Season 7, Episode 21: …Or Get Off the Pot

Hi, y’all! From the title, it sounds like this episode is the one where they all stage an intervention about Larry’s bowel troubles!

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We open at the House of Keys, where Larry has returned from picking up Jennifer and Mary Anne (Sagittarius) from the airport. He found them in the white zone, UNLOADING haha that’s a poop joke y’all.

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Balki hugs and kisses Mary Anne, which, so I’ve heard, is that thing that boyfriends and girlfriends do to each other.

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Larry tries to hint that he wants to have sex (with Jennifer), and Jennifer evidently doesn’t remember the code phrase they agreed on to refer to the act: “taking a nap”.  Isn’t it hilarious how Larry’s wife refuses to engage in

Psychology sidebar: idiomatic expression? I thought I had gotten the psychology stuff out of my system last week, but here we are again because Jennifer refuses to be a human being. Couples’ idioms are memes for two. Hopper et al.* identified eight types: partner nicknames; affection expression; labels for other people; confrontations; requests/routines; sexual references; sexual invitations; and teasing insults. And Bruess & Pearson** found that use of idioms correlated with marriage satisfaction. Couples’ idioms create an “us” that is only understood by the two people in the relationship, and makes their understanding of each other separate from that of the outside world–or perhaps I should say makes sure others don’t understand. Larry is inviting Jennifer to set a boundary¹ with him, and to be playful with him, and she rejects both, having spent the past two weeks reconnecting with various South Asian heads of state she used to bang.

That’s right, you heard right, Larry hasn’t gotten any in two weeks, and I guess he wrapped a twist-tie around his balls because he claims they’ll explode if Jennifer doesn’t quit yapping about needing food to continue living, and sit on his appledick right that instant.

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By the way, that slab of cream cheese or whatever covered in basil is supposed to be yak loaf, which Mary Anne claims she loves. You can tell by the look on her eyes that she wants him to (heh) lay a slice of that yak loaf on her placemat.

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Mary Anne’s declaration of love prompts Balki to ignore her. The show did just establish last week that Balki’s mind wanders, and he apologizes for it doing so here. He makes up for it by engaging in some idiomatic expression himself, calling Mary Anne his “little gravy boat”.

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It wouldn’t be a snarky review blog if I didn’t trash the jokes: Balki recites a list of all the cities that Mary Anne flew to during the last few days. Stewardesses go to a lot of places, and mentioning that sends the audience into paroxysms of laughter.

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Mary Anne bought Balki a Polynesian marriage god while in Tahiti. And before you ask, no, she’s not so dumb she thinks that Title 1 §7 of the United States Code is also a marriage statuette, she knows what the idol is. Balki, holding the figure, feeling its heft, touching its unyielding surface, smelling its dry earthen smell, sticks it right in his mouth because he thinks it’s a gummy bear. Okay, so saying 11 words in a row is impressive, I’ll grant the audience that.

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But when Mary Anne tells him that the gift of the halfling love god guarantees means the giver and receiver will be married by the next full moon. Balki runs out into the backyard and presents it to the one remaining turkey.

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Nah, j/k, he’s a complete ass to Mary Anne and says he’ll give it to some other woman who’s not her! He keeps smiling while she buries her head in her hands and weeps. Fuck you, Balki!

At one point, I thought I might do a one-off post about the nature of the wacky other/alien character, but this seems like the best place for it. I’ll admit that the discussion is limited by the sitcoms I’ve watched in full. Before I started this blog, I watched straight through Full House; and since I’ve started, I’ve watched Mork & Mindy, Taxi, Family Matters, and I’m most of the way through Married… With Children, all in some misguided effort to gain insight into this show’s place in the sitcom pantheon. Hell, I’ll even throw ALF in there too; if we’re going to walk around in the sewer we might as well do it with open wounds.

