The "I" in I Love Lucy

“Lucy, you got some splainin’ to do!” Ricky Ricardo never said this. Yet somehow in the vast iconography of I Love Lucy, this is the phrase that often springs to people’s minds. The actor who portrayed Ricky was no stranger to audiences forgetting his contributions. As the straight man to one of history’s greatest comediennes, Desi Arnaz was often overlooked for his work in front of the screen. Whereas his fellow cast members were nominated for Emmys more than once—indeed, Lucille Ball was nominated for all seven seasons—Arnaz never received an acting nomination. Critics and audiences adored I Love Lucy, but most of the credit seemed to go to the eponymous redhead rather than the talented Cuban by her side.

Behind the scenes, however, it was a different story. Arnaz helped facilitate many changes to the television sitcom, making I Love Lucy a groundbreaking series that set conventions shows still follow today. Most importantly, though, Arnaz influenced Latino/a representation by bringing his Cuban heritage into America’s living rooms every week. With Ricky Ricardo, I Love Lucy presented audiences with a smart and capable Latino character, undermining persistent stereotypes and reinforcing the importance of his cultural identity.

Perhaps unsurprising given its title, I Love Lucy was born out of love—and stalled careers. Stuck in one B-film after another, Lucille Ball was dying to demonstrate her true potential as a performer. Her husband, Desi Arnaz, had it worse. Because “his heavy foreign accent limited the roles he could play,” Arnaz went on the road to tour with his band (Ball 110). The constant separations frustrated them, especially because they wanted children, so Ball hit upon a solution when her popular radio series My Favorite Husband was proposed as a television show: why couldn’t Arnaz play her character’s husband?

As Ball recalls in her autobiography, “CBS thought he was not the type to play a typical American husband. ‘But he is my husband,’ I told them, ‘and I think it helps make a domestic comedy more believable when the audience knows the couple are actually married’” (156). CBS did not agree. Elisabeth Edwards writes that despite Arnaz’s ability to speak English, his American citizenship, and his service in World War II, “the CBS brass didn’t think the American public was ready to
accept anything other than a white, American-born man…as a husband to Lucille Ball” (159).

Forced to prove that they would be a successful team, the Arnazes crafted a vaudeville show and traveled around the U.S. The pilot episode of Lucy (later remade as season one’s “The Audition”) closely resembles this show, as Arnaz and his band are entertaining when Ball tries to break into the act, taking her cues from Spanish clown Pepito Perez. In 1950, Ball and Arnaz took their partnership a further step by launching Desilu Productions, Inc. since, as Ball put it, "nobody else seemed to have faith in us” (160).

Although CBS saw that audiences would indeed accept Arnaz, the network was still reluctant. When NBC expressed interest, though, CBS finally relented. Lucy’s creator, producer, and head writer, Jess Oppenheimer, remarked in his autobiography that “Desi had a lot of obstacles to overcome. He was painfully aware that CBS hadn’t even wanted him on the show in the first place and had only reluctantly agreed when it became clear that they might lose Lucy to another network” (172).

Almost immediately, the standards for television were challenged. First of all, Lucy would not be recorded on kinescope, a process that consisted of “filming the picture off of a video monitor,” leaving the image blurry (Edwards 33). Actual film and movie cameras would be used instead. At this time, television production was primarily located in New York. Established in Los Angeles, Ball, Arnaz, and their team were not about to uproot their lives, particularly since the Arnazes just welcomed their first child.

To cover the costs of staying in Hollywood and utilizing film, Desi made CBS and the sponsors an offer: he and Lucy would take a $1,000 cut from their weekly salaries in exchange for total ownership of the show. Because of this deal, Lucy’s massive success turned the Arnazes into television’s first millionaires. The innovations did not stop there. Described by Miranda J. Banks as a “young mogul who had a gift for locating the best person for each job on the Desilu set” (246), Desi proved this by hiring renowned cinematographer Karl Freund, who created the three-camera system that has permeated TV production for decades. Freund also gave the show its flat lighting, which ensured that everything was well-lit.

