By Juli Horsford
I remember the first time I saw an episode of “I Love Lucy”. As a 90’s baby, I watched Nick at Nite religiously. For anyone who was not born in the glory of the nineties, Nick at Nite was a cable program on Nickelodeon. Long after my bed time, Nick at Nite would play re-runs of old television shows like “I Love Lucy”, “Bewitched”, and “I Dream of Jeannie”. Instead of being annoyed by the lack of color I remember being fascinated watching the black and white shows.
My absolute favorite show on Nick at Nite was I Love Lucy. The first episode I vividly remember watching was one of the most classic episodes, “Lucy Does a TV Commercial”. Lucy advertises a medicine called “Vitameatavegamin” that unbeknownst to her contains 23% alcohol. My tiny ten-year-old self roared with laughter as Lucy got drunk off of the medicine and fudged all of her lines. “Do you pop out at parties? Are you unpoopular? The answer to all your problems is in this little ottle.” If you haven’t seen this episode, run and watch it immediately. It perfectly illustrates the genius of “I Love Lucy”.
There are countless episodes of “I Love Lucy” that are iconic. Episode 1 of Season 2, “Job Switching”, is one of these episodes. Lucy and Ethel go to work in a chocolate factory. Unsurprisingly they are horrible workers and cannot keep up with the conveyor belt bringing them chocolate balls to wrap. They are forced to stuff countless chocolate balls into their shirts and hats to keep up with the conveyor belt passing by. Fooling the strict manager only adds to their misery as she severely yells, “Speed it up a little!” This scene is still funny, even seventy years later.
“In the 1950’s divorce was frowned upon, women weren’t typically in the corporate workforce, and strict gender roles were still in place. You see these gender roles heavily in “I Love Lucy”.
In fact, it’s still so funny that it was recently spoofed in the Will & Grace reboot. Debra Messing, Sean Hayes, and Megan Mullally each take a turn at portraying Lucy. They recreate scenes from three different “I Love Lucy” episodes: the Vitameatavegamin scene from “Lucy Does a TV Commercial”, the chocolate factory scene from Job Switching, and the equally infamous grape stomping scene from Lucy’s Italian Movie. These were such iconic scenes that Will & Grace recreated them almost shot for shot. It was intriguing to see these scenes portrayed by women whose lives are very different from Lucille Ball’s, in a time that is very different from the 1950’s.
A time lapse of seventy years has brought a magnitude of changes, especially for women. In the 1950’s divorce was frowned upon, women weren’t typically in the corporate workforce, and strict gender roles were still in place. You see these gender roles heavily in “I Love Lucy”. The plot line in almost every episode involves Lucy scheming to break into show business. As a prominent singer and entertainer, Lucy’s husband Ricky, is already in the industry and is constantly trying to prevent Lucy from getting involved.
As a young kid, I never really questioned why Ricky wouldn’t just support Lucy’s desire to try to become an entertainer. But as an adult, it’s one thing I often ponder while I watch the show. It is somewhat infuriating when time after time Ricky shuts down Lucy’s dreams and relegates her role to housewife and mother, against her wishes.
However, one thing that helps me quiet the outrage that bubbles within me is to remember that in real life the situation was very different. Lucille Ball was the star. She was a pioneer in the field of television. Her list of accolades are quite impressive. She was the first woman to run her own television studio, the first to use the three camera setup to film television, the first woman to appear on the silver screen while pregnant, and the winner of four Emmys. She held one of the longest recorded laughs in a live audience (65 seconds in Lucy Does the Tango), was awarded the Golden Globe Cecil B. Demille Award in 1979, and was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1984.
“Lucille Ball was the star. She was a pioneer in the field of television. Her list of accolades are quite impressive. She was the first woman to run her own television studio, the first to use the three camera setup to film television.”
She was certainly a force to be reckoned with. But even all those awards and recognitions don’t exactly explain why “I Love Lucy” still persists in the cultural zeitgeist seventy years later. It makes sense that the show was popular in the 1950’s when it aired. The subject matter was timely and it connected with audiences of that era. But why in the 2000’s do people still enjoy the show?
I can only speak to my own experience with this and the answer for me is really very simple: Lucy is funny. Much of that can be credited to the all-star writing capabilities of Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Davis. They were able to craft hilarious lines and stupendously comedic situations to put Lucy in. But Lucille brought the most important element to the show. Lucille Ball was a master at physical comedy. Some of the most memorable episodes involve an incredible level of physical mastery.
Episode 28 of season 4, Lucy and Harpo Marx, is a prime example of this mastery. Lucy and Harpo perform the famous mirror routine together. The technical precision needed to pull this type of scene off is immense. It seems fitting that Harpo (one of the all time greats at physical comedy) finally makes an appearance on the show to perform one of the greatest bits of all time with a fellow legend.
Even season 1 showcases Ball’s abilities with physical comedy. Episode 19, “The Ballet”, gives Ball several scenes of physicality to play with. At a ballet class, Lucy gets her leg stuck on the bar. She winds up doing somersaults around the bar while trying to get unstuck. In that same episode, Lucy performs an old vaudeville skit called “Slowly I Turned” where she gets pied in the face and sprayed with blasts of water. Ball’s particular brand of physical comedy is enhanced by her excellent comedic timing and her ridiculous but incredibly effective facial expressions.
“Ball’s talent and flair for physical comedy is a major reason why “I Love Lucy” was popular when it aired, and remains a fixture even in modern day television. Her talents were best displayed on “I Love Lucy” and enhanced by the writers and her co-stars.”
Physical comedy is one form of comedy that is truly universal. You don’t need to speak English or have much sense of the narrative to laugh as Lucy gets into a fight while stomping grapes in Lucy’s Italian Movie.
Ball’s talent and flair for physical comedy is a major reason why “I Love Lucy” was popular when it aired, and remains a fixture even in modern day television. Her talents were best displayed on “I Love Lucy” and enhanced by the writers and her co-stars. Although she never got to achieve fame on the show as Lucy Ricardo, it gives me some small solace that in real life people still remember Lucille Ball as a giant in the world of television. Ball created a legacy that would withstand more than seventy years.
Despite the problematic plot lines, the black and white grainy footage, the inability to say the word “pregnant” on the show, and the traditional gender roles, Ball makes me laugh and paved the way for women in television. I guess that’s why I (still) Love Lucy.