More than 60 years ago, a pregnant Lucille Ball couldn’t call herself “pregnant”

More than 60 years ago, a pregnant Lucille Ball couldn’t call herself “pregnant”

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. This is the third of eight installments to focus on “controversial episodes.”

I Love Lucy, “Lucy Is Enceinte” (season two, episode 10; originally aired 12/8/1952)

In which Ricky and Lucy had… In which Lucy is… Look: They’re having a baby…

Genevieve Koski: Coming on the heels of the episode that put the nail in the Smothers Brothers’ coffin and a Brass Eye pedophilia special that’s still squick-inducing today, it’s tough to consider this 1952 I Love Lucy episode as “controversial” television. It’s a sweet and downright quaint (to modern eyes) episode that’s about nothing more eyebrow-raising than an over-the-moon pregnant housewife trying to tell her husband that they’re having a baby, complete with not one but two full-on musical numbers. But “Lucy Is Enceinte” was scandalous at the time, at least in the eyes of the CBS executives who balked at the idea of its star—who slept in a twin bed next to her husband onscreen—actually acknowledging and openly displaying the biological consequences of S-E-X. But such was the clout of Lucille Ball at the time: Her second pregnancy was written into the second season of I Love Lucy. (Her first coincided with the filming of the series’ pilot, in which Ball is clearly showing, but her condition is never acknowledged.)

Ball’s onscreen pregnancy may not have been the first in television history—Mary Kay And Johnny beat it to that distinction back in 1948—but it’s notable for how high profile and, ultimately, successful it was. The script for “Lucy Is Enceinte” famously had to dance around saying the word “pregnant,” a term CBS deemed too vulgar for air, hence the French word for pregnancy in the episode title. Watching the episode today, it’s interesting to see how not clunky the censorship is in practice: Euphemisms like “expecting” work just fine in context, and there’s never any confusion over what the characters could possibly be talking about. The final number—in which Lucy finally, after many, many, many failed attempts, gets through to Ricky about her, ahem, condition, and he sings “We’re Having A Baby, My Baby And Me” to her—is so charming and well executed, it makes the exclusion of that word seem all the more arbitrary and silly.

Such are the growing pains of early television: seismic in their time, silly when viewed from a half-century removed. I Love Lucy was one of the most influential television series, sitcom or otherwise, ever, and the power Ball exercised over the show that bore her name—including casting her own Cuban husband, despite CBS’ reluctance to portray an interracial marriage on TV—was groundbreaking for women in television. But, as outlined by our own Todd VanDerWerff in his excellent 100 Episodes column on I Love Lucy, the show was far from progressive in its attitudes, at least on the surface: This is, after all, a show whose main comedic premise revolved around a dizzy housewife being continually put in her place by her husband. 

But that’s thankfully not the case with “Lucy Is Enceinte,” which, with a few minor tweaks—namely getting rid of Arnaz’s main musical spotlight—isn’t too far removed from a standard sitcom premise we might see today: Lucy discovers she’s pregnant and wants to tell Ricky in the manner she’s dreamed of her whole life. (Like I said: not progressive.) Due to a series of contrivances, mostly involving phone calls, knocks on the door, and Ricky being oblivious, Lucy is unable to tell him in the way she wants, so she goes down to the club to try again, only to be further steamrolled. Finally, that night, she hijacks Ricky’s nightclub performance in the aforementioned “We’re Having A Baby” sequence—perhaps the most welcome of Lucy’s many intrusions into her husband’s act—and Ricky is finally in on the secret that’s been known to his wife, his neighbors (Ethel is there when Lucy gets home from the doctor, and spills to Fred before Lucy can tell Ricky), and the audience. And just like that, one of television’s first ongoing sitcom storylines was born (well, gestating, at least): the birth of Little Ricky.

There are five episodes between “Lucy Is Enceinte” and “Lucy Goes To The Hospital,” where Little Ricky is born—which, amazingly, was timed to coincide with Ball giving birth to her second child, Desi Arnaz, Jr.—an event watched by 44 million people. (Somewhat puzzlingly, given the hubbub over the P-word, the very next episode is called “Pregnant Women Are Unpredictable,” which was apparently okay because the episode titles never showed onscreen.) Together, these seven episodes represent the first real-time pregnancy depicted on television, something that’s still pretty rare to this day, when most pregnant actresses are forced to wear baggy clothing, hold large packages, and stand behind props to disguise their growing bellies. 

