“And life is heaven you see…”
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
A September article at The New York Times online touted a resurgence in the once-dominant form of television programming we know today as the situation comedy, or “sitcom”…and for myself and fans of my home-base weblog, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, this sort of news was an oasis after being parched from the arid desert of inane boob tube “reality shows” the industry has seen fit to embrace in recent seasons. The sitcom, according to Wikipedia, is identified as having “a storyline and ongoing characters in, essentially, a comedic drama. The situation is usually that of a family, workplace or a group of friends through comedic sequences.” The American form of the sitcom is believed to have started in radio with the debut of The Smith Family in 1925 and Sam ‘n’ Henry a year after (a program that later morphed into Amos ‘n’ Andy) but the move toward situational comedy from the traditional vaudeville style of comedy sketches mixed with musical numbers also is credited to Jack Benny, with his best friend George Burns (along with wife Gracie Allen) later following suit and radio stalwarts such as Fibber McGee & Molly (who also “spun-off” a sitcom success in The Great Gildersleeve), Easy Aces and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet not far behind.
When television began rearing its (ugly) head in 1948, many radio sitcom favorites eventually would transition to the tube as well. Among early candidates were family shows such as The Life of Riley, The Aldrich Family and, with the success of her series My Favorite Husband, former B-movie queen Lucille Ball was asked by her network, CBS, to do a TV version of the hit show in 1950. Ball certainly was amenable to such an arrangement, but she insisted that the role of her husband in the new venture (actor Richard Denning had been playing her radio spouse) be essayed by her real-life husband, bandleader Desi Arnaz. It was common knowledge in Hollywood that the Arnazes’ marriage was a rocky one and Lucy felt a joint project for the couple might save it. Though CBS balked at first (there was an element of racism involved — the network was skittish that audiences might have problems with the “mixed marriage” of American Lucy and Cuban Desi), they eventually came around and it’s a good thing they did — because I Love Lucy, which debuted at 9 p.m. Monday night 60 years ago on this date, became the innovation to which modern sitcoms owe an endless debt of gratitude.
Because of CBS’ reluctance to cast Desi Arnaz in the role of Lucy’s TV husband, the Arnazes set out to prove that the idea wasn’t as screwy as it sounded by developing a stage act featuring the duo that performed on the road with Desi’s orchestra. The teaming of Lucy and Desi proved to be very successful, and their on-stage antics eventually made it into a TV pilot that turned more than a few heads at the network. The news that the team responsible for making Lucy’s radio sitcom a smash — Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, Jr. — also were on board made CBS a little less nervous but what ultimately convinced them to sign the couple was the revelation that their competitors (NBC, ABC and DuMont) wanted to acquire the Arnazes’ services as well. The completed pilot was shopped around and after a sweat-inducing period that suggested there might not be any takers, the Milton Biow agency convinced cigarette maker Philip Morris to take a gamble.
In the early days of “The Golden Age of Television,” production in the industry was based in New York. It was sort of the same with radio in its halcyon beginnings, but this practice gradually changed as more programming drifted out to the West Coast to take advantage of the proximity to Hollywood. During its East Coast infancy, early TV programs were telecast live and would eventually be shown to West Coast viewers in the form of kinescopes, which were camera recordings of live telecasts taken directly from a video monitor. Philip Morris, the new sponsor of what was now called I Love Lucy (a compromise title in that Lucille Ball had vociferously argued that her husband Desi Arnaz receive top billing despite her bigger celebrity), was pretty much going with tradition when it decided its property would be live on the East Coast and kinescoped out West.
But the Arnazes weren’t wild about uprooting from California to New York and Philip Morris completely dismissed the idea of shipping kinescopes eastward after I Love Lucy was telecast live out West. The sponsor believed the majority of the television audience lived east of the Mississippi and as such, should not be subjected to the poor quality of kinescopes. Lucy and Desi, on the other hand, argued that their show should be filmed in Hollywood so that they could stay put (Lucy also was expecting their first child at the time) and when CBS and Philip Morris hedged, the Arnazes agreed to take a pay cut to offset the expense — the only stipulation being that they receive ownership of the show as compensation. (Something that would come back to bite CBS in the keister in a major way.)
