Dominates Television Comedy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Innovative in its manner of filming and use of sound techniques, as well as being strengthened by superb writing and acting, I Love Lucy consistently ranked among the most popular television shows of its era and remains widely viewed in syndication.

Summary of Event

Television was in its infancy in 1950, when the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System;comedic programming (CBS) network notified Lucille Ball of its desire to transfer her successful radio program, My Favorite Husband, My Favorite Husband (radio program) to television. Although only four million television sets were in American households at the time, this number represented a quadrupling of the number from the previous year. It was obvious that entertainment was shifting to the new visual medium. [kw]I Love Lucy Dominates Television Comedy (Oct. 15, 1951-Sept. 24, 1961) [kw]Television Comedy, I Love Lucy Dominates (Oct. 15, 1951-Sept. 24, 1961) [kw]Comedy, I Love Lucy Dominates Television (Oct. 15, 1951-Sept. 24, 1961) I Love Lucy (television program) Television;comedies Comedies;television Situation comedies I Love Lucy (television program) Television;comedies Comedies;television Situation comedies [g]North America;Oct. 15, 1951-Sept. 24, 1961: I Love Lucy Dominates Television Comedy[03610] [g]United States;Oct. 15, 1951-Sept. 24, 1961: I Love Lucy Dominates Television Comedy[03610] [c]Radio and television;Oct. 15, 1951-Sept. 24, 1961: I Love Lucy Dominates Television Comedy[03610] [c]Women’s issues;Oct. 15, 1951-Sept. 24, 1961: I Love Lucy Dominates Television Comedy[03610] Ball, Lucille Arnaz, Desi Vance, Vivian Frawley, William Oppenheimer, Jess Freund, Karl

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo in I Love Lucy.

(Arkent Archive)

An astute businessperson, Ball quickly recognized the growth potential of television and strongly favored the move. It was her desire, however, that the male lead in the show be portrayed by Desi Arnaz, a Cuban entertainer and bandleader who was Ball’s real-life husband.

The network was reluctant to hire Arnaz for the part, for several reasons. First, there was concern about his ability to act. There was also a fear that the public would not accept a Cuban as Ball’s husband. Ball’s answer was simple and straightforward: “We are married!” To overcome the network’s reluctance, Ball and Arnaz decided to perform a show on tour. Forming Desilu Productions Desilu Productions in 1950, the pair traveled and displayed their act before live audiences. Cut short by Lucy’s miscarriage, the show nevertheless demonstrated the popularity of the duo. The reviews of a pilot film, shot live on March 2, 1951, convinced the network that the show could be a success. CBS also created My Favorite Husband My Favorite Husband (television program) as a television show modeled more closely on Ball’s radio program. It starred Barry Nelson and Joan Caulfield and aired from 1953 to 1957.

I Love Lucy premiered October 15, 1951, and became an immediate hit. Although the initial reviews were modest, by the end of the first season (1951-1952) the show was watched weekly in nearly eleven million homes, more than two-thirds of the households believed to own television sets. During the course of the six years in which original half-hour telecasts were shown (179 episodes), the show never ranked below third in popularity among television programs. An additional thirteen specials broadcast over the next three seasons proved equally popular.

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The theme of the show was simple. Ball played Lucy Ricardo, an American of Scottish ancestry married to Ricky Ricardo, a prominent Cuban bandleader. Most episodes were built around Lucy’s attempts to break out of the stereotypical housewife mold. Ricky, on the other hand, was quite happy with things as they were. The premise was simple, with the hilarity of plots built around superb writing and acting, particularly the slapstick comedy of Lucille Ball.

The Ricardos’ neighbors and friends, Fred and Ethel Mertz, portrayed by Vivian Vance and William Frawley, were an integral part of the show. Ethel continually would be drawn into Lucy’s mischief. Vance was an established stage actor prior to joining the show but had limited experience in performing before a camera. During World War II, she was among the first entertainers sent to a combat theater. Suffering a nervous breakdown after her return, Vance had been semiretired when she auditioned for I Love Lucy.

Frawley had been a character actor for several decades (and a singer, in his youth), generally portraying gruff yet kindly personages, extensions of his own personality. As Fred Mertz, he was as often as not a victim of whatever mischief Lucy had concocted. Frawley was twenty-two years older than Vance, a fact that was at times a source of tension between the actors. Nevertheless, the two portrayed a couple that could be anyone’s neighbors.

