As America was learning how to be a world superpower in the 1950s, it was also attempting to maintain a cultural foundation that would support a strong American society at home. After World War II, the middle class population surpassed the working class in America, making it the first post-industrial country in history. This transition paralleled a nation-wide ideological shift towards middle class values including religious morals and a male dominated family structure. The growth of television and the popularity of I Love Lucy also coincided with the rise of the middle class in American. I Love Lucy helped create a culture that revolved around television, sitcoms, and the values they supported. The American values that were marketed by these sitcoms, however, excluded the lower classes of society and created apathetic attitudes to crucial social and political problems of the time. Though easily seen in hindsight, comedian Mort Sahl was one of the few who criticized the cracks in the foundation of American society as they developed in the 1950s. While sitcoms like I Love Lucy used comedy to support the social trends of the affluent society, Mort Sahl used comedy as dissent in attempts to change society. By looking at the cultural values sitcoms both helped create and support in the post-war period, along with the also influential trends of comedic dissent, one can gain a broader understanding for the beginnings of the counterculture and new political movements that would irrupt in the following decades.
As one of the earliest sitcoms, I Love Lucy is essential to the understanding of sitcom’s influence on American society. An early version of the show, My Favorite Husband, was on the radio in the late 1940s, and transitioned to television by bringing many of the comedic tactics of radio and combining them with a vaudeville flare. Television was becoming an increasingly important source of entertainment for Americans as I love Lucy was emerging. In 1949 only 3% of Americans had televisions, but by the premier of I Love Lucy in 1951, the percentage had jumped to 24% (Manning 63). The six-year span of the sitcom paralleled another rapid growth of televisions, where the number owned grew from thirteen million to forty-one million by 1957(TV History). The luxury of owning a television moved quickly from a privilege to the norm. This norm mostly encompassed the middle class, and excluded portions of the working class and the majority of the lowest social strata. The popularity of I love Lucy was undeniable, making the show the most watched sitcom four out of its six years and catapulting Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz to the first television millionaires. The importance of the show historically is also undeniable as shown by the forty-four million Americans who tuned in for the birth of Little Ricky on I Love Lucy compared to the twenty-nine million Americans who watched the inauguration Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first widely televised inauguration, the next day(Manning73).
I Love Lucy also exemplifies the mid-century concern with morality and the censorship that dominated the 1950s. With the beginning of the Cold War and McCarthyism in full bloom, censorship was not only tolerated by many Americans, it was seen as necessary to protect the purity of American culture. In 1952, the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters created their own censorship guidelines in fear that Congress would otherwise implement government controls. The stated goal of these guidelines was “to foster and promote the commonly accepted moral, social, and ethical ideals characteristic of American life” (History Matters). The guidelines were also implemented to protect the youth of America from crime, violence, and sex on TV. As an example, Lucy and Ricky slept in separate beds for the first two seasons of the show in order to maintain a pure image. After the birth of Little Ricky, their beds were pushed together under one headboard to create a more realistic image of a marriage, but their separate blankets remained tightly tucked into their respective sides. I Love Lucy, and the early sitcom censorship guidelines as a whole, aimed their values at educated, religious, wealthy and middle class Americans while excluding the lower strata of American society, especially minorities. Comedians like Mort Sahl and intellectual movements like the Beats saw a flaw in this system of censorship. They felt America was more then a single set of moral values and saw television and mass media as restricting individual intellectual, spiritual, and artistic freedom. Though this censorship was widely supported in the 1950s, by the 1960s more Americans began to question the monopoly middle class America had on the creation of an appropriate American cultural model through their control of mass media.
As the post-industrial period brought new technology to the middle class, the American social structure was also yearning for stability, which it had not experienced since before the Great Depression. The role of Lucy in the sitcom displays the mid-century belief that familial stability was based on a housewife and a working husband. Lucy, however, was not satisfied with her role as a housewife and dreamed of Hollywood and life far away from daily chores. The show paralleled many women’s position, having ambitions for what the new stage in American history would mean for them, yet having no jobs and little education to translate those ambitions into reality. This ambition to break free from the confines of an apron drives the comedic plotline of the show. Lucy is always trying to find new and exciting things to do, like entering show business, and finding ways to sneak around Ricky. Inevitably Lucy fails and “domestic harmony is restored, but not in compromise.” Ricky, as the patriarch, forgives his wife for her silly mishaps while remaining the authority figure, as Lucy is again confined to her duties as a housewife. In this way, I Love Lucy “simultaneously legitimizes the yearning of women for fuller lives and assured them that they would be better off keeping their dreams in their head”(Manning 68-69). The comedic plotline of I Love Lucy is an example of how social unrest was lurking very close to the surface of American society during the 1950s. The women’s movement, however, would not radically question the role of women as confined to housewives until influenced by the other political and social movements of the 1960s.
Another defining social aspect of the 1950s was the migration of the middle class to the suburbs. William Levitt built the first mass produced housing development, known as Levittown, on Long Island in 1949. Levittown and its protégés reinvigorated the housing trend of suburbia to levels never reached prior to WWII. With this increase of housing and the G.I. Bill providing cheaper mortgages for veterans, a rush to the suburbs swept through America. This new housing movement sparked intellectuals such as David Riesman, who wrote Lonely Crowd in 1950, to criticize the new social patterns of mass society. Riesman and other dissenters like Mort Sahl saw the rise of suburbia as diminishing individuality and supporting a mass society, which did the same. Lucy and Ricky felt no reservations for joining the rush to suburbia in their final season in 1957. I Love Lucy was affected by the migration to the suburbs, as the writers felt it was appropriate for the Ricardo family to move away from the city in order to follow the national trend. The Ricardo’s move also helped solidify this version of the American dream by reinforcing the concept of the family friendly suburbs for its millions of viewers. I Love Lucy followed this pattern throughout its seven years pertaining to many social and cultural trends of the 1950s. The show imitated many of the cultural fads of the 1950s but also helped define the specific qualities of these trends and solicit them to millions of impressionable viewers.