Spring 2015

Everyone Loves Lucy

It may seem old-fashioned by today's standards, but as the first multi-camera series filmed live in front of an audience, I Love Lucy revolutionized how sitcoms were made—and created a blueprint for strong directors.


Lucille Ball and William Asher (Photo: CBS/Photofest)

I Love Lucy made broadcast history when it premiered on CBS on Oct. 15, 1951. It was the first multi-camera sitcom to be filmed before a live studio audience. And it also helped establish the role of the episodic director. The genesis of the shooting style was something of a fluke. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had been adamant that the production stay in Los Angeles. At the time, most shows still originated in New York and the program's sponsor, Philip Morris, didn't want the lucrative East Coast market seeing the show in the inferior Kinescope format.

A compromise was reached to shoot the series on film but the problem remained how to do it. Many cinematographers said it was impossible to film multi-camera before a live audience. Different lighting requirements were needed for master shots, medium shots, and close-ups. It just couldn't be done. But at Arnaz's urging, veteran cinematographer Karl Freund (Dracula, Key Largo) eventually cracked the code.

Shooting on film wasn't the series' only innovation. In his book And the Show Goes On, television pioneer and longtime Guild officer Sheldon Leonard wrote about another of Arnaz's decisions: "Operating on the well-founded belief that a comedy show needs an audience to give it the authentic response that canned laughter can never duplicate, Desi brought in an audience to watch and react, while he used multiple-camera shooting technique borrowed from live TV."

Arnaz again "borrowed from live TV" and brought in director Marc Daniels to film I Love Lucy. Daniels' contribution to choreographing three-camera technique was considerable and influenced generations of television directors.

Daniels directed all of the first season's 35 episodes. In the DGA oral history The Days of Live, edited by Ira Skutch, Daniels said, "[Lucy] was similar to live, except that the film cameras were much less flexible than the television cameras. You were stuck with the side cameras being the long lenses for close-ups and the center camera being the master camera, and you couldn't change a lens as quickly.

"We began I Love Lucy using four cameras because they wanted to do the entire first half of the show without stopping," Daniels continued. "We had four Fearless dollies, four dolly grips, four camera assistants, two booms, two dolly grips for the booms, and a few cable men. You can imagine what that floor looked like."

Filming the first live multi-cam series before an audience (Photo: CBS/Photofest)

After the first season, Daniels moved on and William Asher, who would later direct 132 episodes of another television classic, Bewitched, took over. He became the main director for many years, helming over 100 episodes and further refining the multi-camera technique.

But Asher's long association with the show nearly ended on his first day on the set. As rehearsals started, Asher had to walk away to attend to some technical matters. When he returned, he discovered that Ball had been giving directions backstage. Asher was astonished.

"I said, 'Lucy, there's only one director. I'm it. If you would like to direct, then don't pay me and send me home,'" Asher recalled in a 2003 interview. "When I said that, she began to cry and ran off the stage. Everybody disappeared. Desi hadn't been in the scene. I didn't know where to go because I had no office. So, I went to the men's bathroom, sat on the toilet and didn't know what the hell to do. I realized I'd blown my first day of what was really a pretty good job.

"I sat there for a long time and finally got up and went back to the stage," he continued. "Desi was there. He was furious. He was cussing me out in Spanish and I didn't know what he was saying. I settled him down and said, 'Look, Desi, here's what happened.' And he said, 'Well, you're absolutely right, Bill. What you should do is go in to Lucy's dressing room. She's crying. Go talk to her and settle this thing.' So that's what I did. I went in. I said I was sorry I upset her. And she was crying and I started to cry. And after a while we went back to work. But I'll tell you this, I never had trouble with her after that. She had her opinion, and would offer it, but nothing ever behind my back. Everything was just fine. That's the way it was for the next five years."

Asher said he began working on each season of Lucy with six to seven scripts that were in good shape. "The scripts were excellent," Asher recalled. "We had only the producer [and head writer], Jess Oppenheimer, and two other writers who wrote as a team [Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr.]. Today you see 9, 10, or more writers." Oppenheimer, Pugh, and Carroll had also been the writing team on Ball's hit radio comedy My Favorite Husband.

Asher noted that there was very little ad-libbing on the show because the writing was strong and they'd had time to rehearse. "On Monday morning we would read the material, discuss it, and make changes. In the afternoon, I would start rehearsing and continue rehearsing Tuesday and Wednesday when the cameras came in. On Thursday, we'd rehearse again with cameras about half the day. Then we would do a dress rehearsal. Later that day, we'd do the show."

Lucy set the stage for strong directors (Photo: Everett Collection)

Rehearsals were vital because they were shooting live on film. At the time, there were no monitors for the director to see the image. The show's quality depended on the director's ability to watch the floor and ensure that all cameras and actors hit their marks at the required moments. Precision was crucial, as nobody wanted to halt the performance in front of an audience. They rarely shot pick-ups, Asher said, and when they did it was usually for a guest star who forgot a line. Most shows were filmed in about 30 minutes.

"We had stops for Lucy's big costume changes, but that was all," Asher said. "I had a pretty strict rule on that. We didn't stop for anything. We played it like a Broadway show. If an actor made a mistake or forgot a line or something like that, it was up to the other actor to get him out of it."

Asher remembers only one time when the show came to a dead stop. "Lucy always had one moment where she'd get stuck. We'd put that line of dialogue on the back of a lamp or something where we knew she'd be working. Once, right in the middle of a scene she suddenly stopped. And she was the only one in the scene, alone in the living room. I waited and waited. She just was staring at something. Finally, I yelled 'cut' and ran down to the set and saw she was staring at the back of a lamp where we'd put her line. She said the line didn't seem right to her. It turned out that the lamp we were using in that show broke after dress rehearsal, and the crew brought in another lamp that had a line from a previous show from the year before on it. We explained it to the audience and replaced it with the right line and went on. It was the only time we stopped."

The pace was nonstop. On Friday, Asher would cut the show with the editor, and then on Monday during lunch, after the morning read-through of the next episode, he'd watch the cut show with Arnaz who would give his comments.

The editing of I Love Lucy brought another major innovation to television. Arnaz said that when he first sat down to watch the show on film, he found it very confusing to look at only one camera's footage on a Moviola. He wondered why he couldn't see the film from all three cameras at the same time. He was told that this was the only way it could be done—one camera at a time. Arnaz pushed the issue and asked, "Why can't you just stick three Moviolas together?" So the production team contacted the Moviola manufacturer, which developed a three-headed machine to speed up the editing process.

The method of making sitcoms was so new that everyone involved was figuring it out on the fly. Jay Sandrich, who would establish his own directing legacy on Mary Tyler Moore, Soap, and The Cosby Show, began his career as a 2nd AD on I Love Lucy. He moved up to 1st AD when Jack Aldworth moved up to producer. "I was 24 and I knew nothing," Sandrich said. "I was learning on the No. 1 show in the country. Aldworth was a wonderful mentor who really helped me."

After thousands of reruns in syndication, it's easy to forget just how innovative I Love Lucy was in the history of sitcoms. It set the stage for further technical innovations, and for strong directors like John Rich, Gene Reynolds, and James Burrows, whose commitment to the idea that "there can be only one director" would continue to perfect the art of the sitcom.

DVD Classics

A look at the careers of historically significant directors or genres through new DVD releases.

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