Great musical humor in “I Love Lucy”

Lucy and EthelSitcoms do not often use musical humor. “I Love Lucy,” by contrast, represents a high watermark of such humor. The reason? The show’s premise involves a bandleader and his bumbling wife who strives to get into show business. The combination of Lucille Ball’s comedic timing, the writing, and the chemistry between the four primary actors delivered iconic episodes that remain widely watched over half a century after they first aired. Often, the comedy originates in the contrast between what is going on musically and what is going on visually. Here is an overview of the episodes that used musical humor. While there are more episodes than this in which humor occurs during musical numbers (such as the episode where Ricky learns Lucy is pregnant while serenading the audience), I’ve focused on those episodes where music is used specifically for humorous effect.

Season 1
  • Episode 2, “Be a Pal” (Oct. 22, 1951). Thinking Ricky is homesick for Cuba, Lucy performs as Carmen Miranda, replete with towering fruit headdress. Naturally, something goes awry. While she lip-synchs, the record first gets stuck, then gets bumped into high speed. Lucy attempts to keep up, amping her movements into fast motion.
  • Episode 6, “The Audition” (Nov. 5, 1951 — reworking of an unaired pilot). Lucy conspires to fill in for an injured clown in Ricky’s nightclub act. She impersonates a clownish cellist who auditions to be in the band, and launches a series of musical gags featuring the cello and bow.
  • Episode 13, “The Benefit” (Jan. 7, 1952). When Ethel wants Ricky to be in her benefit show, Lucy insists that the only way to get Ricky is to let her be in it too. But her attempt to sing “Shine on Harvest Moon” reveals that she sounds horrible. In one of my favorite gags, she practices singing her scales at the piano. The first few times, she has trouble singing the final note when she reaches the last note of the octave—nothing comes out. Then on her final try, the doorbell buzzes right at the same moment. A superb example of musical humor. Ricky later brings her the song “Auf Wiedersehen, My Dear”, because it will “fit” her voice. All she has to do is sing “Auf”—which comes out sounding like a dog’s bark.
  • Episode 14, “The Amateur Hour” (Jan. 14, 1952). Lucy appears in an amateur music revue with two twin boys, the three dressed as cowboys and singing a silly song, “Cowboy Ragtime Joe.” The best part comes when the tempo switches into high gear and Lucy improvises a crazy mashup of dance styles.
  • Episode 28, “Cuban Pals” (Apr. 21, 1952). Jealous of a showgirl who knew Ricky from Havana, Lucy and Ethel dress as cleaning help to spy on the rehearsal for the song “The Lady in Red.” Their slapstick humor while pretending to clean the stage ends up with a bucket of water dumped on Lucy’s head.
  • Season 2
  • Episode 2, “The Saxophone” (Sep. 22, 1952). Lucy plots to join Ricky’s band for a series of one-night engagements by playing the saxophone. There’s just one problem. She only knows one song, “Glow Worm,” and plays it poorly. Her feeble attempts to solo create some great comic moments.
  • Episode 5, “The Operetta” (Oct. 13, 1952). Lucy and Ethel write an operetta as a fundraiser. Not only are the songs ridiculous, but the cast thwarts Lucy from singing in her dreadful off-key voice by constantly interrupting her solo, “Camille, Queen of the Gypsies,” whenever she opens her mouth.
  • Episode 9, “Ricky Loses His Voice” (Dec. 1, 1952). When Ricky is forced to rest due to laryngitis, Lucy tries to be helpful by putting together his show. Except that she bungles the arrangements and hires five old, retired burlesque dancers instead of five young beauties for Ricky’s song “Sweet and Lovely.”
  • Episode 12, “Lucy’s Show Biz Swan Song” (Dec. 22, 1952). Lucy wants to join as the fourth barbershop quartet member in a Gay 90s Revue with Ricky, Fred, and Ethel. But her attempts to sing harmony—or even to find the pitch Ethel plays on the piano—are fraught with problems and create some great comedic moments. Lucy eventually manages to infiltrate the quartet on stage (of course). The others don’t discover the ruse until part-way through the song “Sweet Adeline,” and try to shut Lucy up by sticking shaving cream brushes in Lucy’s mouth whenever she tries to sing.
  • Episode 24, “The Indian Show” (May 4, 1953). Lucy persuades a singer to trade places with her for Ricky’s nightclub act singing “By the Waters of the Minnetonka.” The call-and-response format of the song, contrasting Ricky’s rich baritone with Lucy’s nasally whine, offers plenty of comedy, especially when Ricky changes the lyrics to try to summon Lucy off the stage.
  • Season 3
  • Episode 1, “Ricky’s Life Story” (Oct. 5, 1953). Lucy gets back at Ricky by upstaging him behind his back during his performance of “Lady in Spain.” When she becomes trapped mid-air in a hoist, Ricky uses her as his own personal “Babal├║” and drums on her butt.
