This is where television invented itself.
It set the model for the hit family sitcom. Lucy was a bad girl trapped in the life of a ‘50s housewife; her slapstick quest for fame and fortune ended in abject failure weekly. Both the antics and the humiliation entered the DNA of TV comedy, from Desperate Housewives to 30 Rock — writers can’t live without Lucy. Rapper Mellow Man Ace celebrates the breaking of an ethnic taboo; a drag performer celebrates Lucy as a freak. With novelist Oscar Hijuelos, producer Chuck Lorre, The Office’s Mindy Kaling, and a marriage counselor who has some advice for the bickering couple.
Bonus Track: Mindy Hearts Ricky
Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project, The Office) grew up thinking I Love Lucy was “one of the many black and white things that people keep telling you is so great... and you’re just sort of bored and annoyed by it.” Then her Office boss Greg Daniels ordered her to watch it. She came away with a pretty serious crush on Ricky Ricardo. And she says she's not bothered by jokes about his accent.
Bonus Track: Deconstructing Lucy
Although Lucy's on-screen antics may have looked improvised, every gesture, glance, and step was written into the script. Gregg Oppenheimer — son of creator, producer, and head writer Jess Oppenheimer — reads a bit of telling stage direction from “Lucy is Enceinte.” Jess and Gregg Oppenheimer are the authors of Laughs, Luck... and Lucy.
Bonus Track: Notes on a Scandal
In 1955 Confidential Magazine, a Hollywood scandal rag, reported on Desi Arnaz’s supposed philandering. Dartmouth film and television professor Mary Desjardins explores the less desirable side effect of being a celebrity couple.
Kurt Andersen: Today in Studio 360’s American Icons:
Lucille Ball: Ricky can I be in the show?
[I Love Lucy theme music]
The show that invented television as we know it: I Love Lucy.
Jeff Greenstein: This stuff is in the DNA and in the brain of every comedy writer. It's perfect.
This hour, we’ll find out how Lucy and Ricky rewrote the rules of marriage.
Sherry Amatenstein: They're always accusing the other one of infidelity, they were always lying, they were always hiding things.
Gina Barreca: Anytime a woman does something besides making a cooing noise and washing a dish, she’s making a feminist gesture.
I Love Lucy and the birth of the American sitcom. With novelist Oscar Hijuelos, Mindy Kaling from The Office, and rapper Mellow Man Ace. That’s ahead this hour in Studio 360’s American Icons from PRI and WNYC.
This is Studio 360's American Icons. I’m Kurt Andersen.
[HOLLYWOOD BYLINE:] Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.
And the year is 1950.
[HOLLYWOOD BYLINE]: Tonight, the star of the radio program My Favorite Husband, Lucille Ball!
Lucille Ball -- the radio actress -- is talking to reporters on a radio show called Hollywood Byline.
[Bob Thomas: You do think that television is here to stay, though?
Lucille Ball: Well, I'm afraid so, I do hope that they get it on film or something so that it doesn’t take up so much time, so that we don't have to give up pictures to do television, or…
Thomas: Vice versa
Ball: …Vice versa]
1950. Probably the last moment anyone could question the viability of television. TV was about to become the engine of popular culture. And at the very center of it: Lucille Ball.
Her sitcom I Love Lucy defined the rules of TV comedy. It was the killer app of the new medium.
Robert Thompson: Here is when American TV became American TV.
And you can still hear Lucy echoing in today's shows -- from Desperate Housewives to The Office, to 30 Rock.
Jeff Greenstein: These are the ten commandments of comedies . . . It’s perfect.
It was a huge hit that pushed the envelope -- in that straitlaced decade and even in our own.
Gina Barreca: They're more than stereotypes, they're archetypes. There's something in us that responds psychologically, emotionally, because they're parts of our own psyche that are being projected there onto the screen.
Today in Studio 360’s American Icons: it's I Love Lucy.
Now maybe you haven’t caught a rerun in a while, so let me remind you:
[I Love Lucy THEME music]
Lucy and Ricky are young marrieds living in New York City.
[Lucy Ricardo: Oh, hi, darling!]
Ricky is a successful Cuban bandleader
[Ricky Ricardo: Babalu!]
And Lucy is a frustrated housewife who is desperate to become famous
[LR: Ricky, can I be in the show?/ RR: Now Lucy, don’t be ridiculous]
Every episode, Lucy cooks up some crazy scheme, like, trying to play the saxophone…
[Sound of LB playing sax badly]
- Or going on TV to sell a health tonic loaded with alcohol on TV
[LR (drunk): Yes, with Vitameatavegamin you can spoon your way to health]
- Or hiding a dozen eggs in her shirt
Lucy’s neighbor and co-conspirator is Ethel
[Ethel Mertz: Good Morning, Lucy]
Whose husband is the phlegmatic Fred
[Fred Mertz: Whaddaya trying to do? Make a bum out of me?]
Lucy always messes things up.
[Sound of mayhem/Lucy screaming]
Which makes Ricky blow his top.
[RR: Rapid-fire Spanish]
Which makes Lucy act like a baby.
And in the end, Lucy returns to the fold, they kiss and make up, domestic harmony restored.
[RR: Here’s to the greatest little wife in the whole world. THEME music]
I Love Lucy is literally the model of a hit sitcom – a TV machine designed to win the hearts and minds of a national audience, week after week after week.
Gregg Oppenheimer: A fair fraction of people, and TV was sort of new at that time, they thought it was a reality show.
