American Masters
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 Lucille Ball
Overview Procedures for Teachers

Activity One
(One class period.)

1. Introduce the lesson

Introduce the lesson by saying that this lesson will be about the two main things: images of women in the media (earlier in this century and now), and about the serious business of comedy acting. Students will learn about Lucille Ball, an accomplished comic actress. Lucille Ball specialized in something women rarely do: physical comedy.

During the lesson, students will consider images of women in movies and television, and learn that it takes courage to act and look silly. They'll also learn something about the roots of comedy acting and get to try some physical comedy themselves.

2. Show I Love Lucy to the class

Students will need to see an episode of I Love Lucy, or some clips of classic scenes, in order to have a frame of reference for this lesson. Here are some options.

  • Show the American Masters episode in sections or in its entirety.
  • Check out some classic episodes of I Love Lucy from the library on videotape.
  • Check the TV schedule to see if Lucy reruns are on regularly; tape it or assign students to watch it as homework.
  • You can download video clips from the Internet (this will require a fast Internet connection; this might be something you ask each student to do individually in the library if you choose this route.)

Choose a classic, popular episode to show the class. Just let them take it in and enjoy it.

2. Discuss physical comedy

Afterwards, introduce the definition of physical comedy, the painting of exaggerated emotional states using physical gestures. What makes physical comedy funny?

Remind students that there is always something indefinable about what is funny, and sometimes humor is subjective. Yet there are some identifiable ingredients that go into the recipe. Here are two timeless elements of physical comedy and clowning you can discuss with the class. Discuss how these are seen in the I Love Lucy episode you watched.

  • Exaggeration: the "clown" (Lucy) uses exaggerated gestures to "paint" an emotional state for the audience. If she is sad, she cries loudly and in a funny way. Have the students mention examples from the show.
  • Escalation: something that starts out simple gets more complicated, and the clown gets tangled up or carried away in the situation. Look for & discuss an example from the show you watched. (This can be as simple as a physical "bit", like the classic scene of Lucy and the conveyor belt. Or it may involve the entire plot of the show, where a simple scheme turns into a complicated turn.

Activity Two
(One class period or less.)

1. Examine pictures of actresses & discuss women in movies and on TV.

In advance, you will have prepared pictures of classic actresses of the 30s, 40s and 50s to show the class. You can print these pictures from the Internet or show the pictures to the class directly on the computer. You could also find appropriate pictures at the library. (Note: this could alternatively be a homework assignment. Have the students do the research at the library and bring pictures to class.)

While passing around the pictures, lead a discussion of images of women in movies and on television. Ask what the students can tell about what Hollywood expected of female actresses, just by looking at the pictures. Include pictures of Lucille Ball in the mix, especially at extreme and famous comic moments. Let the students compare the pictures and understand that unlike most women of her time, she was not afraid to look silly or even ugly in order to be funny.

You might try writing two columns of adjectives on the board: one for the pictures of Lucille Ball and one for the pictures of other actresses. As students comment on the pictures, write the key points on the board. Use what you have written to help form the discussion and underscore the main point.

Other questions to explore:

  • Was it hard for a woman to break the mold and be different from other women in those days?
  • Think of favorite funny movie and TV stars today. Do women or men do more physical comedy? (Think Jim Carey!)
  • How have images of women in movies and on TV changed since the 40s and 50s? How have they stayed the same?

Throughout the discussion, have students distinguish between intellectual comedy (jokes, stories, verbal humor) and physical comedy (demonstrating emotions through physical gestures.)

Activity Three
(One class period or less.)

In this activity, students will try their own comedy improv, exploring their own courage to act and look silly. You'll need to clear out some space in the room so students can move around.

1. Exaggeration and Escalation

This is a warmup exercise that also reinforces what was learned in the first activity. Have them stand around the room, preferably in a circle. You will have them mime various emotions, first normally, and then experimenting with exaggeration. Finally, they'll escalate the emotions from quiet to very exaggerated.

Have a list of feelings handy to read from (or put them on the board.) Overjoyed, angry, stuck, hungry, confused, etc.

Have the students (as a group), mime each of the emotions, first normally, then in an exaggerated way. Encourage them to really express the emotion physically (but without touching any other student.)

After a whole round of emotions, go through the list again. This time students start small and slowly escalate the emotion to make it more complicated, using physical gestures.

It's not important how well they are miming it, just that they get warmed up physically, and get into the spirit of things.

2. Improv exercise.

Now for the comedy improv exercise. Students should understand, at the completion of this lesson, that comedy looks easy but takes real skill and practice. Here's a chance for them to try a training exercise. Again, their willingness to try should be most important.

Two students stand in the center of the circle or at the front of the room. (The circle is better for a more collaborative feeling.) Try a practice run first for all students. Here's how it works:

Student 1 mimes an activity, for example, combing hair.

Student 2 asks, "What are you doing?"

Student 1 names an activity, but it is not the one they are actually doing. For instance, "I'm walking the dog."

Student 2 now has to mime walking the dog. While still miming hair-combing, Student 1 asks, "What are you doing?"

Student 2 names an activity (not walking the dog), and Student 1 has to change to that activity.

The rules are that you have to name an activity within 10 seconds and you can't repeat something someone else already said. Anyone who misses, or repeats, is out and a new student comes in to take his or her place.

The important thing is to keep it moving all the time, so someone is always miming something, to get the energy and concentration up. If the group is large, you may want to break up into 2 or 3 subgroups.

After all students have tried it, you'll have a "winner" but the point is really to encourage effort and reward each student for enthusiasm, involvement, and imagination.

3. Wrap up.

After the improv exercise, discuss what students found funny about it (encourage free-form conversation on this.)

Some of the humor comes from how they expressed themselves physically. Some humor comes from the situation and exercise itself. And some of the humor comes from the "disconnect" between word and action (saying you're walking the dog when obviously you're combing your hair.) Explore this topic, and ask whether they think physical comedy is challenging.

You can bring it back to I Love Lucy at the end. We've explored two reasons why she is an "American Master": because of the skill required to be a great comedian doing physical comedy, and because she broke new ground for women in her career.


Students will be assessed on the quality of their participation in class discussions and the improv exercise. Students should be assessed on willingness to participate as well. Students can also assess one another.

Extension Activities

  1. Connect this lesson plan to other American Masters lessons to develop the theme of "what makes an American Master."
  2. For younger students, you can scale down the discussion and bring in other improv and movement exercises.
  3. For older students, you can include a research paper or presentation on the roots of modern comedy in Italian Commedia dell'Arte (popular all over Europe in the 1600s). Students could also put on a Commedia dell'Arte play.

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