Lucille Ball, without question the undisputed sassy and silly redheaded queen of comedy, who helped create and crystallize (with then-husband Desi Arnaz) one of the most iconic situation comedies of all time in I Love Lucy, passed away 25 years ago today, April 26, 1989.
Almost a walking A to Z of comedic styles, there really wasn’t much Lucille Ball couldn’t do or accomplish in her craft. From slapstick, to one-liners, double takes to whip-smart timing, she had conquered it all, mastered it to such a degree that was in essence jaw dropping and the effortless ease in which she manifested it on I Love Lucy (along with a stellar supporting cast in Arnaz, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley) was absolutely spellbinding.
For what unconsciously always seemed like a man’s game that is comedy, with the exceptions of people like Mae West and Carole Lombard, Lucille Ball took that game and created her own playing field. Like in many ways English comedian-of-all-trades Benny Hill did after her, Ball could change like a comedic chameleon, and scores of generations have laughed soundly at Ball’s antics on I Love Lucy, many completely and literally devouring every episode multiple times, especially in America, where the show has seemingly run in reruns forever, as long as the television generation from its original airings on CBS-TV in the 1950s and every generation afterwards can remember.
In a way, it’s almost impossible to think of a television or even cable landscape anywhere in the United States, from the biggest affiliates to the smallest, that hasn’t or doesn’t run I Love Lucy daily, and sometimes, even multiple times daily. Other than say the extremely profitable and consistent audiences that made Star Trek, Gilligan’s Island, and even opposite ends of the age spectrum musical fare like The Lawrence Welk Show and Soul Train massive successes in their syndicated runs, they all still don’t hold the kind of weight I Love Lucy has and continues to have, even Star Trek. Like “Trekkies,” I Love Lucy fans are also zealously passionate ones, and like Star Trek, there is also an immense amount of merchandise and a sub-culture which exists for the show. It would not be uncommon to see fans standing side by side at any given Comic-Con, one wearing a Spock t-shirt and the other wearing an I Love Lucy t-shirt, and that’s not to suggest anything other than to report that the cult is still strong for I Love Lucy and its surrounding sphere. The people, especially women, are still empowered by the one-two punch of Lucille Ball’s craft and the extremely elegant, intelligent and classy demeanor the actress portrayed off-camera.
It’s easy to understand why all this success has been like an engine running constant. Lucille Ball had a gift for comedy, better yet, a full understanding of it. There wasn’t a pigeonholed kind of approach to it that so many contemporary artists seem to have, where most of them run with one style and one genre, and drive that style into the ground (see Apatow, Rogen, SNL writers, etc). When contemporary and even older audiences regale at the craft of Lucille Ball on screen, there’s something so strongly awe-inspiring about it, that makes one heartily laugh, but also keeps one in constant wonderment and amazement too.
Eschewing blue humor that is a large component of a lot of female comedians today, Ball focused more on vividly making the I Love Lucy scripts, which ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, sometimes even in just one episode, come alive with comic electricity, antenna raised on high, constantly refining and honing the jokes and set pieces of the program. And there were so many memorable ones, a quick list of them — which in a way could also play out on “Top Sitcom Scenes of All Time” lists — would be Ball as Lucy Ricardo getting slowly more and more inebriated from hawking Vitameatavegamin on a TV commercial, a pick-me-up tonic that unbeknownst to Lucy has alcohol as part of its overall content; or her and her partner-in-crime neighbor Ethel Mertz (played by the wonderfully straight woman who could also do physical comedy Vivian Vance) on an assembly line dealing with the out of control candy, which comes lightning fast on a conveyor belt to much hilarity; or Lucy scrapping with a local Italian woman in a huge vat of grapes (Lucy somehow got involved in organic wine making on a trip to Italy, squashing grapes barefoot and all); or going toe-to-toe as good as Groucho Marx did in Duck Soup with the homage to that film’s “mirror sequence” with Harpo Marx (during the sequence of shows where the cast was in Hollywood, which also spawned other memorable episodes with William Holden and John Wayne playing themselves); and countless more. To say that I Love Lucy and the comedy that Lucille Ball demonstrated in it was funny is an understatement of the highest order.
In many ways, what I Love Lucy is, was, and remains is like a primer for the entire oeuvre of comedy. That’s not as farfetched as one might think. Just watch Lucille Ball at work, with her facial expressions, the way her voice could drop or get loud or sad or squeaky at a moment’s notice, the way she used her body like a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, or the fact that nothing was too silly for her, she had no problem pretty much jumping out of the plane without the parachute and forge into scenes with a gung-ho anything goes and anything can happen style. And it usually did. I Love Lucy and the warmth of the characterization of Lucy Ricardo as portrayed by Lucille Ball still runs high and has no sign of letting up. It’s a true historical marker in the entire history of television and in a way, the entire entertainment medium in itself.
So today, 25 years after Ball has passed, but in a way never, ever passed from our consciousness, is a celebration day of the highest honor. It’ll be easy to celebrate, again, just pop on your TV set and more than likely, an episode of I Love Lucy isn’t that far away. Here’s to the wonderful, legendary (she’s a woman who almost invented both of those adjectives) heavyweight champion of the comedic world, the once-in-a-millennium, Lucille Ball.