It May Look Like a Living Room...: The Musical Number and the Sitcom
Class, Gender, and Family Roles in the Sitcoms

  1. Narrative and social politics are inextricably intertwined in I Love Lucy. Patricia Mellencamp outlines:
    Held to the conventional domesticity of situation comedy, Lucy Ricardo was barely in control, constantly attempting to escape domesticity—her “situation,” her job, in the home—always trying to get into show business by getting into Ricky’s “act,” narratively fouling it up, but brilliantly and comically performing in it. (“Situation Comedy” 87)
  2. If genre studies form one major strain of sitcom studies, then the other is the examination of the social and political values inscribed in the sitcom. Since the genre is so mainstream, it becomes a thermometer of social mores. For instance, the set-up of The Nanny is remarkably old-fashioned for the 1990s: attractive single woman is surrogate mother to the children of an attractive widower—sexual tension ensues. But while individual storylines (throwing a sweet sixteen party for the oldest girl, the young teen boy develops a crush, and so on) could date from the 1950s, nanny Fran Fine’s explicitly Jewish ethnicity and the level of sexual innuendo in the dialogue are indicative of a society more inclusive and less morally restrictive.

  3. Class and gender are the main cultural boundaries examined in the literature on the sitcom. Not surprisingly, sitcoms generally display conservative middle-class values, though the reception of the shows can be inflected by gender and class. Andrea Press, for instance, found that working-class women were more likely to receive hegemonic values and images as representative of the real world, while middle-class women were more likely to identify personally with characters, particularly in their family relationships. Lucy was one of the representative characters in Press’s study, and the class difference was quite marked in perceptions of and identification with Lucy. Though both groups found her funny and differentiated “Lucy” from the gifted performer Lucille Ball, middle-class women tended to read her schemes as liberatory, if temporary, escapes from the traps of domesticity, and her centrality to the show as progressive. Working-class women found Lucy manipulative and some even found her skill detracted from the reality of her character. The disruptive qualities that middle-class women admired made the working class women uncomfortable, as she disturbed the domestic order they themselves struggled to maintain.

    Desi Arnaz plays conga
  4. As this study was carried out in the 1980s, about halfway between the “then” of I Love Lucy and now, we might hypothesize (realizing that “we” are dancing on the thin ice of speculation) that education and engagement with women’s issues is at least in part responsible for the liberatory response of the middle-class women, and the seemingly “less progressive” response of the working-class women. Yet perhaps the latter group’s discomfort is partly tinged with their own awareness of changing gender roles, a feeling that they are being left behind. Perhaps they are more acutely aware that Lucy’s conservative domestic situation was “natural” and even “positive” in the 1950s but may now be considered “menial” or “subservient,” a position which weakens their own sense of self-worth. The changes in cultural roles most certainly influence reception, but they change over time. I Love Lucy is still in heavy syndication, so it is still relevant, though one suspects in very different ways from those in the 1950s. More ethnographic research would undoubtedly excavate fascinating strata of experience, though social upheaval and transhistorical viewing patterns undoubtedly also disrupt the clearly defined sedimentary strata of an unmediated/undisturbed cultural geology.

  5. Gender roles are among the most volatileaspects of society, affecting almost every facet of life, especially reproduction and family dynamics. When gender roles are in flux, as they have been in post-World War II American society, accompanying anxieties become more acute. One of the more fluid inflections of gender in America, for at least a century, is the association of musicality with femininity, and compounding this, an equation of bodily display with feminization—thus the familiar assumption that male dancers are effeminate and/or homosexual.11

