The Genius of I Love Lucy and the Timeless Curiosity About the Intense True Story Behind It

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz made for one of the all-time great onscreen couples, but their marriage was already in trouble by the time I Love Lucy premiered on Oct. 15, 1951.

By Natalie Finn Oct 15, 2021 10:00 AMTags
Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, I Love LucyGetty Images

Disclaimer: I'm a bit of an I Love Lucy fanatic.

Not in the form of memorabilia all over the house or anything (my ephemera is limited to a DVD box set and one collector's plate commemorating the iconic "It's so tasty too!" scene from "Lucy Does a Television Commercial," a.k.a. the Vitameatavegamin episode), but in the way that hardly a day goes by in which a line from the show doesn't pop into my head as an appropriate response to a real-life scenario. 

I mostly confine the constant references to chats with my mom, the one who introduced me to I Love Lucy at some point in my early childhood, but more than a few friends have heard me say "that reminds me of this Lucy episode" over the years. I can go months without watching, but its relevance to my life never wanes.

Not that super-fandom is niche in any way when it comes to the groundbreaking CBS sitcom that premiered on Oct. 15, 1951, ran for six seasons and continues to live forever in repeats. It's one of the best-ever situation comedies, having originated so many of the situations that other comedies went on to milk laughs from in its wake. And my love is probably pretty muted compared to those who do collect Lucy paraphernalia and go to conventions or join Facebook groups (such as the one devoted to releasing more episodes of the black and white series in color, as CBS has taken to doing two at a time around the holidays). 

But I will celebrate the show's genius at every opportunity. And that, for me, only begins with the incomparable titular redhead.

Stars Playing Real People

The premise—New York housewife makes endless hilarious mischief for her Cuban bandleader husband—was brought to life by real-life couple Lucille Ball (winner of two acting Emmys) and Desi Arnaz (never even nominated, a crime) in 180 endlessly clever and topical yet timeless episodes courtesy of head writers Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll Jr., who while sticking to a certain formula still had room for crafty references to cultural touchstones such as First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, the Kinsey Report and the banned-in-Boston romance novel Forever Amber.

Ball had previously worked with the same writing trio on the radio comedy My Favorite Husband—which CBS wanted to make into a television show, and Ball refused to do it without Arnaz as her leading man. The risk-averse network feared viewers weren't ready for a mixed-ethnicity couple in prime time, so the couple took their chemistry on tour to prove they'd be a hit, Arnaz singing and Ball joining him for comedic sketches, many of which made it into the series.

Within six months of the show's premiere, more than 11 million households were tuning in each week, back when only about 15 million owned TV sets.

I Love Lucy has never been off the dial since. But though her talent and overall fearlessness made the whole thing possible, the show didn't get its staying power from Ball alone.

Getty Images

Rather, it's the sum of so many parts: Lucy Ricardo's antics, yes, but also the invariably pitch-perfect performances by her supporting cast, the delightfully perfect timing of every aside, one-liner and look thrown back at her from Arnaz as Ricky and William Frawley and Vivian Vance as the Ricardos' landlords and best friends, Fred and Ethel Mertz. (Vance won an Emmy for supporting actress in 1954, Frawley was nominated twice and the writers were also nominated twice, inexplicably losing both times to scribes from shows you've never heard of.)

This is the part where I could just start listing moments, but one I always come back to is Ricky's reaction to Lucy accidentally lighting her fake nose on fire in front of William Holden. That's the gag, one of the whole series' most memorable scenes, but Ricky's wide-eyed disbelief at what he's witnessing is also one of the all-time great facial expressions. (Despite being snubbed for acting, as the show's executive producer Arnaz did share two Best Comedy Series Emmy wins with Oppenheimer.)


It was also Arnaz's idea to have an unheard-of three cameras capturing the action, using cinematic 35 mm film to avoid the grainy quality of most television at the time. CBS didn't want to foot that high bill, so Arnaz and Ball's Desliu Productions agreed to cover the cost—and in exchange, the show lucratively belonged to them, not the network.

