Lucy and Desi, a documentary by Amy Poehler on Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, premieres March 4 on Amazon Prime.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY LOS ANGELES TIMES PHOTOGRAPH ARCHIVES / UCLA LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS
If you think you know everything about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and their pioneering sitcom I Love Lucy, think again. Amy Poehler, a dynamic entertainer in her own right, known for performances on Saturday Night Live, Parks and Recreation, and countless films (Mean Girls, Baby Mama, etc.), has directed Lucy and Desi (which will premiere on Amazon Prime March 4), an utterly compelling, insightful documentary about the legendary show biz couple, that sheds new light on their tumultuous relationship, as well as the behind-the-scenes struggles to create their enduring comedy series.
Poehler was aided by the couple’s children, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill and Desi Arnaz, Jr., who offered the fabled archives to Poehler and the team from Imagine Entertainment (including Ron Howard) and, together, they’ve created what will probably be the definitive look at the endlessly intriguing legends.
Poehler spoke with Palm Springs Life about her new documentary, how she relates to Lucille Ball, and answering questions on the comedy legend’s podcast.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF AMAZON STUDIOS
"...the reason why we still watch the show, because there's plenty of great shows that we don't talk about at all, it's because Lucille Ball's performance remains grounded and incredibly watchable, 70 years later," Poehler says.
What was your response to I Love Lucy when you first watched it?
Well, it's hard to remember the first time I saw I Love Lucy, because it felt like it was one of those things that was always around and always on. I can remember my parents watching it, my grandparents watching it, and then as I got older, I really was able to watch it for Lucille Ball's performance. I watched it once I became more interested in comedy.
But I learned a lot about Lucy from Carol Burnett. I remember Carol Burnett was on the show (Ball’s later post-Arnaz series The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy) when I was young in the '70s, and Lucille Ball was on Carol’s show a lot.
It's been more than 70 years since the series premiered and we're still talking about it. Why do you think the show and Lucy and Desi’s relationship still resonate so strongly with people?
I think I have an answer to that emotionally and technically. Emotionally, I think there is this strong identity with that idea of watching a family rupture and repair, the cycle of that in American television, especially of that era, just this really deep sense of remembering. It felt like they're part of our family. So, I think emotionally, we just cared and invested and still do.
But technically, the reason why we still watch the show, because there's plenty of great shows that we don't talk about at all, it's because Lucille Ball's performance remains grounded and incredibly watchable, 70 years later. Their writing is not topical. So, we're not hearing about very specific things about the '50s that we would not relate to. Desi insisted that it was shot on film, so it looks great. I think that if this show was on Kinescope [an early television recording process, which doesn’t translate well to modern technology] we wouldn't be talking about it.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY BETTMAN / GETTY IMAGES
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz check a script for a forthcoming sequence to be filmed for television.
One of your producers, Jeanne Elfant Festa, said you were asked to direct the film because you've walked in Lucy's shoes. You're regarded as a very strong person in show business. How did you specifically relate to Lucy?
I really tried to not do that thing that's very enticing when you're making a doc about somebody that you really admire and respect and you’re like, "Oh, that's another thing. That's another way that I'm like them." But I will say as a woman, as a working mother, as a woman in the business, as a woman of a certain age, I was relating a lot to what it's like to feel like you have to hustle and work at your skill and work really hard.
I really related to her approach to work. I found myself nodding along with what Lucy would say about her descriptions of “I enjoy a trouper and all that kind of stuff.” I was like, "Exactly."
But I think we actually would probably, if we were existing in the same timeframe, we'd probably approach things very differently. Her process was very measured. Lucille loved rehearsal, and she really came at comedy from an actor's perspective in a way that I think for her always felt like she was coming at it as an outsider. But yeah, I certainly related to what every working mother feels, no matter the job.
You have described Lucy as an “insurgent” and “disruptor,” which I love because it's so true. I think of you the same way. You don’t suffer fools. I’ve read interviews in which you call people out for insulting questions.
I do not suffer fools. Also, I would like to say, what I always was drawn to when I was learning about Lucy is she was very plain spoken. You always knew how she felt. There's not a lot of, "How's Lucy feeling? Does she like this? Does she not like this?" She didn't stay enigmatic. She wasn't interested in being withdrawn and mysterious and having people read her mind.
It's very hard now to look and figure out in what context during that time, what is being assertive and what is being opinionated, especially for a woman who was in an industry that was predominantly white male and with no female gatekeepers to speak of. She was running a business. You just have to look at their track record, at what they managed to accomplish. Simultaneously, Desi was exactly the same way, as a Cuban-American immigrant refugee, not a person who was given anything, frankly, in his life. He earned everything in his life. They both were true outsiders.