Gregg Oppenheimer is the son of Jess Oppenheimer, the show's every week.
Oppenheimer: Not that there was such a thing as a reality show back then, but they thought they’d just put a camera and were filming what was going on at the Ricardo apartment every week.
And the show deliberately encouraged that confusion. Before Seinfeld played Seinfeld, and Roseanne played Roseanne… Lucille played Lucy.
Like a lot of the shows on the new-fangled television in the early 1950s, I Love Lucy came out of a radio show.
[RADIO ANNOUNCER VOICE: It’s time for “My Favorite Husband” starring Lucille Ball!]
LB: Jello everybody! (music) (laughter)
Ball: And I'll tell you something else, George Cugat. There's gonna be a famous Hollywood director in the audience opening night. And I'll bet you if he sees me, he'll offer me a contract.
Richard Denning: Oh Liz, stop it, you're talking like a child.
Ball: Come on we'll make a bet, how much?]
But before she’d agree to adapt the show for TV, she insisted on one really big change.
Instead of the actor Richard Denning playing her husband the banker, she wanted her real husband to get the job: the musician Desi Arnaz.
Desi was always on the road performing … and Lucy wanted to settle down, start a family.
But a TV show about an all-American girl married to a Cuban?
Robert Thompson: CBS balked at that at first.
Robert Thompson teaches TV history at Syracuse University.
Thompson: Let's face it until 1967 there were still 16 states in this country that still had anti-miscegenation laws on the books. So, the fact that Lucy and Desi were married in real life and Lucy and Ricky were married on the show, gave that show a certain bit of voltage.
They decided people wouldn’t buy Desi Arnaz as a banker. So they pretty much had him play himself: a Cuban bandleader.
And that gave the show its M.O.:
Lucy and Ricky Ricardo are two people pursuing two very different versions of the American Dream.
Jess Oppenheimer: Here's a man had been in show business all his life and wanted to marry a girl who was far removed from it so he'd have a nice normal home life.
Jess Oppenheimer, the creator, head writer, and producer of the show, speaking in 1962.
Oppenheimer: And he didn't know he was marrying a girl who had never been in show business, always viewed it from afar, thought it was very glamorous, and she wanted to marry somebody so she could get into it.
To bring that story to television, the team made a series of decisions that changed the medium forever. They got an Oscar winning cinematographer to design a special lighting system.
Thompson: They also shot it with multiple cameras, in front of a live audience so it had some of the energy and some of the kinetics of a regular live show.
Lucy understood that although she was the star, TV was going to be a writer’s medium.
Doris Singleton: She stuck to the script, everybody did. There was no ad-libbing.
Doris Singleton played Lucy’s friend Caroline Applebee on the show.
[CLIP: LR: Hello Caroline
CA: Oh hello, Lucy!]
Singleton: She was very focused. I think that's probably the best word for it. We did not fool around at all.
And maybe most important of all: they decided that instead of the grainy kinescope recordings that were standard at the time, they would record the show on high-quality film.
Thompson: This becomes really, really key because, because by being on film, you had this beautiful set of episodes that could be watched over and over and over again.
The film, the cameras, the live audience…
Thompson: That really became the norm of how the three-camera sitcom would be shot well into the 21st century.
Dann Cahn: This is the original stage door where we filmed I Love Lucy. Come on inside. I’m Dann Cahn. I was the editor, the original editor of I Love Lucy. And right now we’re at the Hollywood Center Studios.
The Hollywood Center Studios in LA are still used today. You can see some pictures at studio 360 dot org.
At age 87, Dann Cahn still does work for CBS.
Cahn: Right here was the living room set. Right in the middle of where the audience sat – looked down and there's the living room. And they had that little peakaboo door that went into the kitchen. Here was the kitchen. This stage encompasses 10,000 square feet. We had the orchestra. Desi’s band and the CBS orchestra. And for the audience, these bleachers ran from one end of the stage to the other. And we had these microphones all throughout the ceiling to pick up the laughs.
[RR: Lucy, I’m home.]
Andersen: This was the sound of television inventing itself.
[LR: There you are. Oh, you great big handsome husband you.
RR: Lucy, what have you done?]
I Love Lucy debuted on October 15, 1951, at the very moment the sale of TV sets was taking off.
And suddenly there was this new category of celebrity: TV star. Life Magazine did photo shoots at Lucy and Desi’s home in LA.
And like what you’re see on TV? You could own a piece of it. There were I Love Lucy dolls, Ricky Ricardo pajamas, Lucy lingerie, even I Love Lucy toilet seats!
Thompson: ILL demonstrated how much you could squeeze out of a TV show. In other words, it wasn’t just a television show, it became something of a lifestyle.
And then, reality intervened.
Cahn: Lucy finds out she's pregnant. We weren’t even allowed to use the word pregnant. We didn't even say pregnant. In fact if you look close, it’s like they were always in twin beds.
An American married to a Cuban was one thing … but in 1952, you could not be pregnant on TV. No way.
A year into this hit, Desi told Jess Oppenheimer, the producer, they were just going to have to end the show.
Oppenheimer: My dad came up with the idea of having a rabbi, priest, and a minister look at all the pregnancy scripts and bless them. You know, pass on them being not offensive to anybody.
Gregg Oppenheimer, the creator Jess Oppenheimer’s son.
Oppenheimer: And that helped calm the network quite a bit, and as it turns out, they never changed a word.
