Remembering 'I Love Lucy' on Its 50th Anniversary
By Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll Jr.
Ms. Davis and Mr. Carroll are the co-creators of ‘I Love Lucy’ and co-wrote all 180 episodes. The also wrote for ‘The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour,’ ‘The Lucy Show,’ ‘Here's Lucy’ and ‘Life With Lucy,’ and produced the series ‘Alice’ and ‘Private Benjamin.’
(Oct. 1, 2001) This month it will be 50 years since "I Love Lucy" appeared on television. It seems only a short while ago that we were writing our very first TV series and wondering if making candy would be a funny occupation for Lucy Ricardo. They tell us that "I Love Lucy" is playing in 78 countries and has been seen by over a billion viewers. That's sure a lot more than those 14 people in 1951 who used to stand outside and watch the show on that new gadget in the appliance store window.
John Wells, president of the Writers Guild, recently said that the authors of "I Love Lucy" have made more people laugh than anyone since Shakespeare. Lucky for the world that we wrote "Lucy" instead of "Romeo and Juliet." Romeo would have been the one on the balcony so Juliet could do the physical comedy of climbing up to join him, and, of course, she would slip and fall. Then when Romeo said, "Juliet, Juliet, wherefore art thou Juliet?" she would have answered "I'm down here in the vines, and I think I broke my bodice!"
To be absolutely candid, we almost didn't write the series. We met Lucille Ball when we were writing her radio show, "My Favorite Husband," on CBS. Jess Oppenheimer was the head writer-producer. When the show went off after two and a half seasons, CBS suggested that Lucy go into that new medium, television. She told them she was interested but wanted the same three writers as her radio show, and they said OK. She then told them she wanted Desi Arnaz to play her husband, and they said, "Not OK." Lucy dug in her heels, and as anyone who ever worked with Lucille Ball knows, she made "digging in her heels" into an art form. So CBS finally gave in and we did the pilot show, live, with three TV cameras, in front of an audience.
The two of us then went to Europe for a vacation. Four weeks later, we picked up our mail at American Express in Paris (that was before the days of e-mail), and there was a cable from our agent telling us that the pilot had been sold and was going on as a series on Monday nights between "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts" and "The Goldbergs." He said Jess wanted us to come home right away and start writing scripts. We were having a wonderful time in Paris, and, for one giddy moment, we thought we might pretend we didn't get the cable. After all, who knew if the show would be a hit or anything? However, we were both running out of money, and they were offering us $800 a script for the team, so we flew back home and went to work. One of our better career moves.
Meanwhile, a little TV history was being made. Desi was battling with CBS, who wanted the show done live in New York because the East Coast had the biggest audience, with a kinescope going to the rest of the country. Lucy and Desi didn't want to move to New York, so he came up with a three-camera film system-in front of an audience. It sounds old-hat now, because everyone has been doing it that way for 50 years, but then it was a new concept. CBS didn't want to do it, since putting the show on film would cost more, so Lucy and Desi took a cut in salary-and for that they wanted to retain ownership of the film negatives. CBS agreed, because as one of the executives remarked, "What can they do with the negatives? Who wants to see a TV show if they've already seen it before?"
When we began to write the scripts, it hadn't been decided where the show would be filmed, so the sets weren't built yet. Also, the neighbors hadn't been cast. So we would say to each other, "The Mertzes, whoever they are, come in the door, wherever it is, and sit on the couch, if there is one, and we hope Desi can play comedy." Finally, it was all sorted out, and Ethel and Fred Mertz were played by the brilliant Vivian Vance and the wonderful, crotchety Bill Frawley. And, yes, Desi could play comedy very well, and there was a couch. The first season, the two of us, with Jess, wrote 40 scripts. We aired 35 and saved five for the second season. In the fifth year, Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf joined the writing staff, and the five of us wrote 30 shows a season.
The huge popularity of "I Love Lucy," while very gratifying, has always astounded us. People tell us they watch the shows over and over. There is an "I Love Lucy" convention every summer in Burbank, Calif., attended by over a thousand fans who know all sorts of trivia. One young man at the convention knew all the words and gestures for the "Vitameatavegemin" routine. Others knew the lyrics to "The Pleasant Peasant," the operetta Lucy wrote. They quote our gag lines to us and know all the plots. They even point out goofs we made, like giving Ethel Mertz three different middle names and having two different addresses for the Ricardos. People have told us that their parents learned English from watching "Lucy" reruns, although we're not sure what kind of English they learned from a man who lives in a "parmen" and keeps asking his "ret-hetted" wife to `"splain."
Some of the nicest compliments come from fans who tell us how, when they are blue, they look at old "I Love Lucy" shows and it makes them laugh and forget their troubles. Others have said when they have been in the hospital, watching "Lucy" makes them feel better. There is a study, Rx Laughter, being done at UCLA where they run comedy shows for seriously ill children to see if laughter can be a healing process. We are very proud that one of the ones that makes them laugh the most is "I Love Lucy."
So, why has it lasted 50 years? Well, maybe people relate to it. It could happen to them (exaggerated, of course). We always tried to do universal themes, like selling your old washing machine to your best friends and it immediately breaks down. Or visiting Hollywood and wanting to get an autograph of a famous star. Or maybe it is, like Desi once said when someone asked him why the show was so incredibly popular and had lasted so long, "Well, parner, the credit should be divided among a lot of people. Ninety percent should go to Lucy and the rest of us can split the other 10 percent."