Monday, October 18, 2021

‘I Love Lucy’ at 70


I saw several posts on Facebook this past week noting the 70th anniversary of I Love Lucy


‘70’ is not a milestone we’re used to in television.


I remember when shows I grew up with celebrated 20th and 25th anniversaries, and how that seemed like a vast passage of time – the kid actors were grown up and married with kids of their own. The attractive young adults once immortalized on bedroom wall posters and Tiger Beat magazine covers still retained traces of their youthful beauty, now tempered by the realities of middle age. The actors who played grandparents and kindly old teachers were remembered in memoriam.


But a 70th anniversary is something else entirely. That’s nearly the span of an entire lifetime – as well as the lifetime of television as it is celebrated in this blog.


While the technology existed as far back as the 1920s, and there were limited broadcasts in the 1930s and 1940s, TV did not become a mass medium with any real mass until the early 1950s.


It was I Love Lucy, along with Milton Berle and Howdy Doody, which helped to transform television from a novelty into the primary source of news and entertainment for every generation since its inception. Most American homes did not have a television when I Love Lucy debuted on October 15, 1951. By the end of that decade, there was a TV in nine of every ten homes.


So how does the series hold up 70 years later?


For most of those in my generation the answer is easy – it’s a classic situation comedy that set the standard for the genre, and that gave us moments as famous as any series past or present. Its characters are beloved; a very high percentage of its 180 episodes are still laugh-out-loud funny. 



But that’s us. We formed these opinions decades ago and see no reason to change them now, even if we haven’t actually watched an episode in years.


I can’t view this series through the eyes of someone in their teens or 20s who were not exposed to it growing up via near constant reruns. I do know that, regrettably, anything in black and white is an automatic deal-breaker for a lot of people under 35. I also know that television, like other artistic entities, is no longer judged solely on the quality of its production and performances. Quotas much be checked, inclusivity must be present, and any attempt at humor must not come at the expense of an ever-expanding list of protected sub-sections of humanity. It’s fair to say I have no idea what people are allowed to laugh at anymore.


Still, for those who keep score on such things one would think I Love Lucy would earn some credibility for being less homogeneous than other shows of its era. Lucille Ball wanted her real-life husband, the Cuba-born Desi Arnaz, to play her husband on the show, and CBS (reluctantly) relented. 


It was an inspired choice not just for the on-screen chemistry between Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, and the musical component incorporated into the series by the veteran singer and bandleader, but also because of Arnaz’s ingenuity behind the scenes. Depending on the source telling the story, Arnaz receives either some or all of the credit for the three-camera set-up that became the industry standard for sitcom production, designing a set that would accommodate the addition of a live audience, and shooting episodes in higher-quality 35mm film, which is why the shows still look fantastic on blu-ray.


However, several episodes featured scenes in which Lucy mocks Ricky’s accent, and people lose their jobs for doing that now.


If you are familiar with reaction channels on YouTube, you know there are hundreds of people in their 20s reacting to songs from the 1950s through the 1980s – and most find them preferable to current music. Some have started branching out into television, usually starting with sketches from The Carol Burnett Show. Would they love Lucy as well? I really don’t know. 



I know that I still enjoy it, and if anything I appreciate its craftsmanship more now than I did when I was laughing at this stuff as a kid. The timing in the comic set pieces; the way Lucille Ball maximizes the humor potential in every prop she touches (a result of meticulous rehearsal to find every opportunity to stretch out a laugh); the bickering Mertzes; the way the show could so easily bring high-profile guest stars like John Wayne and William Holden into its comic orbit.



Seeing those Facebook posts has inspired me to return to the show once again, and I’m already looking forward to some of my favorite moments: the Vitameatavegamin commercial (“Lucy Does a TV Commercial”), Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory (“Job Switching”), the grape stomping in Italy (“Lucy’s Italian Movie”), the performance of “Cuban Pete” (“The Diet”), Lucy being forced to tell the truth for 24 hours (“Lucy Tells the Truth”), Lucy setting her nose on fire at the Brown Derby (“L.A. at Last”), the tobacco shop scene in “The Ricardos Visit Cuba,”, the guest appearance of George Reeves as Superman, and the egg-breaking dance in “Lucy Does the Tango,” which generated the longest laugh in the series’ history. 



And all of that is just for starters.


After 70 years the number of ways the country has changed – culturally, socially, politically, technologically – for better and for worse, could fill a book. Just consider how television itself has changed – those who watched I Love Lucy in 1951 could not imagine doing so in high-definition on 80” screens, with 500 other channels to scan or stream when the show is over.


How future generations will assess the series cannot be determined, but after 70 years it’s a testament to its excellence that a show that debuted at the beginning of the medium’s evolution is not just still remembered, but still enjoyed by so many. 



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