Monday, July 23, 2012

The Toe Stuck in the Bathtub Spout Routine

The great British comedian Eric Sykes died this month.  Early in his career, Sykes developed a reputation for his ability to take a simple idea and build it up into an uproarious routine.  A popular routine attributed to Sykes involved the comedian getting his big toe stuck in a bathtub spout.  He introduced this comic business on a 1961 Sykes and a. . . episode called "Sykes and a Bath."

American audiences are more familiar with a version of this routine enacted on a 1965 episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show called "Never Bathe on Saturday." 

The clip shows a decidedly different take on the routine.  The routine now takes on sexual overtones as it is a fair young woman, Mary Tyler Moore, who gets her toe stuck in the tap.  Series writer Sam Denoff said, "[D]uring the whole episode, people in America were fantasizing seeing Laura Petrie naked in sudsy water in a bathtub!"

The routine was later revived for a 1972 segment of Love American Style called "Love and the Bathtub."  Unlike Moore, who was kept off camera for most of her tub time, larger-than-life sex symbol Julie Newmar is kept front and center while zany plumber Charlie Callas struggles to free her toe.  Callas derails the routine by randomly launching into his nightclub act.  He makes a lot of funny noises, twists and stretches his facial muscles in unnatural ways, and performs a grating impersonation of Cary Grant.  In the end, though, it is impossible for Callas to distract attention from the leggy Newmar.  It is clear now that the silly "man with his big toe stuck in the bathtub spout" routine has fully evolved into the steamy "naked lady in the sudsy bath" routine.

In 1976, Sykes remade the routine for an episode of Sykes called "Bath."  The aging comedian, though less sexy now sitting in a tub of water than he had been fifteen years earlier, proved to be as funny as ever.

Recently, a homage of the old routine was presented in an iCarly episode called "iToe Fat Cakes."

Modesty proves to be less relevant in the end.  Carly is unwilling to bail on her first date with a boy named Lance and decides to have dinner with Lance while still trapped in the bathtub.  She expresses no embarrassment that she is wearing nothing except a soggy shirt and goes as far as kissing Lance before dinner is finished.  Bringing the routine into the modern era apart from the naked first date is the fact that the plumber cuts Carly free with a noisy, blazing power saw instead of a hacksaw.

It should be noted, though, the Sykes' original routine was not without a suggestion of sex.

Sykes, a master of physical comedy, will be missed.  For insight into his comedy mind, I present a clip in which Sykes expresses his view on the ideal version of the slipping-on-a-banana-peel routine.

Corrections and Clarifications  

I learned since I wrote this article that Eric Sykes did not originate the "toe stuck in a bathtub spout" routine.  Before Sykes presented this routine on British television, Billy Wilder and George Axelrod included a vague outline of the routine in their script for The Seven Year Itch (1955).  The idea was for an "elderly, shriveled plumber in overalls" to use his monkey wrench to pry Marilyn Monroe's toe free from the spout.  Wilder expanded the scene during production.  The narration scripted for Monroe furnishes her perspective of the event.  Surprisingly, the screenwriters were able to provide a credible reason for a person getting their toe stuck in a bathtub spout.  Monroe says, "This is my first summer in New York and it's practically killing me.  You know what I tried yesterday?  I tried to sleep in the bathtub.  Just lying there up to my neck in cold water.  But there was something wrong with the faucet.  It kept dripping.  It was keeping me awake, so you know what I did?  I pushed my big toe up the faucet.  The only thing was, my toe got stuck and I couldn't get it out again.  No, but thank goodness there was a phone in the bathroom, so I was able to call the plumber.  He was very nice, even though it was Sunday.  I explained the situation to him and he rushed right over.  But it was sort of embarrassing.  Honestly, I almost died.  There I was with perfectly strange plumber and no polish on my toenails."

Flustered by the sight of a bosomy goddess covered in nothing but bubbles, the plumber (Victor Moore) drops his wrench into the sudsy water and then has to plunge his arm down into the water to retrieve it.  Unfortunately, the plumber's antics with the wrench upset the censors.  Who knows what the plumber might grope under the water other than his wrench?  So, the censors forced Wilder to pare down the routine to a brief gag shot.