[RR: Are you hungry?
LR: Oh, starved. After all, I’m eating for me and little Romeo or Juliette.]
On the show, they never said Lucy was “pregnant” – she was “expecting.”
[FM: Of course, expectant mothers are the most unpredictable creatures in the world.
LR: You know, it’s amazing the way he fusses over me and takes care of me since we’re been expecting the baby.]
They even resorted to French. The title episode in which Lucy tells Ricky the news: “Lucy is Enceinte.”
All through the episode, Lucy tries to tell Ricky that she’s going to have a baby, but there’s always some interruption.
[LR: I’m going down to the club and tell him.
EM: Oh, Lucy, that won’t be the way you’ve always planned it!
LR: Well, I can’t help it. Ricky’s gotta know and if I don’t tell him soon I might as well wait and let the baby tell him.]
So Lucy goes down to the club where he’s playing and writes a note – and gives the note to the maitre d’ to give to Ricky. But she hasn’t signed her name. So he reads it to the audience.
[RR: Oh isn’t this wonderful, listen to this: I heard you sing a number called ‘We’re Having a Baby, my Baby and Me.’ If you would sing it for us now, it would be my way of breaking the news to him.” Isn’t that wonderful? Of course I’ll do it for you; sure. Oh wait a minute. I’ve got a wonderful idea. Why don’t we bring the couple up here and I’ll sing it to them? Come on, folks!]
So Ricky goes from couple to couple asking, “did you write the note? Did you?”
[R: [singing] Rock-a-bye baby in the tree top. No? When the wind blows…]
Singleton: He passes Lucy, and then he comes back to Lucy, and she nods, yes! That makes me sort of cry just telling about it.
Cahn: And he finally gets to Lucy and does one of the longest double takes.
[RR: Honey, no?
RR: It’s me! I’m gonna be a father!]
Cahn: And then they hug and kiss.
This was reality TV.
As the camera moves in, you can see a real couple, apparently sharing real joy, real tears rolling down their cheeks.
[RR: [singing] We’re having a baby, my baby and me. You’ll read it in Winchell that we’re adding a limb to our family tree.]
The writers actually timed the TV birth of Little Ricky to air on the same night Lucy had her real baby by Cesarean-section.
[RR: [singing] We’re having a baby… my baby and me.]
Thompson: You couldn't have written this scenario better for the amount of publicity, goodwill, excitement…
TV historian Robert Thompson.
Thompson: The very first issue of TV Guide, which would become for many years kind of the bible of television, the very first issue has a picture of the baby, Desi Jr., on the front cover, [music] which kind of announces this new infant medium! It’s now out, it's growing up. And the nation ate that up like crazy.
44-million people tuned in to the episode “Lucy Goes to the Hospital.”
The next day was President Eisenhower’s first inauguration – only 29 million people watched that.
America liked Ike, but it loved Lucy.
Coming up …
Lucy breaks the mold of a 50s housewife.
Barreca: Now she's putting them in her brassiere. It looks like her breasts are heavy with the chocolate. She is stuffing them into her mouth.
KA: And by the way, she's wearing pearls.
Barreca: She's wearing pearls. Well, she looks good in pearls.
That’s ahead in Studio 360’s American Icons, I Love Lucy – from PRI and WNYC.
Keep your radio dial right here: we’ll be right back after these messages…
That’s ahead in American Icons, I Love Lucy – from Studio 360, PRI and WNYC.
I’m Kurt Andersen and this is Studio 360’s American Icons. Today’s show is all about the most famous woman on TV ever: Lucille Ball.
[LR: Well, Ricky, what about me?]
…or, I should say, Lucy Ricardo.
[LR (haughtily): Thank you]
Her show, I Love Lucy helped invent television – and it redefined what women on TV could be.
[Theme music: Leave it to Beaver]
Think of the TV moms of the 1950s.
[June Cleaver: Now shall we all have some supper?
Like June Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver:
[JC: Well Beaver isn't you shirt buttoned up all nice.]
And Margaret Anderson on Father Knows Best:
[MA: Would you like some hot chocolate, Betty?
Betty: I'd love some mother.
Husband: Me too Margaret.
MA: Alright then.]
These were ladies whose only ambition was to teach their children good old family values: moderation, patience, manners…
And then there was Lucy, clinging to the ledge of her apartment building dressed up as Superman.
[RR: Come on in here. I want an ‘splanation.
LR: Can you teach me to fly?
Gina Barreca: Lucy is this wonderful bad girl, but who lives the life of a good woman. Because she craves things. She wants attention. She wants her own way.
Gina Barreca is a professor at the University of Connecticut.
Barreca: Lucy is a hot tomato -- a beautiful woman -- who is trapped in domesticity, both because she wants to be, and because the circumstances of her existence as a 50s housewife wouldn't permit her to be otherwise.
KA: Do you remember the first time you saw I Love Lucy?
Barreca: No I think it was probably in utero. I think I Love Lucy was filtered through the amniotic fluid, I mean, it was ubiquitous. I mean Lucy was woven into the fabric of our everyday existence. We would talk about Lucy, we would play Lucy, we could quote whole scenes. These were sort of rehearsals for life, as far as we were concerned. It wasn't until much later that I started to realize the sort of Lucy Effect on the lives of women.
One of the things Gina Barreca teaches is Feminist Theory.
