I love I Love Lucy. We own all six seasons. Possibly the most influential TV series of all time. Continuously on the air since it originally ran, thanks to the magic of syndication. I constantly see modern TV shows continue to directly lift gags, routines or situations from it. It was #1 in the Nielson ratings four of its six seasons, including the final season (a feat only matched since by The Andy Griffith Show and Seinfield), and was top three the other two years. The 1953 episode where Lucy gives birth (“Lucy Goes to the Hospital”) had a record 71.7% rating which has only been surpassed once since: by Elvis Presley’s 1956 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
In addition to their cultural influence, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were quite shrewd business people, and it’s in the off-camera arena where their influence might just be the biggest. Arnaz persuaded Acadamy Award-winning cinematographer & director Karl Freund (Metropolis, Dracula, The Good Earth, The Mummy) to shoot the show. They developed the multiple-camera filming process on adjacent sets in front of a live studio audience that is the standard format for sitcoms still used to this day, 60 years later. When CBS balked at the cost of the film it would take to shoot this way, Arnaz convinced them his and Lucy’s company, Desilu, would cover all additional costs for the filming process in return for controlling all rights to the film. As a result, the profits from reruns went to Desi, not CBS. When he later sold all his interests in the company to Lucille Ball, she became the first woman in history to run a major Hollywood studio.
Desilu’s impact on American television didn’t end with that single perfect sitcom, either. My wife and I also own all three brief seasons of I Love Lucy’s hour-long sequel series, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, officially titled for its final two seasons The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse Presents The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show, where it ran every other week with a dramatic anthology series called Desilu Playhouse running in the same time slot in the weeks between. Westinghouse Electric Corp. paid a then-record $12 million to sponsor the two shows. Two episodes of Desilu Playhouse (“The Time Element” and “The Untouchables”) served as pilots for the TV shows The Twilight Zone and The Untouchables. Other productions Desilu was home to over the years include Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, the aforementioned The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show. Desilu was later bought and merged with Paramount Studios to become Paramount Television. Westinghouse eventually bought CBS in 1995 and renamed itself after its prime asset in 1997.
In the spring of 1958, to cement the new relationship between Westinghouse and Desilu, Lucy and Desi appeared in a 39-minute promotional film that was shown to Westinghouse dealers around the country, outlining the Arnazes’ plans for their new shows and offering a special tour of Desilu Studios. The final seven minutes are Desi Arnaz directly addressing Westinghouse dealers through the camera as he reads them Desilu’s story policy. It’s interesting to see Desi as Desi and not Ricky, and it’s fascinating to see the way he seamlessly blends philosophy of story with salesmanship and a pragmatic assessment of the American audience.
Here’s the video if you’d like to watch it:
And, if you’d rather read it, here’s a transcript I typed up for myself. Desi’s commentary on what he’s reading is in italics, the selections he reads verbatim from the story document are in normal text:
Well, folks, we’ve been trying to give you a general idea of what we’re going to do for you next fall, an idea of what our objectives are. And I just thought you might like to get here with me behind the scenes and listen to what we call our:
WESTINGHOUSE/DESILU PLAYHOUSE STORY POLICY
This is the kind of a paper we send around to all our writers, directors, producers, story editors, so that we all stay within what we want to do and what we think is good for both of us. And we think that our mutual story policy should be compounded of equal quantities of dos and don’ts.
Now on the DOs front, we say that:
a) We give enthusiastic approval to stories that have a quality of excitement and liveliness – we want our stories to move. It’s essential that we clutch the viewers interest quickly, that we give them no opportunity to relinquish that interest.
In other words, we don’t want the fellow to go klunk and we’re off the air, you know. Today they don’t even have to get up to go klunk, they’ve got that remote control business, they push the button and off you go. So we want to keep them there.
Let’s see now:
b) We want stories that have a currency and modernity in theme and approach. Our objective should always be to have stories and characters with which the viewer can identify himself or would like to identify himself.
c) Stories that illuminate and enlarge the concept that modern man, the individual, is still captain of his destiny. That through courage, determination and decency he can triumph over the scientific, material and psychological strains and stresses which the speed and pressures of the 20th century have developed. Fundamentally this philosophy says that all the age-old rules of decent human behavior still hold good, and that those who practice them honestly and steadfastly will find happiness.
Now in the DON’Ts category, we say:
a) We do not want stories which lack a clear, understandable finish with a complete and satisfactory resolution to the plot and the character relationships.
In other words, we want to know what the final score was, we don’t want to be left hanging in the air.
b) We do not want stories which rely for their principle dramatic effort on the aberration of neurotics or psychotics.
Now this does not mean that if we find a good story about a psychiatrist – what do you call those characters? – a head doctor, I guess. If we find a good story about that we’ll do it, but there’s too many of them going around and I just don’t think that the whole country’s going nuts all of a sudden, you know?
Now another thing we say here is:
c) We don’t want unhappy endings.
And I am sure that the American public does not want unhappy endings. They’ve never gone for unhappy endings. Tragedies have always been a flop in this country.
d) We do not want stories which are not in the best business interests of Westinghouse.
Well, yes, you know. And…
e) We should all avoid stories which reflect unfavorably on any section of the country. In other words, what we are seeking is material that represents the largest possible box office and which will not categorically eliminate the interest of any viewer.
So if material containing these basic ingredients is sought with sufficient diligence and screened with extreme care, there is no reason that it cannot result in distinguished entertainment as well as mass entertainment.
And this is very important. Distinguished entertainment and mass entertainment. Otherwise, when you say “distinguished entertainment,” perhaps you do shows that the people in 21 in New York like, the people in Romanov in Hollywood like. We want to do a combination. We want to please everybody. We want to please the people in 21 in New York, in Romanov in Hollywood and the people in the middle. There’s about 160 million of them.
So if someone were to ask me the definition of our total story policy, you might say it’s a class show with mass appeal.
And our last paragraph here says that:
With this conception of story material geared to a mass audience plus people skilled and equipped to present it most effectively, we can look forward to a bright and productive future for Westinghouse and Desilu Playhouse.
Well now, that’s fine as far as the show is concerned, and we’re very sure here that we can deliver you this kind of show. But that’s not enough. We have to do something about our sales, and that is the one thing that we cannot do alone. See, we need all of you to help and we must think about this campaign for next year as the biggest teamwork operation ever put together. In this team we have the corporate setup of Westinghouse, the different divisions of Westinghouse, all the thousands of Westinghouse dealers and the Desilu setup. Now, we here at Desilu are aiming high. We’re aiming very high. We are aiming to double your last year’s audience.
And I want you to aim high too. I want you to aim to double your sales.
And if we start out with this king of thinking, and with this kind of teamwork, I guarantee you that, starting in October, we’re going to be scoring touchdown after touchdown. So good luck, and let’s go to work, eh?