Funny peculiar: Lucille Ball and the vaudeville heritage of early American television comedy

Rosie White

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In this essay I examine the traces of vaudeville performance in the first season of the early American television comedy series I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951–1957), proposing that while sitcom may be regarded as a narratively conservative format, it may also harbour eccentric figures; the funny peculiar. American vaudeville offered a space in which normative heterofemininity was both upheld and subverted. As one of the direct inheritors of that theatrical tradition, early sitcom could embody complex negotiations of gender and identity. The first season of I Love Lucy is inflected by the performance traditions of American vaudeville, while its development was enabled by a theatrical tour to promote and establish the show. Funding for the pilot came from a vaudeville agency and key actors, producers and writers for the series had a background in this comedic tradition. Vaudeville comedy allowed some female performers licence to explore and explode the feminine ideal and early television comedy offered a similar potential. Lucille Ball's performance as Lucy Ricardo is exemplary in this regard.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)298-310
JournalSocial Semiotics
Issue number3
Early online date25 Jan 2016
Publication statusPublished - 26 May 2016


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