“I Love Lucy is the battle of the sexes,” says William Asher, who directed more than 120 episodes of the first program to be inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, “and it will never die. It appeals to the world because it is universal.”
I Love Lucy debuted at 9 p.m. on Monday, October 15, 1951, on the CBS television network. The series was an instant success. It never ranked lower than third in the Nielsen ratings for each year it was broadcast, and was the most popular program for three of the six years in which it was produced.
“The man-woman conflict in a marriage is probably the most universal thing there is,” says Asher, “and Lucy dramatized that crazy element of marriage: ‘I can’t stand it, but life would be worse without you.’ The essence of the show was an examination of a marriage, and everybody recognizes that. Another thing that makes the show so appealing and so lasting is that it is a pure, wonderful love story. No man could be married to that woman if he was not in love with her. We closed many, many shows with a kiss or on the way to the bedroom, which we never showed, but promising bed.”
Asher, who became Lucy's director at the end of its first season, says, “There was no way that show could have been put together better. It started with the writing of Bob Carroll and Madelyn Pugh, which was dead-on and well balanced and demonstrated a consistency in character that gave the audience a sense of being able to trust us. Then Jess Oppenheimer, who produced the program, reviewed all the scripts.
“The characters were vulnerable. That made them likable, and likability is very important in comedy. We did not do things for a laugh if the joke wasn’t something that the character would do. We had a cast made in heaven. Desi was unique. Bill Frawley played a curmudgeon that nobody has ever done as well. Vivian Vance was just pure gold. And Lucille Ball as a clown stands by herself.
“The fact that Lucy was brilliant made the show work. If the writers asked her to do something that she really didn't think would work, she would try it with the same energy she would put into it if she loved it. And often she did love it, which showed the kind of honest performer she was. Lucille Ball never got in the way of Lucy Ricardo.”
I Love Lucy was preceded in the late 1940s by Lucille Ball’s popular CBS radio network program, My Favorite Husband. In 1950, CBS President William Paley invited her to adapt her show for television.
To save her tempestuous 10-year marriage, Ball demanded that her real-life husband and lesser-known Cuban-born bandleader Desi Arnaz (also inducted this year into the Hall of Fame) be cast as her television husband.
CBS reluctantly agreed, but Ball and Arnaz refused to produce Lucy live in New York and insisted on filming the show in sequence as a stage play in front of a studio audience in Hollywood. Thus was the situation-comedy format born, and the television-rerun business invented.
Employing three 35mm-film cameras, Ball and Arnaz later found themselves with a treasure trove of motion-picture-quality episodes. In the late 1950s, they sold the I Love Lucy rerun rights to CBS for five million dollars to finance their purchase of the RKO studios when Desilu, their production company, continued to grow.
Asher says that “by using three cameras and filming the show without stopping, we were really using a proscenium approach — photographing a play in continuity — and giving it the feeling of being shown live. Even today, there’s the sense of its happening right now. There is immediacy to it. It is a feeling that you're seeing it as it happens, and the audience feels good about that.”
Asher believes that Lucy continues to be popular because it rings true in every sense.
“The laughs were all legitimate, and the laugh element in that show is almost like a musical score. The audience never felt uncomfortable with those laughs. They became a part of the show.”
Even after 40 years, Asher continues to find contemporary applications for the program’s characters and basic situation.
“Lucy Ricardo was one of the first of the feminists,” Asher says, “in that she wanted her place in the sun by being in show business. In a sense, she was a suffragette. Lucy was saying, ‘I want to get into the act of life. I want to be noticed. I want to be recognized. Women should have their place in the world too.’ It was a sugarcoated message, and most people would never in a million years think about that. But the world can’t help but feel that.”
On January 19, 1953, the morning that Lucille Ball gave birth to Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha IV and the night that Lucy Ricardo coincidentally gave birth to Little Ricky, “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” scored a record 92 share, higher than the next day’s coverage of the inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower.
After 180 episodes, the final first-run show was seen on May 6,1957. It was succeeded by The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show, a series of 13 one-hour comedy specials that was produced until 1960, when the couple divorced.
Currently, I Love Lucy is syndicated to about 75 U.S. markets by Viacom, available at retail outlets on CBS/Fox videocassettes, sold via direct mail in collector’s editions produced by Columbia House, and seen at 35,000 feet as part of Trans World Airlines’ In-Flight Entertainment.
Broadcast from Ghana to Greece, and from the Sudan to Singapore, Lucy has been translated into Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Spanish and subtitled in several other languages. In the United States, it still ranks among the 10 most popular daytime programs for female viewers aged 18 to 54.
Ken Ross, vice president and general manager of CBS Video, CBS Enterprises (a division of CBS, Inc., which owns I Love Lucy), says, “In terms of an evergreen product, Lucy is the most brilliant jewel in the company’s vaults.”
Ross, who several years ago discovered the lost Christmas episode and the pilot, and who repackaged them as highly rated prime-time CBS specials, says, “Lucy is a timeless comedy, broad in its demographic appeal. All ages love it because of the wholesomeness of its humor. It crosses all boundaries. Lucille Ball will go on forever.”
Ross notes that the show is especially durable. “Lucy has a unique repeatability factor,” Ross says, that allows people to see the same episodes over and over and not tire of them. I attribute that to the visual-ness of Ball — her expressions, the program’s slapstick and its vaudevillian quality. The chemistry was incredible. The plots were wacky. The performances were great.”
Dennis K. Gillespie, who serves as Viacom Enterprises’ president of worldwide marketing, domestic features, and off-network sales, says, “Lucy has been a long selling, absolutely recyclable and hugely successful syndicated show. There isn’t another program in television syndication that has the same kind of station loyalty.”
Noting that Viacom has licensed Lucy since 1971 (when the company was spun off from CBS to comply with government regulations), Gillespie says that over several licensing cycles of five or six years, hardly any stations have not gone out of their way to re-license Lucy. Some stations are directly identified with Lucy, and the show is part of the persona of the station itself. The Lucy phenomenon is that it is a piece of the general way in which viewers think about a television station. It operates as a kind of cornerstone for its day-part over a long stretch of time.”
Gillespie emphasizes that Lucy's audience reflects a broad spectrum of viewers: “Lucy's ratings have always been strong, and they continue to be virtually unchanged. It is one of those shows that becomes a part of people’s and families’ lives. Its success is constant. These are people who have grown up with Lucy and have seen episodes maybe 10 or 15 times. Also, there are people who weren’t even born when the original shows aired and who stumble across an episode and say, ‘Hey, this show is terrific.’ Its audience continues to be regenerated all the time. Lucy defines the term sitcom.”
Why is I Love Lucy such a success? Says Gillespie, “The reason is very simple, and it’s a two-word reason: It’s funny.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating I Love Lucy's induction in 1991.