While all of this transformed television practices, the most significant change came in the form of a handsome bandleader named Ricky Ricardo. As TV’s first interracial couple, Ricky and Lucy illustrated that his Latin roots did not make him a strange, exotic creature. Their marriage was just like any other, an idea that was strengthened by the presence of Fred and Ethel Mertz (William Frawley and Vivian Vance). Fred and Ethel often served as a mirror of Ricky and Lucy, with multiple episodes pitting the women against the men in a battle of the sexes. Fred and Ricky’s friendship may have helped “normalize” Ricky too—it demonstrated that a white man could be best pals with a Latino.

“[I]n the early 1950’s, you saw Latins as waiters and bellhops, slimy lounge singers and lazy Mexicans sleeping under sombreros,” Ball and Arnaz’s daughter Lucie explained in a 2016 interview. “Desi was almost single-handedly responsible for the image changing to a bright, funny, loving, educated and successful man-to-be-reckoned-with.”  For Desi, Ricky Ricardo was not about to be a stereotype, Latin or otherwise:

“At the very first story conference, Desi laid down the underlying principles of the show. The humor could never be mean or unkind. Neither Ricky nor Lucy would ever flirt seriously with anyone else. … Most of all, Desi insisted on Ricky’s manhood. He refused to ever be a nincompoop husband. ‘When Lucy’s got something up her sleeve that would make Ricky look like a fool, let the audience know that I’m in on the secret,’ he told our writers.” (Ball 170)

With Ricky constantly becoming wise to his wife’s plans, the show put a Latino in charge, much like Arnaz’s real-life position as the head of Desilu. Because Lucy, Fred, and Ethel were always trying to make their way into Ricky’s act, he held power over them by deciding whether he would hire them or not.

Ricky was a contrast to the Latin lover stereotype. Devoted to his wife, he was frequently oblivious to other women, a trait that the program mined for laughs by making Lucy extremely jealous of women when the audience knew that nothing was actually happening. The only script Arnaz ever refused to do came during the third season. When the second half of the episode “Lucy Tells the Truth” called for Ricky to fabricate some numbers on his income tax return, Arnaz immediately asked the writers to remove it. Because he was so grateful to America for the many opportunities it had given him, he was adamant that he did not want the audience to think that Ricky would cheat the U.S. government (Oppenheimer
                                                         173-174).

In his analysis of The Amazing Race, Jonathan Gray tells us that “non-Americans are rarely if ever allowed to become true characters” (98). While this has been proven true over and over again, Lucy is the exception because although “they [initially] wanted to play down Desi’s Cuban heritage...it soon became obvious to the writers that it was a gem and inspired countless memorable moments” (Edwards 160). Several of these moments came from Ricky’s musical performances.

On Ball’s radio show My Favorite Husband, the stories revolved around Liz Cooper and her husband George, a vice president of a bank. Concerned that their listeners would not be able to identify with this kind of upper-middle class couple, Oppenheimer wanted it to be clear that despite his title, George “wasn’t making any more than the garage attendant down the street” (124). When Desi/Ricky replaced Richard Denning/George, Oppenheimer changed the husband’s occupation to the bandleader of the fictional Tropicana Club. The adjustment makes sense given Arnaz’s own career as a bandleader, yet it also capitalizes on the idea of the Other as spectacle. Ricky is put in front of audiences to entertain them.

That being said, Ricky also undercuts this in a few ways. He is a very successful performer and viewers witness his rising in the ranks at the club until he becomes the owner. Season four became all about Hollywood courting Ricky and the subsequent filming of his first film, while season five allowed the Ricardos and Mertzes to travel Europe as Ricky’s band toured the continent. Although he was not a bank vice president, Ricky exhibited an acumen for business; we often saw him negotiate deals and handle financial accounts with intelligence and foresight. He even dressed like a businessman, with suits and tuxedos as his usual outfits.

Unlike Lucy, Ricky was slightly disillusioned by his job. In a one-page treatment at the show’s beginning, Oppenheimer wrote that “Ricky, who was raised in show business, sees none of its glamour…and yearns to be an ordinary citizen.” In his autobiography, Oppenheimer claims that “Just as we had done with Lucy’s radio husband, we took pains to humanize the character of Ricky Ricardo by bringing him down in earning power so the average person could identify with his problems” (173). By doing this, the show made Ricky more relatable, thus further endearing the Latino to audiences.