The essence of the show was its basis in reality. It often used slapstick comedy, but the comedy never stretched the boundaries of realism. Events would make sense. One could use as an example events portrayed in a show called “Job Switching,” broadcast September 15, 1952. Lucy and Ethel switch roles with their husbands and end up working as candy makers. In a scene reminiscent of a children’s food fight, Lucy becomes involved in a chocolate war. In a later scene, her job is to wrap candy as it goes by on a conveyor belt. Rather than having the belt speed up and slow down, as might be expected in a routine comedy act, the writers had the belt move slightly too fast for Lucy and Ethel to keep up. Anyone who ever worked on an assembly line can empathize with such a situation. Lucy and Ethel end up stuffing excess candy into blouses, mouths, and hats in an attempt to keep up with the moving line. The situation was silly but not divorced from reality.

One of the most popular events on the show, with a counterpart in real life, was the birth of Little Ricky on January 19, 1953. The same night, Lucille Ball gave birth to her son, and second child, Desi IV. The character of Little Ricky proved popular through the course of the show.

With the end of filming for the 1956-1957 season, Desilu Productions ceased production of the show as a weekly series. I Love Lucy still ranked as the most popular program on television, but both Lucy and Desi hoped to cut back on their work loads and to branch into other types of productions. A series of one-hour specials, underwritten in part by Westinghouse, was planned under the title of Desilu Playhouse. Desilu Playhouse (television program) Ultimately, thirteen shows were produced over the next three seasons.

With the completion of the original episodes, prime-time reruns of I Love Lucy continued to be shown on the CBS network for two years, with the last airing on September 24, 1961. Daytime reruns were shown on CBS until 1967. In 1960, Ball and Arnaz were divorced, their marriage strained by forced separations during earlier years and troubles aggravated by Arnaz’s drinking and womanizing. They continued to run Desilu Productions jointly until Ball purchased Arnaz’s shares in 1962. In 1967, Gulf and Western purchased Desilu Productions for $17 million in stock, officially dissolving the company.

Significance

The level of success associated with I Love Lucy remains unparalleled in the history of television. When the show was telecast, America literally came to a halt. The show ranked in the number-one position four months after its inception. As noted by writer Bart Andrews, telephone companies reported substantial reductions in calls during its time slot (Mondays at 9:00 p.m. for most of its first-run showings). Taxicabs became difficult to find, as cabbies went into bars to watch the show. The large Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago changed its evening hours from Monday to Thursday in response to the loss of business. Leaders of the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) in Massachusetts demanded that the CBS affiliate broadcast the show earlier than 9:00 p.m. so children would go to bed at an earlier hour. Presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson earned wrath from the public by cutting into one broadcast with five minutes of advertising during the 1952 campaign.

The decision to film Television;film vs. kinescope the episodes, rather than relying on kinescope Kinescope as was the case with most early television, was an important development early in the evolution of the show. Arnaz and Ball wanted to film in Hollywood, near their home, while the network was broadcasting from New York City. Because the coast-to-coast coaxial cable was not yet in use, the only alternative was the use of low-quality kinescopes, or motion pictures made from images on a picture tube. The decision was made to use 35-millimeter film for the filming and broadcast. Al Simon Simon, Al , associate producer of the program, had discussed this issue with Ball, who suggested that he contact Karl Freund for advice. Freund had worked with Ball earlier in her film career, and he was known as a master at innovative sound and photography.

Simon explained their idea to film the program using three or four 35-millimeter cameras in front of a live audience, much as one would film a stage play. Freund immediately saw the problem: the different lighting required for shooting from different angles at the same time. Freund suggested the use of a system of “flat lighting,” an overhead lighting system in which the entire stage would be lit uniformly. The method would later become routine in film studios.

Other innovations used on the show eventually would become routine in the television industry. Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, in their reviews of television history, suggested that Freund also developed the three-camera method used in filming I Love Lucy. This was not the case, however, as the system had been used for other television broadcasts. What was unique, however, was the development of “the monster,” a four-headed Moviola capable of holding four reels of film simultaneously. Previously, film editors were forced to spend an inordinate amount of time combining rough cuts of film, since the standard Moviola could hold only a single reel at a time.

