Best Episode Ever # 43: ‘I Love Lucy’
The release of a few classic television series on Blu-ray next month has me going old school for Best Episode Ever. “I Love Lucy” Ultimate Season 1 is out on Blu-ray May 6, along with “The Andy Griffith Show” Season 1 and the complete “Honeymooners” Blu-ray. I knew it was unlikely that the first season of “I Love Lucy” would contain its Best Episode Ever, although “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” is a serious contender. However, the first season certainly gave me a sense of how “I Love Lucy” operated in order to single out its best example.
“I Love Lucy” episodes were usually a steady buildup to a climactic comedy set piece. It would be amusing throughout, but it wouldn’t really explode until Lucille Ball did her piece de resistance of the week. When it comes to the Best Episode Ever, there’s a reason “Job Switching” always shows up in “Lucy” montages. It’s not because the candy conveyor belt is her greatest set piece. It’s not. That would be the Vitameatavegamen commercial. “Job Switching” is the Best Episode Ever for the sheer volume of comedy set pieces alone.
The setup is simple, if a bit sexist in an innocent 1950s way. Ricky (Desi Arnaz) complains that Lucy wouldn’t spend so much money if she had to work for it. Lucy (Ball) claims working isn’t so hard. As all sitcoms, neigh all comedies dictate, they make a bet and Lucy goes to work while Ricky stays home to take care of the house. Fred (William Frawley) and Ethel (Vivian Vance) get in on the action too, and we have a two pronged story where Ricky and Fred screw up basic housework, and Lucy and Ethel get in way over their heads at a candy factory.
The setup is a little funnier than the usual “I Love Lucy” episode, or at least more adorable. At breakfast, Lucy plays the oblivious husband role, reading the newspaper and ignoring Ricky. She does catch a flying piece of toast, because I guess she couldn’t contain herself from doing something physically genius. It turns out Ricky couldn’t even cook breakfast and lied about getting it from a drug store. Poor Fred wants a kiss before Ethel leaves for work. Aww.
The employment agency Lucy and Ethel go to is like a Vaudeville act. Trying to bluff their way into a job, any job, becomes a sort of “Who’s on First?” routine with the employment agent. He asks, “What do you do?” Lucy asks, “What jobs do you have?” Over and over until he finally suggests the women go first, when Lucy impeccably replies, “What do you do?” She reversed the conversation for the joke, not for the plot. When trying to describe her skills, she mimes typing, and both Lucy and Ethel make funny faces at the list of jobs available.
By the way, the candy factory is called Kramer’s Candy Kitchen, but how much do you want to be they alliterate and spell the middle word with a K too? Is that a KKK joke in the ‘50s? Or did they just mean Cramer’s Candy Citchen? We never see a sign. I bet a writer hurriedly thought of a generic candy store name without even realizing the implications. Before we get there though, we get some jokes about Ricky and Fred ironing, and Ricky pulls out a giant, flat silk stocking prop to indicate his oblivious laundry skills. Lucille Ball was tall, but that leg-shaped prop was too big to ever be on any woman’s leg.
The best sequence at the factory isn’t even the famous conveyor belt scene. Lucy works dipping chocolate, and this sequence is pure Lucille Ball creating all the comedy herself, whereas the conveyor belt has her reacting to something. Ball hams it up while splashing around in chocolate, dealing with an itch, and chasing a fly around the room which is really only a buzzing sound effect. She’s doing all the work.
Back home, Ricky and Fred have some trouble in the kitchen. Fred’s botched cake is a funny prop, but Ricky’s cooking leads to chickens falling from the ceiling. Chickens are automatically funny, but when they start washing them in the kitchen sink, that’s pretty genius. Pretty soon, the rice overflows and Ricky is scooping it up with a broom. It’s not often we got to see the boys of “I Love Lucy” in comedic action and they’re damn good at it too.
Then comes the conveyor belt scene which you’ve surely seen in every montage. When the conveyor belt gets too fast, Lucy and Ethel start eating candies to prevent any from going through unwrapped. It’s a cute bit and a fine way to climax the episode, but I was more impressed by the chocolate dipping and the kitchen explosion, although maybe just because I hadn’t seen those scenes over and over again.
“Job Switching” is a season two episode, but if the Season 1 Blu-ray is any indication, it will look just as great when they release the next set. The episodes look at sharp and clear as they ever did on television, which is actually an even bigger feat because in the ‘50s, nobody watched “I Love Lucy” on a 50” or larger TV. It was designed for 12”, maybe 19” for fancy rich people, but it’s been remastered to look great on modern HDTVs.
The original Phillip Morris animated openings are pretty amazing to watch too, although you’ll get sick of them after an episode or two. Yes, they used to sell cigarettes on TV and claim that their cigarettes were healthier than the rest. Wow. Ball and Arnaz probably had no choice but to endorse them, and the new Blu-rays are very clear that these are presented in historical context only, not to condone smoking.
There are already so many bonus features on “I Love Lucy” Ultimate Season 1 that I wonder if they’ll have any more for Season 2. Of course, Season 2 will come with the best bonus feature of all: “Job Switching,” the Best Episode Ever.