The 100th anniversary of Lucille Ball's birth prompted a huge outpouring of affection—up to and including an elaborate Google doodle.
That people love her so much always surprises me. I watched reruns of her show—a lot—when I was a little kid back in the early '60s. I Love Lucy was one of the few things that always seemed to be on during the long, rainy afternoons of my childhood, so I grew up with Lucy. But I never got her.
I didn't like the frenetic opening music, or the swirly gray title card with the heart and the crappy, weirdly spaced lettering—although this level of criticism admittedly came along much later. Nor did I like the noisy slapstick style of the comedy; I didn't care for the Three Stooges, either. Above all, I didn't think Lucy was funny. A woman who acted like a baby may have convulsed the adult postwar viewing public. Me, she just made nervous.
This was not because I was some sort of obnoxious little proto-feminist, but because I was a child. A lipsticked, shirt-waisted, high-heeled mother who constantly got into trouble with her husband, whose name—"Rick-eeeee!"—she seemed perpetually to be wailing, was to my mind a more disturbing figure than a comic one. Struggling as I was to emerge from mists of early childhood, my basic feeling was: How she could be grown-up and still be so stupid?
Of course, my brother and I were very small, at an age when our idea of TV bliss was Rocky and Bullwinkle. We also loved the slightly dull but kindly world of Captain Kangaroo; the slow, dream-fulfilling pretend-school rituals of Romper Room; Shari Lewis' dear puppets; and, my personal favorite, the mild, sunlit adventures of The Roy Rogers Show, where all of the characters went by their real names and were never really cross with anyone, not even with the bad guys they so effortlessly busted. And Roy and Dale and Trigger and Nellybelle and the rest of the gang were brought to us each day by Nestlé's Quik—now with vitamin C and iron!— which we guilelessly craved. You could almost taste the chocolate in the jingle.
In general, though, children's programming had a long way to go. We lived for several years in and around Portland, Ore., where the kids' afternoon show was, for some reason, hosted by a clown named Rusty Nails. Sweet, eh? I think I actually was once on it when I was tiny—there was a little crowd of kids every day who stood around and were introduced—but I'd forgotten all about the show until I heard an interview with Matt Groening, the genius creator of The Simpsons. It turns out that he grew up in Portland and is about my age. The creepiness of the guy's name, which came back to me when I heard the interview, slowly cooked in Groening's psyche, until bwahaahaa!—Krusty the Clown was born.
It all comes swirling back when I watch the lovingly—not to say obsessively—re-created early-'60s middle-class America of Mad Men. Sally Draper happens to be my exact contemporary, and the muddy colors and nubbly textures that surround her, not to mention the clouds of parental cigarette smoke and random cultural detritus wafting through the rooms she inhabits, are eerily evocative.
Does the world ever seem safe to small children? I don't know, but I can tell you that it didn't seem so then. The Cold War felt like I suppose global warming does now to kids—a vast, oppressive cloud of bad news that could become terribly specific any minute. I remember being haunted by the image of Nikita Khrushchev—who, I was astounded to learn years later, was a shrewd reformer who opened the gulags and put an end to Stalinism. To my 6-year-old mind, he was an evil, slavering beast, the equivalent of Saddam Hussein circa 2004—an all-purpose foreign monster who hated America and wanted to annihilate the West. With the atom bomb! Which he might drop on Portland! Maybe on my exact house! Probably right on my stomach while I was lying in bed in my pajamas! And he could do it—he was Boris and Natasha's boss, for cripesake.
Thank God the flying squirrel and the moose were on the case. Because that moron Lucy was going to be no use at all.