Even in the 21st century, there is still a pervasive belief that women aren’t as funny as men, and this unsupported claim is often used to explain the paucity of successful female comics. But while the doors into comedy have been shut tight to women, pioneers like the incredible Lucille Ball have fought hard to create space in this fiercely male-dominated arena.
Lucy was a deeply talented comic, a savvy businesswoman, and an award-winning actress whose observant, well-articulated sense of humor and gift for physical comedy made her both groundbreaking and enormously successful.
It’s a helluva start, being able to recognise what makes you happy.
She was born in Jamestown, New York, in 1911. Her father died of typhoid fever when she was only four years old, so she was raised primarily by her mother and her grandparents. Luckily, they were very supportive of Lucy’s talent from a young age. In fact, when she was 15, her mother went so far as to support her decision to drop out of high school and enroll in a renowned school for theatre and dance in New York City. Unfortunately, things at the school did not go well. In fact, things went so poorly that the owner of the school actually wrote Lucy’s mother a letter to tell her she was wasting her money.
But Lucy was not easily deterred. She fought through rejection after rejection, finally finding work on stage as a chorus girl in 1927. Not long after, she began working as a model, and in the early thirties, she broke into film. She worked steadily through the 30s, performing in 43 movies by the end of the decade. As a result of her prolific work, she was dubbed ‘The Queen of B Movies’.
Lucy worked on a wide range of films with some of the biggest stars of the day, but it wasn’t until she began working in radio that she found her niche. There, she began working on a situational comedy called My Favorite Husband and it was here that she developed the character that would serve as the inspiration for the infamous Lucy Ricardo.
What I am is brave.
After two years of My Favorite Husband, Lucy and her husband Desi Arnaz, developed DesiLu studios and filmed a pilot for a new show called I Love Lucy. In the show, Lucy’s husband was played by her real life Cuban-American husband. Initially, the networks balked. They were resistant to show an interracial marriage on TV. Lucy would not bend, however, and eventually, the network agreed to her conditions. She also insisted the show be filmed with three cameras before a live audience, something that had henceforth never been done. In doing so, she helped develop situational comedies as we know them. The show was a tremendous success, and within six months, it was the highest-rated show on television, becoming the first show in history to be watched in more than 10 million households.
Things hit a snag, however, when Lucy became pregnant during the show’s second season. Despite the show’s popularity, it looked as though it would have to be cancelled. After all, a real-life pregnancy had never been featured on television before, and the studio executives were more than a little resistant to the idea of being the first to do so. Lucy, however, wouldn’t hear of it, and she insisted upon having the storyline written into the show, despite the fact that network executives would not even allow her or the other characters to use the word ‘pregnant’ on air. Lucy and her team worked around this skillfully, using words like ‘expecting’ and ‘enceinte’ (the French word for ‘pregnant’), and the audiences loved it. Lucy managed to time the episode where her character gave birth with her own due date, and, on the same day she gave birth to her son in real life, 44 million people turned in to see the fictional Lucy have her baby.
I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than the things I haven’t done.
I Love Lucy ran for ten years with great success, but her marriage to Desi did not. They decided to divorce, and they cancelled the show as a result. Shortly after, Lucy returned to television with a series of spinoffs that ran for another decade. She also bought Desi’s shares in DesiLu Productions, making her the first woman to run a major television studio. She did so with great success, launching a series of successful franchises including Star Trek and Mission Impossible.
While best known on-screen as a bumbling housewife, in real life, Lucille Ball was a groundbreaking, powerful woman. She fought for the right to work while pregnant, she gained tremendous success in a male-dominated field, and she did a great deal to de-stigmatize interracial relationships. Whether she was stomping grapes in her iconic TV show or breaking barriers in the boardroom, everybody loved Lucy.