Lucy and Desi also decided that in filming I Love Lucy, they would eschew the single-camera format used by television comedies that were being filmed (often accompanied by a laugh track) in favor of a three-camera system that would permit the show to be performed in front of a studio audience, much as Lucy had done on radio with My Favorite Husband. Put in charge of this setup was veteran cinematographer and director Karl Freund, who innovatively worked on ways to light the sets so that no diminishment of image quality would be detected on each of the three cameras. The system also would require the Arnazes to locate a studio that could accommodate an audience. (They were fortunate that Hollywood’s General Service Studios was in a financial pickle and were only too willing to make the renovations dictated by California’s fire laws.) Furthermore, the filming of the show required that they adhere to the union regulations regarding film studio production, namely using film studio employees. (The employees at CBS were television and radio-based, and fell under completely different guidelines.) So Lucy and Desi found themselves in the TV production business and, with a little reorganization of the corporation that managed his orchestra bookings, Arnaz started what would eventually become known as a major player in the television industry: Desilu.
The practice of the three-camera system was an innovation for television comedies and many of the sitcoms that premiered in the wake of I Love Lucy would adopt the same method, including homegrown Desilu productions such as Our Miss Brooks and December Bride. But the biggest benefit in filming sitcoms was that it created what we know now today as the rerun. Traditionally, television shows would have a run of 39 shows a season, with the remaining 13 weeks devoted to their summer replacement series. Filming I Love Lucy allowed Lucy and Desi to shorten that yearly production schedule and fill the remaining time with previously televised episodes — something that came in handy during the 1952-53 season of the series, when Arnaz and Oppenheimer took advantage of rerunning first season episodes in order to allow Lucy suitable time for additional R&R after the birth of her second child. Not only did the first season repeats win their timeslots, but as the seasons went by a backlog of filmed episodes made it possible for the show to be sold in the then-burgeoning market of television syndication, which filled the pockets of Lucy and Desi since they owned the show. (Silly network.)
The concept behind the series was deceptively simple: a star-struck housewife’s (Lucy as Lucy Ricardo) weekly attempts to crash show business despite her bandleader husband’s (Desi as Ricky Ricardo) insistence that she be content to stay at home. It all sounds a little sexist when you think about it in a modern-day context but it was based on a successful formula that originated with radio’s My Favorite Husband (in which Lucy’s character didn’t necessarily want to be in show business, but always was angling to better herself and rise above her social status), and thanks to the script backlog generated by Oppenheimer, Pugh and Carroll, I Love Lucy never wanted for ideas (many of the My Favorite Husband broadcasts were recycled into Lucy episodes). I Love Lucy introduced two other regular characters in Ethel and Fred Mertz, the Ricardos’ older next-door neighbors/landlords and best friends who were inspired by a couple that served a similar function on Husband (the only difference being that the husband was the president of the bank where Lucy’s hubby worked), Rudolph and Iris Atterbury. The Atterburys were played by Gale Gordon and Bea Benaderet and Lucy originally had wanted both performers to repeat as the Mertzes on her TV venture, but they had to bow out due to other commitments (Benaderet already was a regular on Burns and Allen’s TV show, and Gordon was a year away from reprising his radio role as principal Osgood Conklin in a TV adaptation of Our Miss Brooks).
The hunt was then on to find actors to play the Ricardo’s neighbors…and for the part of Fred Mertz, Lucy originally suggested character great James Gleason, whom she had known from his work in a picture they made together in 1949, Miss Grant Takes Richmond. Gleason’s salary demands were a little out of the Arnazes’ price range (he wanted $3,500 an episode) so attention was directed toward another veteran of stage, screen and radio, William Frawley — who had personally called Lucy to ask if there was a part for him in her new series. Hiring Frawley would be a big gamble; he was notorious in the industry for having quite a pull on the bottle, and CBS executives tried to warn Desi off him. But Desi liked Bill, and not only cast him in the part of Fred Mertz but had the show’s writers re-tailor the character to fit Frawley’s curmudgeonly nature (lowering his economic/social status a little to boot). (Arnaz also insisted that a clause be inserted into Frawley’s contract that if he ever showed up to work spiffed on more than one occasion he’d be fired in a heartbeat…and in the nine seasons he worked on the show, Frawley’s drinking never interfered with I Love Lucy.)
