One thing that’s widely agreed upon is the universal love for Lucy Ricardo.
Over six seasons of groundbreaking sitcom antics on “I Love Lucy” (and three more on “The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show”), this iconic (albeit fictional) redhead has cemented her place in the annals of pop culture history.
Lucille Ball brought this character to life through her remarkable slapstick abilities and her adeptness at seamlessly transitioning between Lucy’s mischievous schemes and her childlike deference to her husband, Ricky (played by Desi Arnaz), creating maximum comedic impact.
A blend of a trailblazer and a product of 1950s cultural stereotypes, Lucy stands as one of the most instantly recognizable female characters to ever grace the television screen. Just consider what it must have been like to be her closest friend.
Since the inception of television series, sidekick characters have been a staple.
Names like Barney Fife, Ed Norton, and Rhoda Morgenstern come to mind—characters affectionately known as “second bananas.”
However, the most iconic member of this second-tier club is Ethel Mertz, the unassuming housewife who gracefully shouldered the often challenging role of being Lucy’s closest friend.
Ethel was crafted to embody the essence of a supporting character in its purest form. She was older than Lucy, less concerned with fashion, and married to the cantankerous Fred (played by William Frawley).
Her defining traits included a penchant for gossip and an inability to resist getting swept up in Lucy’s comedic attempts to make it onto the stage of the Tropicana Club.
Ethel epitomized the ordinary: she was somewhat bored, mildly dissatisfied with her life, and, as evidenced in the fourth season’s “Ethel’s Birthday,” entirely content with receiving an iron as a birthday present.
Without Lucy and her glamorous escapades, Ethel’s existence would have been remarkably uneventful.
Fortunately, she had Lucy, and even more importantly, she had the remarkable talent of Vivian Vance to breathe life into her character.
It was I Love Lucy director Marc Daniels and Desi Arnaz who initially approached Vivian Vance about portraying the character of Ethel.
At the time, Lucille Ball had some reservations about the idea.
Her vision for Ethel was that of a much older woman, in stark contrast to Vance, who was only three years older than Ball herself.
However, despite Ball’s initial hesitations, Vance was ultimately cast in the role.
Looking back, it’s clear that Vance brought something truly exceptional to a character that, in less capable hands, might have been overlooked.
She transformed what could have been a thankless role into something truly memorable and significant in the world of television.
To downplay Vivian Vance’s age and appearance and create the impression that she was older than Lucille Ball’s character, a combination of unflattering makeup and clothing was employed.
Placing her alongside William Frawley, who was over two decades older than Vance, also contributed to this effect.
Additionally, the character’s dowdiness was accentuated by a constant stream of jokes about Ethel’s weight.
Vance’s weight naturally fluctuated during the series, but at no point was she ever overweight to the exaggerated extreme that the jokes would suggest.
For instance, in Season 5’s episode “Lucy in the Swiss Alps,” when the Mertzes and Ricardos find themselves stranded in a cabin after an avalanche, Fred takes a jab at Ethel’s eating habits:
Ethel: Gee, this high altitude sure gives me an appetite.
Fred: What’s your excuse at sea level?
Regrettably, such weight-related jokes were not uncommon in the series.
Even Lucy occasionally joined in, creating a toxic running joke that could be damaging to anyone’s body image, regardless of their confidence.
Despite Ethel’s character being designed as Lucy’s less glamorous partner-in-crime, Vivian Vance injected the role with her own unique comedic flair.
With her vaudeville and Broadway background, Vance brought a theatrical sensibility to the series.
While Ethel endured her fair share of abuse from the other characters, she had a talent for dishing it right back, and no one on the show could deliver a witty comeback with as much grace as Vance.
For instance, in Season 3’s episode “Lucy Writes A Novel,” Ethel playfully teases Lucy about her literary ambitions.
Ethel: What are you writing about?
Lucy: I’m writing about things I know.
Ethel: That won’t be a novel, that will be a short story.
Being relegated solely to prop up another character is hardly any actor’s dream role, and Vivian Vance would go on to spend her post-Ethel years attempting (though not always succeeding) to distance herself from the character.
However, as a supporting player, Vance was truly incomparable.
Ethel thrived in a television era when breakout supporting characters were not yet the norm, yet Vance managed to stand out.
Her exceptional talent and comedic prowess were undeniable, and in 1953, she achieved the remarkable feat of becoming the first performer to win an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress.