Looking at the viewership numbers garnered by Ball’s onscreen pregnancy, it appears Lucy’s condition was only a moral concern in the eyes of squirrelly executives; audiences clearly loved it—or at least the sanitized version that was deemed appropriate for television. Make no mistake, groundbreaking or no, “Lucy Is Enceinte” is very, very tame, even by the standards of I Love Lucy. Throughout the episode, Lucy is lively, sure, but far from her usual troublemaking self; hell, she spends what seems like half the episode in Ricky’s lap. So, in the spirit of idle speculation, I’ll throw the question out to my fellow Roundtablers: What concessions, if any, do you think Ball and Arnaz had to make to get this storyline on the air? Or is the extreme tenderness of “Lucy Is Enceinte” simply a byproduct of two smitten parents-to-be wanting to share their bundle of joy with the world?

Ryan McGee: I understand why I Love Lucy is the classic that it is, but I’ll confess to a level of “sameness” that usually keeps me from engaging with it on a deeper level. To be sure, most programs, regardless of era, are resistant to changing any formula that works. But “wife constantly tries to get away with things behind her husband’s back and eventually pays the price” isn’t my favorite formula by a long stretch. The show is groundbreaking for all the reasons you list above, Genevieve, as well as those laid out by Todd in the piece you linked. I’m not calling I Love Lucy out to the carpet here, but my appreciation of the show is more academic than visceral.

With all that said, this episode charmed the absolute hell out of me. For once, the reason that Lucy kept something hidden from Ricky made emotional sense. Even if the idea of a “perfect” way to tell him that she’s pregnant seems quaint, it’s the type of quaintness that still exists today. (One person’s “quaintness” is another’s “romanticism,” I suppose.) She wasn’t trying to execute the moment for her benefit, but for their benefit, and that difference here is key. On top of that, even while I saw the reveal coming a mile away as Desi sang “Rock A Bye Baby” to each table, his revelation (coupled with her wordless reaction) absolutely floored me. It’s as beautiful a way that you can land such a moment, and the execution is so powerful that anything supposedly “controversial” simply melts away.

Maybe that’s a way to pivot to the rest of the Roundtable, here: How much of the controversy in shows like this lie in preemptive fear of what might happen, versus the fear of visually confronting That Which Must Not Be Named?

Phil Dyess-Nugent: I don’t think I’ve ever sat down to watch an episode of I Love Lucy for my own enjoyment. I’ve seen it plenty of times; I wasn’t around when the show was a national phenomenon, but I’m old enough to remember when it was one of the last black-and-white shows to hang in there as a major player in syndicated reruns (except for the more cultish ones, like The Honeymooners and The Twilight Zone). It was my mom’s favorite show, so it was on in the background a lot when I was a kid. So were the post-Desi shows she did in the ’60s and early ’70s, The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy, which were nowhere near as beloved, but because they were in color and only broke for musical numbers when someone like Wayne Newton was guest starring, seemed less like something from the time capsule. (I am also one of the eight people who ever saw her short-lived comeback series Life With Lucy, which had a sort of NASCAR appeal: Lucy, who was in her 70s, and her co-star, Gale Gordon, who was about 80, would do slapstick pratfalls, and you’d hold your breath, waiting to see if they’d get back up.) Everybody knows this was a huge show in its day, but I wonder how many people now realize that, for more than two decades, Lucille Ball was such a fixed presence on CBS, during the era when CBS was the dominant force among the three commercial networks, that she was practically the President Of Television.

That’s probably why I’ve never thought of I Love Lucy as something you actually watch, unless you’re in a dentist’s office or visiting relatives—it would be like kicking back with the Bible. That’s probably also why the CBS executives decided they could get away with having their heroine pregnant—sorry, “about to have a blessed event”—even with the implied suggestion that she must have had conjugal relations with her husband of umpteen years. Actually looking at this episode now, I can appreciate the craft that went into it, though for me, the funniest things in it are an unintended result of living in a world that Lucy made—one in which “having a baby” is not just okay, it’s a familiar trope that shows ranging from Get Smart to Mad About You have pulled out of the hat when they were trying to recapture viewers’ attention after they’d been on the air a few years. In the first shot of Lucy, she looks so hugely pregnant that it’s goddamn surreal that neither she or her husband has guessed that she might be, separate beds or no separate beds. In fact, in the scene where she freezes up over the prospect of telling Ricky the happy news in front of a roomful of (male) strangers, for a second, I thought the joke was that her water had broken. 

I think that Genevieve may be onto something when she suggests that the show had to pull back a little on the zany slapstick antics because of Lucy’s condition, which helps explain why this episode has little of the frenetic quality I associate with Lucy. One of the most charming moments comes early on, when Lucy uses a nonsense word that she inherited from her grandmother, and it’s also the moment that’s most like a modern sitcom, a little character touch that’s eccentric and, to lapse into network-speak, “relatable.” I almost wish it wasn’t used as the setup for a gag.