Let me go ahead and disappoint you before I get too deep into this to say: the handling of each of these neighbor or foreigner character arcs is as much of a balancing act as it is for any sitcom character of those eras. No character can change too much without upsetting the entire situation of the show. I’d say that the most successful long-term balancing acts are the characters of Kimmy Gibbler*** and Marcy D’arcy (nee Rhoades). Each served as a counterpoint to the main characters. The Tanners had “normal” worries like finding a good partner, finding fulfilling work, working out issues with family members in a caring way; meanwhile, one backyard over, Kimmy’s playing tuba, keeping ostriches, getting her brother Garth to help her sneak into an exclusive hotel, and fantasizing about men squatting in Jell-O. She’d get the focus maybe once per season. Marcy D’Arcy got B-plots on a much more regular basis, but her central purpose (for the first six seasons) never changed: to show that the Bundys were not poor because they were terrible people (or vice versa), rather, money and education gave you more opportunities to carry out your basest desires. Their sitcoms knew how much, and how often, to bring them in for thesis and story purposes, and didn’t even try to change them.

More on balances in a bit, let’s check in on Larry and Jennifer.

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Are you surprised that they’re standing stock-stiff in their own bedroom, their crotches a staid six inches apart? I haven’t kept my boner this far away from a woman I was kissing since I was a Christian in high school. Not that I think anything but a sentient doily could get aroused in that bedroom, but still, come on.

I’ve heard it said that women arrive at sexual enjoyment via the pathway of their emotions, and that men reach their emotions via the pathway of sex. Neither of those things applies here because the plot demands they talk about Mary Anne. Jennifer is concerned that Balki–whom you might recall was a goddam marriage counselor on Mypos–does not comprehend Mary Anne’s desire to wed. Larry responds that they really need to get fucking if they’re going to have kids next season, but Jennifer presses the point.

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Mary Anne, being one of those fickle, fragile women, has been getting emotional: every time she sees a woman with a wedding ring, she starts scratching at their eyes and biting their necks.

It would be nice if Larry’s statement that Balki and Mary Anne could work it out weren’t counterbalanced by Balki openly insulting her all season. It would also be sensible if Larry had left Balki’s side more than two or three times in the past six years, so he’s been there for almost every single instance of it. The whole rest of the episode is Larry trying to resolve the issue so that Jennifer will touch his balls–why now, after all these years, does Larry trust his cousin when the scene calls for him to try to internally battle with whether to hornily shrug off the obvious problem?

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Larry tries to bed his wife one more time, but Jennifer says there’s no way any two characters who aren’t Balki and Larry can resolve a story on their own, and it’s up to Larry. Larry promises he’ll go downstairs and square ‘em and pair ‘em in order to sate ‘er and mate ‘er.

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Turns out Jennifer brought back enough souvenir Polynesian Idiot Balls for everybody to hold, because she tells Larry to convey to Balki Mary Anne’s wishes without telling him outright. Jennifer, you know damn well that Balki will misunderstand any English word that has more than one definition in the dictionary!

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Something I’m a firm believer in is that everyone–no matter their educational background or religious beliefs or their political alignment–thinks in a perfectly logical manner. I like to think of any bit of logic as a machine, and we feed information into it to get conclusions; and unfortunately we’re all subject to bad machines and bad information, and sometimes we don’t think through whether our machines might not work with each other. So there’s at least some logic at play here when Jennifer tries to take care of Mary Anne’s feelings by saying that Balki’s love will be more meaningful if he (appears to) reach the conclusion on his own.

I also believe that stating what you want is a good protection against butthurt. I’m not going to put down Mary Anne for not saying what she wants, or asking Balki how he would feel about marrying her–there’s so much gender socialization at play here that I had to pause this and go pass out toy guns to little girls at the orphanage just to offset it. But we’re at the level now of what Jennifer wants, and her solution to the problem is… hinting, which is exactly what Mary Anne has been doing for months now. And of fucking course, because it’s only the third time Jennifer has ever wanted something more substantial than nail polish (so she can look good eating pizza), they hand the plot over to Larry. Perfect Strangers is going for the hat trick on poor use of its female characters this week.

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Cousin Larry tells Balki that a “certain woman” is “interested in [him] in a romantic way”. Balki expresses excitement at impending penile delight****  and asks if it’s that woman with a shawl who used to come by.

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Jennifer’s restrictions plays into Larry’s desire to rush back upstairs before he loses his springform and gives me a good laugh at his clipped dialogue:

Larry: Realize it. Take care of it.

