Dr. Mike ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
With two recent movies out about their careers, the fictionalized Being the Ricardos (2021) and the documentary Lucy and Desi (2021), Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are receiving a long overdue retrospective. Both films deal with their most famous show, I Love Lucy, and such issues as the couple’s battle with the rabid witch hunt that was House Un-American Activities Committee, the challenges they faced as an interracial couple, and the inevitable demise.
Amidst all the necessary coverage of the drama in their lives, there is also a much-needed lauding of the powerhouse couple’s impact on the emerging television business. As the creators behind Desilu Productions, Ball and Arnaz ran the most powerful independent television studio in the business. That studio gave us shows like Mission Impossible, Mannix, and, oh, a little thing called Star Trek. Additionally, they had production deals with comedian and producer Danny Thomas, his show and another little thing called The Andy Griffith Show filmed on the Desilu lot.
The day-to-day challenges of running that studio would end Lucy and Desi’s marriage (but not their friendship) and leave Lucy as the most powerful woman in show business.
Watching those films, I was struck by how powerfully America loved Lucy when my wife asked about two later programs, The Lucy Show (1962-1968) and Here’s Lucy (1968-1974). She didn’t really remember watching either of those shows in reruns when she was little. I had watched them, but I didn’t have much to say. I remembered a few gags from The Lucy Show, including an absolutely brilliant bit of physical comedy in a flooding shower with Vivian Vance (you can find that online). To me, The Lucy Show was okay. And I never had much use for Here’s Lucy.
So, I thought about the next obvious question—why did I watch those? The Lucy Show was over by the time I was born and Here’s Lucy ended in 1974. They were in re-runs when I was a kid and well that’s just what you did in the days before binge viewing and streaming. You watched afternoon reruns of older shows.
Still, I don’t remember anyone getting particularly excited about those reruns. We all talked about old I Love Lucy episodes. The other shows were in a kind of void. I got to wondering how the programs that I thought of as okay-to-mediocre survived in their original days.
Quite well, it turned out.
Thanks to the miracle of the internet, you can summon up any prime-time schedule. I found myself once again missing the good old days of head-to-head three network competitions on any given night. Not only did those shows survive, they thrived. The Lucy Show was in the top ten during its entire run. Here’s Lucy only dipped out of the top ten in its last three seasons, but still stayed up there in the ratings.
That kind of success cannot be seen as coasting on laurels. American loved I Love Lucy, but not so much that it just put up with Lucy for another 12 years of shows. No, these other shows were hits, even if I cannot see exactly why.
And perhaps that’s the greatest testament to Lucy’s appeal. I Love Lucy started in 1951 and America stayed in love with her for three more decades.