  • Episode 3, “Lucy and Ethel Buy the Same Dress” (Oct. 19, 1953). Lucy and Ethel are going to appear on TV, having chosen to perform Cole Porter’s “Friendship.” The friendship collapses, however, when they buy the same dress for their appearance. Their mean looks and gestures undercut the lyrics when they perform.
  • Episode 7, “The French Revue” (Nov. 16, 1953). Lucy bets Ricky fifty dollars she can get into his French Revue. She manages to sneak past the men posted as guards by donning a matronly disguise, then changes into a chorus girl beneath a table. She joins the four other can-can dancers while Ricky sings “Valentina,” but of course messes up all the dance cues.
  • Episode 11, “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined” (Dec. 14, 1953). Dilated pupils after a visit to the eye doctor doesn’t stop Lucy from auditioning for a jitterbug number. But her blurred vision leads to mishaps during the dance number.
  • Episode 20, “Home Movies” (Mar. 1, 1954). Hoping to elbow into Ricky’s home movie audition for TV, Lucy, Fred, and Ethel make a western. But Lucy splices their movie into Ricky’s version in unpredictable ways. The contrast between Ricky’s earnest singing and the goofy western, which morphs into reverse sequences and fast motion, heightens the comedy.
  • Episode 25, “Lucy’s Club Dance” (Apr. 12, 1954). This episode is packed with musical humor. Lucy and Ethel organize a dance to benefit their Wednesday Afternoon Fine Arts League. All of the ladies try to form a band, but won’t let Lucy join because of her abysmal ability on the saxophone. (We’re treated to another rendition of Lucy attempting to play “Glow Worm.”) She finally wheedles her way into the band by promising that Ricky will help them rehearse. That leads to another fiasco, because none of the ladies can play in time or in tune. They mangle the tune “Twelfth Street Rag.” In the meantime, word leaks out that Ricky will be performing at the benefit with a new all-female band. The only way to avoid disaster is for the men in Ricky’s band to appear in drag.
  • Season 4
  • Episode 23, “Bull Fight Dance” (Mar. 28, 1955). Asked to appear in a dance number on Ricky’s “Heart Fund” show, Lucy envisions performing as a lovely se├▒orita. But Ricky has something else in mind involving a bullfighter singing “Fernando the Fearless.” Lucy gets revenge by appearing not as a fierce bull but a sweet, dancing cow with long eyelashes. As is often the case, the contrast between Ricky’s serious singing and Lucy’s hijinx creates comedic tension.
  • Season 5
  • Episode 3, “Lucy and the Dummy” (Oct. 17, 1955). While in Hollywood for Ricky’s film debut, Lucy accepts an offer for Ricky to entertain MGM studio executives. However, Ricky has already committed to a fishing trip and refuses to change his plans. Never one to pass up an opportunity to perform, Lucy makes a dummy using a model of Ricky’s head. The ensuing dance number devolves into chaos as the dummy becomes hitched to Lucy’s dress and gets dragged around the stage.
  • Episode 17, “Lucy Goes to Scotland” (Feb. 20, 1956). During the band’s European trip, Lucy finds herself in her ancestral home in Scotland. This Brigadoon-inspired episode, complete with comedic musical numbers, is a bit of a miss for me.
  • Episode 21, “Lucy in the Swiss Alps” (Mar. 26, 1956). The Ricardos and the Mertzes go mountain climbing in the Alps and get stuck in a cabin. The episode features one small music gag with a Bavarian band putting their oompah waltz touch on “La Cucaracha” in three-four time.
  • Season 6
  • Episode 1, “Lucy and Bob Hope” (Oct. 1, 1956). Lucy, Ricky, and Bob Hope perform a humorous song titled “Nobody Loves the Ump.”
  • Episode 2, “Little Ricky Learns to Play the Drums” (Oct. 8, 1956). Little Ricky drives everyone crazy while practicing the drums. The running gag features a steady, reiterated drum beat, which forces everyone to conform their sentences to the beat of the drum.
  • Episode 4, “Little Ricky Gets Stage Fright” (Oct. 22, 1956). When Little Ricky develops stage fright, everyone tries valiantly to get him to overcome his fear. Just when he’s ready to perform with the other kids in his band, the ukelele player gets sick, and Little Ricky refuses to go on. So Lucy steps in and plays the ukelele, kneeling to fit in with the rest of the kids.
  • Episode 20, “Lucy Does the Tango” (Mar. 11, 1957). The Ricardos and Mertzes are raising chickens, but get frustrated waiting for eggs to be produced. Lucy “boosts” production by buying dozens of eggs, pretending they are home grown. But her plan to hide them in her blouse goes haywire when Ricky asks her to rehearse a tango number.
  • Episode 21, “Ragtime Band” (Mar. 18, 1957). Lucy puts together a quartet with Ethel, Fred, and Little Ricky so they can play with Ricky at a local benefit. Their horrendous sound (except for Little Ricky) puts a damper on their plans. Ricky lets them join his act, but relegates Lucy, Fred, and Ethel to roles other than what they expected. During the calypso number, “Man Smart (Woman Smarter), the three unhappily play the humorous musical tag at the end of the chorus. Ethel strikes the cowbell, Fred strikes the clapper, then Lucy evokes a groaning sound from the cuica.

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