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Lucille Ball and Tina Fey: One-Sided Losers

Lucille Ball’s Lucy Ricardo was undoubtedly the heart of I Love Lucy. Ball had achieved some fame in films and on the radio, so CBS approached her about adapting her radio comedy My Favorite Husband into a TV show.[1] Ball negotiated with network executives to have her real-life husband Desi Arnaz as her costar.[2] I Love Lucy was largely Lucy’s creation, and came into existence because of her own successful career. The content of the show, however, suggested a different interpretation of women’s roles. Ball was certainly the star and heart of the show, but, by the end of every episode, her character’s husband Ricky dominated her mentally (and often physically). Lucy was seen as illogical compared to her reasonable husband, and always lost to his superior logic, even though she was the star of the show and the reason for its creation.

 

Ricky’s domination is evident immediately in the I Love Lucy pilot. The episode opens with a narrator explaining, “In this city live Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. Of course, you know Ricky as the famous orchestra leader and singer. And Lucy is the famous, um – well, she’s – her hair is very red. And she’s married to Ricky.” Even though Lucille Ball gets all the audience’s applause in the first scenes, Desi Arnaz’s character Ricky is introduced as famous and obviously known by the audience, unlike Ball’s Lucy. Not only does he start off as the more successful character, but Ricky actively enforces his dominance throughout this (and every) episode. When Lucy expresses her interest in entering show business through Ricky’s act, he immediately shoots her down. Ricky explains, “now, look Lucy, you know how I feel about this. I don’t want my wife in show business… I want a wife who’s just a wife.” While Lucy tries to cut in, he further explains, “all you gotta do is clean the house for me, hand me my pipe when I come home at night, cook for me, and be the momma for my children.” Ricky’s desired control over Lucy is obvious. [3]

 

Though Ricky continuously proclaims his dominance, Lucy often tries to outsmart her husband – but she always fails. In the pilot, Lucy learns that Pepito the clown, who was scheduled to perform with Ricky, is injured and unable to perform. Lucy quickly decides to take his place. Ricky immediately knows that Lucy is trying to fool him, calling her “Lucito” instead of “Pepito,” but allows her to make a fool of herself anyway. Ironically, her antics make her a success as a clown, getting big laughs from the audience, and earning her a proposed deal with an agent. When they go home, however, Ricky reiterates his desires and the idea is never spoken of again; his is the last word, Lucy returns to her traditional role of housewife, and she is again the loser.[4] Ricky’s status as Lucy’s voice of reason is a clear form of domination; regardless of her opinion, she must ultimately submit to his will and logic.

 

[Watch the I Love Lucy pilot below]

 

 

These antics are repeated throughout the series, but perhaps the most telling is in an episode in the third season entitled “Equal Rights.” With a surprisingly modern thought process, Lucy and her best friend Ethel get fed up with their inferior status and demand “equal rights” from their husband. Ricky counters that he is “the first one to agree that women should have all the rights they want. As long as they stay in their place.” Ricky, along with Ethel’s husband Fred, argue that women have rights because they can “vote, wear pants, and even drive the bus.” Lucy and Ethel demand, however, to be treated exactly like men. Not shockingly, the husbands end up on top when they call for separate checks at a restaurant and the penniless wives are forced to wash dishes to pay for their meals. While the wives do conspire and get their husbands punished for their actions, the message is clear at the end of the episode: the women suffered from “equal rights” and gratefully return to their inferior status.[5]  Anachronistically, Phyllis Schlafly would be proud.

 

[Click here to watch this episode on Hulu]

 

While Lucy is usually proven mentally inferior to Ricky, Ricky also shows his physical dominance over Lucy, most notably through spanking. In at least four different episodes, Ricky bends Lucy over his knee and spanks her.[6] These spanking scenes reinforce the idea of Lucy as “rebellious child whom the husband/father Ricky endured, understood, loved, and even punished.”[7] They reiterate Lucy’s inferior status in two different ways: as a punishment for a child, and as a symbolic kind of erotic submission. Spanking scenes only make explicit what is seen implicitly in nearly every episode of the show: Lucy’s inferiority and willing submission to Ricky.

