60 years ago Superman joined I Love Lucy and blew all our minds

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Oct 23, 2017

Decades before Nick Fury broke into Tony Stark’s pad to talk about the Avengers Initiative in 2008’s Iron Man, or before the Arrowverse was born when Barry Allen appeared in Starling City, television had already long been a landscape of crossovers.

Back in the 1960s, Buddy Sorrell from The Dick Van Dyke Show could pop up on The Danny Thomas Show, and characters from Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, and The Beverly Hillbillies appeared to all occupy the same universe. Sitcoms weren’t the only shows doing this, either, as medical dramas Dr. Kildare and The Eleventh Hour crossed paths in 1963.

A gimmick that continues to this day, the crossover ratings stunt typically involves a character from a series jumping to another, either for a one-off or as part of a multi-episode arc that continues on the other show. It is essentially a cross-promotional guest starring stint.

Occasionally things have gotten weird. Weird, like that time ALF met the cast from Gilligan’s Island, Mulder and Scully joined COPS … or even when Thomas Magnum teamed up with Jessica Fletcher on her vacay.

But no crossover has ever been quite as mind-bendingly bizarre as that time Superman met Lucille Esmeralda "Lucy" McGillicuddy Ricardo 60 years ago – and the nature of sitcom reality was itself left uncertain.

The sixth season I Love Lucy episode, “Lucy and Superman” – filmed on Nov. 15, 1956, and aired on CBS on Jan. 14, 1957 – opens with Ricky Ricardo and Little Ricky (in Superman pajamas) watching the Man of Steel’s show (though it’s never called Adventures of Superman, the George Reeves-starring series airing in syndication from 1952-58). And an announcer states via voiceover that Superman will soon be making personal appearances at Macy’s.

As the Superman episode ends and Lucille Ball’s Lucy sends Little Ricky off to bed (because Superman also "always goes to bed right after his show”), the boy requests Superman to show up for his upcoming birthday party. She says she can’t make any promises, but will take him to meet Superman at the department store.

Soon, Lucy becomes competitive with friend Carolyn when she learns she’s throwing her son Stevie a birthday party on the same day as 4-year-old Little Ricky, and with a magician, clowns, and puppet show as entertainment.

To outdo her, Lucy tasks her entertainer husband to leverage his Hollywood contacts to get Superman at Little Ricky’s bash: “Honey, will you do me a favor? Will you call Superman this afternoon?”

When he agrees, Lucy’s sidekick Ethel exclaims, “Boy! Imagine having a father who knows Superman!”

About 10 minutes into its 29-minute runtime, the episode already feels surreal and redefines what the audience has come to accept about the world of I Love Lucy, which will henceforth be referred to as the 'Lucy-verse.'

Within this Lucy-verse, Superman has his own television show and makes personal appearances. And Ricky’s entertainment connection puts him in a position to call this famous figure.

And note that I mean “Superman,” and not the actor who portrays him, George Reeves.

Of course, it would make sense to assume that Lucy, Ricky, and all the characters are actually referring to Reeves, but call him “Superman” to preserve the belief of Little Ricky – except they continue to refer to Superman as a real person even when out of earshot of the boy.

Ricky Sr. eventually breaks the news that he talked to Superman’s secretary and he can’t make the party because he has to be on a plane Saturday, to which Lucy asks, “If he’s Superman, what does he need a plane for?”

Ricky acts a little incredulous to Lucy, saying “alright, alright,” but here’s the thing: He doesn’t outright dismiss this observation as ridiculous.

At this point, it would appear Superman does indeed exist within the Lucy-verse as an entertainer with a secretary and travel schedule. But he simply isn’t the Kryptonian, powered by Earth’s yellow sun, that we all know.

Or is he?

 

To avoid breaking Little Ricky’s heart, Lucy determines she’ll don a Superman costume, climb out on the ledge of their third-floor apartment, and leap in through a window at the ideal moment, thus convincing the children’s party that Superman made it. But she of course gets locked outside, caught in the rain, and in a precarious position high above a busy city street.

(Side note: Lucy gets locked outside due to the well-meaning actions of a couple who close the window to prevent rain from getting inside. The woman’s name was Martha! And played by Madge Blake, who went on to portray Aunt Harriet in the 1966 Batman series.)

