The ‘I Love Lucy’ Chocolates Scene Is the Most Apt Possible Metaphor for the Modern Human Condition
Trawling YouTube is a weekly look at one interesting story or oddity from YouTube. You ever go down a YouTube rabbit hole and suddenly you’ve wasted five hours watching every Madonna video? This is about those rabbit holes, but the comedy-related ones.
In college I took this class about Charlie Chaplin and learned that Modern Times (1936) is the classic definitive take on the struggle of humanity to cope with the shift to industrialization and impersonal factory work. Summed up in this image of Chaplin getting literally sucked into the gears of a factory:
Isn’t that pretty profound? A pretty accurate representation of what it’s like to work with these big weird machines all the time?
Yeah, sure. But if that’s the classic take on the industrial revolution, another iconic scene more than any other sums up the information age. The I Love Lucy chocolates scene. In case you’re a millennial and haven’t see the full thing:
This is without a doubt the most famous scene from that show, and an iconic scene in TV/comedy history, we all know this. Some basic context: it’s from an episode called “Job Switching” (1952), wherein “Ricky and Fred get upset about the girls’ spending, and Lucy and Ethel go work in a candy factory while the boys do the housework.” So kind of problematic politics there, but it’s worth noting that the script was written by Jess Oppenheimer (the deceptively-named man who created the show) and the male-female writing team of Madelyn Davis (then Madelyn Pugh) & Bob Carroll Jr. You can hear/watch a good Writers Guild interview with them here:
So maybe that tempers the problamaticness of that episode’s plot, maybe not. I want to suggest that it doesn’t matter. Here is my interpretation of that scene: Lucy and Ethel are the surrogates for the viewer, i.e. the contemporary person, in 2016. The conceit of being a worker at a chocolate factory is a metaphor for the experience of modern life, and in particular life in the information age, when the world has shrunk to the size of a phone and information is free and infinitely available.
I’m sure you followed the House of Representatives sit-in protest over gun control last week, but did you know that a main factor in that story gaining momentum was the Periscope angle? Traditionally, events like that are not broadcast on C-SPAN for whatever reason. Even in this case you may have heard that C-SPAN turned off their cameras, but Rep. Scott Peters was able to circumvent that rule by downloading Periscope on the floor of the House and streaming the entire proceedings to anyone who wanted to watch.
Similarly, the Brexit thing is another huge news event that has massive implications. One thread of this story — probably the most disturbing and emotionally engaging — is all of the stories on social media of immigrants in England being harassed. With about two clicks, one is able to find dozens of first hand accounts of this.
That’s pretty bad! But that’s nothing — did you know that 46 million people are literally slaves?
And what’s even worse, and maybe you can relate to this, is that there are just too many good TV shows to watch! Sunday was what seems like the 4th Game of Thrones season finale of the year. I’m constantly being told how great it is, and I agree that it looks cool, and I also am fully aware that I am never ever going to watch it because there’s just too much good shit out there.
The cumulative effect of all of this information (more examples: when you see tweets about lost old people and choose not to retweet them, when you see GoFundMes for really good causes that you just can’t donate to, etc.) is a very weird, very modern sense of resignation and forced callousness. There’s some moral philosopher (James Rachels? Peter Singer? I forgot.) that brought up the point of proximity and awareness in evaluating which moral acts to perform. Like, is suffering worse when it is happening in front of your face than when you know it’s happening in Rwanda, but can’t actually see it? No. But also yes?
In any case, my point here is that there is no such thing as proximity. Everything is in front of your face now. And this new moral/emotional phenomenon is expressed perfectly in this single line delivery from Patrice O’Neal’s bit about the big flooding in Japan:
You ever be like…okay you’re sitting there looking at…you’re saying ‘Oh my God, this tsunami is terrible…’ but you’re sitting there like…’ I cannot…I just can’t give a fuck about this shit!’ I can’t care!! I want to care, but I can’t care!
That was in 2011, and obviously it’s way more true now. I mean right now I could go donate to a GoFundMe for the victims of the tragic flooding in West Virginia. Lots of people lost their houses and need money for food and I have a bunch of extra money!! But I’m not going to do it!!
The West Virginia flooding is like a chocolate speeding past me on this crazy conveyor belt, then there’s another one about people dying in preventable spree shootings, then there’s another one about all the homeless guys I walk past on a daily basis.
But there’s no point in trying to box all these chocolates, there are just too many of them. We’re all just sitting here putting them in our shirts and eating them and putting them in our hats and pushing them on the floor and throwing them at each other.
Of course, the visual of Chaplin caught in the factory gears is also set up with a conveyor belt scenario, but this one is different:
Chaplin’s tramp character is confronted with this strange new mechanical world, and he increases his focus and intensity of tightening these bolts, until he starts scaring the foreman. The title card of “he’s crazy!” — he’s calling the factory’s bluff and doing the task even more manically than everyone else, to the point where he “gets sucked into” the machine (he’s pretty clearly jumping into the opening on purpose.) So, at least according to film professors, the comment here is something like, workers are dehumanized by this impersonal new way of life.
The comment in Lucy is much different. She starts out with a different motivation, about proving that she’s just as able to do this work as the women who work there, or the men or whatever it is. Ball’s performance strikes exactly the right balance between earnestly trying to be a good employee and not giving a shit about these chocolates at all. She wants to do a good job, sure. But she maintains this ironic distance, and has a co-conspirator there as well. The viewer is left to wonder, How do the normal employees manage to keep up with the conveyor belt anyways? Is the foreman (veteran comedy character actor Elvia Allman making a meal out of a five-line part) fucking with them by turning up the speed on purpose? How is one supposed to wrap all the chocolates required to be a good employee?
And then Lucy’s take is different, more modern than Modern Times: she starts dealing with these outrageous jokes — putting 20 chocolates in her mouth, putting them in her shirt, provoking these big reactions from Ethel. The ostensible intended moral of this episode is something like “Lucy and Ethel don’t realize how hard it is to work in a factory and the men don’t realize how hard it is to do housework all day.” Everyone learns a nice lesson and the ending wraps it up in a nice neat bow. But really the moral is, the viewer is invited to wonder, Is there something wrong with me? Am I an asshole for just not being able to keep up with all this stuff? If so, what is the correct recourse? Is Ethel a bad person for laughing and having these big judgmental reactions to Lucy putting the chocolates in her shirt and hat? Should she intervene?
None of these questions are really taken seriously, for one because it’s a sitcom, but also because the whole take is that Lucy is so overwhelmed with this task that she just says fuck it and starts making fun of it. What else can she do? Jump up on the conveyor belt and drive herself nuts like Chaplin’s tramp? Why do that to yourself? Maybe that could have conceivable seemed like an honorable or worthwhile idea in 1936, but apparently by 1956 sitcom audiences were ready to mock it, and by 2016 it seems like some crazy relic from 1,000 years ago. It’s just an axiom of modern life that you’re going to be deluged with terrible stuff all the time and not be able to help any of it. So you might as well turn it into some kind of big joke!
Also in Allman’s line reading of “you’re firrred” she sounds just like Vince McMahon.