If Frawley’s reputation as a lush was troubling to some industry folk, Barbara Pepper, an old crony of Lucille Ball’s from their Hollywood days as Goldwyn Girls, was even more off-putting. Despite Lucy’s wanting to work with her pal (Pepper would play Ethel Mertz) CBS put the kibosh on having two problem drinkers on the set. Marc Daniels, the primary director of I Love Lucy in its first season, was gung-ho on an actress named Vivian Vance, whose film and television resume was a little spotty but was well known to Daniels through their association working together on Broadway in the 1940s. Convinced to check out Vance’s work in a revival of The Voice of the Turtle, Desi and Jess hired her on the spot despite Vivian’s reservations about giving up her film and stage career for a spot on a weekly TV show. To add insult to injury, both Ball and Vance did not get along in the early days of I Love Lucy (Ball resented her co-star because Vance was the same age as she was and Lucy saw Viv as a more attractive threat) but over time Lucy recognized Vance’s dedication and professionalism and the two became close friends, even working together on Lucy’s post I Love Lucy project, The Lucy Show.
Lucy and Viv eventually worked through their differences…but the same cannot be said of the personal relationship between Vance and her TV hubby, Bill Frawley. Frawley once described Vance as looking like “a sack of doorknobs” and Viv was skeptical that anyone out in Television Land would believe that she actually was married to a man who looked more like her father (Vance was 23 years Frawley’s junior) than her spouse. While the two actors always behaved above board in a professional capacity, there was no love lost between them off the set and, in a way, it worked to the show’s benefit, adding to the underlying hostility always present in the marriage of Ethel and Fred Mertz. (After I Love Lucy’s original run and during the time the series’ four principals were doing hour-long specials under the title The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, there was talk of putting together a spin-off featuring the Fred and Ethel characters — something Frawley embraced but Vance wanted no part of. That sequence of events only upped the ante on the acrimonious relationship between the two.)
Dismissed by a majority of TV critics upon its premiere as an amusing but unremarkable domestic comedy, I Love Lucy soon would force those same pundits to ransack their vocabulary for superlatives to describe the show, particularly since it raised the bar on the art form. The character of Lucy Ricardo was unlike any previous television housewife, even though most of the show’s plots would focus on the simplest situations (Lucy needing to balance her household accounts or wanting to go someplace special for her wedding anniversary) her handling of these problems was to engage in full-blown wackiness. She resorted to fabrications, disguises…any subterfuge necessary and at her disposal to triumph in the end. Boiled down to the simplest of equations, the show was a weekly battle of the sexes; Ethel often was dragooned into being Lucy’s confidant and reluctant participant in her pal’s zany schemes, with Fred playing the role of both Ricky’s sounding board and sarcastic color commentator. At the center of it all was her all-too-patient and understanding husband Ricky, who would find himself flummoxed at the shenanigans his wife would get into, and every now and then would reach his limit, admonishing her in his fractured English: “Loo-see, you got some ‘splainin to do…”
I Love Lucy became the surprise hit of the 1951-52 season, ranking No. 3 among all shows in the Nielsen ratings and did even better in its sophomore year when it was the No. 1 show across the land. Part of this success stemmed from a storyline introduced in Year Two, in which Lucille Ball’s real-life pregnancy (with son Desi, Jr.) was worked into the show despite the reluctance of CBS to acknowledge that fictional TV characters could become pregnant. As a point of fact, the writers on Lucy were not even allowed to use the term (they substituted “expecting” since “bun in the oven” had not yet been invented) and even had to title the episode where Lucy discovers she’ll soon be great with child “Lucy is Enciente.” (A priest, a rabbi and a minister were consulted to make sure nothing objectionable appeared in any of the episodes — with all of them pretty much in agreement: “What’s so objectionable about having a baby?”) The night the fictional Lucy Ricardo gave birth coincided with Lucille Ball’s real-life Caesarean delivery and at the time set a record for television audiences tuning in — more viewers even watched Lucy than coverage of President Eisenhower’s inauguration coverage.
