I’ve been on an “I Love Lucy” obsession for a couple of weeks now on the Hulu network. I just can’t quit watching – and laughing. It is challenging to find anyone in the world who isn’t familiar with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and the “I Love Lucy” brand that has been with us since 1951.
Television and movies tend to take on a life of their own for better or worse. They either survive or they don’t in the chilly world of ratings, critics, and advertising dollars. Given the right chemistry, sitcoms achieve great success from the start. Then, they go the distance in the decades to follow via syndication. “I Love Lucy” remains the most watched sitcom in television history—joined by a host of other TV classics we enjoy watching. We still love Lucy 70 years later.
“I Love Lucy” was one of those rare moments where the planets aligned and it worked from the get-go. Lucy and Desi spent $5,000 making the “I Love Lucy” pilot. Then came the task of pitching it to the networks and sponsors. Together, they founded Desilu Productions in 1950, the very first television production company. This gutsy first step made Hollywood, California the nerve center for network television production.
Network executives were skeptical when they were presented with the “I Love Lucy.” concept, which was born of the “My Favorite Husband” show. They weren’t comfortable with a Cuban husband and a redhead. Despite the skeptics and naysayers, “I Love Lucy” patented the television sitcom. It rocked. Millions of viewers loved it. My grandfather, born in 1894, hated it. To him, it just wasn’t funny. However, “I Love Lucy” remains the quintessential American original. It was a terrific combination of writing, directing, acting, and authenticity.
To make “I Love Lucy” a smashing success, Desilu amassed the talents of not only William Frawley and Vivian Vance, but a treasure trove of great character actors who complemented the base set. These actors and characters flowed in and out of “Lucy” for six seasons, plus the “Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour” in the late 1950s.
That “I Love Lucy” has endured for seven decades around the clock and around the world in dozens of languages is every evidence of its great popularity. As long as Baby Boomers can tune in, “I Love Lucy” will continue to endure for at least a couple more decades. Lucy/Desi’s brand of comedy is timeless. It makes us feel good. When “I Love Lucy” wrapped in 1957 and segued into the “Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour,” it was something of a farewell to Ricky, Lucy, Fred and Ethel. It was over.
If I could rewrite the “Lucy” story, “The Lucy Show” (1962-68) would have been Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz—not Lucille Carmichael and Vivian Bagley. I would have wished for a continuation—where Ricky and Lucy, and Fred and Ethel, were divorced; with the Lucy/Ethel duo starting over again as middle-aged divorcees. After six years as best friends and landlords, it was challenging to see them as anything but Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz.
Although “The Lucy Show” (1962-68) and “Here’s Lucy” (1968-74) to follow in the 1960s and ‘70s weren’t in my opinion as funny as the original, they performed very well in the Nielson ratings. They enjoyed a huge audience. When “Here’s Lucy” wrapped in 1974, the Queen of Comedy went out on top along with great character actors, writers, and directors who made the magic. Lucy would return in 1986 for “Life With Lucy,” which lasted one season. She also did a made for TV movie, “Stone Pillow,” in 1985 about a lovable homeless woman living on the streets of New York.
Although Lucy and Desi are gone now, their legacy of great sitcoms and drama programming will live with us for a long time to come.