 

 

In the premise of the show, Lucy always lost to Ricky; she still, however, won the hearts of Americans. Patricia Mellencamp noted that while “Lucy’s ploys for ambition and fame narratively failed, with the result that she was held, often gratefully, to domesticity, performatively they succeeded.”[8] While Lucy’s character never received the stardom she desired, Lucille Ball always upstaged Desi Arnaz and countless guest stars on the show. To be the star that she naturally was, Ball had to portray a “loser” on-screen, but she was still the heart of the show – the show was created specifically for Ball, the stories always centered on her lovable antics, and, as Ball explained, Lucy “was always treated with a child-like tolerance. No one ever got angry with Lucy… [because] they wouldn’t be able to get the laughs.”[9] Audiences cared deeply about Lucy; though they laughed at her foolishness, they became upset when other characters were too mean to her, and thus the audience regarded Lucy with a childlike reverence.

 

 

Lucille Ball’s one-sided “loser” comedy is redefined in Tina Fey’s 30 Rock. A postmodern twist on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, 30 Rock features Tina Fey’s character Liz Lemon as the losing, ignored voice of reason in her own office. Liz is the head writer of The Girlie Show, a failing NBC variety show renamed to TGS with Tracy Jordan in the first episode. Liz has to deal with a range of problems in each episode: her fellow writers are notoriously lazy and useless, her lead actress is delusional and self-centered, and Tracy Jordan, the new lead actor for the show, is a publicity nightmare with a reputation for hilariously unpredictable behavior.

 

Somehow, Liz perseveres in the face of these manifold problems and always saves the show at the last minute. The show does go on, so Liz does “win” in some small way, but TGS is rather unpopular and never considered a critically successful program. The season three episode “The Funcooker” provides a telling example of Liz’s importance to the stability of the show. The episode begins with Liz returning from The Container Store with new organizational tools that she is convinced will give her a new beginning. When she enters the office, her boss Jack Donaghy reprimands Liz for the poor performance of her lead actors, Jenna and Tracy, as hosts of NBC’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. Jenna is exhausted because she is working on both TGS and a film; Jack agrees that she is spreading herself to thin and tells her that “obviously she can’t do both TGS and [the movie].” When Jenna quickly responds that she chooses the movie, Jack counters, “No, I don’t mean quit! I mean Liz will find a way to make both work.” Jack acknowledges that Liz is the only one able to fix an impossible problem, and Liz begrudgingly agrees.

 

Liz returns to her office, but has to go to jury duty. The writers are astounded and wonder aloud, “who’s in charge when you’re gone?” With the semi-rational producer gone, Liz decides that “no one is in charge,” as no one else is fit to lead. Liz’s status as the voice of reason in an otherwise unreasonable office is affirmed through the office’s acceptance of her leadership and inability to replace her. Liz’s challenges do not stop there. Tracy, who is being fined by the FCC for swearing on the St. Patrick’s Day broadcast, tells Liz on her way out that he learned his lesson – that “if you pay some money afterwards, you can say whatever you want on TV!” Liz is visibly upset by the prospect of Tracy creating negative publicity by continuing to curse on-air, and is then confronted with Jenna telling her she’s “in a clinical trial for a military-grade anti-sleeping pill,” and a writer wearing only his underwear. In a comically moving speech, Liz begs her cast and crew to stay out of trouble for just a few hours while she deals with her jury duty obligation. But while she tries to leave jury duty as quickly as possible, she is stuck there – and calls the studio to find out that “Tracy Jordan cussed at Martha Stewart and Jenna Maroney drank all the water out of the toilets.” Liz is blamed because she “didn’t put anyone in charge,” and her status as the one person capable of saving the office from failure is again apparent.

