of these houses; whole families really were watching this show together: husbands, wives, and children old enough to stay up that late. The fantasy of television as a unifying event, proposed in the ads for tvs and the rhetoric of the networks, was coming true. And it was a self-reflexive relationship between viewer and viewed: these couples-with-children, overwhelmingly young, recent householders, were watching a couple of young, recent householders carve out a family life in the landscape of postwar, middle-class America.
Producer, writer, and behind-the-scenes genius Jess Oppenheimer put the case directly. “To me,” he wrote, “a situation comedy series is much like visiting a friend’s family. You don’t know what they are going to say, but you know how each person is going to react in a situation and how each of them talks. The more consistency there is, the more comfortable you are, and the more you can enjoy everything that happens.”
This was a formula no one had thought through before. There really wasn’t anything like it on tv. About the closest precedent was Gertrude Berg’s series, The Goldbergs. Like Lucy, Berg’s show was comic, it featured a family in an urban setting, and its principal character was a housewife prone to gossip; it, too, had migrated from a long run on the radio. But The Goldbergs was ethnic comedy, with a heartwarming sentimentality as its principal engine. There was nothing of the wicked fanatical gleam that made Lucy immediately recognizable, none of the physical comedy, the wild flights of imagination that made Lucy must-see tv from its inception till long past its end.
Of course there’s a resemblance to the slapstick episodes in the vaudeville-based variety shows that were terrifically popular at the start of television’s reign: Texaco Star Theatre with Milton Berle drew nearly 75% of the audience share in 1949; The Colgate Comedy Hour made 9pm Sundays the final hour of family weekends, and drew nearly every comedy act attempting the transition from movie bits and vaudeville pits to video: Abott and Costello, Bob Hope, Donald O’Connor, Jimmy Durante, and the rest. Your Show of Shows launched a generation of television comedians and comediennes, training writers and producers who would effectively define the second generation of sit-com– Carl Reiner most notably.
But Lucy was first generation sitcom. Seeking to convince network television powers-that-were that they could make a go of the new form, Lucy and Desi built a nightclub act (it would serve them well, forming the basis for a significant part of their pilot, and for many other Lucy episodes as well), and took it on the road during the summer of 1950. Their project wasn’t meant to revitalize vaudeville, but rather to determine what could make the new format of television fully alive: open the claustrophobically limited sets and the even more limited angle of the television camera; render less disappointing the flat, bland brilliance of the lighting; develop the repeated motifs and rapidfire character construction and disintegration. Mediocre episodes couldn’t hold water in a serially-constructed narrative, where audiences had a week to mull over the memory of each moment, and watch it shrink, grow false, or (if the writers and actors were lucky) develop “legs” and walk from home to work, school, den meeting, bridge club, car-repair klatch. Lucy had to be unforgettable.
Or at least parts of it had to. Lucy had precedents for the rhythm of anticipation, event, end, and then repeat, but not in live theatre, and certainly not in television. Lucy’s masterminds– Lucille Ball, Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh Davis, and Bob Carroll , Jr.– had developed their timing in postwar radio comedy, on a show called My Favorite Husband. Lucille Ball had been a minor movie star, niched for her good looks but drawn to the broad strokes of slapstick movie comedy; she’d worked with the Three Stooges close to 15 years earlier, playing a gangster’s moll in Three Little Pigskins, and she was ending her movie career opposite Bob Hope in blithe camp-sites like Sorrowful Jones and Fancy Pants. But while she chafed at the limited space the movies gave her, she was expanding into the indeterminate ether of radio, where writer Oppenheimer, asked to write a relatively demure domestic setting a “gay sophisticated socialite wife” against her bank vice president of a husband, chose instead to follow his slapstick training writing for Fanny Brice and make Lucy (Liz, on the radio) louder, more rapid in her regression and less controlled– “less sophisticated, more childlike and impulsive... broad, slapstick...,” in Oppenheimer’s words.
Listen to My Favorite Husband, though, and you know immediately that this is a postwar world described, in which leisure, neurosis, and the fear of abnormalcy lie just beneath the comedic surface. Here are the newspaper blurbs for episodes in the 1948 season:
July 30, 1948: “The Magazine Photographer:” George is sick in bed when a magazine photographer arrives to take pictures of the home.
August 6, 1948: “Liz’s Portrait:” George fakes illness in order to keep an eye on the handsome artist who is spending the day at the house, painting Liz’s portrait.
August 20, 1948: “Liz Teaches the Samba;” George talks Liz into teaching Wally, son of a bank executive, how to Samba, and Wally gets a crush on Liz.
August 2, 1948: “Matrimony on the Rocks:” Liz buys a book called “Is Your Ship of Matrimony on the Rocks?” and George goes off to consult with the author; neither of them realize that psychiatrists can be gorgeous females.
Assiduous watchers of I Love Lucy will recognize the opening of this last plot, and its punchline; both of them served as devices in episodes of the tv show, though split apart. Indeed, as My Favorite Husband grew closer to its transformation to television, its plot lines and characterizations came to presage the themes and plots of the show. Liz becomes increasingly the thwarted ambitious spouse; by the 1950 season, one can identify specific plot lines at regular intervals. One of the most famous, the “job-switching” or “candy factory” episode of Lucy, is a near-exact match for “Women’s Rights,” which aired as a two-parter in the first two weeks of March, 1950. So also with Lucy’s “A Vacation From Marriage;” “The Diet;” “Lucy Fakes Illness” (the draft-board letter episode): these aren’t just casual borrowings for fill-in shows. These are some of the most legendary of all Lucy episodes, and they appear, in muted, socially acceptable form, in the radio show.
