When I teach my survey of postwar America here in Singapore, one of the first things I stress is the ethos of conspicuous consumption during that time. I try to explain how a philosophy of buying things permeates national defense, gender roles, citizenship, and even dissent (somebody had to get rich selling striped shirts and berets to beatniks, right?) I can do a number of things to drive this point home– show old advertisements for nuclear shelters, or play rock and roll songs like “Summertime Blues,” where the greatest crisis a teenager can face is having insufficient pocket money. The conformity, the mindless suburban sprawl, and the emphasis on the nuclear family unit conflated in such a way that the American family, that bastion of traditionalism, was wedded to the most dynamic, fickle, amoral, unstable, and fluctuating force in society, the market.
I write this, you must understand, to justify spending 70 minutes having 2 classes of Singaporean students in their late teens or early 20s watch I Love Lucy. They can see firsthand the subtle inclusion of cigarettes, for example– bear in mind that Philip Morris was the show’s original sponsor, and
sugar tobacco daddy. So many episodes revolve around getting consumer goods- Fred and Ethel receive a television set for their anniversary, Lucy connives to get the latest appliance, or she elbows her way into becoming a spokesperson for the Vitameatavegamin tonic.
In “Job Switching,” they can see the strong emphasis placed on gender roles during the postwar period. Thinking the other sex has it easy, Lucy and Ethel go to an employment office, while Ricky and Fred keep the home fires burning. Of course, Lucy and Ethel can’t cut it in the job market– hence the famous scene with the chocolates on the conveyor belt. It is visually funny, but the message is clear– Lucy and Ethel are unable to keep up in this competitive, fast-paced environment. And the women they do encounter who work at the candy factory full time are portrayed as joyless careerists. But it doesn’t argue that women are inferior– merely that each sex has its appropriate sphere– Fred and Ricky are just as incompetent at their new tasks of ironing, cooking dinner, and vacuuming. Indeed, job seeking makes Lucy more masculine– she reads the newspaper in the morning and ignores Ricky. Ricky and Fred, meanwhile, become feminized by domestic labor– they wear frilly aprons and nag their spouses. Ultimately, the show’s message is hardly controversial, and not at all in line with the proto-feminist reputation we have given I Love Lucy in retrospect. Men have to be men, and seek out a living in the public workplace. Women ought to find their calling with domestic tasks, and wisely spending their husbands income on consumer goods. To each sex comes a specific sphere of influence where their innate qualities are best put to use. Fred Mertz is more correct than he knows when he jests, “there are two types of people, the earners and the spenders. Or as they are more commonly known, husbands and wives.”
All of these elements fit my course, but more personally, and certainly more selfishly, I show Lucy because I am fascinated at how my Singapore students perceive this show as funny or lively or entertaining. I always am intrigued by what they laugh at– bearing in mind that this is a show taking place in the 1950s, when their grandparents would have been young, and it takes place in a Western context. So, any humor has to overcome both a chronological and a cultural barrier.
Granted, this is in a classroom setting. Even weak jokes can get laughs in a classroom, because the bar for humor is set so low– this is the same reason we chuckle at a 70-year-old priest’s bad attempts at levity during the homily. If our best friend tells the same joke, it isn’t funny. When a priest says it, it is hilarious. Humor is contextual, and standards shift.
Nevertheless, imagine my surprise by how funny they thought the episodes were. Lucy at the conveyor belt got laughs, of course. But so too did Ricky’s obliviousness to Lucy’s attempts to tell him she is expecting a baby, in the groundbreaking episode “Lucy is Enceinte.” Ricky and Fred grab every pot, pan, and rake they can when they have boiled over rice when cooking dinner for their wives. Visual humor, misunderstandings, and the legacies of screwball comedies have an appeal that seems timeless, and you don’t need to know the immediate context to laugh.
The single thing that struck me most, though, is the episode “The Saxophone.” Lucy desperately wants to join Ricky’s band on the road, and so she receives advice from Fred Mertz, an old Vaudeville hand, on how to blend in with the musicians. This leads to the hilarious scene where Lucy crashes the saxophone auditions for the band, dressed as a hepcat, swinging a pocket watch, and calling everyone “man” or “daddy-o.” The students ate it up– and why wouldn’t they? Lucy’s enthusiasm and persistence, Ricky’s exasperation, the band egging them both on makes the scene wholly memorable. But consider that in 2012, students on a small island off the Malay peninsula are laughing at an American woman from the 1950s acting out stereotypes from the 1920s. Something remarkable is going on. This singular comedienne was able to transcend her own time and place. As a consequence, there are a growing number of students here in Singapore who do, in fact, love Lucy.