Ask any I Love Lucy fan what their favorite episode of the series is, and they’ll undoubtedly name “Lucy Does a Television Commercial” in their top 5. It’s one of the most beloved episodes in the series and in all of comedy.
The star of the show, Lucille Ball, didn’t have similar feelings about it though. Ball only appreciated the so-called Vitameatavegamin episode in retrospect.
‘Lucy Does a Television Commercial’ relied on Lucille Ball’s comedic acting
The episode first aired on May 5, 1952 and became an instant success with 68% of the television viewing audience tuning in. It’s consistently ranked as one of the top TV episodes of all time by publications including TV Guide, IMDb reported.
The story is simple. In the episode, Ricky (Desi Arnaz) gets a chance to host a television show and needs a woman to star in the commercial on air. His wife Lucy (Lucille Ball) asks for the part but he refuses. Through a series of schemes, Lucy gets her way.
The commercial is for a health tonic called Vitameatavegamin. It tastes terrible but Lucy puts on a brave face and takes spoonful after spoonful as she tries to get her lines right. Unbeknownst to her, the tonic contains 23% alcohol and makes her get drunk on air.
Hilarity ensues thanks to Lucy being drunk. However, Ball wasn’t laughing during filming for this difficult episode.
Lucille Ball was terrified of screwing up her lines about Vitameatavegamin
Ball took issue with the episode not because of the subject matter, but because she had such difficult lines to master. The drunker Lucy gets on screen the more she screws up simple phrases. It makes for a hilarious episode but wasn’t easy to pull off sober.
And it didn’t help that Ball never ad-libbed her lines. Mental Floss reported that the actor was so nervous during filming she had a script clerk prepared to hold signs with her lines written on them just like they did for real commercials. Usually, I Love Lucy never used cue cards. They just memorized what they needed to know.
Thanks to her dedication to her craft — and her backup plan — Ball was able to nail the whole Vitameatavegamin scene in a single take. It wasn’t until later that she admitted the episode was funny and not just stressful.
She never ad-libbed on ‘I Love Lucy’
Plenty of comedies rely on ad-libbed lines and skits, especially those full of physical comedy like I Love Lucy. However, Ball wasn’t a fan of making it up as she went along.
“We never ad-libbed. We never ad-libbed on the set when we were putting it together. It was there,” Ball said of always sticking to the script, according to The Hollywood Reporter. This made it both easier and harder for the actors to nail each scene.
The Vitameatavegamin bit was originally from Red Skeleton’s vaudeville act, which Ball and show producers got permission to use. During filming, Ball is consuming apple pectin on the spoon.
It may have been stressful. But the critical reception for “Lucy Does a Television Commercial” was so positive it made everything worth it.