This weekend would have been Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday. Though we often mostly remember her for her great physical comedy abilities, that great red hair and that amazing chemistry with real life husband Desi Arnaz both on and off screen, we forget that Ball broke down so many barriers for women in comedy. Over the years, so many female comedians who followed her have cited her as not only a great source of influence for their careers, but also as a pioneer for women in television and comedy.
After becoming queen of B-films in 1940 Lucille, along with Desi, formed the production company Desilu, making her the first woman ever to head a production company. The company also pioneered the technique of filming the show in front of a live studio audience with multiple cameras. This format would become a staple of the sitcom. According to PBS’ American Masters Series, “She cultivated a personal image that corresponded to that of her television characters and in doing so broke down one of the most profound barriers between actor and audience. Like no one before or since, she seemed a part of the family. When she was pregnant with her second child, her character became pregnant, and on the day she delivered Desi Junior, her on-air persona did the same. For many she was a great symbol of the changing times and letters and gifts arrived from around the country celebrating this personal and public occasion.”
I Love Lucy became one of the best-written, best-acted and most beloved sitcoms in history. For four of its six seasons, through 179 episodes, the Emmy-winning show topped the ratings, averaging a 67 share of the prime-time viewing audience. In another first for comedy, CBS granted Lucy and Desi all the rights and ownership of the show (which the couple were in part personally financing). “That deal (along with all the tech innovations) launched the concept of syndicated reruns, which changed the business of television forever. Revenue from the series’ syndication in more than 100 countries made Desilu a Hollywood powerhouse in the ’50s and ’60s, chalking up hits such as Star Trek, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible,” noted the Chicago Sun-Times.
“You cannot teach someone comedy; either they have it or they don’t.” Well, let’s look at some of the women who do have it in television comedy and have followed in the footsteps of Ball.