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Balki wonders aloud who it could possibly be. Larry runs back in and Balki shields his head. I’m laughing, but seriously, folks, recognize the signs of abuse.

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And Larry spake parables unto him: but Balki understood not what things they were which he spake unto him. Larry can’t come up with any distinguishing characteristics for Mary Anne other than “blonde” and “lives here”. So, great, we spent a whole minute ruling out Lydia. The show’s laziness in writing in two of the exact same character finally paid off, because now Balki thinks Jennifer wants his hot skunk nuts or whatever it was he cooked, you know what joke I’m trying to make.

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Larry runs away and Balki talks to Dimitri because they don’t have a dog or a baby like on Full House.

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On his way up, Larry meets Jennifer coming down, racing towards high jinks below stairs. He picks her up to drag her back to the bedroom, but she’s says she going to go fold the laundry. Excuse me, what? How the fuck do you know there’s unfolded laundry? You’ve been gone for two weeks, you came directly upstairs, plus isn’t being hungry enough of an excuse to go downstairs? Was there supposed to be a joke here about how men won’t touch laundry? Who wouldn’t change out of their work uniform before doing chores? Why did she sit up in her room for two minutes? Shouldn’t someone check that Mary Anne isn’t hanging herself?

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Anyway, Larry remembers that nothing gets Jennifer wetter than reading the fire hazard warning on the inside of the dryer lid, and lets her go.

How about we go (how’s this for smooth transition) look at another foreign sitcom character? Latka Gravas from Taxi has some interesting comparison points with Balki: the nonsense language, the fictional/nonexistent country of origin, learning American customs over time, marrying a shorter blonde. To watch through years of Perfect Strangers and then to watch Taxi is eye-opening. Latka actually develops as a real immigrant would over the course of four seasons: he learns English, his mother doesn’t wait 6 years to visit him, he learns how to balance his customs with the demands of living in America. The arc where he marries a woman from his home country (Carol Kane, you should watch it, it’s good) lasts episodes, not 10 minutes of Kiki wondering whether more clothing would help her drown faster when she jumps off a boat. In Taxi’s later seasons, Latka developed dissociative identity disorder, reportedly because Andy Kaufman was bored with the character. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

It’s not particularly deep of me to say that Taxi did Balki first, and better, in the character of Latka Gravas. Nor is it surprising that Taxi gave episodes over to Latka and Simka doing things together, while Perfect Strangers couldn’t even manage to let Balki and Mary Anne go on a hike alone. The immediate plot–or at least, Perfect Strangers’s aspirations in regards thereto–demands Mary Anne be off-screen, but we’re never going to get an episode where the two of them engage in problem-solving or managing their relationship. I doubt I’m spoiling it too much when I tell you that Season 7’s continued dearth of any storylines where Balki and Mary Anne engage in any shared activity makes last’s season’s wedding test episode the height of heterosexual intimacy on this show.

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Anyway, what the fuck, who cares, here’s Jennifer causing more confusion because she thinks the man who carries a doll around with him understands mature relationships. This is admittedly a nitpick in the midst of everything else, but Jennifer telling him she’s going to “fold laundry” could have been used–along with couples’ idioms like “take a nap”–to layer the types of confusion Balki has to deal with.

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It’s more vague, stilted dialogue (“I need you” instead of “I need your help with this”) that doesn’t include a single mention of Mary Anne, and, okay, come the fuck on. Balki misunderstands every nearly-clear statement of intent from Mary Anne, but somehow grasps instantly what he thinks Larry and Jennifer are saying. Jennifer begs him “make his move” and we learn that Balki can’t get it up unless there’s at least a layer of fluffy wool involved.

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Also, Balki saying that they have to stay “two ships that go bump in the night” is either the worst line the writers could have come up with or the best. But then he segues right into a Popeye the Sailor impression.

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Watch out, Dave Coulier, next thing you know Balki’ll be bonding with women over watching cartoons! Jennifer asks what Balki’s talking about, which works on at least 100 levels by now, and both of them get close to breaking and laughing. It’s fairly obvious Bronson is just giving himself permission to improvise and do as many voices as he wants, because when Melanie starts trying to come up with a line to get the scene moving again, he cuts her off.