Barreca: Lucy, in her own incredibly wacky way, was always going to be the star. And she was going to be the star in the same way that the heroine in an Austen novel in that she's not like all the other girls. The other girls may be pretty and well-bred and minding their manners, but the heroine is the heroine because she breaks out of the chorus.
Lucille Ball really did break out of the chorus. She started out as a Goldwyn Girl – a leggy dame, but just one of a dozen.
On the studio lot, she watched comedy geniuses like Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers up close.
Here she is talking to Merv Griffin on his show in 1973:
Ball: No, no one ever said, “Make her a star.” Someone said, “She doesn’t care if her face gets all dirty and she makes faces and screams and yells a lot. The other girls are very busy being beautiful. When there was something to scream about, or wear a mudpack or do something physical, I was available and they weren’t. And that’s how I got started.
Think about the classic bit where Lucy is starring in a commercial for a health syrup called Vita-vitta…(stumble)
(quickly) Thank you.
[LR: Yes, Vitameatavegamin contains vitamins, meat, vegetables, and minerals. ]
It also contains a ton of alcohol.
[LR: It’s so tasty too. Tastes just like candy. [hiccup] So, why don’t you join the thousands of happy, peppy people…]
Barreca: She's lost any kind of sense of composure…she's leaning over…
Barreca: Her eyes are crossing a little bit. She's a little belligerent.
[LR: I’ll tell you what you have to do. You have to take a whole tablespoon full after every meal.]
Barreca: And she's tapping the bottle like someone who's just come out of a speakeasy, like she's going to put it in her garter.
[LR: So, everybody get a bottle of…this stuff.]
Barreca: [simultaneous to LR] this stuff. [laughing] She’s winking. She’s barely holding her head up. We’ve lost the dignity.
[Man: Ms. McGillicuddy? Are you alright?
LR: Oh, I feel fine. But you know, it’s hot in here!]
It really is a brilliant piece of TV. And the sitcom writer Jeff Greenstein says we’ve never quite gotten over it.
Greenstein: You can hear echoes down the ages comedicaly. You can hear Bill Cosby way she does that bit. [imitation]
[LR: Vitamins and meat. And megetibles and vinerals.]
Lucy’s has her audience exactly where she wants them.
Greenstein: They're going insane, actually. You can, I mean, the beauty of the show is that it was shot live. And you really get the sense of an audience that is totally intoxicated by what this woman is doing. And an actress who is getting off on the reaction she’s getting. She's astounding.
And then there’s the time Lucy and Ethel bet their husbands they can make it in the working world – and end up frantically wrapping chocolates as they zoom past on a conveyer belt.
LR: Listen, Ethel, I think…I think we’re fighting a losing game.
Barreca: And Lucy starts putting them in her mouth. They're like chipmunks, storing the food for winter. Look, look! They can't eat any more. [laughing]
KA: So what Charlie Chaplin had done in Modern Times fifteen years earlier?
Barreca: Exactly. And it’s also the idea of even in the 50s, the idea of watching women eat is something you never see.
KA: Let alone stuff their mouths with chocolate.
Barreca: Stuffing their mouths with chocolate. She's putting them in her brassiere. It looks like her breasts are heavy with the chocolate. She is stuffing them into her mouth.
KA: And by the way, she's wearing pearls.
Barreca: She's wearing pearls. Well, she looks good in pearls.
[Forewoman: Fine, you’re doing splendidly. Speed it up a little!]
But this episode ends, like every episode of I Love Lucy, in total, abysmal failure. Lucy’s humiliated, she’s bullied, sometimes she’s even spanked by her husband.
[LR: Ricky. Ricky!
RR: Are you gonna do what I say?
LR: Oh! Yes!]
The joke is Lucy smacking her head against that very low glass ceiling again, and again, and again.
[LR: Waaahhh…I’ve done it again. Chalk it up to another boo-boo…
RR: Now, honey.
LR: We might as well face it, Ricky. I’m a big flat flop.
RR: Now, you stop talking that way. You’ll get an inferiority complex.
LR: No, I’m not. I don’t need a complex. I really am inferior. Waaahhhh….]
In this day and age, is that something we ought to be laughing at?
KA: So net I Love Lucy - good for women? Bad for women? Which? (laughter) Let's pretend we're on Fox News and MSNBC.
Barreca: Good for women, bad for women? Good for women! Absolutely. Any time a woman does something besides making a cooing noise and washing a dish in one of these things, she's making a feminist gesture because she's doing something.
Emily Nussbaum: But then she was always tamped back into her place. The nature of that humiliation in each episode is part of what I found really unnerving about it as a child.
Emily Nussbaum grew up to write about TV for New York Magazine. She still doesn’t love Lucy.
Nussbaum: I do reject that absolute insistence on seeing her as a provocative force for freedom. She shrieks and wheedles and whines and she’s heightened in this way. And then she gets spanked and humiliated
KA: She refused to be a stepford wife and instead is like a child.
Nussbaum: Right. But I didn't laugh when that happened. It wasn’t funny to me.
Barreca: Lucy was always about desire and the idea that she wasn't trying to figure out what other people wanted. She wanted to do what she wanted to do. That's a seditious act. That's seditious for anyone in the 50s, but especially for a woman.
Nussbaum: this desire for attention is totally detached from any desire to practice singing or dancing or anything like that.
Barreca: It's not I Respect Lucy, who would watch that?