Nearly a third of the 125 episodes of My Favorite Husband resurfaced with minor modifications on Lucy. This was a revealing plagiarism, for it reminds us of the ways American mass culture after the war devoted itself to the proffer of comfort and familiarity, within its own confines. Partly it was a matter of the industrial-production model that these media had taken on; Lucy script writers Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr., and Jess Oppenheimer, “the brains behind Lucy,” in Lucille Ball’s own words, wrote most of the scripts for the radio show– week after week of plot, dialogue, rehearsal, revision, refinement. But it’s not sufficient to point to the rapid-fire demands of weekly television script writing; these shows were good, and the ephemeral nature of radio made their return in television form a natural enough eventuality. After all, Lucy competed on tv, as did My Favorite Husband on radio, with Westerns that recycled the narratives of wilderness and civilization, cowboys against settlers, sheriffs gone bad and thieves reformed to sheriffs, from B-movies, Saturday-morning matinee shorts, and radio shows. Television courted repetition, even before repeats were possible, before tv shows were filmed or syndicated.
That was part of the function television began to take unto itself– to offer structure to the social opportunities and the anxieties of the new American life—and I Love Lucy represented the front line, in this as in so much of the evolving medium. Lucy was a remarkable blend of novelty and normalcy, of innovation and repetition, of topicality and safety. It was a flagrantly plagiaristic show, and yet it was also flagrantly original. In Lucy, plagiarism wasn’t theft– it was homage, and rejuvenation. People watched Lucy every week, on Mondays, at 9pm, for the entire first life of the show. There were few others so firmly anchoring American life– from the commonality of ritual to the commonly shared narrative, to the common topic of conversation the next day among citizens otherwise separated by deep crevasses of difference. Lucy replaced Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats. Lucy replaced the Saturday movie matinee. Lucy didn’t replace church, but she sure did supplement it.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had a good deal of explaining to do to bring their show from radio and nightclub to television: they were insistent that the show would be staged in Hollywood and not New York, where tv was then based; and they were equally insistent that Desi Arnaz would replace the blander and more manageable Richard Denning as Lucy’s husband. CBS had already refused that gambit; Lucy had urged Desi for the radio show, and the executives made it clear they wanted a “typical American husband” and not a flaming Cuban. Ball and Arnaz solved the problem by producing the pilot on their own, and on their own nut, using bits and pieces from Husband and from the nightclub act. They filmed the show in front of a live audience, setting a precedent, and they used multiple cameras simultaneously, allowing them to edit later to develop a cinematic rhythm and introduce jump-cuts and reaction shots.
They shot live but if things went wrong, they reshot the scene, audience and all. This was an important ingredient of the alchemy of the show– audiences loved being part of the conspiracy, members of the cast, in on the secrets. Oppenheimer recalled that the audience for the pilot “acted like giddy lovers, indeed. Once the spell was cast, laughing at the jokes wasn’t enough for them. They soon started laughing at the straight lines, and then at any line....”[v]
Some of this, a great deal, came from Lucille Ball’s extraordinary comic abilities, talents that lay between older media. She’d worked best, early in her career, as a comic foil in slapstick movies. She was evolving back toward that form even as she and Desi were working on the show. Nightclubs weren’t intimate enough– you couldn’t get close in to see the subtleties of face and gesture that could work themselves up to full bore and then recede. Radio: well, that was fine for the vocal nuances, but what was the point of having a great physical comedic presence on the radio?
.Contextual information on television comes from the wide variety of television encyclopedias, factbooks, and anthology-appreciations that form standard fare for most tv critics’ bookshelves. Three in particular deserve special mention for their factual accuracy, detail, and critical acumen. Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh have collaborated on The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, which offers not only information on every television show, but such essentials as the prime-time schedule, the top rated programs of each season and of all television’s history, and other more esoteric lists. Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik’s Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television replicates some of this information, but valuably casts the history of TV as a narrative: each year’s entry begins with a contextual essay, followed by a sometimes day-by-day rendering of the season, enabling one to get a sense of the call-and-response quality of popular culture at this moment in American history. Horace Newcomb is editor of the Museum of Broadcast Communications’ Encyclopedia of Television (New York: Routledge, 2004) is, at 2800 pages and 1,150 entries, the most exhaustive, critically sophisticated, and indispensable of all television compilations. The work was commissioned by the Museum of Broadcast Communications (Chicago) which has a selection of entries online at http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv.
.Hollywood Reporter and Variety reviews are reproduced in Jess Oppenheimer, Laughs, Luck... and Lucy, p. 161. Time cover story “Sassafrassa, the Queen,” Time 59 (May 26, 1952), pp. 62-64; “Beauty into Buffoon,” Life 32, Feb. 18, 1952, pp. 93-94
.Jess Oppenheimer, with Greg Oppenheimer, Laughs, Luck... and Lucy: How I Came to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1996), p. 189.
.Jess Oppenheimer with Gregg Oppenheimer, Laughs, Luck and Lucy: How I came to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999, p. 6.
[v].Oppenheimer, Laughs, Luck...and Lucy, p. 5.