Still Loving Lucy

The centennial of Lucille Ball's birth offers an opportunity to celebrate her comedy and ongoing influence

By Jere Hester
|  Thursday, Aug 4, 2011  |  Updated 9:18 PM EDT
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Lucy and Ethel's chocolate factory antics are as funny today as they were six decades ago.

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It's impossible to know, of course, whether Lucille Ball would have laughed uproariously at "Bridesmaids" or turned as red as her trademark hair.

But with the centennial of the comedy queen's birthday this week, we'll posit that you can draw a line – albeit a squiggly one – between the comic mayhem of Ball and Vivian Vance at the chocolate factory and Kristen Wiig and her pals at the bridal salon.

Ball, born Aug. 6, 1911, exerts a lasting influence on comedy more than two decades after her death. Legions still love Lucy, but her gift is less about spreading love than laughter.

We can see Lucy’s uninhibited spirit in other funny women who followed her onto the small screen and beyond, from Carol Burnett to Gilda Radner to Tracey Ullman to Wiig. But her impact on humor and television is more far reaching.

Milton Berle may have been TV's first comedy superstar, thanks to his vaudeville-style laugh-a-minute show, which debuted in 1948. But Ball soon after became the medium's first sitcom superstar, creating conventions amid the hilarity.

Ball and Jack Benny were perhaps the best early practitioners at translating radio sitcoms to TV, offering funny half-hour domestic-driven story arcs aided by wacky neighbors, a pantheon that stretches from Ethel Mertz to Cosmo Kramer.

Ball, though, became the first sitcom star to fully exploit the power of TV as a visual medium, bringing slapstick to the living rooms – whether she was being attacked by a giant loaf of bread, trading mirror moves with Harpo Marx (in an homage to “Duck Soup”) or getting sloshed on Vitameatavegamin. There are hints of Lucy Ricardo everywhere these days, from Wiig's zany physical humor in the movies on and “Saturday Night Live” to Ty Burrell's goofily clumsy Phil Dunphy character on "Modern Family."

The enduring appeal of Lucy Ricardo rests in much more than sight gags. There’s something compelling about the likeable character’s desperate need for the spotlight and her willingness to go to bizarre lengths for attention. Unlike the talent-free nobodies who go to extremes to get on TV these days, Lucy's antics marked classic executions of comic creativity and timing.

Ball, who went on to other shows after divorcing Desi Aranz, displayed a remarkable ability to reinvent herself. Once a young model and B-movie starlet, she transitioned into TV comedy at an age – then and now – when many actresses find themselves without a career. When "I Love Lucy" debuted 60 years ago this October, Ball was 40 – the same age as Tina Fey when she won the Mark Twain Prize for American Comedy last year.

The comedy of Lucille Ball, 100 years after her birth, remains ageless. While we can never know what Ball would have thought of “Bridesmaids,” there’s little doubt that somewhere in the world, someone is watching "I Love Lucy" and laughing.
 

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.

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