Nussbaum: That's the joke of the show, is that Lucille Ball is a talented comedian but that Lucy Ricardo is a completely untalented hack who is just a ball of need. That part does seem very modern because people always there's this big cultural thing right now where young girls are just constantly attacked for wanting to be famous for being famous as if this was created by the internet. But actually, when you watch the show, one of the things you see is, in the case of Lucy Ricardo, she wants to be famous and Hollywood glamorous for ways that are really part of the larger continuum with Paris Hilton. She wants to be famous for being Lucy.
KA: And she was famous for fifteen minutes over and over again.
And Emily Nussbaum won’t grade the show on a curve. Compared to the new shows you can watch any week in the 21st century, she thinks the comedy in I Love Lucy just doesn’t stack up.
Nussbaum: When you rewatch it, you also recognize just how straightforward and simple it is. How there's not a lot of verbal wit on the show. There are no subplots. The rhythms of the show are this very simple thing. One thing is raised and then it’s flipped over. Then there’s a little surprise and then someone gets a cream pie in their face. And the thing is the cream pie is this iconic amazing thing, but at face value, that’s what the show is.
Mindy Kaling: I remember as a child, thinking it was lame and old and square.
KA: And black and white.
Kaling: And black and white. Yeah I remember thinking I Love Lucy was one of the many black and white things that people keep telling you is so great and then you watch it and you’re just sort of bored and annoyed by it.
Mindy Kaling is a writer and producer for The Office – she also plays Kelly Kapoor on the show.
Kaling: I never really understood why this like young good looking interracial couple would like hang out with these like old people.
(aside) Harsh! I always kinda liked Fred and Ethel.
Kaling: It wasn’t until my boss at The Office like refused to talk to me, Greg Daniels, until I'd seen some Lucy episodes. So I youtubed some. And it is amazing.
Turns out, Lucy’s unshakable quest for fame is a blueprint for some of the most popular characters on TV today. Like Michael Scott, the boss in The Office.
[OFFICE CLIP – Michael Scott: "Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy. Both. I people to be afraid of how much they love me."]
Kaling: Someone who is not a performer but who wants to be desperately and who’s terrible at it.
[Oscar: Hey, what’s the deal, Michael? Why are you spying on our computers?
Michael: Oh, no. Everybody, Oscar’s gone crazy. What other ghost stories do you have for us? That I’m a robot? [computer voice] I will destroy everything in my path.
Oscar: Actually, we just…
Michael: Boop, beep. Bop]
LR: [Martian episode speaking crazy fake alien language]
Kaling: And in some ways they're like delusional. Lucy is very delusional and very resilient, y'know? Both of those characters could get very depressed if they actually sat and thought about their situations but they don’t, they’re immune to that, and I think that's just so watchable.
Sitcom writers like Jeff Greenstein channel Lucy.
Greenstein: This stuff is in the DNA and in the brain of every comedy writer. It's like the Rosetta Stone of comedy. That structure has been mimicked and aped, and Xeroxed in countless comedic set pieces down the ages.
Greenstein has written for Friends, and Will and Grace, and Desperate Housewives.
Greenstein: All you had to do was say the word "Lucy" in the writers room and people instantly understood the kind of comedic flavor it was gonna be. We're going to reach a certain level of zaniness by starting from a fairly credible setup, but that we're going to be orbiting Pluto by the end of it.
[Will: I’m so sorry that I’m late, but…Hello, kitties! What’s with that?
Grace: It’s a hydro bra. Water filled for extra perkiness. [laughing]]
Greenstein: We did an episode of W&G called "Das Boob," which was the exploits of Grace on the day she decides to try a water bra. And uh, and we knew when we were building this that this was a Lucy-style episode.
[Grace: Will, what are you doing?
Will: I think you’ve sprung a leak.
Grace: What are you talking about? [sound of water spurting] Gasp! Oh, my god. We’ve got to get out of here before we see. John, hi! [sound of water pouring, Grace gasping, W&G theme]
That is textbook Lucy: she just wants to be noticed, but she always ends up making a fool of herself.
[LL: Hi I’m Liz Lemon and I lost my virginity at 25.]
Greenstein: If there’s somebody working the Lucille Ball vein of comedy right now on television, I’d say it’s Tina Fey on 30 Rock
…in which a brilliant writer-producer plays a hack writer-producer.
[LL: My Work Self is suffocating my Life Me.]
Greenstein: She’s playing a kind of slightly bubble-headed heroine…
[LL: I hate my feet.]
Greenstein: Not as smart as she thinks she is…
[LL: I eat emotionally.]
Greenstein: A little bit of a wanna-be, trying to keep a desperately unhinged life under control.
[LL: And once I had a sex dream about Nate Berkus, but halfway through he turned into Dr. Oz. Has that ever happened to you?]
The thing is, we’re laughing with Liz Lemon and Lucy Ricardo at the same as we’re laughing AT them. It’s both -- it has to be both.
The humor in “Lucy” has lasted because as ridiculous as she can be… we’ve been there.
Greenstein: The desire to sort of make something of yourself, to be visible, to be fabulous, to be more than - it's one of the things that makes her a relatable character even 55 years later.
Justin Bond: She probably helped a lot of screwballs embrace their inner screwball and make it work for them. She wasn’t a square. She was someone that the freaks could relate to as well.
[KIKI: Hey! … Ladies and gentlemen, Herb let me just look out and see who all’s here tonight.]
Justin Bond is a songwriter who used to perform in the duo Kiki and Herb. Bond played the outrageous, alcoholic chanteuse Kiki.
