9. "Lucy Does a TV Commercial," I Love Lucy (1952)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 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 on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
This is a list of the top 100 sitcom episodes, not scenes, and a lot of funny moments didn't make the cut because they came in the middle of dull stories. "Lucy Does a TV Commercial" is a very simple story, but it perfectly sets up one of the most iconic scenes in television history.
Director: Mrs. Magillicuddy, are you feeling all right?
Lucy: Oh, I feel fine, but it's awfully hot in here!
"Lucy Does a TV Commercial" is the oldest entry on the list, first airing near the end of the show's first season, in May 1952. At the time, most TV comedy came in the form of sketches on variety shows (starring Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, etc.). One of the most popular sketch comedians was Red Skelton, whose eponymous show premiered 15 days before I Love Lucy did and finished in fourth place, just behind Lucy, in the season's Nielsen ratings. At the 1951 Emmy Awards, which aired in February, Skelton beat Ball in the category of "best comedian or comedienne."
An example of Skelton's humor is in the clip below, which is from the 1945 film Ziegfeld Follies, a plotless selection of vaudeville acts. "Guzzler's Gin," in which a spokesman gets increasingly sloshed on his product, would have been well-known to Lucille Ball (who also appeared in Ziegfeld) and was an obvious influence on her Vitameatavegamin routine.
Skelton's routine is well-suited for a live theater audience, but I Love Lucy was after something else. Its huge success came from the desire of viewers to get familiar with the same characters week after week, as opposed to comedy bits created from scratch. When the sitcom vanquished the variety show, we lost a lot in terms of range and experimentation, but character depth brought more resonant and sophisticated comedy.
The big difference between "Guzzler's Gin" and "Lucy Does a TV Commercial" is that Lucy Ricardo has a past and a future. We know her as tenacious and resourceful, and we know she will do anything to break into show business. What makes the Vitameatavegamin scene funnier than Skelton's routine is that we know how much Lucy had to go through to get the pitchman's job and we wonder what's going to happen to her afterward. One of the reasons Lucy has to descend into drunkenness so slowly is that the threat of Ricky's "I told you so" is hanging over her, and she's highly motivated to fight off the effects of intoxication for as long as possible.
The funniest moment may be Lucy's first taste of Vitameatavegamin, which shocks her with its foulness and potency. There seems to be a moment of regret that she tricked her way into getting the job, and perhaps she's thinking ahead to all of the terrible stuff she'll have to swallow to get her dream career in front of the camera. But she forges on ("tastes like candy!"), as she will in so many future episodes of I Love Lucy. I love her stoic nod when she hasn't yet shown enough enthusiasm for the product and the director yells, "Nope, once more!"
And this is the essence of most sitcoms: characters who forge ahead no matter what, with many trying endless schemes toward the same goal in the hope that they will finally prevail. "Lucy Does a TV Commercial" remains one of the best salutes to this indefatigability.
Lucy: (after several rehearsals) Well, I'm your Vitavigavegivat Girl. Are you tired, run down, listless? Do you pop out at parties? Are you unpoopular? Well, are you? The answer to all your problems is in this little ol' bottle, Vitameatavegamin. (checks the label) Yep, that's it! Vitameatavegamin contains vitamins, meat, megetables and vinerals. So why don't you join the thousands of happy, peppy people and get a great big bottle of Vitaveative-meany-miny-moe.
• Lucy's first plan to get the Vitameatavegamin gig is to take out the guts of the Ricardos' TV set, stick her head through the back, and put on a "show" to impress Ricky. He responds by flashing a devilish grin and plugging in the set in an apparent attempt to electrocute her. It's funny enough (as is the gag about Lucy stupidly disassembling the TV set into a million pieces instead of just pulling out the chassis), but this scene is rather vaudevillian in its race to an easy joke. As I Love Lucy evolved, and especially after the birth of Little Ricky, the show aimed for more character-based slapstick and avoided any implication that it's characters actually wanted to harm each other.
• You can find "Lucy Does a TV Commercial" all over the Internet, but usually in grainy clips.
A fairly high-quality version of the Vitameatavegaminscene is at the Archive of American Television website (bottom left column), but a middle section, where Ricky confronts Lucy, is edited out.