We Love Lucy: The Enduring Comic Genius of Lucille Ball

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.

What’s yours?

For the Love of Globe

Though I feel that I should be writing on some sort of Covid-related issue, such as what to read or how to be introspective, I choose to write on the complete opposite: travel.

In a world that is alarmingly leaning toward the right, starting with our leaders like Donald Trump, and where there is extreme xenophobia, arising from different circumstances such as mass migration by refugees from parts of the world that are experiencing danger, it helps to think of the joys we have in our differences, and to be grateful for the privileges many of us have had in getting to see different parts of the world.

My childhood was marked by somewhat-quadrennial trips to India that, in the earlier years before super-long-haul flights, involved multiple stops. This, perhaps, planted the seed for my curiosity about different peoples and cultures that eventually led to a degree in anthropology and a number of global homestays. My young self wondered, “Will I ever get to see those places on the ground some day?” Even the sites of different tarmacs with different airports with different landscapes was fascinating to my little eyes. I recall laundry swaying in the wind behind a house next to the airport in Manchester. Being given two little sample bottles of Courrèges cologne–glass with a round golden orb on top–at Frankfurt airport that I kept for many years. The palm trees and concrete at Kuwait Airport where we stopped to refuel. The orange sunrise over the unbelievably flat horizon at Dubai airport, and inside, the gleaming red marble interior (even in the bathroom!) and men wearing a long thobe with a red-checkered ghutra on their head. How in Delhi, passengers got off on the tarmac and were bussed to the gate. And the relief when, at 9 AM, after traveling over 20 hours, we boarded the last flight on our journey from Bombay to Madras on Indian Airlines.

When I was 15, my dream finally came true, for we stopped in London en route to- and Rome en route from India as part of our journey. And both cities did not disappoint: if anything, they were exciting beyond belief, as it was my first time in a country other than India or the border countries of Mexico and Canada. For those of us who are Indian-Americans, our sense of place and the world is shaped by these trips, for we not only lived with two cultures in the United States, but came from two cultures that spanned the globe, on vastly opposite sides of the earth. 

I am fortunate to have traveled to places where many Americans don’t usually go, and to have been able to stay with friends or in ways that forced me to “go native.” I have given a talk to high school students in rural Denmark, shopped for groceries in Austria, visited Sibelius’s house Finland (where I was allowed to tinker on his piano!), bargained with shopkeepers in India, ridden a commuter boat with locals in Bangkok.

There are still so many places I want to see. Recently, I have enjoyed watching a wonderful BBC series with journalist Sadeq Saba called “A Taste of Iran” with the result being that the bug is now in me to visit that glorious country full of a variety of stunning landscapes, ancient history, and marvelous food. Perhaps because of the trips to India that were routed via Europe and over Central Asia, I have an interest in Middle Eastern and Central Asian cultures. It is interesting to see the progression of various cultural traits and histories and rituals from Europe through the Subcontinent, how certain elements have been carried through the regions. For example, some of the architecture I saw in Bulgaria is similar to that I saw in Bhutan.

It is quite heartbreaking to think that international travel may be curtailed and may not be safe for a number of years. The pandemic has, oddly, brought us together in teaching us about our shared humanity, just as travel does. The silver lining is that it has given the earth a chance to heal, reminding us that we are not the only creatures who live on this planet. But for those of us who love to see different people and places, right now we can only have empathy for our fellow human beings who are sick everywhere: in a worn hospital in Manhattan, in a dusty flat near Tehran, in a village in Lombardia, a crowded street in Wuhan. And then we can imagine we are there visiting in better times.

TWOL Will Be Back Shortly

Dear readers,
I look forward to posting again soon! I have been unbelievably busy in my position as an adjunct professor teaching English composition (probably the most hectic, trial-by-fire experience anyone could have for their first semester teaching: replacing someone last-minute, starting the second week of the semester and therefore having to plan the class as I go along, then a move to online teaching). I truly hope everyone is staying well during this difficult time!
Best wishes,