It’s frightnighttime at the Fool House, and apparently two weeks after draining his savings, Larry is perfectly fine having every single light on, even in the attic, while he and his wife only use one room.
Jennifer Appleton sits, untroubled, atop the spot where rotted King Ferdinand, relaying to her husband newsstand wisdom of the relationship variety. According to Vague magazine, the first year of a marriage is the hardest.
Social science sidebar: it’s decidedly not. I’ve never even been married and I know this. There’s way too much to unpack here, but let’s say the main point is that there are too many people–and too many marriages–to control for enough factors. There is a comparatively higher risk for divorce in the first couple of years of a marriage, but calling the first year the toughest would indicate a declining risk rate for every year of marriage. I generally dislike popular wisdom as a stand-in for science, but the “seven-year itch” appears to be supported by long-term data (both mean and median hover near there) over the past century. Additionally–and this is memory from my college courses–relationship satisfaction hits its lowest point about 15-20 years into a marriage and then bounces back to its initial level (why? the children move out).
This article (“100 Sexy Ways to Disappear Into the Wallpaper”) advises communication as the panacea for marriage troubles; and when Jennifer asks the crossword-puzzling Larry if they two communicate, he expresses surprise that she spoke.
That’s a thing I’ve done, haven’t you? Where you realize that the other person will just talk out loud sometimes without actually making it clear they’re talking to you? And you have to make decisions about what you’ll focus on? Larry says he was just kidding, and then they kiss without him actually having commented on what she was saying. That should be the joke, but it’s not.
Nor is it that they never have time to, as Balki comes running in. The show is trying to indicate to us that the Appletons have a warm, loving, teasing relationship that will allow them to overcome any obstacle. It’s the opposite and not: they have no interpersonal skills, though they do have escape mechanisms, like Larry enlisting Balki to help him sneak into a Klan meeting “for work”, or Jennifer, you know, disappearing.
The marriage and the house are on their own a promise of stories about Larry and Jennifer as a couple; this opening salvo, furthered, one would think, by Balki attempting to drag everyone to the house of their married next-door neighbors, the Finleys, indicates we’re about to get an episode that dives into whether, and how, these two communicate with each other. Or an episode where they face what frightening things might happen to them after 20 years of marriage.
Really, so much in this scene points that way. Balki was next door to look at Mr. Finley’s popsicle-stick city, which should frighten Larry who just six years ago had dreams of parlaying his creative skill into a regular job. A mere month into their marriage and he’s checked out, solving 18-down and happy to sit quietly next to his wife in an empty house. Sitcom neighbors are either the intrusive, mephitic, annoying type* (your Gibblers, Urkels, Dietzes, or Newmans) ; or the grumpy snoops (your Twinkacettis, Kravitzes, Bickleys or Squidwards); or the preserved-in-amber-1950s-bowling-shirt-and-Crisco-ranch-style-house couples* (your Ochmoneks, Flanders, or Dinks). The Finleys are the latter, but let me spoil something for you: we ain’t never gonna see those two. They’re just another category of jokes the show can tell if it needs to set up something logically. They essentially don’t exist, meaning they’re still a good mirror for Jennifer and Larry.
We don’t get an episode about them because the show has told all the story there could ever be for them. Odds are 2:1 Jennifer will be out of here by the 13-minute mark. This marriage will survive forever, anchored in concrete, because they will never have problems different from what we’ve seen. Larry will spend his twilight years in worry that Jennifer will leave him for a man in a nicer iron lung.
Anyway, can you imagine what would happen if anyone ever locked a door on this show? Like I said, Balki runs in, jumps on the couch, babbles about the Finleys, runs upstairs to find Mary Anne evidently naked at the top of the stairs, then runs back out the door.
Mary Anne (Sagittarius) comes down wanting to know what the fuck just happened.
Spoiler: this also isn’t an episode where Balki realizes ain’t no one give a shit about whatever childish thing he’s into this week. This guy probably begs Larry weekly for quarters for the sticky hand vending machine at the Shop *grunt* Spend.
Balki says that there’s a ghost living there. I’d argue over semantics, but I do experience a form death everytime I watch this show. Balki says that the ghost is in his room, and that all this time he thought it was Cousin Larry sneaking in to give him a rimjob, but it was really a ghost! Wwww(etc.)ow!
