I introduced I Love Lucy to my students for two main reasons. The words "cultural literacy" buzzed in our county after one particular staff development. We also needed to contrast our study of dramatic irony in "The Diary of Anne Frank."
Cultural literacy is the idea that people communicating within a particular society will have a richer experience if they are "in the know" when it comes to allusions that are frequently made during conversations or in print. For example, within a week of students starting Lord of the Flies, a book that was just days ago out of their consciousness, they usually catch a reference to the classic on television. Studying Anne Frank has a similar effect. Now when I introduce Anne to students, many have never heard of her before and are a little steamed when I "ruin the story" for them by revealing that she does not survive the Holocaust. In no time, they will see a news story that mentions her or a televised show that does the same. In short, cultural literacy is what we think that everybody knows within a society...like Anne Frank or I Love Lucy.
Dramatic irony occurs when one or more characters do not know something that the audience and other characters do know. Sometimes only the audience knows the piece of information. Whether we are reading from the play or the Diary, when Anne makes plans for her future, we get a sinking feeling in our hearts. She looks forward to letting her children read books by her favorite author; we know that there will be no children for Anne. Dramatic irony is also what makes us edgy when we watch horror films. We know what's behind that door. Don't open it! We know when our hero is running towards danger, making the tension unbearable.
Let's talk comic relief though. Shakespeare knew that we needed it, and he was right. I'm a fan of classic sitcoms as a regular viewer and as a teacher. In 22 minutes, you can usually get a light plot line from start to finish. Depending on the episode, you can focus on just about any literary element you choose. Most literature books are not known for their rip-roaring humor, so you might simply need a break from a dark mood. (Give me a second while I come up with a companion piece for "The Tell-Tale Heart.")
The entire series of I Love Lucy is built on dramatic irony. Think of how many shows are constructed around the premise of Lucy keeping a secret from Ricky. When "Lucy is Enceinte" begins, we see that Lucy is late in a pregnancy, but we are supposed to go along with her mysterious complaints of feeling "blah" until she gets word from her doctor that she is pregnant. She wants to tell Ricky the good news privately, just the way she dreamed she would. Comedy ensues. Of course, Ricky does not find out that they are expecting until the last three minutes of the show. All of the laughs stem from Ethel, Fred and the audience knowing something that Ricky does not know.
This is one of the best-loved sitcom episodes of all time. Sure the Ricardos were characters, but Lucy and Desi were real as was this pregnancy. You can see the lines of truth and fiction blur when Ricky sings to Lucy in the last scene, and teens respond to that. After all, it's true love....even without the vampires. On a side note, the word "pregnant" does not appear in the script. This episode is a great opportunity to talk about word choice for writers and how purpose, audience and societal expectations can influence craft.
And, yes, my I Love Lucy DVD collection from season two was in my classroom when the storm hit. Thanks to a generous friend of a friend, Jacqueline Rose, I now have replacements!