[KIKI: [singing] I told myself too many times why don’t you keep that big clap trap shut! That’s why it hurts so bad to hear the words that keep on falling from your mouth.]
Bond: Kiki was definitely you know, she owes a big debt to Lucy, but I think every comedian does.
[KIKI: [singing] Tell me: Whyyyyyy. Whyyyyyy.]
Bond: I grew up in Western Maryland, in a small town called Hagerstown there. My best friend and I were obsessed with Lucy when we were maybe in 7th or 8th grade. We would just sit in her room in summer days and read stories of Lucy and biographies of Lucille Ball and I think we could relate to Lucy’s double life because we were just, you know miserable, we were miserable teenagers in this wasteland suburban neighborhood. And yet my responsibility was to look happy. My responsibility was to be a positive reflection on my family.
Bond: The Martian episode encapsulates the thing that I liked the most about Lucy, being a transgendered queer kid. That’s the one where Lucy and Ethel are hired to dress up as Martains.
[LR and EM: [speaking martian gibberish]]
Bond: When Lucy and Ethel come in with their deely-bobbers antennas…
[LR: manically laughing and speaking gibberish]
Bond: and their outfits are sort of like wrestling outfits …
[Man: They look like women from Mars!]
Bond: They have their own language, which is amazing. They see the bourgeois siteseers and dance around them and look at them and inspect their clothing and the hats /// She’s smacking this middle-aged man. They become the freaks, they become the aliens, and Lucy and Ethel are, for that moment, in charge. I was tickled. I thought it was a great example of friendship and of how you can pull one over on simple-minded people.
It portrayed queerness, as far as I'm concerned. It portrayed outsiderness, otherness. And so it gave people, I think, a blueprint on how to, if they were paying attention and they cared, how to deal with otherness in a respectful, loving, rational way.
Coming up …
The “I” in I Love Lucy – Ricky Ricardo comes to America.
Mellow Man Ace: Ricky would lick off a couple of Spanish words here and there all the time and just go, “[rapid-fire Spanish]” And I would remember just looking at him, like, wow like, that’s one of my people right there.
That’s ahead in Studio 360’s American Icons: I Love Lucy from PRI and WNYC. Stay with us.
[RR: Bababloo! Babaloo!]
I’m Kurt Andersen and this is Studio 360’s American Icons. This fall, we’re exploring important works of art and culture that help show us who we are as Americans.
Now I’ve watched a lot of TV in my lifetime, and the show I’ve probably logged the most hours watching is I Love Lucy.
I spent countless afternoons in front of my parents’ black and white TV set in Omaha. And when I catch the show now, Lucy actually reminds me a bit of my mom. TV characters can be familiar like that – week after week, we start to feel like we’re getting to know them.
Watching Lucy and Ricky live their daily lives, and deal with their ups and downs, and various kinds of craziness, helps show us how to deal with our own.
And that remains part of television’s successful formula to this day.
Chuck Lorre: These are people that when we visit them every week, they're there for each other or they're antagonizing each other or making each other miserable, all things that are part of the family experience. (laughs)
Chuck Lorre is a true TV kingpin -- the creator most recently of Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory.
Lorre: Probably nothing puts a character to the test more than a relationship. You know, an ongoing relationship is the crucible for the character.
[RR: Oh, Lucy, darling. That’s the reason I married you is that you’re so different from anyone I’ve known in Cuba.
LR: Who’d ya know in Cuba?]
The marriage in I Love Lucy brought Cuba into American living rooms.
On 1950s TV, pretty much everyone was a WASP. But I Love Lucy put an ethnic character front and center – Desi Arnaz was the first Latino in a lead role.
[RR: Oh, honey. It’s a very nice thought. But, as usual, you have no logical splanation for doin it the way you're doin it.
LR: What did you say?]
A lot of the show’s narrative is about a certain unease concerning Ricky’s foreignness… but then turns it into farce.
[RR: Wha?! What’s a matter with the way I talk?]
Gustavo Pérez Firmat [PEH-rez feer-MOT] teaches at Columbia University. He’s the author of “Life on the Hyphen: the Cuban-American Way.”
Gustavo Pérez Firmat: There's a point at which Lucy wants their son to speak perfect English, doesn't want him to speak with a Cuban accent and so hires this guy called Mr. Livermore.
[Mr. Livermore: Repeat after me.]
Pérez Firmat: And the first lesson is about the pronunciation of the vowels.
[Mr. Livermore: A-E-I-O-U]
RR: [using Spanish vowel pronouciation] A-E-I-O-U]
GP: (laughing) I love that guy.
[Mr. Livermore: Mr. Ricardo, where ever did you acquire that odd pronunciation.
RR: I went to school in Cuba. What’s your excuse?]
Pérez Firmat: And what I like about the way this episode turns out is that in the end the teacher ends up speaking English with a Cuban accent instead of Ricky speaking English without a Cuban accent.
Mr. Livermore: Babalu, Babalu, Babalu Aye [laughter]]
Pérez Firmat: And I like very much that about the show, that it gives Cuba its due. It doesn't try to make Ricky less Cuban than he is.
Mellow: We really didn’t understand what Lucy, Ethel and Fred were saying, but Ricky would lick off a couple of Spanish words here and there all the time and just go, “[rapid-fire Spanish simultaneous to RR yelling in Spanish]” and basically that was my dad. That was my dad when he would yell at me the same way. And I would remember just looking at him, like, wow like, that’s one of ours right there. That’s one of my people right there.