Mary Anne says that a ghost would explain why the garage door opens on its own. Jennifer tells her she’s an idiot.
You’ve got two characters whose primary characteristic is that they don’t know how the world works, show, can’t you write at least one of them well? Mary Anne knows what remotes are and still makes the claim!
Balki, nearly choking on his own resurrected accent, says that it’s an honor to have a ghost choose to haunt your house. Larry tells Balki he’s full of it, but Balki continues to give insight into Myposian customs (like disagreeing with Larry). Balki says that their ghost is named Chester Bainbridge, and Larry and Jennifer wordlessly stand up and walk away while Balki talks. It’s not played for laughs, but I love that they’ve developed this tactic in the face of living with someone who refuses to pick up on any negative body language whatsoever.
Balki tells Mary Anne that Mama has been on a ghost waiting list for five years, praying every night that enough people would croak so that she could have even better luck than a son who has sent her enough technology to ruin the Myposian economy for generations to come.
The next day, the cameraman forgot to put the same quality film in for the external shot.
Mary Anne asks Jennifer why she hears water at night and we learn that Larry must rehydrate after raining down antacid-scented sweat onto his wife during sexual congress.
Just when I thought Balki couldn’t get more annoying:
Christ, what a fucking asshole.
Mary Anne makes the same joke as before, but with self-cleaning ovens. It has the exact same problem as the first joke. Actually, no, it has more problems. God damn am I even going to make it through this episode?
They’ve been here all of what, maybe a fucking month? Let’s assume that, when Balki bakes fresh tiger penes, he wraps them in foil. Who cleans their oven in that amount of time? We have no reason at this point to believe that Mary Anne is ever on her own–she’s not even allowed time to change clothes in private–so someone would have been there when she saw that the oven was cleaning itself. And they have an oven with dials, so if she looked at the oven and figured it out, she’d see a dial turned, and if it was like the oven I grew up with (which, given, was a decade older than these) she’d see a light indicating self-cleaning mode. What assumptions would she make about this? Would she not ask anyone about it? The show keeps giving her lines that almost work, but either suggest that she’s of average intelligence, or dumber than anyone suspects. I’d call it impressive if I thought effort was involved.
You know I used to write reviews for this show that came in under 2,000 words? There are always bigger problems, so let’s get to those.
Balki and Larry–this isn’t the bigger problem–continue to switch metaphorical car seats as Balki again shoves his remaindered history book in the face of Larry’s suggestion of a movie after dinner. Balki referring to the author as Michael Williams Fudd (instead of PhD) is such a great joke for him that I’m surprised I’ve never once heard it anywhere else. Larry quickly kisses Jennifer and runs away giggling before Balki can stop him again. If I didn’t know any better**, I’d say that these two were playing a game to see who could block the most cock.
Jennifer, having seen Michael Williams on Nightline***, suddenly becomes interested in how Chester Bainbridge was a Cubs fan (no shit, a Chicago native who liked a Chicago sports team?) and a compulsive gambler who lost money on the 1929 World Series. Mary Anne spouts statistics from that very game and is given the silent treatment until she apologizes for retaining any knowledge past nail polish colors.
Anyway, Mary Anne never gets to impact a plot, and her mouth just closed, so let’s get back to that book. Balki bids the belief-variant blondes squint at a purported photograph of Chester the Wrigley Ghost wearing a Cubs hat, and sure, those were mass-marketed in 1929, why the fuck not.
Look, we all know that photographic evidence of ghosts is always of poor quality, or hard to parse visually, it’s not a joke that deserves a whole minute, or even a
Larry comes back in to further cement that the episode will somehow fucking end with a real ghost by telling everyone to stop talking about it.
Philosophy sidebar: If you ignore some of the content of this setup, it’s not a bad structure so far. Balki believes instantly, Mary Anne with mere suggestion, and Jennifer with an appeal to authority. It’s a nice package of variations on the Gettier problem. Edmund Gettier posited that knowledge can be described as justified true belief. Both Mary Anne and Balki have justified beliefs; hers are unjustified because the viewer knows how ovens and garage doors work. Balki’s belief should read as unjustified, but we all saw him cure a 1,500lb mammal with 0.5oz of stems and leaves this time last season. There are two major responses to the justified true belief problem: that the true thing must have caused the belief directly (sort of a bar-raising-cum-rejection of “justification”) and that the belief must have withstood efforts to defeat it. Balki doesn’t offer anything to indicate what exactly constitutes proof of a ghost to him, though it’s implied that he believes ghosts are occasionally visible. The viewer likely agrees with Larry, that lack of historical evidence of ghosts is justification of his belief. It’s up to Larry to defeat Balki’s belief; though we know this is impossible.