If the network and sponsors had succeeded, the delightful music performances of Lucy would have been diminished quite a bit—they were almost cut out completely! Edwards writes that cigarette company and primary sponsor Philip Morris and CBS did not want the music, more specifically Desi’s music: “They felt that having him sing Cuban songs like his signature ‘Babalu’ would be a turn-off to the American viewing audience, but actually Desi Arnaz and his orchestra had been a hit in the New York nightclub scene for years, where they introduced the Conga” (160). The orchestra had also popularized the rumba and the mambo.

When advertising agent Milton Biow showed Oscar Hammerstein Lucy’s pilot episode before it had been picked up by sponsors, Hammerstein’s infamous advice was to “keep the redhead, but ditch the Cuban.” When told that Desi and Lucy were a package deal, he retorted “Well, then for God’s sake don’t let him sing. No one will understand him.” A clause was thus added to Biow's contract
with Desilu—Desi could only sing if the storyline required it. Writers Madelyn Pugh Davis, Bob Carroll, Jr., and Jess Oppenheimer circumvented this by making sure that for the show’s first year, every song Desi did was integral to the plot. As soon as Lucy became number one in the ratings, Desi had the contract revised (Oppenheimer 172-173).

Desi’s voice was something he had to fight for, so it is somewhat unexpected that the network allowed his Spanish dialogue. One of the most iconic aspects of Lucy is Ricky’s outbursts of Spanish whenever he becomes irritated or distressed. While this seems to
play into the stereotype of a hot-blooded Latin, according to Ball this was something Arnaz did in real life, his bad temper matching Ricky’s (Ball 176).

Audiences came to anticipate Ricky’s explosions, encouraging the writers to continue putting them into the scripts. Hector Amaya states that “Spanish is often used to codify racialized negative characteristics,” noting that TV uses Spanish to inform audiences about a character’s class, morality, sexuality, and more (126).  Ricky’s use of Spanish is prominently tied with his anger, which could signify that he is a typical volatile Latino, but more often than not, Lucy positions Ricky as the show’s calm center. He is the responsible, well-adjusted one who must contend with the crazy antics of his wife and their best friends.

Another trademark of the show was Ricky’s English mispronunciations and butchered American phrases. Seeing how effective these incidents were with viewers, Oppenheimer recalls that the writers would come up with so many of these jokes that he had to limit them in order to keep it fresh. Some of Ricky’s blunders came from actual errors made by Arnaz, who Oppenheimer said “was an awfully good sport to go along with this" (173). Coupled with his Spanish and his thick accent, the mispronunciations make Ricky’s otherness even more conspicuous.

[source]
Interestingly enough, some of Ricky’s mistakes were not planned. Because the show tried to do as few takes as possible to keep the material new for their live studio audience, many small slip-ups made it on-air. The planned mispronunciations, however, gave the program a lot of its humor. Whereas Lucy could scheme, Ethel could be nosy, and Fred could be a cheapskate, Ricky could say “dun’t” instead of “don’t,” “physiochology” rather than “psychology,” or “‘zaggeration” as opposed to “exaggeration.”

The show had a rule, though: only Lucy could consistently make fun of his English. Fortunately, Ricky did not always accept the mocking he received. In season six’s “Deep-Sea Fishing,” for example, Ricky chides Fred by reminding him that “I may speak with an accent, but I don’t listen with one.” What make Lucy fascinating, though, is that it was willing to turn the tables. Season two's "Lucy Hires an English Tutor" has Ricky illustrate just how difficult and weird English is as he points out that words like "tough" and "bough" look the same but sound completely
                                 different. (Watch the scene here.)

The show also had Lucy attempt to speak Spanish. Ricky’s English may not have been perfect, but Lucy’s Spanish is especially hard on the ears. It is arguable that her ignorance of his native language serves as an even bigger joke than his ignorance of hers. Ricky’s pronunciations spark one funny line, maybe two. Lucy’s inability to understand or speak Spanish can be stretched into five minutes’ worth of material, sometimes even most of an episode.

One such episode is season four’s “Lucy’s Mother-in-Law.” Ricky’s mother has decided to visit and meet Lucy for the first time. When she arrives early, Lucy is the only one at the apartment, which would not be a problem except Ricky’s mother does not speak English. In order to convey what she is saying, Lucy is forced to act things out like eating and sleeping. (You can watch part of the scene here.) When she mentions that she has to start making dinner, her mother-in-law quickly catches on and teaches Lucy the Spanish word for “prepare.” Lucy then learns that “chicken with rice” translates into “arroz con pollo.” Despite their language barrier, the two women are able to figure out a way of communication, modeling what Lucy’s audiences could do in regards to non-English speakers.

