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Friday, October 15, 2021

October 15, 2021: SitcomStudying: Why We Love Lucy

[October 15th marks the 70th anniversary of I Love Lucy’s debut. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Lucyyyyyyyyyyyy and other sitcoms—share your responses and other sitcom analyses for a crowd-sourced post that’ll need no canned laughter!]

On why the groundbreaking sitcom’s comfortable familiarity actually reflects its most radical elements.

While I Love Lucy (1951-57) was one of the first prominent sitcoms, there are a few reasons why its domestic and marital dynamics seem to fit comfortably within existing, familiar tropes, and most of them center directly about star Lucille Ball and her prior professional work. For the years leading up to the sitcom’s debut she had been starring in a CBS Radio program entitled My Favorite Husband, where she played a wacky housewife. When CBS initially balked at her request that a TV adaptation co-star her husband, Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz, Lucille and Desi toured as a vaudeville act, performing the same kinds of marital hijinks that they would feature on the sitcom. So by the time Lucille and Desi were given the chance to perform those exaggerated versions of their real-life roles on TV, they—and Lucille especially—had extensive personal and professional experience with such characters and dynamics, helping give the show that impressively lived-in feel from its pilot episode on.

At the same time, I think it’s just as accurate to say that I Love Lucy itself established many of those sitcom domestic and marital tropes that have since come to feel so familiar, and that’s an important reframing because it allows us to see the show for just how radical it really was, in two distinct ways. For one thing, there’s the apparent reason why CBS initially balked at casting Desi are Lucille’s husband in the TV adaptation: their concerns that TV viewers wouldn’t accept a redheaded white woman and a Cuban man as a married couple (even though, again, the two had been married in real life for a decade by that time). What Ball understood, far better it seems than these network executives, was that mass media genres like sitcoms don’t have to simply reflect existing images or narratives (although they far too often settle for doing so); they can also, and perhaps especially, shape such cultural and social conversations. Am I suggesting that I Love Lucy helped create the shifts in attitudes toward cross-cultural marriages that would contribute to the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking decision in Loving v. Virginia (1967) a decade later? Well yeah, I guess I am.

Through and because of the show, and more exactly because of how much it brought her star power to wider audiences, Ball was also able to achieve significant professional milestones of her own. Most strikingly, she and Desi founded a TV production company, Desilu, of which she became the first female studio head; when the two divorced in 1960, she bought out his share and cemented her role as the full business and creative director of that successful and influential studio. Lest you think those are hyperbolic adjectives to make my point, here are just four of the TV shows that Desilu produced, all of them during Lucille’s reign as solo studio head post-divorce: the original Star Trek (launched in 1966); the original Mission: Impossible (also 1966); The Andy Griffith Show (launched in 1960); and The Dick Van Dyke Show (launched in 1961). All of those in their own ways became and remain familiar presences within, and contributed enduring tropes to, their respective genres—one more way that I Love Lucy has left its radical imprint on our cultural landscape.

Crowd-sourced post this weekend,


PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other sitcoms you’d study?

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