Wednesday, May 04, 2011


To succeed in comedy on television, I believe it is necessary to excel at physical comedy.

Now, personally, I appreciate the good writing that some of the really great comedies have in common — but it takes a talented performer to coax genuine laughter from the audience.

You know what I mean. There are laughs that are little more than polite titters that practically scream "I know I'm supposed to laugh at this part and I feel obligated to do so, but I just don't feel it."

And then there are the belly laughs, the I–couldn't–keep–from–laughing–if–you–held–a–gun–to–my–head kind of laughs. More often than not, these laughs are evoked by good physical comedy.

The really great ones make it look effortless. But, as Johnny Carson once observed to someone who bombed while filling in for him during his vacation, it ain't as easy as it looks.

It does help, though, if the story has an established joke that can be exaggerated in some way. On May 5, 1952, that rare combination of material and talent occurred in a memorable way on I Love Lucy.

The show was nearing the end of its first season. It had been established early in the series that Lucy (Lucille Ball) wanted to break into show business and believed that Ricky (Desi Arnaz) was actively trying to prevent her from doing so.

By the evening of May 5, 1952, audiences needed no reminders. They were prepared for what they would see.

Well, maybe not.

What they saw was a truly remarkable example of physical comedy. In its way, I think, it was every bit as impressive as the extraordinary physical comedy routines of some of the stars of the silent film era (i.e., Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin) or the great mimes (i.e., Marcel Marceau) — or Lucy's TV contemporaries (i.e., Dick Van Dyke).

In the 1950s — and beyond — commercial spots often were done live from the TV studio. In the context of this story, Lucy's assignment was to do a TV commercial for a health tonic called "Vitameatavegamin," a product that contained "vitamins, meat, vegetables and minerals" — but Lucy didn't know it was also 23% alcohol.

And that — along with a repeated sales pitch that was virtually flawless in the rehearsals but got increasingly out of hand as the alcohol in the product began to take effect — was what that night 59 years ago was about. But not entirely.

The early part of the script was really used to set up Lucy's monologue, and the last part tried valiantly to tie together all the loose ends, but that half hour was really all about Lucy and her gift for physical comedy ...

... that so natural, involuntary shudder when she swallowed a spoonful of tonic that was "tasty ... just like candy" or when, clearly intoxicated, she kept observing that "it's hot in here."

If you ever doubted that Lucy was the best, watch the attached clip.