Because he is the only Latin presence on the series (except for occasional characters like his mother and his band), Ricky cannot help but be the Other, although the show works to make his Cuban heritage less exotic. When other Latino/as appear on the show, Lucy is made into the outsider. Speaking about The Amazing Race, Gray claims that the program’s editing regularly “chastises the insensitive and ignorant” and “stupid comments are rendered as such by a quick cut to someone else’s judgmental glare” (99). Lucy is rarely as harsh as that, but there are times when a character’s clumsy Spanish earns a medium close-up of Ricky laughing. Appropriation of Latin culture usually garners an eye roll or a shaking of the head from Ricky, too. An example of this would be when Lucy writes a play about a Cuban tobacco planter in the hopes that Ricky will star in it. While she and Ethel take rehearsal very seriously, Ricky finds the dialogue humorous and cannot bring himself to really commit to it.

Amaya believes that “language and Spanish cultural ancestry are meaningful common denominators for Latinas/os in the United States” (126). With Arnaz speaking Spanish on national television every week, Latina/os were able to forge a relationship with Ricky. They found a program that literally spoke their own language. The absence of subtitles for the Spanish dialogue is interesting to note. On the one hand, it further isolates Ricky as the foreigner and blocks the average audience from fully understanding him. On the other hand, it allows his lines to only be known by Spanish speakers, thus giving those viewers complete awareness of everything that is happening on the show.

What Latin audiences at the time might not have been able to connect with, however, was the total acceptance of Ricky in the show’s universe. As Edwards points out, “there is never an I Love Lucy episode or even a scene in which Ricky’s heritage works against him. He is never discriminated against, or turned down for a position or a club membership due to his Cuban roots.” Edwards thinks that this is “culturally significant” because it taught Americans about equality (162). While it is momentous that Ricky was not the victim of racism on the show, it is not entirely realistic.

As we saw from CBS’s refusal to hire him, Desi Arnaz faced prejudice all the time. Ball recounts a moment during their courtship when they ordered food at a café and Arnaz went to the restroom: “The waitress looked at me and then at Desi’s retreating back. ‘Hey,’ she said disapprovingly, glancing from my red curls to Desi’s blue-black hair, ‘is he Indian? Because we’re not allowed to serve liquor to Indians’” (Ball 103). 

Although Lucy did not explore the possible discrimination Ricky could have faced, it helped make real-life discrimination against Latinos/as at least a little better. Lucie Arnaz has said that her father “would receive mail from Latin men all over the world thanking him for his portrayal on TV that so many millions of people grew to know and love. It changed the way Americans looked at Latins.”  Through the medium of TV, Arnaz was able to enlighten people about the richness of his heritage and the normality of Latins. According to Banks, “Lucy taught television its potential as a medium” (251). It did more than that: I Love Lucy illustrated television’s potential for Latin representation—and that’s certainly no ‘zaggeration.

__________________

This post is my first contribution to my event The Lucy & Desi Blogathon. Celebrate this incredible, influential, and iconic duo by checking out the entries here!
__________________

Note: this article was modified from an academic essay I wrote in May of 2017 for Indiana University
Sources:
- Amaya, Hector. “Eva Luna: Latino/a Audiences.” In How to Watch Television, edited by Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell, 121-129. New York: New York University Press, 2013.
- Ball, Lucille and Betty Hannah Hoffman. Love, Lucy. New York: Boulevard Books, 1997.
- Banks, Miranda J. “I Love Lucy: The Writer-Producer.” In How to Watch Television, edited by Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell, 244-252. New York: New York University Press, 2013.
- Edwards, Elisabeth. I Love Lucy”: A Celebration of All Things Lucy: Inside the World of Television's First Great Sitcom. Philadelphia: Running Book, 2011.
- Gray, Jonathan. “The Amazing Race: Global Othering.” In How to Watch Television, edited by Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell, 94-102. New York: New York University Press, 2013.
- Oppenheimer, Jess, and Gregg Oppenheimer. Laughs, Luck…and Lucy: How I Came to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1999.
- Waldman, Allison. “Through the Eyes of His Daughter: The Legacy of Desi Arnaz.” The Hispanic OutlooK-12 Magazine, May 3, 2016.

