Most people these days still know exactly what “I Love Lucy” is, despite the fact that it’s over sixty years old. While shows from the 1960s were modern enough to be enjoyed by viewers of the 21st century, the 1950s is a mostly forgotten era of television, at least in America. So the fact that “I Love Lucy” manages to stand out as one of the best TV shows of all time is very impressive. But why does this show stand out from other comedies? Why has there never really been a show quite like “I Love Lucy”? Let’s find out.
“I Love Lucy” (ILL for short) started in 1951, and it was created really by Lucille Ball, the star of the show. Lucy had had a successful radio sitcom called “My Favorite Husband”, and when all the radio shows started relaunching on TV, the producers of “My Favorite Husband” wanted their cast on TV too. However, Lucy had gotten married to Desi Arnaz in the course of the show, and she wanted him to play her husband on TV. The only problem was that the husband in “My Favorite Husband” had a thoroughly American voice, and Desi was Cuban. When the showrunners informed Lucy that this would not be possible, she took her husband Desi and had a new cast hired in order to make an entirely new show… in which virtually every episode was an embellished storyline taken from “My Favorite Husband”. “My Favorite Husband” was revived on TV with an entirely new cast, by the way… it failed.
Anyway, ILL ran for six seasons, being the most-watched TV show in America for four of those seasons. The show follows Lucy Ricardo, wife of famous Cuban-American musician Ricky Ricardo, as she always manages to get into mischief of some kind. Oftentimes she’d be accompanied by her landlord and his wife, Fred and Ethel Mertz, who were thrown helter-skelter into the hilarity. Despite my mundane description of the show, it was hugely funny and very successful for all of its 181 episodes. It was also performed as a live stage show every week. But still, why does ILL stand out among shows of its day, sitcoms, and live shows?
Let’s take a look at other live shows that have become famous, like “The Cosby Show” and “Cheers”, just to pick two. Both of these shows were mostly verbal gags, with maybe a facial expression or funny movement from one of the characters to spruce things up now and again. But really, while these shows certainly hold their own and are still enjoyable to watch, they were both very tame. Nothing super-crazy ever happened. There was lots of dialogue about crazy stuff, but they never actually did anything. And these shows aired in the 70s and 80s, respectively. But ILL was different.
I think ILL was so successful for two reasons, the first being that it was continually one of the liveliest live performances I’ve ever seen. Yes, there was plenty of verbal banter, but then Lucy would actually do the stuff she talked about. Throughout the show, we saw Lucy hide in a cello case, get locked in a suitcase, wrap herself up in bandages like a mummy, illegally sell meat in the middle of a meat market, crawl on a ledge from one window to another, and even fall out a window on one occasion. These are just a few of the ridiculous things Lucy did. ILL bordered on the stupid but never actually reached that point, keeping the comedy “classy” while still cracking the audience up with stunts and ideas that were unthought of in the 1950s. This is how ILL stands out from other live sitcoms, or sitcoms in general. Plus, the well-placed musical performances from Ricky, and the awesome guest stars like Orson Welles, Charles Boyer, and Tennessee Ernie Ford helped the show’s popularity as well.
The second reason for its success was its portrayal of Lucy herself, because, what is Lucy? She’s a 1950s housewife. By cultural standards, then, she was supposed to stay home while Ricky was out working, and she was supposed to clean and cook and eavesdrop on the party line. And Lucy always started out in ordinary situations like this. But she never stayed there. She always wanted to try something if she thought it would work, or if she was mad at somebody. So we found her constantly abandoning her household chores and doing something no one would think to do, especially 50s housewives. However, her wild excursions never outright promoted women’s rights, and even though she did show that a woman can do pretty much anything, she never said so on-screen. So the women enjoyed Lucy for her representation of what a housewife could be (in an extremely exaggerated sort of way), while the men liked the hilarious stunts and unexpected jokes. This is how ILL stands out from other shows of its day, such as “Your Show of Shows” (which is awesome, don’t get me wrong), or “Fibber McGee and Molly”.
“I Love Lucy” enjoyed its popularity for all of its six years, but with tension between Desi and Lucy in real life, the show was becoming harder to do as the couple was heading towards divorce. So the show officially ended in 1957, although it continued for three years after that with a series of specials, which is actually the next show I’m going to talk about.
At any rate, I think “I Love Lucy” was so popular for it’s live liveliness and its portrayal of what a 1950s housewife can do. What do you think?