Why Lucille Ball Remains Relevant

ilovelucybirthOn one of my favorite topics, the Huffington Post’s Lily Karlin blogged last year about “Why Lucille Ball Was More Revolutionary Than You Think.” She noted,While most know Ball paved the way for future women in comedy, they may not understand the exact magnitude of her influence on Hollywood. More than 60 years after I Love Lucy began, the ramifications of Ball’s groundbreaking strides are still hugely present in the television industry.” Specifically, Karlin made five excellent points (I combined two of them into the second one, below):

1. I Love Lucy broke barriers with its depiction of pregnancy. Though the show was beaten by a 15-minute kinescoped sitcom, Johnnie and Mary, which was almost too discreet in alluding to the star couple’s new infant, I Love Lucy, Karlin wrote, broke barriers simply because the show was such a huge hit and its cast and production company were the best on TV. The episode “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” had more of a legacy influence, on the public, on culture and on TV. That episode, in fact, drew more than 70 percent of the audience at the time, and thanks to countless reruns and it’s appearance on DVD, it is speculated that the episode might be the most-watched TV episode of all time. (Pic at top left shows the main cast in that classic episode — Vivian Vance, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and William Frawley — doing what they did best: making us laugh.)

2. Lucille Ball was not only a TV star: She had major power behind the scenes. She was vice president of powerhouse studio Desilu, and after she and Desi Arnaz divorced, she bought his shares, and took the title of president, becoming the first female studio head in Hollywood.

3. Ethel and Lucy’s female friendship was way ahead of its time. On I Love Lucy, Karlin wrote, “Ethel and Lucy were constantly getting up to their own adventures, without falling into Hollywood’s ugliest tropes about women friend pairs.” And Rookie magazine noted: “Even though it was sometimes Lucy and Ethel versus the world (or just Ricky and Fred), they always cooperated with each other. They were around the same age, from similar economic backgrounds, and were both happily married.” Their relationship existed on an essentially even playing field, so stereotypical female competitiveness plots — over men or status — never entered the picture. Their relationship was a source of constant mutual support.

4. Lucille Ball had to fight the network to portray Lucy and Ricky’s “multiethnic”* marriage. The show’s sponsor (Philip Morris cigarettes) and network (CBS, duh!) were against Arnaz playing the role on TV that he played in real life. Ball refused to do the show without him. Ball won. Actually, everybody won. Especially us.

Finally, if I might point this out, as unnecessary as it seems,  I Love Lucy is, at its core, just plain laugh-out-loud funny. It remains so after 65 years and countless reruns. It is the seminal sitcom, the progenitor of all that followed. The show continues to be a perennial ratings favorite wherever it’s run (in countless countries and languages) because it speaks the universal truth of laughter. Laughter is the best medicine. We need it more than ever to cope with our ever-stressful lives. Lucy and company keep delivering. That’s why we still watch.

*Note: The following clarification ran with Karlin’s blog: “A previous version of this article referred to Ball and Arnaz’s relationship as interracial. More accurately their relationship is multiethnic, inasmuch as Hispanic is not a racial category, according to the U.S. Census.

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Welcome Back to Sitcomboy.com!

Okay, well, it’s technically not sitcomboy.com (though I still own the domain; I couldn’t give it up). My WordPress username is Sitcomboydotcom. But this blog’s purpose is the same: to celebrate the Lucyverse, as I call it, the career and life of legendary comedian and American icon, Lucille Ball.

MAKsLucyBooks

She has a face that’s been seen by more people, more times, than any other human face in history. I’ve loved Lucy since I started watching reruns of I Love Lucy in the early 1960s, and was captivated by the raucous, hilarious slapstick, and even more so by the heartwarming friendship between neighbors Lucy Ricardo (Ball) and Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance).

My love of all things Lucy continued into adulthood, and peaked in 2001, when, at the urging of my best friend, Craig, I wrote and self-published a book called Lucy A to Z: The Lucille Ball Encyclopedia. Craig and I were working at a dot-com startup that hadn’t started up for six months. After complaining about being bored one too many times, he snatched a book from his cubicle and handed it to me. It was an encyclopedia about Marilyn Monroe.

“What do I want with this?” I asked.

“If  you’re so bored,” he said crisply,  “then why don’t you write a Lucille Ball encyclopedia? I know you can do it. God knows you talk about her all the time. Turn the obsession into something profitable!”

Fortunately for me, I took his words to heart. Craig was also a TV/movie fanatic, and his own obsession was the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. He’d been visiting the New York Library for the Performing Arts (at the edges of the theater district, before it moved to its current home in Lincoln Center) doing research for several books about Dark Shadows and the actors who starred in it. Many of them were his friends.

“Come along with me next time. You’ll see what they have about Lucy and company.” I did, and when I viewed the dozen or so files on Lucy, all spotlighting different decades of her career, I was hooked. Many of the newspaper clips contained information that was new to me. If, as a huge fan, I wasn’t aware of all this, it was likely a lot of other Lucy fans were unaware, too.

LAZ1coverThe result was a  book, under 160 pages and with no pictures, but for which I created a cover, a portrait of Lucy (left), using Photoshop. I had done some research and chosen iUniverse to publish it. The cost was (then) around $300. Like many writers, I had hundreds of polite (and many Xeroxed) rejection slips for book proposals. This time, I was doing it by myself.

I sent a copy to Lucie Arnaz, Lucy’s daughter. She responded with a lovely letter saying it had been a “godsend,” as she and her brother, Desi Arnaz Jr., were preparing for the “I Love Lucy 50th Anniversary Special,” which would air in October 2001, and they had used the alphabetical entries to help organize the contents of the show. Needless to say I was thrilled. I was even more thrilled when my book cover showed up on the special itself, in a segment about the continuing popularity of Lucy literature and I Love Lucy collectibles.

And what thrilled me further was seeing the book rise on the Amazon sales charts to 1,000 (of all books on the site!) after the special aired. A month or so later, I was contacted by the executive director of The Lucy-Desi Museum in Ball’s hometown, Jamestown, NY. Would I like to appear at the upcoming Lucy Fest in May, and take part in an author’s panel? Would I??!!

LAZ4thEdCoverThe book was a great success, especially in the world of on-demand publishing. And because it was on-demand, I returned to the Performing Arts Library for more research, and republished the book in two more editions, each longer than the previous one. Finally, iUniverse designated it a STAR book (one of the company’s best sellers) and, as a result, in 2008, the company underwrote a fourth edition (left), with a gorgeous, rare cover photo by Harry Warnecke circa 1945, and including 50 little-seen photographs, many from my own collection. The fourth edition filled an exhaustive 450-plus pages, including a 12-page index.

Lucy A to Z returns to the top of several Amazon best-seller lists — Pop Culture Reference books, for example — for a month or two every holiday season. I published four more books about my favorite redhead (well, I am obsessed!); they’re pictured at the top, and you can find all of them on Amazon. I converted sitcomboy.com to a Facebook page, but found I missed my old website (though not the HTML coding!). I thought this blog would be a good way to share many of my website posts. Look for them here in the near future.

In the meantime, have a wonderful, happy and joyous New Year, and don’t forget to laugh; laughter is, after all, the best medicine for our ills. I can’t think of a better way to laugh than by watching Lucy, Ricky (Desi Arnaz), Ethel and Fred (William Frawley) do their thing. After all, we’ve been watching them without interruption for more than 64 years. Why stop now?