by Aprille Hanson
In a recent fan-voted tournament of the Greatest Sitcom Episode by The Word, fans were given iconic episodes to rank from some of the best classic and modern shows ever to grace television -- “M*A*S*H,” “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “The Office,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Good Place” and a whole host of others. There were 68 episodes in all to choose from and I was thrilled when the final result was “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” from the 1952 season one, episode 30 of “I Love Lucy.”
It’s my favorite ‘Lucy’ episode, but I was still shocked it was the winner, purely because of all the modern shows mixed in that could have attracted younger viewers to vote for the newbies. But it really goes to show that the series not only transcends generations, but this episode specifically is so important to the history of comedy.
It’s always been Lucy’s goal to be a star, and when husband Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz) doesn’t let her do a TV commercial, she takes matters into her own hands, answering the call from the actress telling her they found someone else.
Lucy of course shows up and hilarity ensues when she must taste the Vitameatavegamin medicine over and over again throughout the course of filming, despite the fact it contains 23 percent alcohol. She soon becomes intoxicated and the Vitameatavegamin speech is as iconic as her mannerisms, hiccups, facial expressions and chugging the bottle of medicine by the final take.
The fact that this episode is from season one shows just how genius the show was at the time. TV Guide ranked it as the No. 2 and then No. 4, 1997 and 2009 respectively, on their list of “TV’s Top 100 Episodes of All Time.” According to IMDB.com, it was Ball’s favorite episode of the series.
The episode is more than just a classic. Ball’s Vitameatavegamin scene was a roadmap for every female comedian. In 2017, it was revealed in Architectural Digest that actress Laura Dern owns the dress Ball wore in the episode. In 2013, the actress told the Los Angeles Times that “Lucille Ball was a huge influence on me,” when it came to her character Amy Jellicoe in the critically-acclaimed HBO series “Enlightened.”
In 2011, the 100th anniversary of Ball’s birthday, Entertainment Weekly ranked what female comedians were considered “the new Lucy,” ranking Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Debra Messing. There really can’t be a “new” Lucy, but influences are certainly drawn from Ball. According to a 2011 article on TheMortonReport.com, the author notes how Lucy’s influences are seen in Kristen Wiig’s “Saturday Night Live” big-eyed, slapstick characters to even the dynamic of characters Jay and Gloria Pritchett on “Modern Family,” a reverse play on Ricky and Lucy. As “Modern Family” wrapped up its 11th and final season on April 8, a special that played prior to the finale showed Sofia Vergara explaining how she hadn’t seen a true Latin depiction like herself on television since Ricky Ricardo.
Most poignantly, comedian Carol Burnett was influenced by Ball and explained in 2019 to the Detroit Free Press how far comedy for women has come: “When I started out, the main one was Lucy and that was it. And now you’ve got Tina and Amy and Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon and Maya Rudolph and Jane Lynch and on and on.”
While Lucy’s drunken state has no doubt been studied by female comedians, “Will & Grace” in the April 9 airing of “We Love Lucy,” paid direct tribute to the show and scene, with red-haired comedian Debra Messing playing verbatim Lucy’s Vitameatavegamin scene. She told Entertainment Weekly she felt “complete terror at first” because she had just a week to prepare for the reenactment of the scene.
“So, I had (the original) scene, and I would watch it over and over and over and over again and listen to it like music,” she said and did the seven minute-run in one take.
Though she explained she had several influences, like Burnett, Ball was the emotional attachment, saying in part that while growing up in East Greenwich, R.I., “TV was my life, being able to sort of escape into other worlds. And it was ‘I Love Lucy’ that just literally lit me up.”
Lucy for me has always been nostalgia. I grew up watching “I Love Lucy” with my grandparents and laughed out loud as a 6-year-old kid just as much as I laugh today at Lucy’s crazy antics. For as much as Ball influenced so many after her, we will never truly see another just like her. Her legacy is perfectly encapsulated in “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” and it’s why it should always rank No. 1.
The Word’s Greatest Sitcom Episode Tournament: Top 40