Ulpiano Sergio Reyes is a rapper and producer.
Mellow: Professionally known as Mellow Man Ace.
Formerly of the group Cypress Hill.
Mellow: My aka is the Godfather of Latinos in Hip Hop.
[Rapping] I came all the way from Cuba / Just to Babalu ya / On a boat on a river / on a river on to ya.
He grew up watching the show in South Central LA.
Mellow: On the Lucy show, the music that I heard, my folks knew it, you know from Cuba. The danzon rhythms and the ballads and the folk-type music from that era. So whenever Desi would go into something like “La Vieja Ines” (“Ay Mamá Inés”). [singing – “Todos los negros tomamos café”]
[RR: [singing] Ay Mama Ines
EM: Ah, Ricky!]
Mellow: That right there is just a Cuban thing. Every household in Cuba sings that when it's time to drink some coffee, and that’s every day.
[RR: [singing] Ay Mama Ines]
The novelist Oscar Hijulelos.
Oscar Hijulelos: On the other hand he would sing, "My name is Cuban Pete, I'm the king of the rumba beat,"
[RR: [singing] Cuban Pete. When I shake the maracas they go chick-chicky-boom chick-chicky-boom chick-chicky-boom]
Hijulelos: It was charming but I wouldn't say it had anything to do with what was actually being performed in Havana.
It was America in the 1950s and “authenticity” wasn’t such a buzzword. For white Anglo audiences, Ricky Ricardo was exotic but not threatening, kind of cartoony.
[CLIP: He’s a handsome Latin with an accent, he’s the end!]
But Hijuelos saw another side to Ricky.
Hijuelos: I always interpreted his personality not from his dialogue on the program or his double-takes, but from this quietude that he would have when his expression fell silent.
He saw in that expression the sadness of exile.
Hijuelos made Desi Arnaz a character in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love. Desi appears in a scene, sharing a late night with the Mambo Kings eating, drinking, and remembering home:
READING: Arnaz began playing "Cielito Lindo" and by then everyone in the kitchen was a ring of arms and swaying, happy bodies. Strummed like a waltz, it was the kind of song that a loving mother would sing at bedtime for her children. Arnaz shut his eyes in pleasant contemplation of his own loving mother in Cuba… filling the empty hours of the afternoon with songs that she'd play in the parlor of their grand house in Santiago. Just those little thoughts made the three men feel like crying.
But Desi Arnaz also had an American Dream. And as president of Desilu Productions, he launched a television empire that made The Untouchables, Andy Griffith” and later Star Trek.
In 1954, at the height of his success, Desi appeared on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town.
Arnaz: You know. We came to this country, we didn’t have a cent in our pockets. From cleaning canary cages to this night here in NY is a long ways. And I don’t think there is any other country in the world that can give you that opportunity. I want to say thank you. Thank you, America. Thank you.
Mello Man Ace.
Mellow: He really laid down a foundation of how to go get it industry-wise. How to come to America and succeed. How to come to American and thrive. How to come to American and turn them on to you.
Pérez Fiemat: Mary Anne once told me that Ricky Ricardo was the only Cuban she knew before knowing me. And that I reminded her of Ricky Ricardo with a PhD.
Gustavo Pérez Firmat, the Cuban scholar, came to the US in 1960. In his 40s, he met Mary Anne Adamson, from Paramus, New Jersey.
Pérez Firmat: We were trying to figure out how a Cuban man and an American woman live together. And we thought that well, you know, this is a test case. We began watching the show. We used to record it every weekday and replay it at night. It became our version of foreplay. In fact I think it's a very sexy show. The title is “I Love Lucy.” What do you see when you see the words on the screen, you see rumpled satin sheets and then you see a heart. It's clear that it’s in bed where Ricky really loved Lucy. It’s the great Cuban American love story.
Mary Anne Pérez Firmat: On a very practical level, watching ILL, there are times where she absolutely caters to him as a Cuban. She’ll make him arroz con pollo because that’s his favorite food. And I learned to make arroz con pollo and many other Cuban dishes.
Mary Anne: Everybody laughs at Ricky Ricardo’s tirades, but Gustavo just flies off the handle, screams and yells, and then stops, and then everything is fine again. And I've learned not to palpitate. (laughs)
Gustavo: You used to be scared to death of me.
Mary Anne: I used to be afraid of you, but now I’m not so afraid of you anymore.
Gustavo: Mary Anne has learned to say, “Yes, darling.”
Mary Anne: Whatever you say.
Mary Anne: I learned to dance. That’s one of the first things he ever taught me is how to dance the rumba.
Gustavo: Yeah and MA has Cuban hips. (laughter) Like people used to say about Desi, she can rumba standing up and she can rumba lying down.
Mary Anne: Well, I had a good teacher, after all. (laughter)
Gustavo: Standing up or lying down?
Mary Anne: Both! (laughter)
[RR: You gorgeous, exciting woman, you.
LR: Oh, you great big Latin lover, you.]
Mary Anne: I look on them as maybe part of our family somehow. Relatives, friends, aunts, uncle. I don’t know. They are sort of to me what the Mertzes were to Lucy and Ricky – just sort of ever present neighbors who might walk in at any time. Very real.
And what if Lucy and Ricky were real?
As TVs most famous, most enduring married couple, just what kind of example are they setting for the rest of us married folk?