Now, you’d expect two idiots to just stay up all night and scare themselves and leave the question unresolved and the beliefs unmoved, but hey, welcome to Season 7.
Remember how I was saying it was a good setup? Well, it was, right up until we learn that Chester shows up one night every year, which happens to be that very night. It’s typical sitcom bullshit, but it also kind of undoes the 7 minutes of setup. It’s almost like they didn’t think of that part of the story until they got that far into the script, because you could have introduced the story by Larry sick and tired of Balki talking about Fright Night for weeks. But this show loves taking up half an episode with setup if it can, why not throw in a Myposian ghost-summoning ritual too?
Before they head up to Balki’s room, he starts telling them ghost etiquette and Larry and Jennifer silently walk away again. Look, show, if you’re going to acknowledge that Balki is insufferable, make a fucking episode out of that, not “Chester Blows at Midnight”!
I’ll tell you who’s going to become a ghost, it’s these stupid fuckers who leave ceramicware unattended on a stovetop.
Balki pokes his head into his own room, drawing out the moment so the audience can laugh at the framed Wayne Newton poster and realize that the first thing Chester’s going to do when he shows up is call Balki a gunsel. Really, the scariest thing in here is the bedside promotional photo of Bronson as Magda from Jury Duty.
There’s a terrible joke where Larry asks when he found time in the past twenty-one days to decorate, and Balki says he just unpacked. It’s delivered with the rhythm of a joke, though, and that’s enough for the audience.
After standing still for a full 20 seconds and then screams that (met him pike hoses) Wayne Newton’s eyes are following her. Larry proves himself a poor student of the Bible****:
Balki, are your catchphrases little love signals that you and Cousin Larry pass back and forth in your new monitored environment?
Moving-eye effects in portraits are achieved by making the eyes concave relative to the surrounding surface, and guess fucking what: they don’t make paper posters like that.
I blame the writers, the props department, and Bronson, and especially you for Balki not being sure whether he should hang the poster over the middle of double doors.
Larry calls Chester an idiot, and is thrown against the wall, falling to the floor. No one reacts, not even his wife, because Melanie’s only paid to read the script, not understand it they can only stand four abreast. Balki shouts at Chester, as though he didn’t just hear Larry at a normal volume.
Balki cautions Cousin Larry to not be rude to a ghost. Some dead motherfucker shoves me, I lay down some justified rude grief on him! Balki compares ghosts to alligators, and sure, those exist in the Mediterranean, why the fuck not.
Larry tells the ghost to prove he exists by sticking its finger up his butt as far as he can.
While Larry was talking, Chester the ghost fitted all four of the characters with harnesses and fishing line and slipped the stage crew a few simoleons to hoist them into the air.
As a kid, I could never understood what powers ghosts are supposed to have. I feel like the rules for spooks have never really been codified in pop culture like they have for vampires or Frankenhookers. But when we create monsters, it’s comforting to have an out, right? Knowing that Dracula erupts into flames in the sun, or that silver bullets fell werewolves, gives the heroes (and us) a fighting chance. There’s something we can do. The monsters whose rules are impossible (Freddy Krueger), hard to puzzle out (Pinhead), require multiple PhDs in incantations (Chucky), or are just plain non-existent (Jason) are all the scarier (and in some cases, evergreen).
Ghost Dad helped me bridge the mental gap between “ghosts can pass through you” and “ghosts can manipulate objects”, but even then, what’s the worst a ghost can do? Sneak up on you better than a live person? Throw things at you? Reach into your chest and stop your heart? It’s when you get to the point that a ghost can manipulate multiple objects all at once that the idea breaks down for me.