And unlike how it so often sounds on the shows that still tape in front of people today, the laughter emanating from Lucy's live studio audience never sounded forced, the reactions ranging from a muffled "uh-oh" when Lucy gets one of her ideas to howls of delights.

Even as the show wound down in 1957 with the Ricardos having left 623 East 68th St. in NYC for the Connecticut suburbs, they never stopped producing stand-out hilarious moments. Their longest-ever audience laugh came all the way in episode 173 when Lucy, having stuffed a few dozen eggs down her blouse to secretly transport them out to the henhouse (she has her reasons), can't come up with a good excuse after Ricky insists that they practice their tango for an upcoming benefit performance. Inevitably, he spins her away from him, and then spins her back toward him, and... smack.

Sixty-five uninterrupted seconds of laughter ensued.


Suffice it to say, I Love Lucy is hardly a blueprint for modern marriage. There have been times in my life when I've been less patient with the archaic domestic dynamic, and bummed out by Lucy's thwarted dreams (it's hard to image anyone actually being entertained by Ricky's nightclub shows without his wife crashing them) and Fred's abject cheapness (why does Ricky have to pay for everything the Ricardos and Mertzes do together?). Ricky puts Lucy over his knee and spanks her a couple of times, and she's often telling Ethel she's worried about what he might do when he finds out about [insert her latest scheme], though we all know her "hot-blooded Cuban" husband is all bilingual talk.

There's also a season two episode in which Fred and Ethel are convinced that Ricky gave Lucy a black eye (he tossed a book her way that she wasn't ready to catch). But the only help on offer is for Lucy to go downstairs and stay with the Mertzes for the night (she doesn't, and Ethel at first gets mad that her friend won't confide in her) and Fred advises Ricky that he should send his wife some nice apology flowers the next day. "You don't think I would actually hit Lucy, do you?" Ricky asks, and Fred's response indicates that whether his pal did or didn't punch his wife is by then beside the point.

But it's no surprise that certain plot devices aged poorly. In the spirit of not needing to go down the never-ending rabbit hole of old stuff we treasure that wouldn't become the basis for new content today, here's a reminder that this is a 70-year-old sitcom. What aged flawlessly, however, is that Lucy remains the driver of all the action, the shining star of the show.

CBS via Getty Images

Which brings us back to Lucy and Ricky, known for being one of the few golden-age TV couples to actually appear really into each other (they even got to have their twin beds pushed together for a few seasons, before Lucy won new furniture and the bedroom set separated them), and there is many a moment where Ricky's reaction face is one of bemused but loving acknowledgment of his wife's wacky ways, followed by a big kiss.

"I Love Lucy was never just a title," Arnaz confirmed in his 1976 memoir, A Book.

But while it's heartwarming to think of the real-life marriage (and Ball's second pregnancy, written in to usher in the arrival of Little Ricky) behind the scenes, it can get a bit heartbreaking if you think too much.

Because by the time I Love Lucy premiered in 1951, Arnaz and Ball had been married for almost 11 years, having eloped not long after falling in love on the set of 1940's Too Many Girls, and most of those years had been rocky. The couple spent months apart at a time while Arnaz toured with his band and Ball was working in Hollywood and, fueled by Arnaz's heavy drinking and toxic jealousy on both sides, she first filed for divorce in 1944. 

Celebrity Couples Who Found Love on Set

They reconciled, too crazy about each other to split up for good, and both still wanting to have a family. They even retook their vows in a Catholic church in 1949, Ball at one point intending to convert to her husband's religion before ultimately deciding it hadn't done a whole lot for him so why bother. Then the plan for I Love Lucy got underway and she was four months pregnant when CBS gave the project the green light.

After 10 years of trying to work together and become parents, it was all happening at once. "Now our dearest goals were being realized much too fast," Ball wrote in her posthumously published memoir, Love, Lucy. "We suddenly felt unprepared for either and began to have second thoughts."