Lucy is considered the greatest television clown of all time, and Desi's considered the genius who created the blueprint for the modern sitcom. Do you feel they're equally respected?
I don't know. There wasn't a sense in the documentary that I felt like it was important that everybody was equal. That really wasn't a thing, but what I do realize is that a lot of people don't understand the kind of producer and businessman that Desi was. A lot of people don't understand that his decisions, especially in the very beginning of the show, created the benchmarks for how we still shoot television. I don't think people understand that. I certainly think that he had to fight through a ton of obstacles, being a Latin, Spanish-speaking man in the 1950s.
Were there areas that you felt you needed to clarify or correct due to previous misconceptions?
Well, I do think that one of the things that I took away ... Studying someone like Lucy specifically and knowing that, and your point that she didn't suffer fools, she also didn't just do a lot of things she didn't want to do, especially once she had some level of success. And so, I found it very moving that she and Vivian [Vance, her I Love Lucy sidekick] were really good friends into the end of their lives and worked together all the time.
You just don't keep working with people on different shows over and over again, if you don't enjoy each other's company. It just doesn't work that way. It certainly wouldn't work with Lucy, I think, so that was something. I don't know if I necessarily felt like I needed to correct it, but I just think in general, oftentimes the lens in which people tell the stories about two women working together is often their conflict. If a human being is doing their job right, you're going to have conflict. I just thought it was really fascinating that Vivian Vance and Lucille Ball kept working together, kept creating things together, and stayed friends until the end of their lives.
Lucie Arnaz made a lovely documentary about her parents in 1993 and yours is the perfect bookend. How did you approach it differently?
I didn't watch Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill's doc because I didn't want to ... It was such a personal experience for her. I wanted to approach this as a person who had not just watched a documentary about the subject at which I was about to make another. What was so great about working with Lucie was she was able to balance ... She does an incredible tight rope walk between daughter and guardian of the flame. She's really able to widen out and see what her parents meant to everybody. She's also able to just keep reminding us of the two people that were in that relationship, the two human beings. It's really an incredible feat.
We actually got to interview her in Palm Springs, and such an important part of Lucy and Desi's history is that geography. It was really very special to hear Lucie. I think that the process of making the documentary, she would speak to, helped her get to a place where she was able to really start to digest and just really process, I guess, what it was is like growing up.
Regarding Palm Springs, that was a destination for Lucille and Desi to get away from the hustle and bustle of Hollywood. Also, that's where they chose to tell Lucie and Desi Jr. that they were going to divorce. Why do you think they chose to do it here?
I don't know. What I think is really interesting about that moment is little Lucie can remember everything about it. And Desi can remember everything about when the Cuban revolution happened, and he had to throw everything in a suitcase and leave his house and run for his life. Meaning trauma encodes very specific details on you that you will just never ... So, I always think it's very interesting when Lucie's telling that story. I mean, it's a very traumatic moment for her and for their family. And yeah, that took place in Palm Springs. I think Lucy and Desi probably had a lot of places geographically that they went to, as people do, to feel things. We really hope that changing our surroundings will change our inner thoughts and feelings. And as we all know, no matter where you go there, there you are.
Ron Howard is one of the producers and as a child he filmed The Andy Griffith Show on the Desilu studio lot. What kind of memories did he share with you about that experience?
Oh, man. I have such respect for Ron and I loved The Andy Griffith Show. And he spoke a lot about [how] they were so famous at the time, and they were the big bosses walking around, and he was a little kid. He can remember how busy that studio was. I don't think people know that The Andy Griffith Show was shot on Desilu, or that they championed Star Trek and Mission Impossible and My Three Sons. I don't think people knew how big they were, how huge they were as a company.
Lucie converted her mother’s 1960s radio interview series into a podcast, Let's Talk to Lucy. You recorded the answer portion to relevant questions for a future episode. Was that as surreal an experience as it seems?
It was. It was very surreal because it was Lucy's voice, a voice that I had been researching and living with up to that point for a year or two, asking me questions. I would've loved to have been asked any questions from Lucy, so it was really wild.
How was your experience working on this with Lucie?
Lucie is a really warm, loving person. And so, I always think about how generous she is, because it's not easy to share your mom with the whole world. You want your mom to be your mom. Sometimes it's not even easy to share your mom with the lady she's out to lunch with. I really am grateful that Lucie found a way to be generous with her mom. That was just one of the many examples where I felt like she was doing that.
Let’s say you're introducing I Love Lucy to somebody who's never seen it before. Which episode would you show them first?
Oh, gosh. I would say just spin the wheel. Pick any episode. Watch for the ensemble, watch for the grounded performance from Lucy, and watch the real love and chemistry between Lucy and Desi, and I don't think you can miss.