On the 50th anniversary of her groundbreaking comedy, "I Love Lucy," TV's first and arguably greatest comedienne continues to point the way for today's comedy writers, even as they try to grapple with the events of Sept. 11.
During the tense days of hearings by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee a half century ago, Lucille Ball was branded a communist by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. William Asher, who came on as a director for the show in its second year, says the day the headline came out, the decision was made to cancel that evening's show.
"Those days were very scary, and we were afraid of violence and a variety of things that could happen," he says.
But when they couldn't reach CBS management to confirm the decision, the director and stars decided to go on. The audience was tense, says show editor Dan Cahn, but before the show Desi Arnaz "got out in front of that audience, and he wound up saying, 'The only thing that's red about Lucy is her hair, and we're not sure about that."
The audience broke into laughter, Mr. Cahn says. "The tension was relieved, and they put on a fabulous show," he adds. "We went to the dressing room, and Lucy was in tears. But they were a different kind of tears. It was an emotional release. And it was the beginning of the end of McCarthyism."
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of "I Love Lucy," the cable channel TV Land will launch a week-long Lucy marathon, beginning Monday with an episode that first aired exactly 50 years earlier on Oct. 15, 1951, "Lucy and Ethel Go to a Night Club." The show will open with the original animation used before the heart logo, which was added later for syndication.
Other comedies have run longer than Lucy's five years and 179 episodes, but none have matched its impact. It was the first TV sitcom to be filmed in front of a live audience using three cameras.
The show's writers say much of the innovation came from ignorance and youth, not necessarily vision.
"We were making up TV," says Madelyn Pugh-Davis, the only woman on the original team. "It was so long ago, and we thought you had to write 39 shows for the first season," she says, pointing out that this was true of the radio shows from which the writers had come. "We just wrote all the time; we didn't know any better. We didn't have any reruns or repeats because they said, 'Well, who would look at something if they've seen it before?' "
Male writers on the staff say the presence of a woman was helpful. "If we'd do something," says writer Bob Carroll Jr., "and we wanted to be sure Lucy would be OK, Madelyn would try it out. We would roll her up in a rug or put her in a chair."
Ball was legendary for her fearlessness with new ideas. "There were none that she refused," Carroll says. Ball would sing a sheep to sleep or work with a dog, a girl, or an elephant, Ms. Pugh-Davis says. There was nothing Ball wouldn't try, she says.
"She'd say, 'Is that funny?' And we'd say, 'Yeah, that's going to be real funny.' And she'd say, 'OK.' Never mind looking awful, blacking out her teeth, getting hit with mud. She never minded. And that gave us wonderful license. We could just think of anything because she would do it."
Not only would Ball join in the spirit of the joke, but she would improvise in ways that the writers say would complete a joke. Pugh-Davis recalls the episode in which Lucy works in a pizza shop, tossing pizza rounds in the window. "She got in the window and did it, and a crowd collected," she says. "She threw [the dough] up, and Ricky found out what she was doing," she says. "He came in and she saw him, and she let [the dough] fall on her head so she could hide. And the thing she added was, she made two little holes for her eyes."
Pugh-Davis says this pioneering show found that simple worked fine - unlike today's "reality" shows. "Sixteen contestants, 100 crew members, tons of equipment go to Borneo?" she asks. "All we had to do was [have Lucy] say, 'Ethel, if Ricky finds out I bought this, he'll kill me.' It was that simple. Much easier to do."