The Humans Behind Comedy Icons Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz

Amy Poehler turned to directing and producing the documentary “Lucy & Desi”.

(Amy Harrity / For The Time)

Actress, comedian and director Amy Poehler’s new documentary, “Lucy and Desi”, intimately features the spectacularly talented duo of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, mostly told through never-before-seen audio tapes of the pair. With finesse and equal weight given to both sides of the team, Poehler wraps viewers in the professional and private worlds of pioneering artists.

“There are a million versions of Lucy and Desi’s story,” Poehler explains, “and part of the excitement of creating the film is that you can focus on whatever you choose. I wanted to show the world human beings behind the icons.

As an “I Love Lucy” fan, I – and probably most people – thought I knew a lot about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. What I didn’t know was how traumatic their childhood had been. And it was a strong trauma without help. Is this something you knew at the beginning of the project or did it also surprise you?

No, like you, I didn’t know. It’s interesting to discuss trauma; we look at this word, “trauma,” and it wasn’t a word used in the 50s and 60s. Lucy and Desi were from a generation where there just wasn’t a lot of discussion about what was happening to you; How are you ? There were no words related to it. Even the idea of ​​it being labeled as such, how the things that happened to you could somehow affect you in your life was an alien concept that didn’t exist. It’s such a new idea.

The fact that Desi Arnaz even walked straight is pretty amazing, not to mention achieving everything he’s done.

Yes, he must have watched his city burn behind him as he left his home [during the 1933 Cuban Batista revolution] with his imprisoned father and his whole family torn apart and coming to a country where he didn’t speak the language and had really lost everything in his life. I think people assume that because he was not from this country he had a really difficult experience growing up but, in fact, he was in a very privileged family with a lot of access and money, and everything disappeared instantly.

And Lucia?

Lucy had this very hard-working childhood in upstate New York [and] then had a family tragedy where his father died prematurely and his grandfather went bankrupt by accident. The reason it’s important to tell their stories is because they made these really big bets, they really bet on themselves over and over – and on each other – and that was because they had an idea of ​​what it felt like to lose everything. too much has been taken away from them. They also had a very interesting relationship with work and success because of it.

A 1942 photograph of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz standing together outside their home.

A 1942 photograph of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz at their Chatsworth home.


They were obviously both workaholics – another more modern term.

[Laughs] Yes, the idea of ​​a woman like Lucy at that time being responsible in any way was so novel and unique. But, also, Desi was in many ways a complete stranger in this world too, and they both had this incredible journey in their own lives where they had access to places where Cuban Americans and women weren’t not allowed to enter the room.

You also balanced their two contributions in the film; so many times he is portrayed as some sort of lucky sidekick. Still, his accomplishments were significant and enduring in the industry.

I think the Desi story has been kind of lost. My question was: what does a successful partnership look like? I could list all day the long accomplishments of Lucy and Desi and how successful they were, how ahead of their time they were and how funny and talented they were, but it’s also amazing everything they accomplished after they weren’t officially “together” anymore. They were two people who were truly willing to do their best as a pair – and how they continued to work together. Their third act really interests me after the end of “I Love Lucy”.

Hearing their own voices on private tapes was so intimate and revealing…

One of the goals with people like Lucy and Desi becoming iconic characters – you kind of forget they were human. I really wanted to keep them alive, and the best way to do that is to hear their voices. I had a more unique position with this documentary. Often in a documentary space, it’s “Hey, there’s this world you don’t know, let me take you there.” But with Lucy and Desi, they’re so well known that it’s the other side, “Actually, there’s two humans here, let me tell you about that.”

There’s Lucy’s quote on tape where she says she got into acting only because she had no other ideas left. And how she’s not a particularly funny person. She doesn’t “think” funny.

She came to acting as an actress; she entered through this door. She studied it very hard and learned her trade, of which she was proud. And that’s part of why the show has such a long history. Many people ask why the series is still so watchable. My answer is: 1) Desi insisted on it being filmed, so it still looks great. 2) Lucy was an actress who played everything very real and grounded, so her performance is always so entertaining. There’s never a scene where Lucy isn’t really in the moment.

A woman in a light blue suit sits for a portrait against a white background.

“My question was: what does a successful partnership look like? I could list all day the long accomplishments of Lucy and Desi and how successful they were, how ahead of their time they were and how funny and talented they were, but it’s also amazing everything ‘they accomplished after they weren’t officially ‘together’ anymore,” Poehler said.

(Amy Harrity / For The Time)

What was it like working with their daughter, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill?

Lucie gave us a lot of access. I loved working with her because I really like her as a person – I find her really warm and open. It can’t be easy to constantly share your parents and family with the world. She was able to give us perspective, especially at the end of her parents’ lives where they were and how they felt about each other. I was really grateful that she was able to do this. She also wanted us to go there and tell the story that we wanted to tell and I think she’s happy with what we were able to tell.

How has the documentary been received, especially from fans?

It was great, especially with Amazon [Prime Video] and the fact that they were able to throw it so beautifully into so many homes at once. I also don’t lose sight of how anxious we all feel and a lot of people turn to comedy when they’re feeling particularly isolated – a lot of people have turned to “I Love Lucy” during this whole period. Comedy has a way of helping people feel that human connection. It was an amazing project to work on during COVID and still laugh and think about the big themes of talented comedy partnerships.

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