Lucille Ball is the best female comedian America has ever known–or rather, one of the best comedians America has ever known. Why so? Why do we love that crazy redhead even half a century later?
-She was willing to make a fool of herself. Any true performer knows it’s not about ego, that one has to let go of the self in order to completely inhabit the character and to serve the text and the spirit of what is being performed. Lucy was willing to go there, be it saying things she wasn’t supposed to say (think the episode where she had to tell the truth for 24 hours), physical comedy, or making a complete mess of things. Carol Burnett also has this gift, as do Jim Carrey and Alex Borstein, among others.
-Related to the point above, pushing the limits. “I Love Lucy” featured an intercultural marriage, and one with a husband with a strong accent from a country that later became America’s number one enemy. It featured outrageous situations, such as international travel, drunkenness from a health tonic, or faking the ability to speak Spanish. The show was also set in New York City and then later Los Angeles, not in suburbia. Ricky lived the showbiz lifestyle and their beloved neighbors and friends, Fred and Ethel, had been vaudeville performers. The show makes good use of the medium, and was also the first show to be recorded live in front of a studio audience. That speaks to the talents of the cast, who were essentially performing a play in each episode.
-Excellent writers. The script for each episode is nothing short of brilliant. In less than half an hour (22 minutes), an entire microcosm of a story with rising action, climax, and dénouement is created. A start-to-finish story, perfect dialogue, and even cross-cultural humor are included. Note the occasional lapses into Spanish by Ricky Ricardo that heighten the comedy. Couple this with sharp timing all the actors involved, and you have a recipe for success. It is important to note that one of the key writers for the show was a woman, Madelyn Pugh, a rarity at that time.
-The battle of the sexes. Political correctness can fail to simply acknowledge that this is a human situation as old as mankind, and that relations between men and women are sometimes downright hilarious. Whether it’s Lucy forgetting to relay a message to her husband, buying something she shouldn’t have, Ricky excluding her from an event, Fred and Ethel’s eternal squabbles over his cheapskate nature, this is something that men and women can relate to not only in America, but all over the world.
-Glamour. No one can deny that the crisp black-and-white cinematography, elegant Dior-esque dresses, or romantic songs at the club are just a little more chic than what the rest of America had. Ricky Ricardo is certainly handsome, New York is the epicenter of style, so who wouldn’t want a little panache on the screen? The cast travel cross country, move to Hollywood, and travel in Europe. These were things that were still out of the reach for most Americans in the 50’s. Good TV over the years and even today fulfills this purpose, giving us a little bit of glamour and something just beyond our reach. Think “The Cosby Show” and their upper-middle-class Brooklyn life, “Sex and the City” with the women’s endless designer clothes and nights out at chic lounges, or “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” with stunning art direction and costume design. There’s something to be said for visual escapism.
The show has mass appeal as it its themes are universal and simple. Even my grandmother in India had enjoyed it! Everyone has a favorite “Lucy” episode. Mine is when Lucy’s mother-in-law arrives from Cuba and Lucy is not able to speak with her in Spanish. She enlists the help of a Spanish-speaking magician she saw in the club and wears an earphone into which magician dictates what she should say to her mother-in-law. Naturally, it backfires with hilarious results.