Friday, October 15, 2021

The 70th Anniversary of I Love Lucy

I Love Lucy was not the first situation comedy. The format had originated on radio in the 1920s. It was not even the first television sitcom. That was Mary Kay and Johnny, which debuted in 1947. I Love Lucy was not the first filmed sitcom to be shot using a multiple-camera setup. Other sitcoms had used it earlier, including Amos 'n' Andy. That having been said, I Love Lucy is possibly the most influential situation comedy of all time. It was American television's first megahit in the genre. It was the first sitcom to be filmed in front of a live television audience with a multiple-camera setup, a format still in use to this day. It was also the first American television show to feature a multiethnic marriage and one of the earliest to have a character's pregnancy written into the show. I Love Lucy continues to be popular, and it remains in syndication to this day, as well as widely available on streaming services. I Love Lucy debuted seventy years ago today, on October 15 1951.

The origins of I Love Lucy can be traced back to the radio show My Favorite Husband, on which Lucille Ball starred. On the show Lucille Ball played Liz Cooper, a housewife known for her wild schemes. Her husband was banker George Cooper, played by Richard Denning. At the time that My Favorite Husband debuted in 1948, Lucille Ball was already a popular movie actress with a career stretching back to the Thirties.

My Favorite Husband proved to be a hit, so that by 1950 CBS wanted to bring the show to television. While CBS wanted Richard Denning to play her husband on the television version of My Favorite Husband, Lucille Ball insisted that her husband on the television version be played by her real-life husband Desi Arnaz. CBS did not believe that the audience would believe in a multiethnic marriage. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's response was to create a vaudeville act to prove CBS wrong. The vaudeville act was written by Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr., who had written My Favorite Husband along with Jess Oppenheimer. A company, Desilu Productions, was formed to produce the vaudeville act and subsequent television show. It was the success of the vaudeville act that convinced CBS executive Harry Ackerman that a show starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz could be successful. It probably helped  good deal that Lucille Ball's idea for a new show had generated interest at CBS's archrival NBC. With the prospect of losing Miss Ball to NBC, Harry Ackerman eventually gave into Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's wishes. The result was I Love Lucy.

For those unfamiliar with I Love Lucy, the show centred on housewife Lucy Ricardo and her husband, upcoming Cuban bandleader Ricky Ricardo. The two lived in an apartment in New York City, which they rented from their neighbours Ethel and Fred Mertz. Many of the show's plots rotated around Lucy's efforts to break into show business, often as part of Ricky's act. Lucy and Ethel often concocted various schemes together.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were not the only people to work on I Love Lucy with roots in Hollywood. William Frawley, who played Fred Mertz, had steady work as a character actor in movies, including his famous appearance in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). The show's cinematographer Karl Freund had begun working in film in Europe and later migrated to the United States. Dracula (1931), The Good Earth (1937), for which he won an Oscar, and Key Largo (1948) the films he had shot. He also directed movies, including the classics The Mummy (1932) and Mad Love (1935).

Even the original opening had been created by well-known talents with roots in Hollywood. The show's animated opening featured Lucy and Ricky as stick figures. It was created by legendary animators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. Because the two men were still under contract to MGM, they refused any on-screen credit. An argument can be made that the animated opening of I Love Lucy was one of the many ways in which the show was influential. Several sitcoms in the Fifties and Sixties would have animated openings, including Date with the Angels, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Pete and Gladys, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and others. Sadly, the original animated opening of I Love Lucy would be replaced by the more familiar "heart on satin" credits for the repeats of the show aired on CBS from 1959 to 1967 and subsequently in syndication. The originated animated openings would not be seen again until 2001, when for the show's 50th anniversary TV Land had the animated opening restored (although in such a way as to edit out original sponsor Philip Morris).

I Love Lucy proved to be a huge hit for CBS. In its first season it ranked no. 3 in the Nielsen ratings for the year. By its second season it was the number one show on television. When it ended is turn after six seasons, it was still the number one show on television, one of the few shows (along with The Andy Griffith Show and Seinfeld) to end its show as such.

As mentioned earlier, when Lucille Ball was pregnant with Desi Arnaz Jr., the pregnancy was written into the shows. This was not the first instance in which a pregnancy had been written into a show, as it had been written into the plot of Mary Kay and Johnny, the first American television sitcom, several years earlier. CBS was nervous about using the word "pregnant," so the word "expecting" was used instead. The episode in which Lucy gives birth to Little Ricky, "Lucy Goes to the Hospital," proved to be the highest rated episode of a show aired up to that time.