To offset the charge that I Love Lucy was essentially a “husband vs. wife” rehash from week to week, the creative team behind the show determinedly looked for ways to move beyond the formula, and found inspiration in the fourth season when a story arc was developed that featured the Ricky Ricardo character taking a screen test in Hollywood for the starring role in a fictional MGM film (the Arnazes coincidentally made both of their films that cashed in on Lucy’s success, The Long, Long Trailer and Forever, Darling, for the same studio), Don Juan…with Lucy, Little Ricky and the Mertzes in tow. The Hollywood episodes were the shot in the arm the show needed; not only did it ramp up Lucy Ricardo’s ambition to make it in show business, but it spotlighted encounters (and classic episodes) with stars such as William Holden, Harpo Marx and John Wayne. The following season found Lucy loose in Europe when Ricky’s band did an extensive tour in that country (and allowed the “crazy redhead” to engage in such antics as meeting Charles Boyer and doing classic pratfalls into a grape-stomping vat) and in its last season, the Ricardos (and the Mertzes) became suburbanites when Ricky and Lucy purchased a home in nearby Connecticut (Ricky was by this time the owner of his own nightclub). The Ricardos’ emigration from the Big Apple proved to be short-lived because after six seasons as American television’s most popular sitcom (it finished its final season at No. 1, only one of three TV comedies to do so) the Arnazes pulled the plug on the show that had made them household names. The couple continued on in a series of hour-long shows that were televised periodically on an anthology offspring entitled Desilu Playhouse, but on April 1, 1960, the last visit with the Ricardos and the Mertzes was televised, and the series was retired to the Old Syndication Home.
Lucille Ball, acknowledged by many to be “the first lady of television,” later would go on to further sitcom triumphs in The Lucy Show, a half-hour sitcom that re-teamed her with Vivian Vance, and Here’s Lucy, which replaced Lucy Show in the fall of 1968 and lasted until 1974. Her post I Love Lucy sitcom was a huge success in the ratings…and yet, there are many people who lament the fact that it just didn’t work without the chemistry that was Ball, Vance, Frawley and Arnaz. Frawley found work rather quickly after The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour left TV, appearing as Michael “Bub” O’Casey on the popular family sitcom My Three Sons, while Arnaz enjoyed his new role as television mogul, producing such Desilu hits as The Ann Sothern Show and The Untouchables. (Illness slowly forced Desi to cutback on his Desilu activities and sell his interest in the organization to his ex-wife, though he did produce the 1967-69 sitcom The Mothers-in-Law for NBC as the head of Desi Arnaz Productions.) As for the show itself…well, I imagine there were more than a few people at CBS kicking themselves for agreeing to let Lucy and Desi own I Love Lucy just to save on the cost of weekly filming — the program refused to die even after being visited by the specter of cancellation. It can be seen in more than 77 countries (dubbed in 22 languages), and in the U.S. not only enjoys the distinction of being seen by 40 million people on national cable channels (such as Me-TV and The Hallmark Channel) but boasts of exposure on many local television outlets as well.
Sixty years ago, very few people could have foreseen that a simple situation comedy about a dizzy housewife and her musician husband would become one of television’s biggest hits. To me, the enduring legacy of I Love Lucy is its simplicity; the show took a funhouse mirror and held it up in front of married life, allowing spectators to roar with laughter at the unmatched physical comedy talents of Lucille Ball; the underrated comedic aplomb of Desi Arnaz; the lemon-like acerbic wit of William Frawley; and the peerless straight-woman support of Vivian Vance. When these four people ply their respective trades via rerun immortality you simply cannot ignore the magic that is onscreen…and if it weren’t for I Love Lucy's insistence on breaking all the sitcom rules and inventing new ones, we’d all be settling in for 24-hour marathon viewings of Jersey Shore and The Bachelorette. (I shudder at the very notion.)