I got some messages during the course of this that I didn’t put enough Lucy on here, some of which were probably accurate. Hurt feelings compelled me to put a bonus one on here earlier, but I’m not really going to count it for the purposes of this review. Mostly because I wrote the rest of this before doing the new addition. But after writing this paragraph. Crazy.
This is the second I Love Lucy episode on this list… and are any of you actually surprised? It’s I Love Lucy. The show has been re-run consistently for 50 years. People still love it. I wouldn’t have felt like I was making a huge mistake if I’d given it 20 spots on the list, I just realized that most of the episodes are pretty similar. I almost put on the episode with Lucy telling Ricky she’s pregnant, just because the look on his face singing “We’re Having a Baby, My Baby and Me” is priceless. If you ask me to watch a random episode of this show or watch basically any reality show, I’d say “Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do!” To those of you who want to point out that Ricky never actually said that: I DON’T CARE.
Quick Recap: The show had a pretty general premise. Lucille “Lucy” Esmeralda McGillicuddy Ricardo and Enrique “Ricky” Alberto Fernando y de Acha Ricardo III (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz) are married and they live in an apartment in New York, where they frequently interact with their friends and landlords Fred and Ethel Mertz (William Frawley and Vivian Vance). Ricky is a popular bandleader and singer at a club. Lucy is a housewife who dreams of stardom, despite her complete lack of talent, leading her to do things that usually are described with “Hijinks Ensue.” Also, credit to her, Lucille Ball’s greatest talent is her incredible ability to play someone without any talent whatsoever.
Most people don’t know, however, that the show was actually supposed to be an adaptation of the radio show My Favorite Husband, which Ball had been on for several years. Originally, they wanted her to switch to TV with her radio co-star Richard Denning, but she requested that her husband on the show be her real-life husband Desi Arnaz. When CBS said they didn’t think that people would buy her being married to a Cuban (despite the fact that she actually had been married to one for 10 years by this point), she and Arnaz made a vaudeville act that they toured around which became a hit. So, CBS decided to take a chance on Ball. At the same time, My Favorite Husband ended, so Ball managed to get the writers of that show to come to write for I Love Lucy. And greatness was born.
This episode was done to get around the censors. Back in the 1950s, the FCC had pretty strict rules on what could go on TV compared to today. They could ban any scenes which contained either “obscene” material, like nudity, and, during the times children would be awake, “indecent” material, like showing a married couple sharing a bed. The show had already shown that the Ricardos had twin beds, and would later get around the ban on the word “Pregnant” by using other words, including “enceinte.” However, this episode had to get around something bigger: The ban on showing drunkenness on camera. And their solution was amazing.
The episode starts with Lucy doing what she does best: Failing. Specifically, failing at darning socks to the point that she sewed the top up. Ricky receives a phone call saying that he has to pick a girl to do a commercial for one of the sponsors of his band’s upcoming television special. Lucy immediately tries to convince him to pick her, but he refuses and leaves for rehearsal. Fred comes over and agrees to help Lucy pitch a commercial to Ricky. When Ricky comes back, Lucy appears within the TV re-enacting one of the Phillip Morris ads that usually appeared on the show.* Lucy proceeds to try to go through the entire ad, but Ricky decides to plug in the TV, which causes a small explosion from the TV. Lucy leaves the TV, and upsets Ricky by revealing that she disassembled the TV so she could get in… despite the fact that the TV would have slid out of the frame easily.
The Next Day, Ricky asks Fred to wait for the call from the girl he picked so that he can tell her where to go to film the ad, but Lucy convinces Fred to let her answer the phone. Naturally, she tells the girl who calls that the show is cancelled and decides to go herself.
Okay, so, the next scene is how they got around the censors. The show cuts to the set of the commercial, where the commercial film crew is talking about the product, a health tonic named:
Truly the greatest title ever given to a product. Suck it, Pocket Fisherman.
While discussing the tonic, the script clerk begins to read off the ingredients as the director walks away. “It’s got everything in it. Meat, vegetables, minerals, vitamins,” then, after the director leaves, “alcohol 23%.” This makes Vitameatavegamin stronger than the US allows for fortified wines.