  6. Ricky’s persona in I Love Lucy complicates this issue with a contradictory amalgam of musician, Latin lover, and Desi Arnaz’s off-screen “alpha” masculinity as womanizer and technical innovator. Starting at the center (“Ricky Ricardo” as onscreen character construct) and moving outward (to Desi Arnaz, pioneer of the sitcom genre), we find Ricky the musician. Ricky is the one with the musical talent, which he passes on to his son. Drums, which the Ricardo males play, have powerful connotations of masculinity; drums are military instruments, and in many cultures, only men are allowed to play them.12 The Afro-Caribbean conga, which was Desi Arnaz’s primary instrument, also has more explicit sexual meanings in the roughly phallic shape and the “sexual” rhythms. Ricky is also the “Latin lover” type which was so popular in early 20th–century American cinema, from Rudolph Valentino in the 1920s to a number of stars (among them Cesar Romero, Ricardo Montalban, Fernando Lamas, and even Desi Arnaz himself) in the 1940s; this was reinforced by their frequent appearance in musicals and the popularity of Latin dance music in the 1930s and 1940s. Tall, dark, and handsome, the Latin lover was a constant threat to the whitebread American male, so exotic, attractive, and overtly sexual. Always on the prowl, there was a sense that he was “stealing” the “white” woman—this was explicit in Valentino’s first smash hit in The Sheik (George Melford, 1922).13 Yet in his sleek styling and excessive attention to appearance, the Latin lover—at least to the American male—was about empty display and narcissicism that started to turn back on itself as “femininity” and homosexuality. So the Latin lover could seduce but not form healthy marriage bonds—he would either be too predatory or too interested in men.14 I Love Lucy
    Desi strikes a macho pose
    was progressive in depicting Ricky’s narcissism as a common source of comedy—defusing it, as it were, by making it his weakness (being a “ham”)—and Lucy’s frequent fantasy that he was unfaithful was certainly a typical plot device of the time, but those traits in a Latin lover would have been much “safer” portrayed by a WASP, as in My Favorite Husband. Arnaz’s well-earned real-life reputation as a womanizer would have reinforced many of the Latin lover stereotypes. His technical mastery of the television studio and his many innovations in the production and shooting of a sitcom (the three-camera film shoot before a live audience is probably the most significant) can be understood as typical traits of “masculine genius.” Yet the dominance of Lucille Ball as the star of the show meant than many of his contributions were not recognized until after his death—a fate more usually reserved for the wife.

  7. Within the show, the couple is held in equilibrium by a kind of balance of opposites. Although Lucy dominates the television show, Ricky dominates the family. In the erotics of performance, he—unusually for a man—has the upper hand; the way Arnaz switches from acting to “performing” is on occasion breathtaking (as in the “Babalu” drum performance in the episode “The Ricardos Visit Cuba”). Lucy has two strikes against her: despite Ball’s great physical beauty, neither comedy nor failure are “pretty.”

  8. On The Dick Van Dyke Show, the Petries are more evenly balanced in power, both in family and in musical/erotic terms. Laura can be counted on to dissolve into the occasional shaky “Oh, Rob!” but she is just as likely to outsmart him, arranging the ultimate surprise party (“A Surprise Surprise is a Surprise”) or turning the tables on him in a practical joke that gets out of hand (“The Two Faces of Rob”). Rob and Laura have equal musical, dance, and comedic skills, though hers are contained in polite femininity, in well-defined female spaces, while his are allowed to be more anarchic and public.

  9. While Lucy, along with the sitcom as a genre, is consistently domesticized through the 1950s, a more subtle counterrevolution may be discerned in the development of Laura Petrie. In some of the early episodes, Laura is a more passive or manipulative female—though even in the most extreme case she wields considerable power, explicitly through her skills at entertaining. In “Washington vs. the Bunny,” Rob is forced to make a decision between a business trip and his son’s school play, in which Richie will play “the main bunny.” Tormented, Rob has a dream in which Laura, dressed like a Playboy bunny, manipulates him like a marionette and makes him dance. Along with the dream sequence in “I’d Rather Be Bald Than Have No Head,” in which Laura’s ability to dance is conflated with an ability to fly, and the classic science fiction parody episode “It May Look Like a Walnut,” this remains one of the most surreal moments in American television history. As the series continued, though, Laura became more self-assured; it is not surprising that when Mary Tyler Moore went on to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the first show starring a truly self-sufficient single female, some people perceived her character as an extension of Laura Petrie.

    Dick Van Dyke & Mary Tyler Moore
  10. If the narrative drive in I Love Lucy was outward from the house to the show, The Dick Van Dyke Show brought the show into the home. The open floor-plan, with few walls separating living room, dining room, and kitchen, was one of the most popular of post-WWII suburban house designs, both in real houses and in television houses. In contrast to the Ricardos’ rather cramped Manhattan apartment, the Petrie house was a clear example of an open floor-plan, with the kitchen separated off from the living/dining room by a bar with shutters and a swinging door.15 This large family space was also a place to display the woman, and nowhere is this more explicit than in The Dick Van Dyke Show. Influential 1950s suburban housing designer Robert Woods Kennedy argued that the task of the housing architect was “to display the housewife ‘as a sexual being’” (Haralovich 44). Laura Petrie moved and danced through this space in her revolutionary, figure-hugging Capri pants, and on numerous occasions, the Petries’ living room literally became a stage as the characters tried out new ideas for the show, rehearsed for amateur dramatics, entertained one another, or auditioned Rob’s sleepwalking brother Stacey for a spot on The Alan Brady Show. They made a home movie there of their houseguests the Redcoats (in reality, the popular Merseybeat duo Chad and Jeremy) in a show parodying the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (“The Redcoats are Coming”), flashbacks were commonly launched from conversations held there, and in a Rashomon-like episode (“The Night the Roof Fell In”), Rob, Laura, and the goldfish each gave a different account of an argument held there.