This accomplishment solidified her status as an icon, placing her right alongside Lucille Ball in the annals of television history.
Lucille Ball often receives the lion’s share of praise, but it’s important to recognize that Lucy and Ethel were truly a package deal.
Would Lucy have been even half as entertaining without Ethel by her side? It’s highly unlikely.
Without Ethel, there would have been no one to balance out the manic side of Lucy’s personality or to accompany her in her zany schemes and business ventures.
While there may have been some initial tension between the performers, their undeniable chemistry provided the series with a focal point.
As the series progressed, it increasingly focused on dividing the stories along gender lines, with Fred and Ricky on one side and “the girls” on the other.
This tactic clearly highlighted which segment of the ensemble was the strongest, and it wasn’t the boys or even the married couples.
Lucy and Ethel emerged as the heart of the series, a remarkable achievement considering that portraying strong female relationships was not a top priority for television during that era.
As excellent as Lucy and Ethel were as a comedic duo, it’s fair to say that there were likely far more viewers who identified with the character of “Ethel” than with “Lucy.”
Much like Lucy, Ethel exhibited a range of qualities, swinging between being deeply problematic and decidedly subversive.
On the surface, Ethel may have conformed to the typical stereotype of the gossipy housewife, but she was never a perfect embodiment of that trope.
Notably, she was childless, and as the co-owner and landlady of the building she shared with Fred, she was technically employed, even though Fred never “allowed” her to have her own checking account.
Furthermore, Ethel’s past in vaudeville, much like Vivian Vance’s own background, hinted at a more adventurous and exotic lifestyle than what the average housewife of the time might have experienced.
These complexities added depth to her character beyond the stereotype.
Perhaps owing to her adventurous past, Ethel wasn’t as overtly dissatisfied with her life as Lucy, who constantly yearned for a career in showbiz.
Nevertheless, Ethel did express her discontent in other ways, most notably through her sharp and acerbic exchanges with her husband.
While the Mertzes’ relationship was primarily played for laughs, there was an undercurrent of darkness in their perpetual bickering and sniping.
What’s particularly remarkable is that they, and Ethel in particular, were allowed to openly express their marital discord. At times, it’s quite surprising.
In the third-season episode “Redecorating the Mertzes’ Apartment,” when Lucy tells Ethel to “think about what every woman wants from her husband,” Ethel’s quick-witted response is, “a divorce?”
It’s undeniably a joke, but during that era, such humor wasn’t commonly made by women.
In a time when the image of the contented homemaker was pervasive, Ethel dared to be as sarcastic as she pleased, and her ability to hold her own against Fred’s barbs was undoubtedly cathartic for a generation of women who were on the cusp of the second wave of feminism.
In the fourth season of the series, “I Love Lucy” briefly explored Ethel’s background in the episode titled “Ethel’s Hometown.”
This episode stands out as one of the rare occasions when Vivian Vance received a solo showcase over the course of the show’s six seasons.
In this instalment, Ethel, Fred, Lucy, and Ricky make a stop in Albuquerque to visit Ethel’s family on their way to California.
During their visit, Ethel allows her father and the townsfolk to believe she’s a big star.
This episode provides a unique opportunity for Ethel to temporarily break free from her usual “shrinking violet” persona and step into the spotlight, overshadowing not only Lucy but Fred and Ricky as well.
Throughout the episode, Vivian Vance appears to relish the chance to delve into Ethel’s more ambitious and assertive side.
Sadly, the farce comes to an end all too soon, with the Ricardos and Fred gently sabotaging Ethel’s one-woman show, and the status quo is restored.
Nevertheless, for a brief moment, viewers had the opportunity to imagine what the show might have been like if Vance had been the star.
In 1957, Desi Arnaz approached Vivian Vance and William Frawley about starring in their own spin-off show, a proposition that Vance wisely declined.
This decision undoubtedly spared the world from witnessing its first “AfterMASH.”
As talented as Vance was and as integral as Ethel was to the success of “I Love Lucy,” the character wasn’t originally designed to carry a series on her own.
At her core, Ethel was a sidekick, and Vance herself recognized that Ethel needed Lucy just as much as Lucy needed Ethel.
Even without a show to call her own, the legacy of Ethel can be felt in every best friend duo from Mary and Rhoda to the spirited ladies of “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23.”
Ultimately, Vance and Ethel’s most enduring contribution to television was in demonstrating just how valuable a supporting character, or “second banana,” could be.
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