Let’s face it: too much movement would spoil the effect, but could they at least try? Balki makes one face, Larry makes another, Mary Anne grabs Balki’s hand and… that’s it. Jennifer completely spoils whatever illusion you’re willing to believe by just hanging there and letting her potential energy spin her slightly. The direct comparison here is to “Snow Way to Treat a Lady, part 2”, where each character had a different reaction to their dire; but there most of the personality was conveyed through dialogue. If you don’t give her dialogue, though, Melanie–and I hate to say it, Rebeca too–is left here literally twisting in the wind.
Larry tells them to be reasonable, it’s not as though they live in a fantasy world where fully-functional androids or time travel or cloning or DNA manipulation or shrink rays or teleportation exist, and there must be some logical explanation.
Mary Anne gets another line, and it’s so dumb (“what keeps interest rates up?”) that even Chester can’t take it and sets them down. Somehow, Larry hanging longer than the others, and Balki asking Chester why Larry’s still up there, and Chester putting Larry down, is a joke. I don’t know. I don’t know.
The women say some more shit and leave to go stay in a hotel (collect your payout at the main window), as if direct evidence of the afterlife were nothing more inconvenient than having your house fumigated. Really, though, how is a ghost listening to you fuck worse than your two best friends listening to you fuck?
You’d think that lifting four people off the ground was escalation and proof enough, but then the episode decides to trot out some infinitely more explainable phenomena like the door and the window slamming.
Chester starts groaning and moaning and calls it his “ghost moan imitation”, which I would have laughed at as a kid. Balki asks if Chester can do Elvis, and luckily Elvis is right there with him and we hear them, heh, astral planing, if you know what I mean.
And then, hey, what the hell, the viewers made it 14 minutes into the episode, let’s finally show the ghost, why the fuck not? Chester appears in sepia tones, just like everyone was before the 1960s, when everyone decided to be in color to make it look better on TV.
Balki tries to hug Chester and Chester has to turn into animation to get away from that daffodil shit. He appears on the other side of them, standing as still as possible so they won’t have to do so much editing in post. Larry tries to shake Chester’s hand but Chester saw him scratching his nuts earlier and animates away again.
The Cousins are too late now, too late now.
Chester: You blew it! You think you’re so smart just because you’re alive.
No, I think I’m smart because I can drive a car and use a computer and I know what neutrons and DNA are. Chester says all this as a threat, but what exactly did they blow this midnight? The chance to get in his good graces? The effects budget?
Like most decent things on this show, the one here was buried six feet deep: Larry’s belief that ghosts don’t exist was defeatable, and thus untrue. Balki’s beliefs about ghosts were defeatable (at least in this minute of the episode) and thus untrue.
Chester comes from a narrow window of 20th-Century American history. The Roaring Twenties, due to a number of factors (like, you know, not having any of its cities destroyed in WWI), were a period of rapid economic growth in the US. Industries were becoming automated, the nation’s total wealth doubled, and television was born. Andrew Mellon gave tax cuts to the wealthy, numerous tariffs were enacted (sound familiar?), highly restrictive immigration laws were put into place, and membership in the Ku Klux Klan almost doubled (no, really, sound familiar yet?). Chester died because of not making good on his lost bets on the 1929 World Series, which ended two weeks before Black Tuesday. A lot of threads came together to make America a happening place to be, but it hadn’t yet been forced to pay the bills on all the crazy shit it was starting to get up to.
Again, the “rules” we’re told muddy this, since Chester claims to be widely traveled at the same time that he’s somehow bound to appear in this room for a duration of 24 hours once every year. But Chester should hate two whimpering men, one of them a foreigner, pooling their resources, allowing their women economic and vocal freedoms.
It could work, and in a show that wasn’t so deadset on having the actors pick up and look at every single prop that the script calls for, it would have time to. We’re forced to see Chester go from jocular to murderous in the space of 30 seconds. He stands still three times and is gone.
Larry offers to apologize to the ghost–shoot, both his wife and God fall for that bit every time–and Balki says that won’t work. (Somehow ghosts still work the same as on Mypos, even though Chester just proved they don’t? I don’t know.) They talk over each other for a while, which is great joke we would never have gotten as organically from any plot but this one.
You know what? Mark Linn-Baker is a master of physical comedy detail. When he says he’s sorry, he puts fake sincerity into every part of his body. Most of it is arms and voice, but this man delivers lying through his legs.
