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Why does I Love Lucy endure after all these years?

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodeswe examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

Is this funny?

How about this?

TV writer and blogger Ken Levine has an occasional series in which he asks the above question after posting classic scenes from various TV comedies. Fascinatingly, Levine’s commenters have a tendency to prefer more modern shows. TV comedy is supposed to age better than TV drama—after all, shows like Cheers and The Honeymooners and The Dick Van Dyke Show and M*A*S*H have been running in syndication for decades, with viewers continuing to embrace them. Yet even these established classics are losing some of their ground as the first generation to grow up with television ages. 

Here’s the thing: You probably know you’re supposed to find those scenes above funny. They’re the most famous comedic moments from I Love Lucy, which is one of the two foundational texts of American TV comedy, along with The Honeymooners. The series is legitimately the most influential in TV history, pioneering so many innovations and normalizing so many others that it would be easy to write an appreciation of simply, say, the show’s accidental invention of the TV rerun. (When star Lucille Ball took a maternity leave in the show’s second season, producers and network CBS slotted first-season repeats in lieu of new episodes, and those repeats proved just as popular as new episodes.) 

Yet, like so many foundational texts, Lucy can seem a little dusty when viewed through modern eyes, as if it had to be dug out of TV’s attic and cleared of cobwebs. You’ll often see Lucy and Ethel stuffing chocolates in their mouths or Lucy trying to do the Vitameatavegamin ad in montages of the best TV moments of all time, but how long has it been since you watched the episodes that surround them? The show’s been running non-stop in syndication for more than 50 years, but its timeslots have gotten more out of the way in the last couple of decades. It’s a curio many say they like, even if we don’t pay a lot of attention to it.

This isn’t helped by the impression that the show’s attitudes are distinctly unmodern. In her day, Ball was one of the most powerful women in the country, responsible for funding many television classics through Desilu, the production company she founded with her first husband Desi Arnaz. In the show itself, however, Ball’s character, Lucy Ricardo, is a ditzy dingbat who’s terrible with money, constantly screwing up her husband’s plans, and generally running around and acting like an idiot. In some ways, this can be refreshing. The television template of the doofus husband and super-capable wife who holds the family together has been around so long that to call it cliché is an insult to clichés. In its best episodes, Lucy reminds viewers that it’s possible for women to be hilarious when playing something other than a nag or killjoy. 

In fact, mainlining a bunch of I Love Lucy over the course of a few hours or a few days raises an odd question: Has television become a worse place for women over the decades? Obviously, this isn’t the case on average, since there are far more women working as producers and executives than there have ever been at any point in TV history. But the list of things women get to do—whether in front of the camera or behind the scenes—in the modern TV industry is fairly short, especially when compared to how much power Ball had over the creative direction of her own show. I Love Lucy first got on the air because Ball knew CBS’ desire to have a TV version of her hit radio show, My Favorite Husband, was strong enough that the network would cave to her desire to have Arnaz play her husband on the show, despite reluctance about depicting a Cuban-born man married to an American woman. Few industry players without a show on the air would dare try such a thing today; it’s just as unimaginable as Lucy without Arnaz.

The central conceit of Ball’s character—a dizzy housewife who wants to be a star, but should really just stay a housewife—seems anti-feminist at first, the sort of portrayal against which the women’s lib movement would soon rebel. Why shouldn’t Lucy Ricardo have more going on in her life than darning Ricky’s socks (as she’s doing at the start of the Vitameatavegamin episode)? Yet, as with Leave It To Beaver’s June Cleaver, there’s more going on here than meets the eye. I Love Lucy is a tale of upward American mobility—the Ricardos start out in a modest apartment but slowly grow more successful and end the series living in the suburbs—and it’s a tale of how women first began making their voices heard at home. It’s often forgotten, but the flipside of “Job Switching” (the candy company episode) involves Lucy’s husband, Ricky, and neighbor Fred Mertz attempting to play housewife and failing. Men being terrible at domestic chores is an old, old joke, of course, but the show takes it somewhat seriously: What Lucy and Fred’s wife, Ethel, do is hard work, and it’s not to be mocked.

Ball was also a feminist touchstone in a male-dominated industry. She and Arnaz exercised a great deal of control over their show, and as it became television’s earliest signature sitcom, that control grew even greater. They were able to bring the My Favorite Husband writers over from radio to develop the show and write the scripts for all six seasons. They took a little-used method of shooting in front of multiple cameras (to allow for multiple angles without having to waste time on unique camera setups), added a live studio audience, and solidified one of the foremost methods of television production. Arnaz worked with cinematographer Karl Freund to make this easily the best-looking show of its era, turning that multi-camera setup into a brand-new sitcom grammar that directors still utilize today. The popularity of Lucy reruns invented both the TV repeat and the syndication market. Ball and Arnaz’s insistence on writing Ball’s pregnancy into the series’ second season was a legitimately historic moment, another battle with the network that paid huge dividends, creatively and in the ratings. There were stabs at continuing storylines, as the Ricardos took trips to Hollywood to further Ricky’s career or moved out to Connecticut. And on and on. 