Some changes were not so much technical as practical. Filming of the initial shows was carried out from start to finish, without a significant break. Arnaz and Jess Oppenheimer, the show’s head writer, decided that the program could be run much like a stage play, with breaks between scenes. In this manner, the use of set and costume changes could become routine. During breaks, Arnaz or others entertained and talked with the studio audience.

Because the show was to be filmed, a proper film studio became necessary. Simon discovered a seven-and-a-half-acre lot owned by General Service Studios in Hollywood. Desilu and CBS rented the facility and carried out extensive renovations to the stage. The set literally was rebuilt from the ground up and became the centerpiece for Desilu Productions. Stage manager Herb Browar suggested the installation of permanent bleachers for seating an audience of three hundred. The bleachers were still standing nearly thirty years later when the studio was purchased by Francis Ford Coppola.

I Love Lucy made household names out of four somewhat obscure actors. Lucille Ball was the major force on the show. Born in 1911, she showed an early interest in show business. Following several roles in chorus jobs, she studied modeling and once portrayed the Chesterfield cigarette girl. Through a chance meeting with a friend in 1933, she was brought to Hollywood by musical director Busby Berkeley. While there, Ball appeared in numerous films, eventually earning as much as fifteen hundred dollars a week. In 1940, she met and married a young singer and bandleader from Cuba, Desi Arnaz.

Arnaz had fled Cuba in 1933, settling in Miami, Florida. He worked at a number of jobs, including the cleaning of canary cages, until being discovered by Xavier Cugat while singing at a hotel. He had a number of bit parts before his marriage to Ball. Arnaz’s impact on the show is easily underestimated. Both he and Ball worked closely with their writers, among the best available. If Arnaz believed that a scene lacked impact, it was removed. At least one script was shelved for personal reasons. That script was built around Ricky Ricardo cheating on his income tax. Proud of his American citizenship, Arnaz refused to act out that script. Although his close scrutiny sometimes resulted in arguments among the staff, Arnaz always had the final say.

The Desilu empire became a Hollywood powerhouse. In addition to I Love Lucy, it produced such programs as Make Room for Daddy, December Bride, and The Untouchables. The production facilities were responsible for a large number of quality programs, ranging from comedy to drama, as part of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse from 1958 to 1960.

With the end of the series and the breakup of the Ball-Arnaz marriage, each principal in the show went his or her own way. Frawley had a starring role for five years in My Three Sons, but poor health forced his retirement in 1964. Lucille Ball temporarily retired from television, until her marriage to Gary Morton in 1962. Morton convinced her to return to television, which she did in 1962 with The Lucy Show, Lucy Show, The (television program) a Desilu Production produced by Desi Arnaz. Vivian Vance also starred on the program for three years. The Lucy Show ran for six years under that title, continuing as Here’s Lucy for an additional six years. Although successful in this endeavor, Ball never was divorced completely from her previous roles in the eyes of her fans. I Love Lucy (television program) Television;comedies Comedies;television Situation comedies

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Andrews, Bart. The “I Love Lucy” Book. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985. A revised and updated version of Andrews’s previous work, it is the best story of the subject on the market. Numerous photographs are included, as well as a description of each episode of the show.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Lucy and Ricky and Fred and Ethel: The Story of “I Love Lucy.” New York: E. P. Dutton, 1976. A top-notch history of the show. Well written and anecdotal, it is the first major book on the subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present. 8th rev. ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003. Includes a history of television networks. The authors provide a synopsis for each show aired on prime-time television beginning in 1946.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harris, Warren G. Lucy and Desi. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991. An excellent biography of the principal actors on the show. Well written and detailed, though perhaps a bit dramatic in its presentation. Numerous photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Landay, Lori. “I Love Lucy: Television and Gender in Postwar Domestic Ideology.” In The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Skewed, edited by Mary M. Dalton and Laura R. Linder. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. Critical examination of the cultural work performed by I Love Lucy and its representation of gender in relation to the domestic sphere. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McNeil, Alex. Total Television. 4th ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. A programming guide to television programs from 1948 on. Contains a list of “special occasions” and a program guide that begins in 1948.

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