 

When Liz returns to the office, she sees that Jack has stolen her writing staff for his own personal project. Liz is left to write an entire show herself and deal with Tracy’s publicity disaster; sponsors are pulling out due to his raunchy behavior. Liz writes the show, but jury duty prevents her from being present for the filming. Without Liz there to make sure Tracy and Jenna behave, TGS quickly becomes a huge disaster. The show has fallen apart without Liz, and only after she almost starts a fire do her employees respect her and realize the error of their ways. She wins, temporarily: the show has gone on, though poorly, and some sense of order is restored to the cast and crew by Liz’s return. Personally, however, she still loses: the plastic containers she bought earlier in the day are melted due to her attempted arson, and her “new beginning” is shattered.[10]

 

["The Funcooker" can be purchased on YouTube below, or seen on Netflix Watch Instantly

 

Though she is the voice of reason in the TGS office and ensures that her work “wins,” Liz always loses in her personal life. She constantly seeks advice from her boss Jack Donaghy for the various problems with her love life and personal affairs. Their relationship is the heart of the show, making both Jack and Liz fully developed characters worthy of the audience’s compassion (unlike most other characters on the show, who are too ridiculous to take seriously).[11] Fey created the character of Jack as a counterbalance to the Liz Lemon character; she explains in her memoir that she felt that their relationship would have “potential” because the “characters would have completely different views about any topic that came up – race, gender, politics, workplace ethics, money, sex, women’s basketball – and they would agree and disagree in endless combinations.”[12] Their chemistry is, according to one blogger, “uniquely special, both affectionately antagonistic and creepily parental at times.”[13]

 

Fey made it clear that Liz and Jack would never get together romantically, so their close relationship has never gone farther than friendship.[14] They were, however, accidentally married in season five, and their faux-marital antics are telling of the antagonistic yet almost familial nature of their relationship. Their descriptions of the wedding early in the episode – when they are unaware that the clergyman had made a mistake and married the two of them instead of Jack and his actual fiancée – also illustrate 30 Rock’s winner/loser dynamic. Jack tells his assistant, “the nuptials were perfect. We rented a villa on St. Esclavage. For my second wedding I just wanted a five minute ceremony surrounded by one giant party.” Liz, however, defines the marriage as “total chaos… The airline lost my luggage and the only place to buy anything on the island was at the tennis pro shop.” Jack again wins while Liz personally struggles. When Jack first learns of the accidental marriage, his immediate reaction is sheer disgust. Liz is just shocked, but tells Jack, “Who cares? You’re fixing it. I’m sorry you got caught up in another one of Liz Lemon’s adventures.” Liz is used to this kind of hilarious mix-up, and knows Jack will be able to handle it. Liz jokes about them being a married couple, but Jack just gets angry and immediately arranges for a divorce.

 

Liz’s status as voice of reason and ultimate “loser” is firmly established by the end of the episode. While the marriage controversy is transpiring, Jack is making financial cuts to TGS, and the writers beg Liz to use her connections to Jack to get him to reinstate their benefits. The writers convince her to use the marriage as leverage – refusing to sign the divorce papers until Jack agrees to their demands. Realizing that Liz is blackmailing him, Jack responds by assigning Liz a horrible intern, and then schedules a successful reality show during the same time slot as TGS, threatening Liz’s show’s ratings. Liz one-ups Jack by holding a press conference as his wife and pledging $5 million to a new creative arts high school. The feud finally ends in a Human Resources meeting, where their questionnaire makes the two realize that theirs is “the longest and most meaningful relationship in [their] life.” Liz agrees to sign the papers, and Jack gets his way in the end, but thankfully his desires match Liz’s this time.[15]  The episode is telling in its depiction of Jack and Liz’s relationship. Jack is Liz’s voice of reason, but Jack still always comes out on top, mentoring Liz through disastrous relationships, familial problems, and even business and managerial strategies. Liz can “win” in her office life because Jack is there for her, but her personal life is still a mess. She goes through countless failed relationships and suffers from awkward sexual hang-ups, poor eating habits, a television addiction, an aversion to social contact, and a generally depressing life outside the office.

