Lucille Ball: A Revolutionary Cultural Icon

Since “I Love Lucy” graced the small screen in 1951, Lucille Ball has been one of America’s most worshipped performers. Everybody loved Lucy. She was the funniest woman on television at a time when everyone was watching the same three things. And long after the show went off the air, new generations continue to discover her hilarity in the syndicated “I Love Lucy” episodes.

When you hear the name Lucille Ball, an image of an effervescent redhead pulling off wacky faces probably is the first thing that comes to your mind. She made everyone in America laugh. But she was more than an iconic comedienne. She revolutionized American entertainment and helped shape the landscape of 21st century pop culture. Here are the ways she did that: 

She paved the way for female comedians to come. 

Lucille Ball paved the way for future women in comedy in America. She stood up for what she believed in. The culture is different now, but back then, she didn’t back down despite the producers’ differing opinions, like for instance, them saying Desi Arnaz was “too ethnic” to be her husband in the show. If she did not stand for what she wanted, we will not have a world with the pop culture phrase, “Lucy! You’ve got some ‘splaining to do!”

Today, it’s easy to see how Ball’s comedy stylings influenced the likes of Carol Burnett, Mary Typer Moore, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey. 

She broke barriers with her show’s depiction of pregnancy.

“I Love Lucy” wasn’t the first TV show to feature a pregnancy, but it was one of the earliest to do so, breaking the barriers with the huge success of the storyline. Though at that time, the American public was obviously ready for a pregnancy arc, it still existed at a time when moral standards were very different for television. 

Lucille Ball was actually pregnant, so Ball and his husband Desi Arnaz (who was also Lucy’s on-screen husband on the show), wrote the pregnancy into the storyline “I Love Lucy,” and that’s something that has never been done before on television. 

The show can’t actually say the word “pregnant” because, “CBS deemed it too vulgar,” according to The A.V. Club. Executives reportedly called for a minister, a priest, and a rabbi to approve the scripts and gain permission for the storyline to air. After gaining approval from several religious figures, the network allowed the storyline but insisted that the word “expecting” must be used instead of pregnant. The episode was entitled “Lucy is Enceinte,” with enceinte being the French word for “pregnant.” 

What’s interesting to note is that Ball’s planned caesarean section in real life was scheduled on the same date that her TV character Lucy gave birth. It aired the day before President Eisenhower’s inauguration, and it drew substantially more viewers than Eisenhower’s swearing-in. 

So, whenever you see an actress appearing pregnant on camera or wearing baggy clothes to hide their pregnancy, you are seeing Ball’s influence. Because of her, pregnant women can keep their jobs as actresses without being removed from the show they are in. 

“I Love Lucy” has set the tone for sitcoms to come.

The show “I Love Lucy” has set the tone for sitcoms to come. It challenged cultural norms, and Lucille Ball had a lot to do with that. 

Socially, the show crossed unspoken boundaries, being the first one to feature an interracial couple (Lucille Ball was American and Desi Arnaz was Cuban). The directors were also urged to not hide Lucille’s pregnancy when she and Desi were expecting. 

From a technical perspective, the show popularized the practice of using a multi-camera set-up, and since “I Love Lucy,” all sitcoms used that kind of setup. The show engineers also pioneered something called “flat lighting,” which got rid of the shadows, making it easier to cut to different scenes. Its use of actual live audience also helped define the show.

The risks that Lucille Ball, the writers, directors, and the production crew took left America with a piece of cultural history. For four of the six seasons, “I Love Lucy” became the most-watched show in the US, and was the first to end at the top of the Neilsen ratings – cementing Ball into the pop culture landscape of the 20th century. The episode where she gave birth to her baby was watched by 44 million Americans, as compared to 29 million people tuning in to President Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration the next night.  

She fought the network to portray her multi-racial marriage with Ricky Arnaz. 

As mentioned earlier, Lucille Ball had to fight the producers of the network to get Arnaz the role of Lucy’s husband. Lucy and Ricky’s relationship on “I Love Lucy,” played by the then-real life couple Ball and Arnaz, is the most important relationship on the show. 

CBS and its sponsor were adamantly opposed to Lucille having her real-life husband as her on-screen husband. They said that the American public would not accept Desi as a husband of a red-blooded American girl. Ball told CBS that she would not do the show without Arnaz, so the executives eventually gave in. This move gave television one of its first interracial couples, which proved to be worth the risk. 

She was the first woman to run her own production company.

Lucille Ball was not just a TV star. She had major power behind the scenes because she co-owned the production company Desilu, which produced her show. While Ball was at the helm of the company she co-founded with her husband, the company produced hits like “The Untouchables,” “Star Trek,” and “Mission Impossible.” In fact, Lucille was the person who pushed behind the scenes to make “Mission Impossible” and “Star Trek” happen. J.J. Abrams might owe his “Star Wars: Episode VII” directing gig to Ball. 

Ball became the first woman to head a major television production company. And when she got divorced with Arnaz, she ended up buying Arnaz out of the company.