art by Aireen Arellano (to view larger version, click here)
SHOW: I Love Lucy
EPISODE: “The Diet”
FIRST AIRED: Oct. 29, 1951
In “The Diet,” Lucy plunges into a crash diet to wriggle herself into a size 12 dress and into Ricky’s show. It’s no Vitameatavegamin or chocolate factory escapade, but this early episode conflates the most well-worn atoms that floated in the I Love Lucy writers’ brains: Lucy’s infantile desperation to get in the act, the audacious if not admirable extremes to which our heroine resorts to achieve her improbable goal, potent sight gags, a hammy nightclub toe-tapping number at episode’s end, and a common adult issue of the week – in this case, weight consciousness – so “relatable” in that broad sitcom sense that the episode could double as a magazine article. Only the fourth episode produced, “The Diet” is like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, presenting the show’s most vital components in one finely drawn half-hour.
As the episode starts, Lucy proudly declares her weight to her husband and friends, and weighs herself in front of them to prove it. (There is a reason nobody does this in real life.) The results are shocking only to her:
Lucy: “I walked into this room weighing 110! I now weigh 132! That’s 22 pounds in 10 minutes!”
As luck would have it (or as first acts go), Ricky receives a phone call from his nightclub: the girl in his act dropped out, and they need to find a last-minute replacement who fits the dress. Needless to say, Lucy jumps at the chance. Also needless to say, Ricky doesn’t.
He does let her audition, though, and the scene in which Lucy flounders among the prettier tryouts serves as an exemplary display of Lucille Ball’s golden comedic intuition. In an effort to blend in with the icy doll-waist vixens that surround her, Lucy shimmies her pant-legs up and shirt-shoulders down. When Ricky instructs them to dance, the girls step in time, sporting the blank smiles of spokeswomen. Meanwhile, Lucy flails like a four-year-old doing the Charleston in the living room. It’s a great bit of physical comedy for the timeless reason that there’s nothing funnier - or sexier – than a performer choosing goofy over sexy.
Beyond the laughter, the scene has resonance. Whether you’re a daffy housewife in 1951 or a body conscious teenager in 2012, whose heart hasn’t sunk after gloriously failing to live up to standards of skill or appearance? Despite these humiliations (not to mention the particular nausea of having to compete to impress your spouse), Lucy seems to have nothing on her brain but “Gee, this audition is kind of fun!” It’s dramatic universality by way of sitcom slapstick.
Lucy coaxes an agreement from Ricky that if she can fit into the size 12 dress (today’s size 4), she can do the show. She goes on a crash diet and exercise regimen to lose five pounds in three days. After running, jump-roping, and celery-eating herself into a near puddle, she finally resorts to a “human pressure cooker” that amounts to her sweating and steaming the rest of her weight off. Disturbingly, it works. (A “Don’t try this at home, kids!” subtitle would have fit here.)
She sneaks into Ricky’s nightclub act, and although he looks like he wants to vomit when he first sees her onstage, soon even he’s won over by her performance. The resulting “Cuban Pete/Sally Sweet” number is a thrill to watch. It’s one of the few times when Lucy’s showbiz aspirations result in a straightforward victory. Moreover, the scene showcases one of the sitcom’s most durable secret weapons: Desi Arnaz. To say he was one of comedy’s finest straight men is understating it. When Lucy, sauntering across the stage as her wonderfully blasé Sally Sweet, thrusts her hips at Ricky’s Cuban Pete and seemingly causes his hat to fly off with the punctuation of a bass drum hit, it’s a winning example of Lucy and Desi’s unmatchable comedic rapport.
The episode ends with Lucy collapsing backstage due to malnutrition (womp womp). Of course, having her stay in Ricky’s act would be a violation of the show’s DNA. Throughout nine seasons, Lucy continues her campaign to scratch and claw her way onto the stage alongside her husband. It was the sitcom’s subversive central irony bubbling under the seemingly sexist “idiot housewife/annoyed husband” conceit: in a show about a woman vying for validation, admiration, and a life beyond the pre-feminist shackles of domestic life, the audience was already giving it to her in spades.
One more thing:
THIS IS THE TACKIEST DRESS WE HAVE SEEN IN OUR LIVES.
~ C.J. Arellano
About the Art: What better way to launch our site about classic TV reruns than with a nod to retro master Roy Lichtenstein? The background comprised of red-headed whales is a response to the ridiculous “I’m so fat” statement from svelte Lucy. It’s a little rib to girls who make such a declaration among friends, hoping to receive a shower of reassurances to the contrary. ~ Aireen Arellano