Aside from the birth of Little Ricky, I Love Lucy would change in other ways over the years. Ricky Ricardo began the show as the bandleader at the Tropicana club. Over time he bought the club and renamed it the Club Babalu. For the second half of the show's sixth and final season, the Ricardos, as well as the Mertzes, moved from New York City to the suburb of Westport, Connecticut.

After six seasons, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had tired of producing a weekly television series. As mentioned above, the show was still the number one show when it left the air. It is for that reason that CBS began reran I Love Lucy from 1959 to 1967. The show itself continued after a fashion as a series of hour-long specials titled  The Ford Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show in its first season and subsequently  Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse Presents The Lucille Ball–Desi Arnaz Show (so named because it aired in the timeslot of Desilu's anthology series, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse). A total of 13 hour-long specials aired from 1957 to 1960. Sadly, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's marriage had been crumbling for some time, and tension between the two rose over time. It was for this reason, as much of anything, that the hour-long specials came to an end.

Of course, this was hardly the end of I Love Lucy. CBS would rerun the show in the daytime starting in 1959 and would continue to do so until 1967. It would then enter syndication where it has remained ever since. The show can be seen on multiple streaming services.

It is perhaps impossible to entirely assess how great the influence of I Love Lucy has been on American television. While it was not the first show to be shot using a multiple-camera setup, the fact that it did so may well have popularized that particular method of shooting television shows. It was the first sitcom to be shot in front of a live audience, something else that has persisted through the years. I Love Lucy certainly popularized the genre of the sitcom. It was the first megahit in the genre and its success would lead to the success of other shows in the genre.

An argument can also be made that it was I Love Lucy that led to CBS dominating Monday nights for literally years. With I Love Lucy on Monday night, CBS was able to build a powerhouse lineup around the show. The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, and December Bride all ranked in the upper reaches of the Nielsen ratings. Even after I Love Lucy had ended, CBS would continue to dominate Monday night with such shows as The Danny Thomas Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Lucy Show, Family Affair, and others. In fact, CBS would dominate Monday nights well into the Seventies.

Of course, what might possibly be the biggest impact that I Love Lucy had on American television could be the fact that Desilu Productions had been created to produce it. Desilu would become one of the most successful television production companies in the history of American television producing such classics as Our Miss Brooks, December Bride, The Untouchables, Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, and Mannix.

I Love Lucy also led to lasting success for Lucille Ball. While Lucille Ball never ranked among the upper echelon of movies stars, she was a popular actress in the Thirties and Forties. That having been said, it was I Love Lucy that turned Lucille Ball into a superstar. Following I Love Lucy, she would have two more successful sitcoms: The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy.

On its seventieth anniversary I Love Lucy is still as popular as ever. It still airs on syndication and can be found on a number of streaming outlets. A colourized version of the show's Christmas episode ("The I Love Lucy Christmas Show") that has been rerun in recent years by CBS consistently receives high ratings. I Love Lucy was one of the most popular shows of the 1950s. It remains one of the most popular shows of all time.


  1. Terence, this fine write-up of yours brings back some very fond memories of what I think is, hands down, one of the most influential situation comedies of all time. I LOVE LUCY(1951-57) is my favorite sit-com of all time. I first remember viewing this wonderful show during its daytime run on CBS-TV(1959-66). This was after the show aired on prime time, in reruns, during the 1957-59 years.

    I remember the lineup of those daytime morning CBS-TV shows of the 1963-64 season. They were reruns of I LOVE LUCY, THE REAL McCOYS(1957-63), and PETE AND GLADYS(1960-62). I sat right in front of our brand new black and white 26 inch RCA cabinet tv. Those were the days of my pre-school years.

    Yessiree Bob, when the "Heart on Satin" credits appeared with Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz with Vivian Vance & William Frawley I knew that I was in for some funny entertainment like no other tv show. That is saying a lot, because there were so many funny entertaining Classic sit coms of that wonderful era.

    When CBS-TV stopped airing I LOVE LUCY, that wasn't the end of my viewing by any means. WREC Channel 3 Memphis, Tennessee, which was a local CBS affiliate station, licensed to air the show for many years afterwards.

    Thank you Lucy, Desi, Viv, and Bill for all the fun over these many years.