Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Television’s Favorite Gingers: Special Birthday Edition!

Guest blogger Jayowolf is back again, with more gingery goodness!


If you listened at all to public radio last week, you likely noticed amongst all the talk from the nation's elitist cultured chattering classes that Lucille Ball's 100th birthday was August 6th. The Queen of both comedy and "B" movies (seriously, she was an early scream queen in the Fay Wray tradition) left an impact on entertainment that we're still feeling today.

It's hard to overstate how significant Ball's career was. Most of modern television only operates the way it does because of her ideas for how to film a television show in a way that would be seen as new and different. I Love Lucy was the first show ever to end its run at the top of the Nielsen ratings. It was also the first show to provide a profitable business model for running a show in syndication, proving that re-runs of a show could still generate money. It was the first one shot on 35mm film, the first to use the now-standard three-camera set up, and the first one ever (yes, EVER) filmed in front of a live studio audience, establishing the gold standard for sit-coms for the next 50 years.

Much is made today about cracks in the glass ceiling and it's frankly kind of shocking to realize how many of those cracks were first made by Ball. She was the first woman to run a studio independently. Even though she initially partnered with her husband, Desi Arnaz, once they divorced she not only bought out his stake in the production company but remained as studio head. Every time a modern female producer steps into her office and contemplates the pile of scripts in front of her, she is really only echoing what Lucille Ball accomplished 50 years earlier.

Also, she's hiding chocolates in her mouth. Because that's what women do.

The irony of watching Ball's signature character, the somewhat hapless and zany housewife Lucy Ricardo, is that most of what the character was guilty of doing the actress behind it was pulling off amazingly. For every joke about how horrible Lucy the character was with money, Lucy the woman was running one of America's most profitable institutions. Desilu Productions is responsible for some of the most popular and profitable sitcoms in TV history, including The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and My Three Sons.

They also didn't stop at sitcoms. Do your television tastes skew more toward the thrilling action adventure hour? Desilu was the producer for Mission: Impossible. For your language requirement in college, did you study Klingon? Thank Desilu; they produced Star Trek when no one else would take the show. Also get help – no one needs to be fluent in Klingon.

Finally, this. Just because.

But because the Network giveth and the Network taketh away, it's also fair to credit Ball with being the first network axman. Under her leadership, Desilu only produced shows that she believed would capture long-term interest from an American audience. Which means the shows that weren't performing up to her standards ran serious risk of being cancelled perhaps quicker than they would be under other production companies. Every "brilliant but cancelled" show that you've complained about/missed/blogged ad nauseum over owes part of its death, at least spiritually, to Ball's keen sense of giving the public what it wanted over taking too many artistic chances.

Ball was fond of saying that you couldn't teach someone comedy; it was something that a person either had or lacked. The jury is still out on whether or not the same is true for business and executive acumen (rumor has it both our current president and the guy who had the job before him both have differing opinions on the subject) but Lucille Ball's success in both arenas certainly suggests that she pretty much always had the upper hand with us, even if her characters made us believe otherwise.

1 comment:

Maggie Cats said...

I remember watching I Love Lucy reruns during the summer up until I went to college...love her! And one of my favorite of her movies is "The Long Trailer." If you haven't seen it, rent it immediately!

I love how we have a separate "gingers" blog tag. Shouldn't all my posts come with that? :oP