Daughter Lucie Arnaz was born three months before I Love Lucy premiered, son Desi Arnaz Jr. arrived in 1953 and they had the biggest shows in the world, making for one of the happier stretches of time in their marriage.

Getty Images

But Arnaz was a chronic cheater—a 1955 cover of the tabloid Confidential wondered "Does Desi Really Love Lucy?"—and their marriage ended in 1960 due to all sorts of irreconcilable differences.

"I realized we never really liked each other," Ball wrote in Love, Lucy. "We had a great attraction going for each other in the beginning but we didn't approve of each other."

The 13th and final episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, hour-long plots that still featured Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel, plus a different celebrity guest star every week, ended with one of those they're-still-hot-for-each-other moments, despite Arnaz and Ball's divorce being in the works.

"When the scene arrived and the cameras closed in for that final embrace, we just looked at each other," Ball remembered in her book, "and then Desi kissed me and we both cried. It marked the end of so many things."

Arnaz wrote in A Book, "The irony of it all is how our undreamed-of success, fame, and fortune turned it all to hell."

But more than half a century later, what they created together endures, boosted by fans old and new who can crank up I Love Lucy whenever they want on Paramount+ or Hulu. And while the easily accessible laughs would be enough, the intense behind-the-scenes story is getting fresh eyes as well.

Happy I Love Lucy Day! 9 GIFs That Prove How Timeless This Show Will Always Be

It's no secret that not all was rosy during the making of I Love Lucy, despite the many happy times, the smashing financial success and the couple's very real love for each other. And yet, even with all the books and documentary specials laying it out for us, it's still hard to actually wrap one's mind around the fact that this brilliant show was going on amid so much turbulence. (Arnaz and Ball's off-camera issues aside, Vivian Vance and William Frawley, who kept his hands in his pockets so often to mask his alcohol-withdrawal tremors, also didn't get along.) 

Enter Aaron Sorkin. He has written and directed Being the Ricardos, with Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem playing Ball and Arnaz during a pivotal week of production of I Love Lucy. I really have no idea what to expect, other than verbosity and impeccable set design, but if anyone was going to put words in these iconic characters' mouths, it may as well be the creator of The West Wing.

"[I'm used to] people making assumptions about what it is and having an opinion about what it is not only before they've seen it, before we've even made it!" Sorkin told Entertainment Tonight back in February before cameras started rolling. "I remember with The Social Network, when it got out there that David Fincher and I were going to be doing this movie which people were calling 'The Facebook Movie,' they assumed that it was going to be about, like, Bradley Cooper friending Drew Barrymore and the two of them falling in love. And they thought, 'This thing is going to be terrible!' You can leverage those expectations by then giving people something that's a lot better than what they thought that they were going to get."

Backgrid/Getty Images

Lucie Arnaz visited the set and, while she admitted to Palm Springs Life that there are scenes she wishes were not in the film because they simply "weren't accurate," overall, she said, "I think [Sorkin] treated my mother and my father really well. I think they are accurate composites of these people. And what I've seen of it... I haven't seen any of the rushes, but I was on the set for just two days. What I saw was extraordinarily classy and first rate. The people that he has cast are just really great performers." Kidman, she added, "did a spectacular job."

But just add Sorkin to the list of those still trying to get a handle on the real-life dynamic between Ball and Arnaz. With Ron Howard producing, Amy Poehler is also directing a documentary about the couple, for which Lucie gave them unprecedented access to the family archives. "I think it's going to be amazing," the keeper of the Lucy legacy said. "From what I've heard so far, and what I've seen them do, they're really pulling out every stop. They are digging deeper than anybody I've ever known."

Asked what she thought her parents might think about people getting so much joy from I Love Lucy 70 years after its debut, Lucie replied, "Wouldn't they just be so proud? I'm sure they are. I mean, I know they know. And I'm sure that they've helped all of these other things come to fruition. I'm sure of that. The energy still exists, and they're a part of it. I know it. And when things don't happen right, I know they're a part of that too."