Lucille Ball was my landlady. I was renting a soundstage to film That Girl at Desilu Studios, which was owned by Lucy and her husband, Desi Arnaz. I remember the day we were rehearsing our very first episode, and I was carefully trying to save my energy for the real filming. At one point, I saw out of the corner of my eye that we had a redheaded visitor on the set. Yup, it was Lucy. To hell with my energy. For the next 20 minutes, I performed my heart out. Lucy was watching, and I wanted to be good. When it was over, she gave me a wink. It felt like an Emmy.
Lucille Ball -- whose 100th birthday we celebrate this weekend -- made us laugh for 50 years. And all I can think of is... it wasn't enough.
Damn, if we didn't grow accustomed to her face. In truth, all of them -- the putty face, the uh-oh-I'm-in- trouble face, the pop-eyed face. And we loved her for the most basic of reasons: We trusted her. We knew if we showed up on Monday nights, she'd pay us back in laughs.
Whether she was plucking chocolates off a conveyor belt and stuffing them in her mouth, or vigorously stomping in a vat of grapes, or lighting a putty nose on fire -- while it was attached to her face -- Lucy's mission was always the same: to see the laugh all the way through. She was like an Olympic gymnast, who practices tirelessly, executes to perfection and always lands on her feet.
As the saying goes, comedy is serious business -- and no one took it more seriously than Lucy. Like Fred Astaire -- who famously stayed late at the studio after everyone else had gone home, to practice waltzing with a coat rack -- Lucy was a meticulous artist.
Her persona on screen was so winning because she was so vulnerable. But it was her off-screen toughness that made her great. And this, at a time when a woman was not applauded, appreciated or, most often, not even tolerated for being tough. That's when I got to know her -- when she was not only the queen of television comedy, but a very powerful woman, and a landlady to many comedy shows. There were a lot of divisive remarks about her at the time because she had such power. I had a bit of power myself, being the producer and star of my own show, so there was a joke that went around the studio. Whenever someone was looking for me, the line was, "She's having a meeting with Lucy in the men's room."
Let 'em laugh. I was in good company. If she could take it, I could take it. Lucille Ball was a role model for me -- and all young actresses who aspired to take the reins of their shows and their careers.
Lucy also taught us by example that a woman didn't have to give up her femininity to be funny. She would make herself unattractive (remember those blacked-out front teeth and the fright wigs she'd sometimes wear?), or unkempt, or downright disheveled, as long as the comedy worked. She was a clown, for sure, but we never forgot that she was a woman. Only a handful of female comedians have ever since struck that kind of precarious balance -- Carol Burnett, Gilda Radner, Lily Tomlin, Tracey Ullman, Kristen Wiig. And more than a few of today's comic movie performances owe a nod to Lucy -- like Cameron Diaz's hilarious turn in There's Something About Mary, or Emma Stone's in Easy A, or Emily Blunt's in The Devil Wears Prada. All of these women are, in their own way, descendents of Lucy.
One of my favorite comedy bits from I Love Lucy was one in which she broke from her usual routine of practicing a piece to perfection. It had a classically convoluted twist -- the kind that had made the show beloved: Lucy has hidden dozens of chicken eggs from her husband Ricky down the front of her shirt. Before she can secretly dispose of them, Ricky enters and demands that the two of them rehearse a tango routine that they've been working on. (Happens all the time, right?) Lucy demurs. Ricky insists. And the music begins.
Lucy knows the eggs are there. So does the audience. The only person who's clueless is Ricky -- which is why, of course, at the climactic moment of the dance number, he grabs Lucy's hand, spins her toward him, and they smash their bodies together -- front to front.
As the eggs' sticky contents begin visibly seeping through her shirt -- and Lucy registers every bit of that yuckiness on her hilariously elastic mug -- the audience howls. And keeps howling. What made this brilliant comedic moment so great is that she knew it would work best if she did not rehearse it beforehand. She wanted the stunt to be spontaneous -- both for herself and her audience. And, as always, she was right: At 65 seconds, it would ultimately become known as the longest recorded laugh in television history.
If Lucy were alive today, I don't imagine she would be sitting back and listening to all of us go on and on about the history she made and the legacy she left.
No, not Lucy. She'd be in front of a camera somewhere, still lighting her nose and popping those big blue eyes and always -- always -- listening carefully for that one thing she seemed to live for: the sound of laughter.
Well, we're still laughing with you, Lucy. Happy Birthday, champ!
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