Wednesday, February 6, 2019

EMMYS 1953: I Love Lucy (season 2)

The second Emmy given for a comedy series was in a newly named category: Best Situation Comedy. This new television category could arguably be said to have been birthed by one popular sitcom, I Love Lucy.
Image result for i love lucy title screen season 2

I Love Lucy was the creation of real-life married couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Like most early television programming, the series was actually an outgrowth of radio. Ball had a hit radio comedy series, My Favorite Husband, based on a book, which chronicled the adventures of husband and wife Liz and George Cooper, "two people who live together and like it!" When the possibility was floated to transition to television, Lucille Ball instead insisted that she get to do a show with her husband Desi Arnaz. CBS eventually agreed, and with writers from the My Favorite Husband radio show, Lucy and Desi created Desilu Studios and their filmed television comedy went into production. The new creation was I Love Lucy, and it made television history.

I Love Lucy was not broadcast live; it was shot on film and edited for broadcast. But it was filmed in front of a live studio audience, like a play, capturing all of their live reactions. To accommodate the filming while allowing for clear sight lines for the audience, a sophisticated camera and lighting set-up was devised, inventing what we now call the "three-camera sitcom" setup. This same method would be used to make television comedy for over forty years, and is still in use today for some series. Telling the story of the Ricardos, moderately successful Cuban band leader Ricky and his redheaded wife Lucy always scheming to get into the act, along with their friends and landlords the Mertzes, it soon became the number one show on television.

Its second season would also create a number of television firsts, and it's no surprise why it was awarded the Emmy. As filming got underway for this season, Lucille Ball became pregnant with their second child. After shooting a few episodes creatively costuming to hide the growing baby bump, it was decided to write the pregnancy into the show. Though the word "pregnant" was never uttered onscreen, Lucy Ricardo had a pregnancy on TV, leading up to the birth of the Ricardo's son, and future stories about motherhood. It would change the face of television and begin a long history of pregnancy on TV.

The pregnancy also inadvertently created another television milestone. Episodes were not aired strictly in order, and a number of episodes were shot but held over for Lucille Ball's maternity leave. Opening flashback sequences were shot to introduce stories that had been previously shot during her pregnancy and aired after the birth episode. But during those three months before new episodes could air, new sequences were also shot to present rebroadcasts of episodes from the previous season: I Love Lucy had essentially invented the rerun. Not only that, but one could argue the framing device was the godfather of all the clip shows that would come later using the "remember the time when..." device to run previously aired footage.

For all its innovation, it was also just a solidly funny show, generally taking place in either the Ricardo's apartment or at the club where Ricky worked. A number of episodes were reworked radio scripts from My Favorite Husband, allowing more episodes to be made, but also utilizing the television medium uniquely. There are a number of wonderful purely visual comedic moments in the series, even in adapted radio scripts. "The Courtroom" features a wonderful bit of physical comedy with Lucy and Ricky maneuvering a television down the stairs.

Desi never let the show get too stale. The entire set got a remodel in the second season not once but twice! Lucy wins a new furniture set in one episode, refurnishing the entire apartment, and later buys a new living room set. The Ricardos also end up moving apartments at the end of the season. All this variability allowed not only for the show to not become stale, but to reflect real life changes. And there was continuity! As much as episodes were often generally self-contained stories, season two brings a good sense of continuity from episode to episode that lent a reality to the Ricardos' lives and is more important to television than we sometimes realize. Lucy and Desi were doing "multi-episode arcs" in a way 50 years ago!

Speaking of the set, I'd like to comment on the bedroom. I always remember it as one of those classic television shows where a married couple have separate beds. But it's worth pointing out that in the earlier episodes, though they do still have twin beds, they are pushed together. They only get truly separate beds after the mid-season remodel. Then they are briefly together again to accommodate Little Ricky's crib before they move. I just find that interesting.

Also worth pointing out is that the familiar "heart on satin" opening titles known to many of today's viewers was created for syndication reruns and not original. Why was it changed? Because the series was originally proudly sponsered by Phillip Morris cigarettes, and that branding was all over the original title sequence. When you're aware of it, the product placement throughout the show is more obvious too; it isn't just "they smoked back then," they were actively selling cigarettes. So history has tried to expunge that and separate the series from its cancerous sponsorship. Which is a bit of a shame because the original openings were constantly rotating cartoons featuring a little stick figure Lucy and Ricky. The show would announce "Phillip Morris presents the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz show, I Love Lucy!" In later episodes, Desi himself would appear from a curtain to do a quick commercial for Phillip Morris before introducing the show to "tell you why I love Lucy."At one point, there was even a plan to release a theatrical film, stitching together three episodes of the first season, with a new framing device of an audience attending a taping. The film was never released (though it eventually found its way to DVD), but even that film's opening titles featured the then-iconic cartoon characters. In recent years, some of the cartoon bits for commercial breaks were restored to the series for DVD and broadcasts. However, any and all Phillip Morris-branded content has remained excised, though available to view separately.

Image result for i love lucy philip morris

One of my favorite moments is when Ricky attempts to read a book and has trouble with the varying English pronunciations of words that seem to be spelled the same (bough, through, rough). It's a hilarious bit, and this series was so good about presenting ethnic humor but in a good-natured way. Ricky would comment on America, Lucy would gently rib his accent, but none of it was mean-spirited. We may overlook how important the depiction of cross-cultural love and understand was on the show, and what a statement it was that the lovable Lucy had a Cuban husband who would fall into Spanish when exasperated and that they had a good marriage. Of course, it still doesn't hold to some modern standards of cultural sensitivity ("The Indian Show", for example, would never be made today).

The musical element should also not be overlooked. Similar to The Red Skelton Show, I Love Lucy's format allowed for some musical performances. And why not? Ricky was a bandleader, after all. Sometimes the comedy gives way for music. But more often than not, the musical performance also lends itself to Lucy's shenanigans. The second season is notable for featuring the only performance of the lyrics to the "I Love Lucy" theme song. It was even released as the B-side of a record of Desi's song "There's a Brand New Baby at Our House", which on the show was written by Ricky for the Ricardo's son, but actually was written by Desi for the birth of their first child, Lucie.

Apart from the groundbreaking pregnancy storyline, the second season also features one of the most iconic sequences of television comedy, Lucy and Ethel working in a chocolate factory, unable to keep up with the conveyor belt. This moment from the episode "Job Switching" is so iconic now that it has been parodied, ripped off, and recycled in many subsequent series. And that's the case with so much of I Love Lucy. Knowing how far we've come, it's easy to forget that so many of the things done on this show were innovations. Let's remember to give it the credit it deserves. If you've seen a gag a thousand times now, you hadn't back then. Thankfully, and maybe not surprisingly, I Love Lucy has stood the test of time as one of the most beloved comedy series of all time.

FAVORITE EPISODES: Job Switching, The Operetta, Lucy is Enceinte, Lucy Hires an English Tutor, Lucy Goes to the Hospital, Lucy's Last Birthday, Lucy Wants New Furniture

UP NEXT: I Love Lucy (again!)

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