If you think about it, this year's Primetime Emmy Outstanding Comedy Series nominees, from the silly to the bleak, all share a single red-haired gene: "I Love Lucy."
"30 Rock" is centered on show business. "Louie," also tangentially about show business, stars Louis C.K. as a fictionalized version of himself. "Modern Family" gets more than a few miles out of Sofia Vergara's accented English. "The Big Bang Theory" is a multicamera show that hinges on the antics of its family of neighbors. The main characters of "Girls" and "Veep," as with "30 Rock," are women.
In other words, three words: "I Love Lucy," which won its first series Emmy and just maybe the most important Emmy in the history of the awards 60 years ago.
"'I Love Lucy' has got to be one of those cross-defining television programs that helps everyone understand what the medium was, and what it can be," says Walter J. Podrazik, curator of the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago and co-author of "Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television."
At the Emmy Awards ceremony held in 1953, "I Love Lucy" was the talk of the nation. Only weeks earlier, series stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had welcomed son Desi Arnaz Jr. on the same day their characters, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, had welcomed their TV son, "Little Ricky." The Emmys show was Ball's first public appearance since the blessed event.
"Gee, Desi, we got it!" Ball said from the podium that night.
Got it, they did: "I Love Lucy," the show Ball and real-life husband Arnaz created as a half-hour, kinda-sorta version of their lives (i.e., American actress marries Cuban star), had claimed the first equivalent of today's Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy.
"It is one of the biggest Emmys," says award show pundit and Emmys historian Tom O'Neil of GoldDerby.com.
In 1953, the award was named Best Situation Comedy. The year prior, the first year the Emmys was a national ceremony, the category didn't exist. At that prehistoric 1952 show, "I Love Lucy" had been nominated for Best Comedy Show, which, unlike today's Outstanding Comedy Series award, pitted variety series against sitcom. "I Love Lucy" was, in fact, the only sitcom nominated. (The genre, like the medium and the Primetime Emmys, which wouldn't be called the Primetime Emmys until the 1970s , was in its infancy.)
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Though Ball and Arnaz's show was outnumbered and had been on the air only four months prior to the then wintertime ceremony (which was hosted by Ball and Arnaz), "I Love Lucy" was expected to take the 1952 trophy.
But "I Love Lucy" did not.
"Personally, I think it should have gone to Lucille Ball," comic Red Skelton said as his self-titled, sketch-variety show prevailed for the Best Comedy Show award.
O'Neil said there was one reason "I Love Lucy" and Ball were shut out at that Emmys: "The reason ... was jealousy."
The show's film format was a threat to kinescope, O'Neil says, the roundabout way in which most shows prior to the shot-on-film "I Love Lucy" were preserved. The show's three-camera style was a further threat to production standards, and its instant ratings success was a threat to everyone.
"The snub the first year was the old guard rallying around one of the old graybeards," O'Neil says.
By the time the 1953 Emmys show arrived, "I Love Lucy," with classic episodes like "Lucy Does a TV Commercial," aka the one with Vitameatavegamin from Season 1, and "Job Switching," aka the one with the candy conveyor belt from early in Season 2, on its résumé, was too big to be denied. Likewise, it had made the sitcom too big to be denied its own category.
"The other shows are good shows," Podrazik says of its fellow 1953 Best Situation Comedy nominees, which included "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet." "But without a doubt 'I Love Lucy' instantly and emphatically connected with viewers. If viewers were asked, 'Oh, what was named the best situation comedy,' [they'd say,] 'Oh, of course, it's 'I Love Lucy.'"
And so "I Love Lucy," which had spent late 1952 and early 1953 rewriting more rules with its groundbreaking pregnancy story line, won — arguably the first modern comedy series win by the first modern TV comedy.
The show's family unit, its neighbor-as-friends regulars, its fictionalizing of real people and personas, its mining of comedy from situations and characters — Podrazik sees those "I Love Lucy" staples in all of today's comedy series leaders.
Says Podrazik: "The DNA is still there."
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