Going back to rules for ghosts: I’ve seen different reasons for ghosts in media. They have unfinished business. They’re cursed to stay bound to the site of some sin they participated in. They play out their last moments eternally. They want to be alive again. They search for a loved one. I even saw this really cool movie a few times where this woman was sexually unsatisfied with her workaholic husband but luckily there were ghosts who had sex with her. I’m struggling to translate those situations into any sort of rules for dispatching ghosts.
Physical comedy often functions on trying, and failing to grasp the rules at play (perhaps ceding monsters like Freddy or Chucky that level of control over the rules feeds the comedy aspects of those movies? Discuss amongst yourselves).
Perfect Strangers has a perfect opportunity here to make up whatever rules it wants to lead to whatever conclusion it thinks is the funniest. We’ve sort of got the rule that Chester is only there–and the Cousins stuck in Balki’s room–until midnight. We can infer that Larry poured water on the proverbial Gremlin by being rude to the ghost three times. Even though the information had to be delivered at normal speaking volume by a guy dressed like the lovechild of Colonel Sanders and a used car salesman, we know that his wrath cannot be assuaged.
Balki gives us one more rule: they can drive away the ghost***** by making it expend its parapsychic energy quickly by keeping it angry.
“Dog Day Afterlife” has a whole five minutes left, it could do any fucking thing it wanted right now.
So they can’t spend money on animating Chester doing anything more than standing five feet away from any other moving object on screen. So what? Even though Balki’s decor could easily have gone without mention for anyone who had watched any other episode, they made multiple explicit mentions of it. Make the Wayne Newton poster’s eyes really start moving. Start opening and closing the closet doors. Tie Larry up with the lengths of fabric on the walls. Just start throwing shit around and then cut to a bruised cousins in a destroyed room. Have Chester take on the appearance of Jennifer and have her say every single thing Larry’s ever feared she thought. Do an homage to Death Bed: the Bed that Eats. Fuck, have them pretend that they’re freezing to death, that’s cheap!
The Cousins start insulting Chester, and we learn that nothing’s too cheap for this show: Chester takes control of their hands and makes the Cousins grab and slap each other. That’s a long fucking way to go for the same joke we get every week.
I mean, yeah, there’s still some trying to outsmart the rule that ends with Larry’s hand flapping around. Maybe I should be impressed that they managed to take the fucking coat bit from the season premiere and make it 10 times worse?
But this sequence isn’t worth the effort to work the jokes I wrote into any sort of narrative, so let’s just get them out: Perfect Stranglers, I guess they’ve got a bad case of phantom limb, cousins should choke more, if Chester thinks this is going to demoralize them, joke’s on him–they were bred and born in this here briar patch!
Larry apologizes to Chester, gives him the house, says Jennifer is happy to bear Satan’s spawn, whatever it takes to leave them alone so they can kiss. Chester makes them run into the wall, because sure, why the fuck not. Jesus Christ I should have called myself Tommy Bigshot or something when I started this blog because now my real goddam name is attached to this shit and I have to make damn sure I never need to go on a job hunt ever again.
No shit, the next morning? In the house where they live? Well god damn, there’s all my questions answered. Fuck you.
Jennifer and Mary Anne, having had an untroubled night’s sleep staying up late and watching Pacific Heights and Body Chemistry on HBO’s “Double Feature Friday”, a good shower, and a change of clothes, all while their men were struggling against incontrovertible personal proof of the damned, come back and ask what all the gooey stuff all over their faces is. Ectoplasm, Larry assures her.
Mary Anne says she’s glad Balki’s alive. There we go! That’s the right amount of stupidity for her.
So the goal was to make Chester tired before midnight. But now somehow Balki knew while knocked unconscious that Chester got bored and left. Is Chester gone forever now?
I wouldn’t have cared if they’d told me. The important thing is this episode is gone forever.
Join me next week for… oh fuck no. No. STOP etc.
I’m not doing the fucking Oral & Hardly episode on this blog’s three-year anniversary.
There’ll be a post, it just won’t be that.
Catchphrase count: Balki (1); Larry (2)
Boner count: Balki (0); Larry (0)
Unused Larryoke Countdown #26: Don’t Fear the Sheepherd – Blue Öyster Cult
*Inverted multiply and beautifully in both Get a Life and Married… With Children.
**Turns out I don’t
***One might assume that Larry discourages Jennifer from televised news, but that would assume they sleep in the same bed
****1 Samuel 28:8-20
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