  11. In The Dick Van Dyke Show, the musical number is held in a domesticized equilibrium, explained by the context of the show, but detached from the familiar unreality of a television series. It is brought into the ideal family home where the performers present not to the diegetic audience, seated around the periphery of the living room, but to the real audiences—the studio audience and the television cameras/television viewers. To paraphrase one of the show’s most memorable episodes, it may look like a living room, but it is really (in reality as well as metaphorically) a stage.

  12. Comedy and the Musical Number

  13. Mike Clarke likens jokes in sitcoms to musical numbers in musicals (105). This is an apt comparison, for both sitcoms and musicals have fairly rigid structures and the pleasure is in the surface detail. However, we can also turn the comparison around, for in some situations, the musical number can function as a joke in and of itself.

  14. In his discussion of comedy, via Freud’s work on the joke, Eaton describes the typical film industry definition of “screwball comedy” as “dependent on narrative disruption through the gag, etc.” That “etc.” could encompass a musical number, as Eaton implicitly acknowledges in his amplification: “what … designate[s] a product as specifically ‘comedy’ lies in those excesses—gags, verbal wit, performance skills—which momentarily suspend the narrative” (“Laughter” 22). Eaton slips a little dangerously between verbs in these two parallel definitions, as there is a significant difference between “disruption” and “suspension.” The musical number can do either, and through its extended temporal nature, it is likely to disrupt and suspend more than either a verbal or sight gag.

  15. In Hollywood musicals, the musical number tends to be a suspension of a moment in time; the classic example would be Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain”—the entire number celebrates Don’s giddy feeling after escorting Kathy home. Arias in pre-Wagnerian opera tend to work in exactly the same way. Even numbers that “progress” the narrative (which tend to be more theatrical, as in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s trademark not-in-love songs like “People Will Say We’re in Love” from Oklahoma! or “If I Loved You” from Carousel) take more time to accomplish their narrative work than would straight dialogue.

  16. Richard Dyer, in “Entertainment and Utopia,” has influentially argued that the musical number represents a “utopian” moment, which may be nostalgic or futuristic, but always opens an alternate possibility, for instance, Busby Berkeley's presentation of excess luxury in his musicals of the Depression-ridden 1930s. On the simplest terms, this utopian moment may be the sheer display of performance skills, often Click here for video examplealso associated with sexual display. Certainly, this seems to be the dominant mode of the musical number in The Dick Van Dyke Show. There are, of course, slapstick set pieces, like the famous lecture on comedy, but they are generally separate from the musical numbers. In classical musicals, even the most anarchic numbers, like “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes” in Singin’ in the Rain, suspend but never actually disrupt the narrative. For examples of the truly disruptive musical number, we would look to films normally categorized as comedies, like those of The Marx Brothers. The slapstick is highly choreographed and integrated with the music; these are as much musical numbers as comedic set-pieces. They exceed suspension and disrupt any narrative that might have been operating, but are also liberatory in their celebration of the disruption.16

  17. Because of the special “situation” of I Love Lucy, Lucy’s “disastrous” performances become derailment and narrative goal in one—Lucy wants to get in the show, but she is so bad at performing that she destroys the show. Yet this contradiction is exactly what the narrative needs to climax and return to the point of equilibrium for the next week’s episode. At the same time, it produces the “surface” comedic and musical pleasures that the audience desires. One cannot really consider these utopian moments, not even in the anarchic sense of the Marx Brothers, because of their uncomfortable narrative positioning. We want to see Lucy “do her thing,” but the narrative drive in I Love Lucy is stronger than in any Marx Brothers film, and Lucy usually wreaks the damage not on inanimate objects or other characters, but on herself. There is a high degree of masochism in Lucy’s disastrous performances, causing an oscillation between audience identification with her and feelings of superiority over her ineptitude. This very ambivalence has been pinpointed as the crux of the show’s comic effect,17 and this tension between identification and abjection surfaces again and again throughout the literature on Lucy, from the anecdotal18 to the empirical19 to the analytical.20

  18. Musical Style and Performance
  19. The relationship between the narratives and the type and style of musical performance shows a clear cultural shift in the decade between I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show. Concomitantly, the two shows exhibit a different kind of star image and awareness of generic conventions.