Comments

  1. Fascinating aspects of a classic show put into historical context.

    As a kid growing up watching the program none of that every occurred to me (well, why should it?). I just knew that Ricky was the grown-up and I loved the musical interludes. Later I appreciated Desi's contribution behind the scenes. Now, I can appreciate an intangible (to me) concept in an image-conscious society.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I also grew up watching Lucy and the gang, and like you, none of this popped into my head. I just knew that Ricky was hilarious, he could sing beautifully, and he clearly adored his wife. I would love to find out what audiences thought of him when the show first came out. That's something I tried to figure out when I was writing this piece, but I couldn't seem to uncover the right sources.

      Thanks for reading!

      Delete
  2. This might be the best appreciation of Desi the actor I've ever read. It's certainly the most complete.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much! It was definitely a labor of love.

      Delete
  3. Beautiful blog. I've always thought Arnaz was underrated as the brains behind the show. (I'm amazed, though, that you left out the most famous anecdote. At one point, Arnaz was trying to tell CBS how he could help them cut costs on the show, and they didn't want to listen. Finally one day, he marched into the office of CBS president William Paley, armed with blueprints that showed how his ideas could save them money. After that, Paley issued a five-word telegram to CBS bigwigs: "Don't f**k with the Cuban.")

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hadn't actually heard that story before! That's great. Desi was always underappreciated, and I love hearing how he fought back. Thanks for reading!

      Delete
  4. It's so easy 66 years later to look at a show like "I Love Lucy" -- one of television's most beloved series of all time -- and NOT realize just what groundbreaking pioneers Desi, Lucy and their program were. The show was NOT the norm at the time, and as you've so painstakingly and beautifully described here, the elements that made ILL such a masterpiece were unheard of back then. The show changed the landscape of TV land in an immeasurable way, and while he might not have received all the praise and adulation he deserved in the moment, surely today we see and appreciate Desi Arnaz for the brave, determined and creative genius he was.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well said! I'm continually in awe of how brilliant and funny this show remains. It's amazing to think what TV today owes to it... and to a certain Cuban.

      Thanks for the comment, Wendy!

      Delete
  5. I love this post! I once had a long conversation about Desi with a friend who grew up in Puerto Rico. He said the ILL reruns he watched in the late 1960s left him feeling certain he'd be welcome on The Mainland (more welcome than he turned out to be, as your post predicts). To him, the show was about the brilliant and talented Ricky Riccardo and that silly woman he married. I can't overestimate the role model Desi once was for my friend and his little classmates. It's lovely how you shined a light on him here.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's so cool to hear! I'm glad Ricky served as a positive role model for your friend. Thanks for the comment!

      Delete
  6. Inteesting biographical details. Never thought I'd learn so much about Desi.

    ReplyDelete
  7. This is a wonderful article. I really like the insight you provided. It is very warm, tender, and personal, yet you provided a lot of facts. Congratulations on a very successful article for a wonderful blogathon!

    By the way, I looked at the announcement for your Clark Gable blogathon. I would like to write about his role in "The Hucksters" if I may. I think you banners for the Gable blogathon are some of the cleverest I have ever seen. I look forward to using one or more of them in my article about "Dear Mr. Gable."

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your kind words, Tiffany! I'll gladly put you down for the Clark Gable Blogathon!

      Delete
  8. Fantastic! Your article is basically a scientific paper ready to be published!
    I certainly learned a lot, and it's sad to know that, 60 years ago, the TV executives had such a closed mind that they almost cut Desi from the show. Unfortunately, prejudice is something that still exists, and we must keep fighting for better Latin representation on TV and film.
    Thanks for hosting this great event!
    Kisses!
    Le

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Lê! It is awful to read about how CBS initially treated Desi. Even now, I'm not sure the network has gotten that much better. But as you said, we need to continue lobbying for good Latin representation. It's slowly getting there, but it could definitely be better.

      Delete

Post a Comment

You might've missed these popular posts...

Loving and Fighting Furiously: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

Top Ten: Fred Astaire's Partners

Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961)

Announcing the Doris Day Blogathon!

The One Lovely Blog Award.

Bette and Errol.

Announcing the Vincente Minnelli Blogathon!

Jerry Lewis presents... The Nutty Professor (1963)

The Loss of Gene Wilder.

Announcing the Clark Gable Blogathon!