But it all comes back to Lucy, which still plays a little creakily to modern eyes. For starters, the show isn’t a series of stories so much as it is a series of excuses for comedic sketches. Nearly every episode includes a performance number, and even if some of them remain remarkably funny and borderline surreal (as in the below clip), it still feels strange to stop every episode for a moment when the characters break out in song.

And still there’s the uncomfortable nature of a show about a marriage where the woman is someone the husband needs to put constantly in her place. For a generation raised on women who lived in the workforce, this often creates discomfort. Even The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Laura Petrie—who popped up just a few years later—seems more modern than Lucy Ricardo. Lucy’s a woman who dares leave her station, only to realize she was wrong to ever wish for better things. The need to reaffirm the status quo at the end of every episode became a kind of prison that Lucy likely would have broken out of if the show had debuted even five years later. Lucille Ball and Lucy Ricardo aren’t even in the same league.

Despite all of this, however, the show still plays. It’s about to begin its sixth decade in syndication, while numerous other sitcoms of its era have faded from memory and the airwaves, for a reason. Part of this is the show’s historical significance, to be sure, and part of it is the long string of brilliant slapstick routines, but the major part of the series’ success is the second word in the title.

The show works because Ricky is rarely too angry with Lucy. When he is, it’s undercut by a genuine affection. He understands why she wants more, and even if she’s not good enough to become famous or able to move beyond the home, he gets why she wants to and doesn’t seem angry at her for her desires. These are two people in a deeply functional marriage, whose love for each other bubbles off the screen. When Ricky stares at Lucy and bursts into a smile, you can see how she’s his whole world. When she admits she just wants to be in one of his shows at the Tropicana Club to be close to him, it feels genuine. The Little Ricky arc is the series’ highpoint because it maximizes these moments. There are few scenes in all of television as moving as Ricky realizing that the person in his audience who’s having a baby is his wife. The tears are real. These are people who love each other—both on- and off-camera.

It was all a beautiful fiction. Ball and Arnaz split, their marriage the victim of Arnaz’s drinking and carousing. The last image viewers would hold of them was a passionate kiss in the last ever Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. She would buy out Arnaz’s shares in Desilu, an early television powerhouse that bought out the RKO Pictures studio lot (and its famous Forty Acres outdoor shooting area). If anything, Ball’s power only grew in this era, as she shepherded numerous fantastic television series—everything from The Untouchables to Star Trek to Andy Griffith to her own follow-up series—to the air, guiding them through network landmines and keeping them mostly intact. She was a titan of business, a woman whose creative sense was dead-on, as “modern” to current eyes as the characters she played aren’t.

Arnaz would never quite attain the same level of popularity—though he did host Saturday Night Live once—while Ball would star in The Lucy Show from 1962-68 and Here’s Lucy from 1968-74. Both were big hits and ran long enough to hit syndication, but neither series is nearly as good as I Love Lucy, and by the end of the latter, there was a distinctly uncomfortable sense of a woman trying to succeed at a game she was no longer young enough to play. (The series had to cut out almost all slapstick after a skiing accident seriously injured Ball’s leg.) She kept employing Gale Gordon and Vivian Vance (the sole remaining link to I Love Lucy), as if surrounding herself with people she knew and could trust, shutting out a changing world more and more. Ball sold Desilu to Gulf-Western. The famed Forty Acres were turned into an industrial park. Here’s Lucy became the first Ball-starring series to fall from the Nielsen Top 10, hitting 15th after season five and nearly leaving the top 30 after season six. It was canceled, and Ball became the last link to the dawn of TV to fall, the victim of CBS’ new, hip sitcoms.

She made one last comeback in 1986 with Life With Lucy. She played a grandmother (to a young Jenny Lewis, among others), now, and her cast members once again included Gordon. (Vance had died, just like so many others from those early days of TV had by the ’70s and ’80s.) Once again, Ball had complete creative control, but her voice—ravaged by cigarettes and alcohol—was a rasp, and she simply couldn’t perform the physical comedy that made her famous. The show was a bomb, yanked after eight episodes. Ball became a borderline recluse, destroyed by the public’s sound rejection of the woman it had once loved.

Arnaz died that winter. The two had grown closer in the last few years, thanks to grandchildren and time, and she last talked to him a few days before his death. She would die in 1989, her last public appearance at that year’s Oscars. There was an unprecedented outpouring of grief for a woman who hadn’t had anything like success in two decades, but, then, who didn’t love Lucy? A few months later, Twin Peaks, Seinfeld, and The Simpsons would debut, and an evolution toward a new Golden Age of TV would begin.

But it doesn’t matter that the story ended sadly, because we still have the show, which has never left the airwaves and most likely never will, for as long as people watch sitcoms. Ball and Arnaz’s marriage ended, but Lucy and Ricky’s, preserved in flickering shadows, never will. The jokes might stop being funny, and the gender relations might cease making sense, but the look on his face when he sings to her suggests a hope that someday, all of this will reset, and there will be something happier waiting.

Next time: The Rockford Files


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