Lucy And Desi Director Amy Poehler On How The Legendary Couple Changed Television Forever [Interview]

"Lucy and Desi" is a romantic comedy. It's a documentary, yes, but a romantic comedy nevertheless, about the passion and laughs shared between two people. Those two people, of course, are Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and the duo behind "I Love Lucy," who were responsible for altering the world of television forever, are depicted with nothing but love by director Amy Poehler.

Poehler's film, which tells an epic story with an appropriate briskness and zippiness, is not an inside baseball doc. It's not a Hollywood story patting Hollywood on the back — far from it, in fact. It does celebrate the accomplishments of two groundbreaking entertainers, but it focuses on their love for each other, both as partners and co-workers. "'Lucy and Desi' tells the story of two aspiring entertainers who found love on the way to stardom, and it's that love that made them infinitely more famous than they ever would have been without each other," Ethan Anderton wrote in his review from this year's Sundance Film Festival. "That's the real story." 

Recently, Poehler told us about her experience telling the real story. 

'They innovated, invented, and created so much of what we still do today'

When you got started, what were your preconceptions or images of Lucille and Desi? How'd they evolve when making it?

You use a really good word, "images." We've all seen very iconic images of them, actual pictures and Halloween costumes and drawings and key chains and cartoons. I think when that starts to happen, the "people" part of the person gets a little lost, so the approach was hopefully to try to almost reanimate, remind the audience that they were just human, complicated people in the circus that was this incredible success story.

What about them as the people specifically interested you?

I really liked the way that they approach work differently. I'm always fascinated by process. I watch anything about anything if it's about process because I think it's very natural and human for us to want to know how people approach things. I just thought the way their approaches were so different and how they looked at work was interesting to me.

I think that like most people, I knew Lucy and Desi as these people that lived in the TV world and then I didn't know very much about them before they were introduced to the American public and after they left that show. So those first and third acts were interesting to me, trying to figure out where they came from and what the end of their lives looked like.

As you said, they approached the work differently. You always hear people say, "Oh, everyone has their own approach." Some have to be relatable, though, right?

Oh, for sure. There are a lot of approaches that you see where you're like, "Right, we speak the same language." In fact, I think Vivian Vance and Lucille Ball spoke the same work language. From doing my research, they liked to approach work the same way. They took it very seriously. They loved to rehearse. They loved to discuss.

I feel like there are styles and versions that people share but making that show, people didn't know it at the time, I don't think Lucy and Desi necessarily set out to change the business. But they innovated, invented, and created so much of what we still do today. TV looks very similar to how they decided to make it. I think they would be shocked at how we still make a lot of TV the same way. I just loved how they approached the process of making things in very different ways.

These documentaries could always feel too inside baseball, but what Lucille says at the end, that could connect to so many people. Did you find a lot of their journey, despite their fame, inherently relatable?

If Lucy and Desi worked in, I don't know, a coffee shop and they also had this kind of love story, I just think it's still a worthy story to watch two people who live a life, who come in and out of each other's lives and support each other and are partners. It just so happens that Lucy and Desi were the most famous people in the world, the power couple at a time when America was changing, the industry was changing, and they were two outsiders. They were a woman and a Latin man who forced their way into the room and were able to run it. I mean, that's what I think makes them so modern. They were total disruptors. They figured out a way to take a big swing. It's a story about two people who bet on themselves over and over. That's exciting to watch.

It's also really romantic.

It's so romantic! It's romantic because it's romantic, not because it's romanticized. Love is an emotion that, it's in the title of "I Love Lucy," and it's this emotion that everybody, I don't know, thinks is an easy thing to portray. But it's not — it's very difficult to use compared to sarcasm. Sarcasm, detachment, drama is a lot easier than love. I love that they try to get that in their show, but also that they're really a living example of what the very hard work of loving someone looks like, so we try to show that. The TV show is about rupture and repair: You break it, we'll fix it. But life, the real life that happens beyond that, is a lot more complicated than that.

'Comedy is not built to last'

That final moment between Lucille and Desi is so beautiful. What was your initial reaction to it?

