Believe it or not (actually, it’s probably easy to believe), there was a time when pregnant women were deemed too risqué for broadcast television. That changed when Lucille Ball was memorably rushed to the hospital to give birth on “I Love Lucy,” the groundbreaking sitcom that co-starred her real-life husband Desi Arnaz and left an indelible mark on show business.
“Lucy and Desi,” a new documentary from director Amy Poehler, explores the unlikely rise to fame and enduring legacy of two comedy icons who broke barriers and subverted expectations about what it means to be an all-American couple. In advance of the movie’s premiere at Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 22, the former “Saturday Night Live” and “Parks and Recreation” star spoke to Variety about her deep dive into all things Ball and Arnaz, the impressive longevity of “I Love Lucy” — a show that debuted in 1951 and continues to find fans in reruns — and her affinity for TikTok.
What interested you in directing a documentary about Lucy and Desi?
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, over the years, have been kind of flattened out and made two dimensional. I was really interested in seeing the people behind the images. People use words like “genius” and “icon” and “trailblazer,” but those aren’t human words. [Laughs] Those were words for machines and astronauts, which — they were both astronauts, for sure, and they were ahead of their time. But they were also people.
How much did you know about Lucy and Desi’s personal lives before you started your research?
I knew about them as performers, not as people. These two incredible outsiders worked hard to become powerful, influential figures at a time when women and immigrants were not running the system. But at the end of the day, the attempt was to tell a love story: Their long journey of falling in love, working, and staying in love with each other through thick and thin was echoed in their show. And then to watch America’s most powerful couple — they created the idea of a power couple — split up after being on TV, as this example of how things will always be OK, it was interesting. So much is made of their work and comedy, and it should be. But I also think it is also an equal triumph to have a relationship that was the kind that they had. It is hard to maintain a working relationship, as well as a relationship with someone you love and is your partner in raising kids.
The structure of Hollywood and the studio system is very different now. What stands out to you about the way the entertainment industry has changed?
[The way] power was kept held, hoarded, and traded. There is, thank goodness, some more straight up access to things. The questions, the judgments, and the projections we make about women, working women, especially working mothers, has not changed that much. I was like, “Wow, what a different industry we’re in. There’s so much opportunity, especially for people of color.” And then also like, “Oh, we’re just doing the same stuff. We’re making the same assumptions about people.” It was a strange combination of, “Look how far we’ve come” and then also, “There’s still only a certain amount of gatekeepers who have power, who are still running the show.” To answer your question, I’m not answering the question. Nothing’s changed, and everything’s changed.
Comedy has a reputation for not aging well. Does that apply to “I Love Lucy”?
There are a couple things about “I Love Lucy” that keep it from being tough to watch. One is that “I Love Lucy” didn’t really go into topical, political stuff. But they did stay in this domestic-relationship world that — certainly, when you watch the very specific gender roles of the ’50s come into play — there are times when you’re like, “Ummm…. interesting.” The other reason why “I Love Lucy” is still so watchable is that it started everything. It’s the suis generis of so many sitcom premises and shows we still watch. It has this inherent television DNA: Something went wrong. There was a misunderstanding. How can we fix it? Let’s go crazy. OK, kiss and make up.
Your film notes that Lucy mentored younger comedians and actors. Was that surprising to learn?
Lucy, as she got older, was really supportive, through friendship and advice, but also through her presence. I heard so many stories of her showing up and watching Mary Tyler Moore shoot her show, watching Bette Midler and going backstage, being a genuine champion of young Carol Burnett and supporting her by being on her show. Her generosity with other young comedians and actors, especially women, is not talked about enough. I found it really inspiring that she spent a lot of her later life doing workshops, trying to mentor young people, and laughing — just going to people’s shows and laughing. I mean, can you imagine how much good it must have felt to have red hair Lucy in the audience laughing at your work?
You’ve dabbled in sketch comedy, hosting, acting on TV and in movies and directing. What interests you professionally now?
That’s a great existential question to answer for 2022. I love producing. Selfishly, I loved listening to Lucy and Desi talk about how they supported other shows because there is this very special feeling about being with a show from the bottom of show mountain. I really related to when Lucy and Desi talked about their Desilu family and, certainly, I’m not Desilu Productions — at one point, I think they had 40 shows on the air or in development. But I understand what it feels like, in my small way, to make something blossom and grow. It’s a great feeling. I want to do a bunch of different stuff. [Poehler’s Paper Kite Productions] is doing film, animation and some TV. We’re doing a bunch of different things with great people. And I just want to keep doing more of that.
Are you in a position where you can just go to a network or studio head and get a project greenlit?
You mean like just slam my hand on the desk? [Laughs] The business is always changing. I really try to have my work speak for itself. I’d like to think I have a good track record of making shows and hopefully making shows work.
Would you ever veer into dramatic work?
The world has been a little serious. Everybody’s lives have turned into an hour-long drama right now. Or, I should say, a two-year drama. I try not to limit myself as to what kind of producer or actor I want to be. My tastes are all over the place. What is comedy? What is drama? Who’s to say? Everything’s in a big old soup. When it’s not terrifying, it’s delicious.
In my opinion, you and Tina Fey are two of the best award show hosts ever. Would you host the Oscars?
Oh, I think that’s a different deal. It’s an interesting time. So again, who knows what any of that stuff will… Everything feels like it’s truly in flux in every way. I’m open to all things. I try to keep an open mind to all things.
What are you watching these days?
Well, what are these days? We’re coming up in two years of the pandemic. In the very beginning, everybody retreated to the shows that gave them comfort. I thought it was fascinating on a sociological level. Then there was this branching out. I’m trying to think of something that I’ve watched recently. We’re gearing up for “Russian Doll” season two, which is this incredible tour de force performance by Natasha Lyonne, so I’ve been watching all of those episodes again to get ready for the launch. And “Baking It” with Maya Rudolph Andy Samberg, I’m watching with my family.
Are you on TikTok? I noticed you have a profile but haven’t posted anything.
I don’t post on TikTok, but I love it. It’s some of the best comedy out there I’ve seen. Especially during the pandemic, it was a very interesting way to be home but not feel alone. I dig it. It’s very inspiring and creative.
Things you didn’t know about Amy Poehler:
Age: 50 Birthplace: Burlington, Mass. Favorite “I Love Lucy” episode: All of them Movie that always makes her cry: “Terms of Endearment” Best on-set snack: Nasal swabs