The blogosphere erupted Wednesday after Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), while grilling the Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor, joked, "You'll have lots of 'splainin' to do."
Coburn was repeating a line used regularly by Desi Arnaz in the classic 1950s situation comedy "I Love Lucy." For many watching the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, Coburn's remark was viewed darkly, as everything from an inappropriate slight to a racist jibe.
Sotomayor herself treated it as comic relief. Arnaz, after all, was one of the most well-known Latinos of the 1950s, playing the Cuban-American bandleader Ricky Ricardo, husband of the series' star, Lucy Ricardo.
In all the ado about Arnaz, however, commentators overlooked one crucial point: Arnaz was a path-breaker and creative innovator -- definitely a "wise" Latino. In addition, though he played a excitable Hispanic stereotype, he was a remarkably astute and inventive businessman, who changed the way things were done.
Arnaz was the real-life husband of the show's star, Lucille Ball. But CBS executives originally did not want Ball, a sassy redhead, married to a Latino on the program. They insisted this was not acceptable to most TV viewers. Instead, the premise was that the two were to play actors who performed together as a husband and wife on a radio show.
The actors refused. "I Love Lucy" was a huge hit in part because viewers could watch it as a glimpse into the couple's married life. The program is a strikingly sophisticated blending of fictional and actual life. For example, Ball's real-life pregnancy was incorporated as a storyline -- and the birth of "Little Ricky" was one of the highest rated shows.
In addition to changing the entire premise, Arnaz virtually invented modern television comedy. He developed, with his cameraman, the three-camera set-up, so programs could be performed live on a soundstage, before a studio audience. He shot on film, not kinescope, so he improved viewing quality geometrically.
As an entertainment mogul, Arnaz set many precedents. Something Sotomayor would clearly appreciate. He negotiated with the network so that he retained all rights once the shows were aired. With these assets, he and Ball were able to build an entertainment empire, Desilu Productions. They bought a film studio and their company ultimately produced -- and owned -- many hit TV series, including "The Danny Thomas Show" ("Make Room for Daddy"), "The Mothers-in-Law" and "The Andy Griffith Show."
So, while Coborn's comment was slammed by some commentators as verging on racist, in bringing up Arnaz he was alluding to an important -- and wise -- Latino path-breaker.
This is something Judge Sotomayor, who would be the third woman and first Hispanic to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, clearly recognized and well understands.