Everybody can relate to this. You do not have to have a TV show that you created to understand what it feels like when you get to get older and look back at a moment in your life where you felt your most powerful, you felt like you were on top of your game, you felt like you were in a partnership working together with someone. When they're watching those episodes together and being able to do that together, being able to be together, even, that is the repair. That is what life gives you. It doesn't give you this perfect family. It doesn't give you this perfect ending. It gives you some version. If you are lucky enough to fight for it, you get some version that looks like that.

Not a perfect ending, but I think what a lot of us hope for is that happy ending.

Yeah. When we end the film five days after Desi Arnaz dies, Lucy is read a letter that he had written to her before he died, at the Kennedy Center. I should point out that both Desi and Lucy had gone on to have successful marriages that lasted longer than their marriage. They were in love with other partners, but yet they meant so much to each other. I think it doesn't matter if it's a platonic relationship, if it's a familiar relationship, if it's a romantic relationship, we all have people in our lives that were with us in this moment when our lives exploded. They're forever attached to us. They were there when we traveled into space. And so, those two were that for each other.

When you watch Lucille Ball act, you see the precision and practice involved, but as a performer yourself, what do you see when she's performing?

I think comedy is one of those art forms, when it's done really well it looks really easy and you think everybody can do it. You really watch Lucy's incredible, specific choices, the way she plays everything is so real and grounded. I think the reason why we can still watch the show is that even the surreal silly places, Lucille is right in the moment. She's feeling it in real time, she's playing it to the height of her intelligence. She's bringing all her incredible skill to it.

I think what, first glance and first watch, I thought was just like this big, silly thing, when I started watching it again, I realized, "Look at what she's doing there. Look at how incredible her work is there." Now that I know how much time she put into it and how hard she worked, it's really impressive.

Comedies can age very fast, but how do you think they can last? 

Well, it's not easy and we all know over and over again, that comedy is not built to last. One of the things I think that helps the show still remain very watchable is that they weren't topical. They were just talking about character-based experiences and kind of the typical domestic world. And also, I think you have to remember the context in which we were watching a husband and wife and the working husband and the more domestically-centered wife, you have to just remember the context in which it was made. I think, as far as some comedies from 70 years ago, it's a lot more watchable than most things.

'It was completely novel at the time'

Desi sometimes felt overshadowed. It's an insecurity, but it's funny how that has remained: The typical "straight man" role in comedy is often overlooked. What about him as a comedic performer do you appreciate?

Totally, I know. When you watch Desi again, I'm just very moved by how present he was. English was not his first language and acting was not his first skill. He's a musician who grew up speaking Spanish, so he's doing two things that are not like his fastball. And yet, he's still so present and funny and charismatic. I think it's important to underline that Desi specifically made sure that [the character of Desi] was not a joke. He wasn't made fun of, he wasn't a fool, he wasn't a maniac, he wasn't oversexed. He did not play in the Latin stereotypes at a time when a lot of stereotypes like that were around. 

Desi fought to make sure that Ricky was classy and in control and high status. We heard from so many people that, growing up, how much that meant to them that they saw somebody like that. It reminded them of their uncle from Cuba or their dad and the way he conducted himself in his home, just the idea that this Latin male experience was being done by somebody who felt it and owned it. It was completely novel at the time.

Like you said, those talents are never effortless. The doc highlights that fact, but people make that "effortless" assumption a lot.

No, I don't think it is because you even have to just learn to not try, if that makes sense. I guess every once in a while, there's a fully formed genius comedic person who just is carried from the cradle onto the stage. For most people, it's 10 years of hard work to get that chance to be seen. That's why Lucy and Desi are mature. They've been married for a long time, 10 years when we meet them, and they're ready. They're not discovered in a soda shop. They've been on the road, they're really confident in their skill, and they're really ready, but yet they're like this new thing. So it's so super interesting to see two people that are poised and ready. They're like athletes, they're peaking at just the right time. And just like an athlete, everybody watches the NBA and then they go outside and they're like, "I could do that." Okay, give it a try, sport.

[Laughs] Right. Like, Prince didn't stop working hard just because he became Prince.

That's a perfect example. Perfect example. I was just rewatching his Super Bowl performance the other day. I was like, "Look at this guy. He did not have to work this hard," and he was crushing it on every level and caring.

"Lucy and Desi" is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.