 

["Mrs. Donaghy" can be purchased on YouTube below, or seen on Netflix Watch Instantly

 

While Liz is the TGS office’s voice of reason, her personal rationale is almost always rejected and ultimately meaningless. In most episodes, Jack’s conservative capitalism succeeds, even though Liz almost always disagrees with his beliefs. It seems that Fey wrote the character to satirize conservative business practices and the juxtaposition with the more liberal, creative types that Liz personifies. While 30 Rock pokes fun at both personality types, Jack’s theories almost always triumph and prove Liz wrong, even if her character is a representation of Fey herself. Perhaps as a commentary on the ongoing discrimination against women in the workplace, Fey created and portrayed a profoundly flawed character that regularly loses to a more selfish, conservative male.

While Lucille Ball and Tina Fey played very different characters, both always ended up losing to superior males. Ball’s character was dominated by Ricky’s reason, which always beat her foolishness. Fey, on the other hand, was dominated because she was the voice of reason in an illogical office, where her voice was meaningless and her reason was rarely acknowledged. While the two characters won in larger and maybe more important ways – Lucy by upstaging her husband, and Liz by voicing logic and ensuring the creation of her show – their characters are still seen as “losers” at the end of each episode. The fact that a sitcom about a working woman premiering in 2006 closely mirrors the gender dynamics of I Love Lucy’s Cold War domesticity is significant. Other women, however, were able to subvert the female inferiority typified in I Love Lucy and 30 Rock.


[1] Jess Oppenheimer with Gregg Oppenheimer, Laughs, Luck… and Lucy: How I Came to Create the Most Popular Sitcom of All Time (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1996), 132.

[2] Lucille Ball, Love, Lucy (New York: Putnam, 1996), 194.

[3] I Love Lucy, “The Lost I Love Lucy Pilot,” Desilu Productions, United States Parmount Home Entertainment; CBS Video, 2003.

[4] “The Lost I Love Lucy Pilot.”

[5] I Love Lucy, “Equal Rights,” season 3, episode 4, aired October 26, 1953 (CBS), as seen on Hulu, http://www.hulu.com/i-love-lucy.

[6] “Lucy Plays Cupid,” season 1, episode 15, aired January 21, 1952 (CBS); “The Ricardos Change Apartments,” season 2, episode 26, aired May 18, 1953 (CBS); “Ricky’s ‘Life’ Story,” season 3, episode 1, aired October 5, 1953 (CBS); “Ricky Loses His Temper,” season 3, episode 19, aired February 22, 1954 (CBS).

[7] Patricia Mellencamp, “Situation Comedy, Feminism, and Freud: Discourses of Gracie and Lucy,” in Critiquing the Sitcom: A Reader, ed. Joanne Morreale (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003), 49.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Museum of Broadcasting Seminar Series: Lucille Ball Seminar at Citibank,” April 10, 1984, Paley Center for Media Studies, http://www.paleycenter.org/collection/item/?q=see&p=33&item=T86:1828.

[10] 30 Rock, “The Funcooker,” season 3, episode 14, aired March 12, 2009 (NBC), as seen on Netflix, http://www.netflix.com.

[11] Sharon Pian Chan, “‘30 Rock’ Finale: High-Fiving a Million Angels,” The Seattle Times, February 1, 2013, http://blogs.seattletimes.com/opinionnw/2013/02/01/30-rock-finale-high-fiving-a-million-angels/ (accessed February 15, 2013).

[12] Tina Fey, Bossypants (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2011), 171.

[13] Johnny Firecloud, “30 Rock 5.11 ‘Mrs. Donaghy,’” Crave Online, January 20, 2011, http://www.craveonline.com/tv/reviews/130252-30-rock-511-mrs-donaghy (accessed February 15, 2013).

[14] AJ Jacobs, “The Real Tina Fey,” Esquire, April 13, 2010, http://www.esquire.com/features/tina-fey-funny-quotes-040710 (accessed February 15, 2013).

[15] 30 Rock, “Mrs. Donaghy,” season 5, episode 11, aired January 20, 2011 (NBC), as seen on Netflix, http://www.netflix.com.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.