  20. For Lucy, the nightclub is a current reality. Hollywood musicals remain popular with cinema-going audiences. The Latin dance numbers and show tunes performed in the television show are the popular music of the day (though the occasional vaudeville number is portrayed as nostalgic). Musical numbers take place in a logical space, at the club or, if at home, in rehearsal. The idea of a musical number does not intrude into the diegesis.

  21. The characters of Lucy and Ricky are clearly and intentionally based on the performers themselves. Desi Arnaz was a popular singer and bandleader; a residency at a New York City nightclub was about the right level of success for him, had he not gone into television. Lucille Ball’s fame from the movies came from her portrayal of glamorous, sharp-witted sexpots in film noir and showbiz comedies, and her radio stint as ditsy Liz Cooper in My Favorite Husband prepared the way for Lucy Ricardo. She was never a song-and-dance star—even in musicals, she tended to be more of a showgirl than a performer in the more active sense—so little conflict existed between her image and the talents (or lack thereof) of her character.21

  22. The Dick Van Dyke Show has a different relationship to the musical number. The variety show is, like the nightclub, a current reality; however, as discussed before, The Alan Brady Show itself is denied. On the few occasions that it is featured, there are stylistic reasons: the Redcoats must be seen on television, as the episode parodies the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan Show appearance; “The Alan Brady Show Presents” is a Christmas special diegetically and extradiegetically at once. The musical number is primarily framed as in a film musical, accentuated by the numbers in the flashback episodes. The critical dance number which symbolizes the Petries’ courtship Click here for video exampleexplicitly references one of the most intimate love duets in all film musicals, “You Wonderful You” from Summer Stock (1950). Laura’s partner encourages Rob to “steal” the dance, saying, “Why not? We stole it from Gene Kelly.” The association with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, rather than the arch, sophisticated duo Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, seems appropriate for Van Dyke and Moore, particularly in this film: Summer Stock was shot as Garland’s emotional and drug problems at MGM came to a head, and the scenes with her old friend Kelly glow with a tender passion that mirrors the open love and sexuality of Rob and Laura Petrie.

  23. To some extent, Van Dyke and Moore borrow personae, for they did not come to the television series with the same sort of images that Arnaz and Ball did. Although clearly possessed of the talent to be musical stars (both stars would be in film musicals, but during or after the run of The Dick Van Dyke Show22), the cinematic terrain had shifted in the late 1950s, and musicals were just not being made in the same way or in the same numbers as before. The form went out of favor, as did its content. The show acknowledged the more complex musical landscape of the 1960s by presenting a wide variety of styles: vintage Tin Pan Alley songs and show tunes predominated, along with Latin dance music and novelty numbers, and calypso, beat jazz, rock and roll, British Invasion pop, and the Twist all made their appearance—though these newer and/or more marginalized styles were recuperated in the narratives. Stacey Petrie’s rock and roll number parodies Marlon Brando; the Redcoats win the adults over with their cheeky humor, in the same way The Beatles did; “The Twizzle” appears as The Twist was discovered by adults (1962) over a year after its initial popularity among teenagers (1960);23 and the manager-father of the young man who performs the novelty dance-song refuses to let him perform it on The Alan Brady Show unless he also sings “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific, to prove he “really” has talent.

  24. The Dick Van Dyke Show performs for television much the same function that Feuer in “The Self-Reflexive Musical” argues that the musicals of the MGM “Golden Era” perform for the musical film: perpetuating the myths of entertainment; the myth of integration, which implies that achieving personal fulfillment and performance are intertwined; and the myth of spontaneity, which implies that musical performance is natural and does not take work. In other words, entertainment breaks down the barriers between art and life.24

  25. Feuer also comments that “intertextuality and star iconography can be a means of manipulating audience response” (“The Self-Reflexive Musical” 340). I would argue that The Dick Van Dyke Show takes this a couple of steps further—first, in the transferal of star iconography (not a recognition of Dick Van Dyke, but an association with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly25), and second, in the more overt self-reflexivity of The Alan Brady Show. This self-conscious self-awareness peaks in the last episode of the series. In “The Last Chapter,” Rob’s autobiography is bought by Alan Brady. The writing of the autobiography has been the source of many of the flashbacks, at least one of which is revealed to be false (“Will You Two Be My Wife”). Brady intends to turn the book into a television series, a narrative flourish that almost, if not completely, implies that the show that we watched every week was actually the proposed series.


