We're continuing this periodic summer project where we revisit classic sitcom episode. This week we're going waaaay back to the 1950s for one of the most famous television half hours of them all: “Job Switching,” from “I Love Lucy” season 2, coming up just as soon as I show you the creases on these silk stockings…
“Job Switching,” which first aired in 1952, is by far going to be the oldest episode we do in this series (unless “The Honeymooners” magically starts streaming before the summer is out), and I'm going to be very curious for your reactions to it. Ken Levine occasionally will do posts where he asks his readers what they think of vintage sitcom episodes, and the reaction tends to be mixed, and leaning more towards negative among people who didn't grow up in one of the previous peak periods for multi-cam comedy.
In terms of sitcoms that have any resemblance to or influence on the shows we watch today, you can't go back any further than “I Love Lucy.” There had been TV comedies before, many of them adapted from radio series like “The Goldbergs” and “Amos & Andy,” and there had even been shows with laughtracks before (“The Hank McCune Show” is apparently the series that introduced that enduring concept.) Filmed in front of a live studio audience (and recorded in a manner that allowed the show to endure in syndication long after many of its contemporaries had vanished), “Lucy” has its fingerprints in every multi-camera sitcom that came after, and in some of the single-cam ones, too. (Both the European vacation season and the Hollywood season were serialized and self-aware in a way that much later comedies would try.)
The Short Version For Newbies: Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) is the bored, fearless, clumsy wife of bandleader Ricky Ricardo, forever getting into trouble because of her desire for adventure, glamour, or to be part of Ricky's showbiz life. They live in a small apartment near retired vaudevillians Fred (William Frawley) and Ethel (Vivian Vance).
If there was ever a Sitcom Scene Hall of Fame, you could come up with a fine inaugural class based just on “Lucy” sequences: the grape stomping in Italy, Lucy getting increasingly drunk as she films a TV commercial, Lucy and Harpo Marx re-enacting the “Duck Soup” mirror scene, Lucy's fake nose catching on fire in front of William Holden, etc.
But at the front of the line would be Lucy and Ethel trying desperately to keep up with the pace of the chocolate conveyer belt. It's a perfect bit of slapstick that just builds and builds as the belt goes faster and it becomes more obvious that, as the women say, they're fighting a losing battle.
It's so good, in fact – and functions so well independently of the episode that it appears in every special on the history of TV comedy – that it can be surprising to watch “Job Switching” for the first time in a while (or ever) and see that it's just one of several big comic set pieces (albeit the best of those). Right before the conveyer belt scene, for instance, we get Ricky and Fred fighting their own losing battle against the four pounds of rice that are threatening to flood the Ricardo family kitchen, and before that we get Lucy's silent fight with the chocolate-dipping woman, and even smaller but still potent sequences like Lucy trying to outmaneuver the man at the employment agency and Ricky struggling with the ironing. It's an episode that isn't content to rest on its laurels knowing it has the one scene well in hand; it wants to keep that studio audience doubled over as long as possible, and in a way that will also play big to the folks at home.
The episode also fits the same kind of mode as our last entry, “Theo's Holiday,” in giving us a bunch of characters wildly upending their lives for a few days solely to win an argument. This used to be a more popular trope than it is today, and it's very hard to pull off without feeling broad, artificial and, well, sitcom-y, but of course here is the show that invented so much of the language of sitcoms. In this 1950s context, it still doesn't feel especially real – does Ricky just give the band the week off, without pay? – but nor does it feel in any way out of keeping with the usual hilarity that ensued in that apartment. Even shows of the period that aspired to more kitchen-sink realism (say, “The Honeymooners”) weren't above wacky hijinks of this sort. It's just what was expected, and what worked – and when the execution is this strong, transcends eras.
Of course, certain elements have not aged as well over the ensuing 62 years. While the episode acknowledges that Ricky and Fred are as terrible at the household chores as the women are of being factory workers, the episode from beginning to end takes a paternalistic/chauvinistic view on the ladies' understanding of money and being out in the real world. They belong at home in the kitchen, just as the men have no business being there. I once had a roommate who loved both female-driven comedy and movies and TV shows of the '50s, and she always refused to watch “I Love Lucy” because she found the sexism too hard to take, despite Ball's physical comedy genius. (My wife insisted on watching this one with me and my daughter the first time, just so she could keep reminding her how much things have changed.) Now, you never want to dismiss a historical work of art for reflecting the social mores of the time in which it was made, but I will not be surprised in the slightest if it's too big a turn-off, even with Lucy stuffing bon-bons into her mouth, hat and bra.
Coming up next: I thought long and hard about which “Cheers” episode to use. The two-part first season finale that brings the simmering Sam and Diane sexual tension to full boil? The first “Bar Wars,” where Wade Boggs gets panted? Ultimately, I settled on season 5's “Thanksgiving Orphans,” which has its own time-capsule sequence involving messy food and isn't as continuity-dependent as that first season finale. Not sure when that'll be, but hopefully sometime within the next couple of weeks.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org