Lucy’s predicament is a standard comedic situation for an episode of I Love Lucy. The heightened reality of the Lucy-verse often provides improbable, but not impossible, scenarios for our protagonist to get stuck in. Whether she’s working at a chocolate factory, stomping grapes, is a target for knife throwing, or selling Vitameatavegamin tonic, the plotlines remain set in a close approximation of 1950s New York City.

Even when she impersonated another public figure, comedian Harpo Marx, and then met the real deal, the story wasn’t entirely out of the realm of the possible. (Granted, Harpo Marx was a stage name for Arthur Marx, but he at least existed in the “real” world.)

The verisimilitude of the sitcom reality is shaken further when Ricky manages to get Superman after all, who springs into the party. Impressive entrance aside, it isn’t particularly super-powered. That changes when he casually moves a piano too heavy for Ricky, then effortlessly leaps onto the building ledge.

Without demonstrating any fear that a regular ol' actor might (even an actor famous for playing a superhero), Superman just hangs out on the ledge while exchanging banter with Lucy, who is holding on for dear life, with humor that asserts his powers:

Superman: “How do you do? My name is Superman.”
Lucy: “Oh boy, am I glad to see you. Tell me, when you’re flying around, do you have cape trouble?”
Superman: “No, but then I’ve had a lot more flying time than you have.”

Even if he is a man, this is a super-man who is not behaving typically. He demonstrates feats of strength, is not afraid of heights, and acknowledges an ability to fly. If this character is an actor, it's Superman acting as Superman, not Reeves acting as Superman.

(It should also be noted that Supes acts like a bit of a super chauvinist when he jokes about Lucy to Ricky: “You mean to say that you’ve been married to her for 15 years? And they call me Superman!”)

Thom Holbrook of Poobala.com noted that the clever writing of the episode allowed audiences to view Superman as either an actual person within the Lucy-verse or simply as a character so closely associated with George Reeves that “a family could watch this episode and the adults would see him as the actor and the kids would see him as literally being Superman.”

In fact, the only mention of George Reeves in “Lucy and Superman” is via voiceover in the closing credits stating, “Our guest star tonight was George Reeves, star of the Superman series.” That was even subsequently removed following the initial broadcast. Legend has it that Lucille Ball didn't want Reeves mentioned because she had children who loved Superman, and didn’t want them disillusioned.

Still, I take the stand that this is Superman in the Lucy-verse, or a version of him. After all, a showbiz guy like Ricky would be savvy enough to refer to Reeves the actor. Or someone in the sitcom world would work it in eventually.

Plus, it’s more fun to think of it that way because it makes this crossover of a “serious” genre show, Adventures of Superman, dipping into altered sitcom reality of I Love Lucy, a unique chapter in television history.

The aforementioned Vince Gilligan-penned episode of The X-Files, “X-COPS” -- where Mulder and Scully appear on fellow Fox series COPS – charts close on the surreal scale for having a genre show crossing over into unscripted television.

Other close parallels might be when “magicom” Sabrina The Teenage Witch cast a spell on Boy Meets World in 1997 on ABC (via Salem’s swallowed time ball) or The Wizards of Waverly Place joined Hannah Montana and The Suite Life on Deck (2009) in a special Disney Channel episode.

For the record, genre sitcom ALF crossing over with the traditional sitcom Gilligan’s Island in 1987 hardly counts because a) it was a dream sequence, and b) in that case Gilligan (the Skipper, too) were more guest stars 20 years after that series had concluded.

Instead, the closest that comes to mind-blowingly weird in TV history as when Superman met Lucy is that time the characters of NBC’s Boston-set drama St. Elsewhere appeared on the network’s Boston-set sitcom Cheers in 1985. Sure, both those shows existed in the “real world” but consider that St. Elsewhere ended with the reveal that the entire series -- and by extension, Cheers -- was the product of a child’s imagination. 

But I Love Lucy broke our minds first by bringing Superman into the real world. Besides, St. Elsewhere didn't have Aunt Harriet playing a Martha, and a Man of Steel -- who maybe was also an actor.