1     2     3     4     Works Cited



11. This is so ingrained and so insidious that it affects the boundaries of sports. Despite their obvious physical demands, exclusively female sports like synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics are not viewed as “real” sports, while darts and snooker, which take practically no physical conditioning at all, are (at least in Britain). One of the reasons, sometimes even explicitly stated, that figure skating is not deemed a sport by some sports fans and journalists is that it is “sissy.” Synchronized swimming, rhythmic gymnastics, and figure skating have in common music and dance. Even more explicit in defining the gender boundaries is the sport of “artistic,” or regular, gymnastics: both women and men perform floor exercises, but the women perform to music while the men do not. For another discussion of sports, see Clarke 87–96. For the ways in which the film apparatus and the musical genre further “feminize” the dancing male, see Cohan.

12. See Leppert for a discussion of the depiction of drums in European portraiture as symbolic of masculinity and power. The shapes sometimes overtly reference male genitalia.

13. Although obviously the Sheik was Arabic, Valentino himself was Italian and his breakthrough role was as an Argentinian gaucho doing the tango in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rex Ingram, 1921). During this period, “exotic” was an interchangeable “other,” with one “exotic” being substituted unproblematically for another.

14. All this was undoubtedly a subtext to the television executives’ discomfort with the idea of Lucy and Ricky—it smacked just a little of miscegenation, sexual deviance, and deception.

15. The Ricardos’ second Manhattan apartment was built to a similar design, but still quite small.

16. The affinity of this kind of performance with Lucy’s are emphasized by the guest appearance by Harpo Marx, who performs the classic mirror gag with Lucy. For more on The Marx Brothers and the musical number, see Conrich.

17. Drawing on Freud, Mehlman identifies the conflict between the self and the other in the creation of the comic effect. Steve Neale then picks up this idea and amplifies it in an article that itself is a response and amplification of Eaton in “Laughter in the Dark.”

18. Morris’s anecdote about her family’s reception of I Love Lucy shows a clear gender bias between identification (Meaghan and her mom) and abjection (her dad) (15–17).

19. The women in Press’s study were divided along class lines: in part because of the extremes of her performance (Lucy’s ineptitude/Lucille Ball’s skill in depicting this), middle-class women identified with Lucy, working-class women rejected her reality. Taken together with Morris’s anecdote [see above note], one may extrapolate that I Love Lucy hit its target demographic of suburban, middle-class female consumers.

20. Doty’s analysis of Lucille Ball’s star image, primarily in I Love Lucy, betrays a highly ambivalent positioning between admiration of her skill and frustration with her containment, lending his essay a sense of hopelessness that partially refutes Mellencamp’s more optimistic attempts to recuperate Lucy’s excesses from a feminist perspective.

21. This kind of conflict can cause problems of diegetic reality: some critics have found the 1957 film Marjorie Morningstar difficult because, despite their self-evident beauty and talent, Gene Kelly and Natalie Wood portray people unable to succeed in show business.

22. Van Dyke starred in Bye, Bye Birdie (1963), Mary Poppins (1964), and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), and Mary Tyler Moore co-starred with Julie Andrews in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967).

23. For an entertaining and informative cultural history of the Twist see Dawson.

24. Although I agree with Feuer that this is indeed an element of the cultural work done by these late musicals, she must work rather hard to argue this power for this group of musicals specifically—most musicals do it, these are perhaps just better at it.

25. Kelly and Astaire are mentioned fairly often in the show: an equation of Rob with Fred Astaire is one of the key comic points in “The Night the Roof Fell In.” Van Dyke bears a passing similarity to both dancers—he is thin and light like Astaire, but more balletic and athletic like Kelly; he even bears a facial resemblance to both of them. In one instance, Van Dyke almost overdetermines himself as a dancer (“Ray Murdoch’s X-Ray”): in an effort to get Laura to dance, Rob claims he feels like Fred Astaire [executes the slide from “The Continental”], Donald O’Connor [shuffles his feet in a tap flurry], and Gene Kelly [performs a balletic leap], all rolled into one. Laura comments that she’s too tired to dance with any of him—another of the few acknowledgments that housework is work.

Table of Contents
Write to ECHO

The Musical Number and the Sitcom

Politics, Identity, and Sexual Narrative in Algerian Rai

Review Essays

Carson: El Niño

Courtier: Long Road to Freedom


Grigg and Murphy: Opera’s Second Death

Niebur: The Film Reader

Jorritsma: Amandla!

Conference Report

Garrett: Criss Cross