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First and Still Funniest

Even today, comic actresses try to emulate Lucille Ball, arguably the greatest female sitcom superstar.

September 02, 2001|PAUL BROWNFIELD | Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer. Times staff writer Carla Hall contributed to this story

She called it "the black stuff," because the lines were single-spaced and in caps. They were stage directions--the genius of Lucille Ball written out on the page, reduced to a series of actions and gestures. On "I Love Lucy," which ran from 1951 to 1957, the black stuff placed Ball in the comic moment--on an assembly line of chocolates or a window ledge. A different comedian might have committed the directions to memory. But Ball internalized them, rehearsing scenes down to the nub.

"I Love Lucy" celebrates its 50th anniversary this fall. In the decades since, future generations of writers have come across the black stuff firsthand. When Michael Patrick King, executive producer of the HBO comedy "Sex and the City," was a writer on the CBS sitcom "Murphy Brown," he got a copy of the famous Vitameatavegamin episode from Ned Davis, an assistant director on "Murphy Brown" and the son of Madelyn Pugh Davis, one of the original writers on "I Love Lucy."

In the episode, Lucy, having connived her way into starring in a commercial for a health tonic, slowly gets drunk as she samples the product in take after take. Reading the script, King discovered a page and a half of the black stuff. "What was interesting about it was, every single thing she did was written in the stage directions," he says, "... right down to the attitude on the winks."

Ball was on the air for six seasons as Lucy Ricardo (nee MacGillicuddy), the star-struck New York housewife of a Cuban bandleader, and in that time she set a bar that female television stars are still trying to hit. Since Lucy, other women have come along to present their versions of comic empowerment. Whomever you name--Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore, Roseanne, Marlo Thomas, Ellen DeGeneres, Sarah Jessica Parker--it always somehow gets back to Lucy.

"Until she came along, early on, women who were funny were, I don't know, considered rather unladylike, not very attractive and tomboyish," says Burnett, who was bursting onto the scene herself, in the 1959 Broadway musical "Once Upon a Mattress," when an already-famous Ball came backstage to introduce herself. "I think the exception to that in the movies was Carole Lombard, but when it came to TV it was Lucille. She could be just pratfall-silly but still be a beautiful woman."

It is the near-impossible package--the ability to be convincing as both comedian and sexualized being--that every female sitcom star is asked to deliver. To some degree, Ball hid her looks behind the mask of the clown, but it was the combination of femininity and comic aggression that the "I Love Lucy" writers exploited.

"Lucy never said, 'Well, I don't want to look that bad.' Or, 'I don't want to get dirty.' She would do anything," says Madelyn Pugh Davis, who lives in Los Angeles and is one of the few surviving members of the show's creative team.

Doing anything meant asking Ball if she could belt out "Glow Worm" on the saxophone. ("Give me two weeks," Davis says Ball told the writers.) It meant fitting her with a prosthetic nose and then setting it aflame (in the William Holden Hollywood episode). The stunts she pulled serve today as a metaphor for comic range, even if the sitcoms are more vigilant about putting on airs of sophistication.

"It seems like in modern times women are being portrayed, in terms of TV, as more troubled or neurotic ... the whole 'thirtysomething' neuroses kind of thing," says Jenna Elfman, star of the ABC sitcom "Dharma & Greg." "You don't find very many beautiful women willing to be funny."

By funny, Elfman means silly or outrageous. Broad, unabashed, "Lucy" comedy. She means Mary Tyler Moore breaking down in Mr. Grant's office or Julia Louis-Dreyfus making a fool of herself on the dance floor in "Seinfeld." Elfman has earned "Lucy" comparisons for the role she plays--the free-spirited half of an urban couple, a Lucy to a Ricky (in this case, a buttoned-down corporate lawyer played by Thomas Gibson).

"I would watch her for hours growing up," Elfman says of Ball. "Her and Carol [Burnett] and 'Get Smart.' I would watch them in terms of, what's the bottom line? Why does it always work?" Among other things, "they really allowed scenes to play out and moments to play out," she says. "There will be a whole two minutes between lines." It does seem remarkable to watch an episode of "I Love Lucy" and note the silence with which Ball could work: What sitcom today would trust its star to hold an audience's attention for minutes on end, without words?

As Davis characterizes the climate on "I Love Lucy," the writers were too harried to be aware that they were doing anything beyond surviving another week.

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