Lucy arrives, using her maiden name “Lucille McGillicuddy” to avoid anyone associating her with Ricky. The Script Clerk leaves without telling anyone about his discovery of the ingredients, and Lucy does a dry run of the commercial, which is fast-paced and contains a lot of alliteration, including taking a tablespoon of the tonic (which tastes awful, by her expression).
The director makes her go through several more takes, each time having Lucy take another spoonful of the tonic. Ricky then shows up and sees Lucy preparing for the commercial. The Director says it’s too late to find another woman, so Ricky agrees to let her appear in the commercial. After Ricky leaves, Lucy runs through several more takes, slowly getting more and more intoxicated (without anyone knowing what’s happening).
Lucy then runs through the commercial over and over again, completely botching it as she unintentionally gets completely hammered. Since it’s Lucille Ball, she proceeds to go over-the-top crazy with the performance to the point that it’s basically every drunk person every screaming “I’m fine, I swear, I’m fine” trying to deliver a very complicated speech. And it is beautiful. It’s genuinely impressive that Ball can so believably say all of the spoonerized lines so quickly. Then, finally, she breaks all pretense of acting and just starts chugging the bottle until the director sends her to a dressing room to lie down.
Ricky returns to host the show, and starts to perform his opening musical number, when Lucy stumbles back onto the set of the commercial. She then sees Ricky performing and, as most women were in the 1950s, finds Ricky damned sexy when he’s singing in Spanish. Lucy, too drunk to remember that Ricky is on live TV, or at least too drunk to care, decides to join him and starts singing, badly, when he tries to carry on with the show. If you’ve ever played “Livin’ on a prayer” at a wedding, it’s like the people singing along with that. Finally, a plastered Lucy starts to deliver her commercial monologue, before Ricky desperately carries her off stage.
Alright, so, why is this episode so great?
Lucille. Désirée. Ball.
Look, no description is going to really do this episode justice. Lucille Ball was one of the best physical performers to ever grace the screen. She studied clowning to master the faces, only she didn’t wear the horrifying make-up or the stupid pants. Her timing is almost supernaturally good when she gets going, and it turns out that having to pretend to be a drunk was basically the best set-up you could give her.
When I first watched this, I compared it to the “$99,000 Answer” from The Honeymooners, but the message is actually more tragic and therefore more comical. In the “$99,000 Answer,” Ralph Kramden’s humiliation comes from the fact that he focused so hard on the end that he stumbled at the start. Here, Lucy’s dreams of stardom aren’t dashed due to her own failings. Sure, she had to act a little unethically to get the part, but, really, that was just to counter the fact that Ricky refused to ever give her a fair chance. When it came down to it, she was actually doing the commercial pretty much the way that it was supposed to be done. The Director even convinced Ricky she was doing a great job. She didn’t know, or have any reason to suspect, that there was a ton of alcohol in the tonic. She did everything right, it just happens that she was being sabotaged without her knowledge. More than that, she was being sabotaged without anyone’s knowledge. Her aspirations were destroyed by bad luck. Objectively, what you’re watching was a tragic occurrence.
The core of comedy is being able to subvert the sad and the tragic, and this is someone actually using the very thing that’s causing their downfall to create humor. And since most of it is derived from physical comedy and spoonerisms, it is basically universally funny. It’s the perfect clowning performance.
When this first aired, 68% of the television audience at the time watched it. Yeah, there were only four channels, but that was more than 15% higher than the lead-in, and more than 30% over the following show Life with Luigi, so you can’t just pretend that this was a normal occurrence. Vitameatavegamin basically became shorthand for the show. For example, to celebrate Lucille Ball’s 100th Birthday, Lucy look-a-likes gathered under a sign for the fake company. That’s how much this episode stood out, even among the other great episodes of the show.
Best episode of probably the most famous show of all time. I guess that’s really the TL;DR here.
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*This is a moment for a brief aside: Phillip Morris Cigarettes, while they are mass-killing monsters who spent billions of dollars trying to get children addicted to nicotine, were also the only sponsors of I Love Lucy for the first few seasons. They also were probably one of the only sponsors who would have agreed to allow the show to be recorded on film (in exchange for $1000/week out of Lucy and Desi’s pay), which is the reason why the show was able to be re-run at full quality, which basically re-shaped television forever. Doesn’t make up for all the cancer, but history is complicated, I guess.