98. "Lucy and the Loving Cup," I Love Lucy (1957)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
Multi-camera sitcoms aren’t able to do “odyssey” episodes too often, as stories about characters surmounting various obstacles to get home (or anywhere) are pretty difficult to stage. But I Love Lucy was up to the challenge here, contriving to give its protagonist temporary blindness and then stranding her on the New York City subway.
In his classic book Classic Sitcoms (now posted entirely online), Vince Waldron writes that in the best I Love Lucy scripts, "a perfectly ordinary situation — [such as] packing the family car — soon blossoms, in small, logical steps, to heights of absurdity."
The difficulty of coming up with those small, logical steps is the reason that there have been so few successful sitcoms in the Lucy mode, despite its huge popularity. (Well, that and the difficulty of finding a performer who can give an impeccable comic performance even when her head is completely hidden.) I quite like the elegant way Lucy's writers get that loving cup stuck on her head at the beginning of this episode. She doesn't fall down the stairs while carrying it, and it doesn't fall from a window onto her noggin. No, she deliberately wedges it on, wearing it as a hat to get back at Ricky for making fun of her haberdashery. But then she can't get it off, Ethel suggests the subway as the quickest way to get to a silversmith who's about to close up shop, the girls get separated in the crowd...
The one false move — the quick, small, and completely unncecessary action — that ruins someone's life (or at least one's afternoon) is a mainstay of both drama and comedy. Though she doesn't keep saying it, you can be sure that Lucy Ricardo spends most of this episode asking herself, "Why? Why did I have to do something so dumb?" And that's a feeling everyone has had at some point or another. Which is why the "small, logical step" approach to comedy can be so much more effective than the "let's just make this character look as stupid as possible" approach.
Besides Lucille Ball's usual commitment to an absurd situation, a lot of I Love Lucy fans love this episode because the scenes on the subway give it a New York feel that's rare on this series.
Full I Love Lucy episodes are not on YouTube but some are posted at various websites; Google the name of the episode to see what's there. It might also turn up at CBS.com, which seems to rotate the episodes available for live streaming.