Sherry Amatenstein: I'm Sherry Amatenstein, and I am a couples’ therapist in NY. So I’ve kinda seen the down and dirty and what really goes on between folks.
KA: How would you describe Lucy and Ricky's relationship?
Amatenstein: Pretty dysfunctional.
Amatenstein: Their marriage was more of a competition. And they didn't really trust one another too much. They're always accusing the other one of infidelity, they were always lying, they were always hiding things.
[RR: Lucy, who is he?!
LR: I don’t know what you’re talking about! My goodness, if you’re going to act like this I’ll be glad to have you away for three weeks!]
Amatenstein: It was always about how to outwit, how to win over the other person, it wasn't about trusting and partnership and let's support each other.
[LR: You are afraid that if I got half a chance at a career, that I would be the star of the family.
Amatenstein: In fact, I always felt sorry for little Ricky, pretty neglected little kid.
KA: They both have strong personalities, these characters. As a therapist in New York City, you probably deal with lots of couples where both people have really strong personalities.
Amatenstein: Absolutely. Well in some cases, they're drawn to each other for precisely those reasons, but then they keep knocking heads because they don't understand the dynamics of what's really going on, so they keep hitting the same wall. And that's a really essential thing that many couples want, they want to be gotten, but they don't know how to get their partner.
KA: So everybody has some 'splainin to do.
Amatenstein: Everybody! (laughs)
Now without Ricky and Lucy bickering and going at each other, there wouldn’t have been much of a show. But apparently the off-screen arguments were much worse.
Running Desilu was stressful – and it probably rankled Desi, always playing second fiddle to his more famous wife.
[Voice-over: "Behind the scenes, Arnaz is a Latin Lothario who loves Lucy most of the time but by no means all of the time."]
So you could watch Lucy and Desi be married on TV, and then you could read a more salacious version of the story in scandal rags, like Confidential.
[Voice-over: "Desi is most certainly a duck-out daddy...Close friends [say] Lucy … is a lass with a temper to match her flaming hair and not one to shrug off a misbehaving Mister."]
By 1961, they were having trouble working together.
Dann Cahn was the editor of I Love Lucy.
Cahn: And it was incredible how their relationship photographed that they were still madly in love and offstage they were not getting along. And actually, they were hardly talking to each other, that's when the separation was not far off and…The fans have the illusion that Lucy and Desi went on into eternity in love with each other, and indeed they were, they just had a problem living together after a while. The fans just want to fantasize that what they saw on the television screen was reality.
The day after they wrapped their 194th episode, their final show together, Lucille Ball filed for divorce.
As a 5 year old, I remember hearing this news on the radio, in my kitchen at home. I was completely freaked out; I didn’t know anyone who’d been divorced. And here were these people who, since I was a toddler, I’d watching be married. And if Lucy and Ricky couldn’t make it… what did that mean about everyone’s real parents?
Lorre: Personally, I like flawed characters, because um, well, when I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, there is one, right there, looking back at me.
TV producer Chuck Lorre.
Lorre: So I can y'know when I see a character who's trying to deal with walk through the world with all the flaws that come with the human condition, that's interesting.
KA: It also strikes me with television that it’s the first time people are sitting on a couch as if looking in a mirror, watching people the people in the play sitting on the couch.
Lorre: Sitting on a couch and talking. Yeah. And it’s intimate. It’s a very intimate experience. When you honor that, it can work. You’re not making a movie. No helicopter is coming over the horizon. No sweeping score that’s going to capture the moment. It’s just two human beings talking to each other.
[RR: [singing] I love Lucy and she loves me. We’re as happy as two can be. Sometimes we quarrel, but then, how we love making up again.]
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz divorced. But Ricky, Ricky still loves Lucy. And Lucy still wants to be famous. And Ricky still wants Lucy to be his regular American wife.
[RR: [singing] I love Lucy and Lucy loves me.]
And we’ll keep watching them try to make that work -- on TV or DVD or YouTube or Hulu or whatever we invent next. Because our hero never gives up.
Writer Jeff Greenstein.
Greenstein: I Love Lucy is one of the expressions of the joy of being alive, the joy with which Lucy approaches her life is really infectious... And Lucy loves her life. She's constantly trying to push at the boundaries of it, but she approaches everything with joy.
[Music swell: “And Lucy loves me.”]
And that is it for this episode of Studio 360’s “American Icons.”
Don’t worry, you can hear it all again at Studio 360 dot org slash American Icons. While you’re there, you can listen to more interviews and see photos and videos of some of the stuff we talked about on the show today.
[LR: It’s so tasty too!]
And you can find out about all the American Icons in our series.
American Icons is brought to you by Studio 360, a co-production of WNYC and PRI, Public Radio Int’l. Today’s show was produced by Jenny Lawton with production assistance from Chloe Plaunt and Claes Andreasson. David Krasnow is our senior editor.
Our production team includes…
[STUDIO 360 STAFF NAMES]
Special thanks this week to Gregg Oppenheimer, Andy Lanset, Wanda Clark, Hollywood Center Studios, Digital Deli Too, Sarah Lilley, Ivan Zimmerman, Mark Maher, and Lorra-Lea Bartlett.
The use of clips from I Love Lucy is courtesy of CBS Broadcasting Inc. And original music this week is by Alex Gallafent.
Thanks to Julie Berstein, WNYC’s Chris Bannon, and at PRI, Melinda Ward, Leslie Wolfe and Ellen Widmark.