Todd VanDerWerff: I’ve seen this episode probably a dozen times, and every time, it makes me happy. I find the real-life relationship between Ball and Arnaz so fascinating that I’m always happy to see it trickle through into the show itself, beyond the confines of the sanitized-for-TV version of it that appeared every week. Since this was Ball and Arnaz’s second child, I suppose some of the thrill over this being a “first” baby is manufactured, but the emotions that well up in that final scene are surprisingly genuine, on the part of both actors. They’re having a baby in their personal relationship, and the baby of their professional relationship is making TV history. It’s all very exciting.

I’ve written so much about this show and this episode, in particular, in the link Genevieve provided, that I don’t know what else to say about it. I’m always reminded when visiting I Love Lucy how much it was indebted to the TV of its era, even as it was creating the TV sitcom as we know it. In particular, I love how every episode stops for a musical number, both because Arnaz wanted to do musical numbers and because that’s just what people expected to see on TV at that early point in the medium’s history. I’m reminded of the way that Russian novels included lots of bits and pieces of other stuff the author was interested in, because people were expected to make those suckers last through the long winter. This, of course, isn’t exactly analogous, but I love that perhaps the most influential show in TV history contains all of these other evolutionary dead ends within it.

Donna Bowman: Ryan, after reading about this episode in particular, and the ways that network executives and marketing people lost their shit about this show over and over, I really appreciate your question. I Love Lucy is a case study in the fear of controversy. America wouldn’t accept a Latin man as Lucy’s husband. Shooting on 35 mm instead of live-to-kinescope was too expensive. Advertisers feared that mention of pregnancy was in bad taste.

As much as we avid television viewers and critics prize innovation and originality, the medium as it has developed in the U.S. is inherently conservative—often painfully so. Advertisers and the network salespeople who deal with them don’t want to hear even a peep about topics that might offend viewers. The battles over language and partial nudity fought in the ’90s have been conceded, but social topics can still rile up the letter-writing, network-boycotting masses. Actually, who needs masses? Theoretical outrage is as potent as actual purchasing power. When a tiny Florida group with an impressive-sounding name put out a press release demanding that advertisers pull their support from TLC’s All-American Muslim for ignoring the Islamic agenda to impose Sharia law in this country, Lowe’s complied. The network and marketing model is “better safe than sorry,” and by golly if it’s never been done before, it’s probably because America won’t stand for it.

We’re going to encounter a few more of these kind of controversies before we’re done with this round of the Roundtable—the ones that probably shouldn’t have been such a big deal even at the time, but that represented ground somebody was afraid to break. What should have been unacceptable in this episode (and in plenty of other shows with expectant cast members in the ’50s and ’60s) were those maternity clothes, perhaps better described as tents. The moment Lucy walks in the door in the first scene wearing a cone-shaped coat, the jig is up; no woman, no matter how much weight she thought she was putting on, would wear anything that unflatteringly shaped without a bun in the oven. Unfortunately, every woman at the time was forced to swath herself in pleated capes from the moment she was known to be awaiting a blessed event, whether she was a glamorous starlet or a working-class housewife. It’s strangely democratizing; even the richest and most powerful women of the time had to don oversized lampshades lest they subject an unsuspecting public to the suggestion of a swelling belly and remind them where babies actually come from (and what path they might have to take).

Erik Adams: Donna’s comments bring up the grand ironies to the taboos that CBS forced “Lucy Is Enceinte” to dance around: Ball and Arnaz were a real-life couple, and real-life couples tend to sexually reproduce. (Among humans, anyway—I can’t speak to how this sort of thing is handled the single-cell-organism entertainment industry.) Additionally, so much of the executive hand-wringing originates from a buttoned-down, Eisenhower-era discomfort with even the sight of a pregnant woman’s body. But you can’t take Ball’s body out of I Love Lucy; Ball’s body is I Love Lucy. Hers is such a physical performance that it’s still one of the gold standards of slapstick 61 years after “Lucy Is Enceinte.”

That quality of Ball’s performance is typically pegged to the more acrobatic I Love Lucy gags, but this episode offers ample reminders of the quieter angles of Ball’s physical comedy. Literally: After all, Ball is the actress who later held her own in a mirror bit with Harpo Marx, and there are moments during “Lucy Is Enceinte” where widening her eyes is all that’s required to get a laugh. We can all agree that CBS was being unnecessarily skittish when it came to addressing Ball’s “condition,” but this episode illustrates the creative inspiration Ball and Arnaz were able to find within the restrictions imposed on their chosen medium. In an episode where those restrictions limited the words they could and could not say, they make some of their most potent statements by not saying anything at all.

