This month marks the 60th anniversary of I Love Lucy. As television’s first enduring hit, Lucy shaped conventions of televised programming, foreshadowed the rise of “reality tv,” changed American culture and, most important, has kept Americans laughing for six decades.
Television came into its own in the late 1940s. By 1949, it was generating more revenue than radio, and in 1951 networks developed the technology to broadcast programs simultaneously across the country. Television was ready for Lucy.
Lucille Ball had been in films for almost two decades, but her roles were largely restricted to second-class films; the “Queen of the Bs,” she was called. On radio, however, she was more successful, starring in My Favorite Husband in the late 1940s. As television gained momentum, producers asked her to star in a similar vehicle for television.
There were disagreements, however, about the premise of the show. On her radio program, she was “married” to a Midwestern banker. The producers had something similar in mind for the television program, a straight man for Lucy’s zany ways.
Ball, however, wanted her real husband, Desi Arnaz, on the show, a suggestion that did not go over well with executives. Nervous about casting a Cuban with poor English on prime-time television, producers felt that no one would find the marriage credible. “What do you mean no one will believe it?” Ball responded. “We are married.” Ball got her way, and she and Desi became Ricky and Lucy Ricardo.
This early version of pseudo-reality television was a hit. In its first season, I Love Lucy was the third-rated show in television. It hit the top in the 1952 season, and the next year, Lucy helped CBS Television turn a profit for the first time, anchoring the network’s strong Monday-night time slot.
Adding to the ratings—and the reality—was the decision to incorporate Ball’s real-life pregnancy into the show. The nation tuned in as Lucy grew larger over the course of the season, and the episode in which Lucy gives birth, “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” aired on the day that she gave birth to Desi Arnaz, Jr. It remains the second highest-rated television program in history.
But there were limits to the reality. The show’s writers, for example, could not use the word “pregnant” on air. Lucy was simply described as “expecting,” a more polite description of Ball’s delicate condition.
Moreover, contemporary viewers might wonder how Lucy ever came to be expecting in the first place, given the fact that she and Ricky slept in separate twin beds, a curiosity of television’s early broadcast codes. Even more curious, the twin-beds practice crept into real life. By the middle 1950s, according to a New York Times article, approximately half of newly-weds were purchasing twin beds.
The influence of television and Lucy even reached the venerable department store Marshall Field’s. As Lucy’s popularity grew Marshall Field’s noticed a drop in patronage for its Monday-night “Clearance Sale.” Eventually, the company switched its sale to Thursday nights, notifying customers with a window sign reading, “We Love Lucy Too, So We’re Closing on Monday Nights.”
Lucy also broke down technological barriers. The new television show was shot on film using three 35 mm cameras, a method of shooting that allowed for the script to be filmed in sequence and with little editing or retakes. Moreover, the show was shot in front of a real audience, whose reactions provided a fresher feel than the familiar canned laugh track used today.
But Lucy’s true audience appeal stemmed from her own skills as a comedienne and from her ability to connect with broad audiences. She was attractive, but not glamorous. She was likeable, but sometimes (engagingly) goofy.
Originally, producers wanted the Lucy character to be a Hollywood star, but Ball balked, believing that families would have trouble identifying with a movie star. She believed Lucy should be a regular housewife, one who dreamed of becoming a star—that, she argued, was a premise with which audiences could identify. And she was right.
Each episode featured Lucy extricating herself from some self-induced trouble, whether it was trying to keep up with a conveyor belt, stomping grapes with an Italian peasant, or pitching an energy product—“Vitameatavegamin”—that contained alcohol. Whatever the trouble, the audience and the laughter followed.
Although the show went off the air in 1957—bowing out as the top-rated show on television—audiences still laugh. It is still syndicated in some markets, and its shadow hovers over contemporary sitcoms and today’s reality shows.
I Love Lucy was the most popular television show at a time when television was changing society, and if memories of the show don’t bring a smile, then you’ve got “a lot ‘splaining to do.”