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When the subject of comedy in the 1950s comes up, one usually thinks of it as a regular boys’ club. Post-war America rested on traditional values with very few women making strides in the workplace. But one of the most successful people in comedy television was no other than Lucille Ball, well known for starring in her own TV show, I Love Lucy. The show was hugely popular not only at the time but for the next half a century when we now recognize Ball as one of the forerunners of television comedy.
Ball, a New York native, started out as a model and Broadway actress at a young age, eventually moving on to small movie roles. She eloped with Desi Arnaz in 1940, 10 years before they began work on I Love Lucy together. They eventually divorced in 1960 after 20 years of marriage. During her career, Ball was nominated 13 times for an Emmy Award and won the Governor’s Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in 1989. She passed away in 1989 at the age of 77, survived by her husband of 27 years, Gary Morton, and her two children with Arnaz.
Lucille Ball not only commanded the screen; she also had major pull in the studios. As co-owner of Desilu Productions with her husband Arnaz, the couple successfully created the first independent television production company, and put forward their own money to produce the pilot of I Love Lucy. Desilu was responsible for several other successful TV shows of the time, including The Andy Griffith Show (1960)and the original Star Trek.
Together, they pioneered a number of methods that are production norms today including a live studio audience, reruns, and paved the way for syndication. Their influence was also one of the main factors in TV production’s move from New York City to where we now know it, Los Angeles. Not only had Ball made a name for herself on screen, she was paving the way for a number of firsts – upon her divorce from Arnaz, Ball bought out his share of Desilu making her the first woman in television to be head of a production company. Ball was one of the only women working actively behind the scenes in Hollywood as well as onstage, making her influence larger than that of many men in the industry.
I Love Lucy is hilarious, but many are unaware of how revolutionary the show actually was breaking all sorts of TV boundaries. Ball’s character was one of the first women to be visibly pregnant on TV, and even though they couldn’t actually say the word “pregnant”, the episode where she gave birth to Little Ricky was had more viewers around the country than Eisenhower’s inauguration the next night. There was also the fact that Ball’s multiethnic marriage to the Cuban-American Arnaz was not common in the 1950s and the studios thought American audiences would disapprove. However, Ball’s comedic talent overshadowed any scandal that could arise from the union surpassing any behind-the-scenes drama or rumors.
Ball’s legacy is preserved through her ongoing influence over comedy years after her death. I Love Lucy continues to enjoy syndication success on a wide variety of local TV and cable channels, and she successfully paved the way for quirky women in comedy like Mary Tyler Moore, Roseanne Barr, and Zooey Deschanel. She proved through her physical comedy and one-liners that women could be just as funny as their male co-stars, setting the stage for women to be more than just pretty faces on TV screens and in movie theaters. Her success will be celebrated in an upcoming biopic film penned by Aaron Sorkin, where Ball will be portrayed by Academy Award-winning actress Cate Blanchett.
Even 60 years after I Love Lucy‘s heyday, Lucille Ball is still one of the most popular women in comedy, her influence seen everywhere on TV and film.