Stray observations:

Lucy’s radio-show lineage is still very present in this second-season episode, with its breaks for Ricky’s songs, its lack of anything resembling a B-story, and its overall languid pace. [GK]

There’s a couple of odd-looking insertion shots that were almost certainly filmed later on, when Ball’s belly could no longer be concealed by Lucy’s snazzy capes and coats. [GK]

I hope subsequent episodes featured Lucy and Ricky getting a phone with a shorter cord, since I kept worried someone would trip over that monstrosity. Pratfalls are funny, except when they involve pregnant women. [RM]

It’s fun to laugh at the network suits who panicked at the thought of putting a pregnant Lucy on the air (while knowing that they had no choice, because not having her on the air at all would have been a ratings catastrophe). They look ridiculous in retrospect, not just from a contemporary viewpoint, but because we know that America loved coming together to anticipate the arrival of Little Ricky. But in those guys’ partial defense, they might not have been underestimating the sophistication of their audience so much as underestimating the calming effect of star power. It was okay for Ricky to get Lucy knocked up, because the audience accepted that whatever Lucy and Ricky did defined what was okay to do on TV. [PDN]

Although William Frawley is the only cast member of this show I can see myself trying to save if he were trapped on the rim of an erupting volcano, Desi Arnaz was a fascinating individual, and one thing I appreciate about Oscar Hijuelos’ 1988 novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs Of Love is the mythic stature it accords him when he shows up as a minor character, at the height of his TV fame: For the book’s hero, an ambitious Cuban emigre musician, he’s the living embodiment of the American dream. Sadly, instead of lavishing the role on a great actor, the makers of the lame 1992 movie version cast Desi’s likable schlub of a son, Desi Jr., who has about a tenth of the old man’s charisma. [PDN]

Every time I see the closing credits of I Love Lucy, I brace myself for the moment when Karl Freund’s name rolls by. Freund was one of the German giants of cinematography, the man who shot Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh, then came to Hollywood, where he worked with George Cukor, Tod Browning, and John Huston, and directed The Mummy with Boris Karloff and Mad Love with Peter Lorre. Then, Desi Arnaz started his production company and was looking for the best cinematographer he could find, and since everyone he asked told him that the best cinematographer in the business was Karl Freund, duh, Desi hired him to shoot 149 episodes of I Love Lucy (and 129 episodes of Our Miss Brooks). Between the two of them, they invented the three-camera, live-studio-audience format for TV sitcoms. Personally, I’ve always been able to balance my love for movies and my love for TV without much difficulty, but if you were looking for a single career that encapsulated the way that television seemed to eat movies alive, you could do worse. [PDN]

Lucy and Desi were married for 20 years, and viewers appreciated the real affection between the two. Watching Desi nuzzle Lucy at the end of "We’re Having A Baby, My Baby And Me,” the intimacy is both adorable and clearly unfeigned. [DB]

Even though “Lucy Is Enceinte” is dominated by the musical interludes by Desi’s orchestra (not just the two whole songs that Genevieve mentioned, but half of another one during which Lucy gives the note to the host), no discussion of I Love Lucy would be complete without an appreciation of the incomparable Vivian Vance and William Frawley. They don’t get much to do here (especially Frawley), but anyone who wants to understand the structure of the sitcom ensemble should make an in-depth of the Mertzes. I love their entirely hypothetical argument here about whether the baby should be named Fred or Ethel, with Lucy reminding them of how long it would be before a name was needed, and Fred conceding: “I guess you’re right; there’s plenty of time to name him Fred.” [DB]

Am I the only that finds the childless Mertzes’ excitement about little Fred or little Ethel vaguely tragic? Can you imagine the shitfit CBS would’ve thrown if Ball and Arnaz pitched an episode called “Ethel Is Stérile”? [EA]

The instant Lucille Ball comparisons that arise when any female actress or comedian attempts something physical might have something to say about the too-convenient, grossly shallow ranks of the touchstones we critics usually reach for when we’re discussing women in comedy. I’m certainly guilty of it every time I bring up Ball’s name in the same breath as New Girl. Would it kill me to bring up “The Judy Miller Show” every once in a while? Or the various contortions, facial and otherwise, Catherine O’Hara put herself through to play Lola Heatherton? [EA]

Next week: Erik Adams summons the Knights Of Standards And Practices via South Park’s “It Hits The Fan” (available on Hulu and at the South Park Studios website). After that, Todd VanDerWerff brings us an episode of Amos And Andy—once he finds the least offensive example.

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