by Karl J. Paloucek
Lucille Ball enjoyed one of the most incredible show business careers of anyone in the 20th century. For more than six decades, she entertained, from her early days as a “Ziegfeld Girl” in New York to her Hollywood film career and, of course, her pioneering work both in front of the camera and behind the scenes for television. But she will forever be known, to most of us, as simply Lucy — the goofball redhead who got herself, her husband Ricky (played by real-life husband Desi Arnaz) and their two landlord friends, Fred and Ethel, into so many jams in one of the most revolutionary sitcoms ever to hit television.
This weekend, Hallmark Channel will celebrate the legacy of Lucy with a 48-hour marathon of classic I Love Lucy episodes beginning Saturday at 6am and running through until 6am Monday morning. One of the most enduring sitcoms of all time, I Love Lucy remains a staple of nostalgia television and continues to exert a towering influence over the sitcom medium it helped to shape.
Since I Love Lucy‘s time on the air, only a handful of sitcoms can claim to have had anything close to the sort of impact on television and its audiences that I Love Lucy has had, but there have been a few, both in Lucy’s time and in the decades since:
Your Show of Shows (1950-1954)
Woefully, Sid Caesar’s baby doesn’t get the airplay that Lucy does, but audiences too young to remember Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca and the others need only consult the talent pool among the writers and players of this revered production — which included Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and Neil Simon — to have a hint at what they’ve been missing all these years.
The Honeymooners (1953-1956)
It may look dated, but people still tune in to see reruns of Ralph and Alice sparring away in the kitchen as Ed and Trixie wander in and out to add fuel to the proceedings. Compared to the slick sets and productions of today, it looks rough around the edges, but when you remember that this series was done live each week, the inherent flubs and other mistakes that crop up become part of the series’ continued ringing vitality. Audrey Meadows famously was the only one of the principal cast to ink a deal for rerun broadcast residuals, which made her a pioneer in her own right.
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966)
The quintessential television sitcom of the ’60s, and arguably the only one to vie as a contender against Lucy for greatest sitcom ever. With Carl Reiner in the pilot seat, Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore singing, dancing and doing incredible physical comedy, and Rose Marie and Maury Amsterdam serving up unbelievable one-liners, jokes and repartee, The Dick Van Dyke Show had it all. It was innovative, fresh and consistently hilarious. And it still is. Care for a walnut, dear?
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977)
As if playing Laura Petrie opposite Dick Van Dyke wasn’t enough, Mary Tyler Moore proved that some American lives do have second acts and then some with this unforgettable series about a single thirtysomething woman working in a Minneapolis television newsroom and trying to get her life together. As important as the show and its comedy were, it was as or more importantly produced by Moore’s own production company — a move that would have been much harder had Lucy not helped pave the way.
The Cosby Show (1984-1992)
Sometimes criticized for portraying an unrealistic impression of African-American life, The Cosby Show altered the public perception of what that life could be, and did so with genuine wit, feeling and sincerity, making it the quintessential sitcom of its era. The influence of Lucy is present here, too — just name any one of the kids and you can probably think of an embarrassing situation that arose out of some Lucy-like mischief.
In the continuum of sitcom history, Seinfeld is almost certainly the greatest of its decade, but also remains one of the most noted and quoted of all time, with references being regularly absorbed into the cultural vernacular. It’s a long way from the New York of I Love Lucy, and it’s impossible to imagine Lucy herself using the term “spongeworthy,” but in terms of the ludicrous situations in which Jerry and his neurotic friends found themselves, they had nothing on Lucy.