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You can almost hear the crunch as Balki shifts emotional gears, telling the real story of why he left Mypos. It turns out Jennifer wasn’t the first woman who wanted Balki to Bartakeitout. I’ll save you having to wade through me localizing a bunch of King James verses and just tell you that Perfect Strangers steals and bastardizes the story of Potiphar’s wife trying to seduce Joseph’s amazing technicolor dreamcock.

So why does Balki not understand Mary Anne’s hints? Because Balki got kicked off the island when he rejected the advances of a vengeful rich woman.

Why doesn’t Balki want Larry to drink alcohol? A single beer and seeing a breast will ruin your life, what kind pig would want that?

Why does Balki have trouble turning in a comic strip on time if he can’t look at an object that bears no resemblance to the cartoon? I’ll have you know that sheep died, how dare you.

Is everyone on Mypos just like Balki? Man, fuck you, I’ll make him sell hot dogs just because you had the gall to ask.

What’s his mom like? BALKI NICE TWIST AND SHOUT BABASTICKY MARY ANNE VERY NICE

Perfect Strangers would just really like if it you’d stop asking questions about Balki at this point.

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Balki and Jennifer talk over each other and Balki wins, sending her back upstairs. I guess that’s a more honest way of keeping her out of the plot.

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Larry is upstairs in his pajamas and robe, getting the bed fastidiously ready for them to get under the covers and exchange a minimum of fluids.

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Jennifer insults him and he gets aroused for “strict schoolmarm and naughty student”.

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Laurie thinks back to how she didn’t talk through the entirety of third grade and shivers as her lubricant trickles out, anticipating Gene’s punishment, the crepitant crack of ruler on knuckles.

Laurie: Ask me who the publisher was.

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I was going to ask why there’s an office inbox in their bedroom–and a portrait of Tess and her mom–but it’s obvious now they’re all props for various humiliation roleplay. I’m less grossed out than disappointed, since the title of the episode promised shitting.

Jennifer says that Balki thinks she wants to marry him. That’s not idiomatic, that’s just bad writing; the show can say anything but the word “sex”.

Larry says that he should have killed Balki some time when they were in a rowboat that we never saw, but assures Jennifer that Mary Anne will be fine because he knows how women think.

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Oops! Larry will never, ever screw that again!

Mary Anne bursts in the room (can no one walk or knock?) and demands to know if she’s going to be in any more scenes. Nah, j/k, she tells them she can’t take it anymore and is moving out.

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The “oh no” music comes on. Oh no! A woman might decide what’s best for her life all on her own!

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Larry runs into the kitchen and Balki assures him that if Jennifer’s wet, it’s not his fault. While Larry plays an exact repeat of his earlier lines with the simple addition of “not Jennifer”, let’s talk about some more pop culture characters.

Believe it or not, situating the wacky “other” character in a show’s central role can cause some serious problems, and there are scarce few unequivocally good examples I can think of.

A central character generally demands some sort of arc, especially if they’re a fish out of water. If sitcoms depend on keeping their situation intact over the course of more than one season, having a character actively learn and adapt is a strange choice indeed. If the situation changes, the show is set adrift. Take Bosom Buddies: two (not terribly wacky, even if one is Tom Hanks) guys dress in drag because the cheapest rent in the city is at a women-only apartment building. By the second season, literally every other regular character knew Kip and Henry’s secret, because those revelations were used for plot and character purposes. Having no more pressure to find novel ways of hiding penises, the show pursued romantic arcs for its leads and petered out over the course of a few stock-plot episodes.

Or take ALF–god damn let’s do ourselves a favor get ALF out of the way–which just flat-out refused to have an overall arc for its main character, or any of its main characters. On one level, many of its scenarios are what I’d want and expect from a comedy about an alien who’s not allowed to leave the house. ALF learns about call-in-shows; ALF learns about soap operas; ALF learns how to avoid the neighbors; ALF learns about ham radio. But, on the presumed strength of its cartoon character lead, Paul Fusco forced the show to function like a cartoon. No human was allowed to function as one, so they never got much lasting characterization or lessons or even lines sometimes–and as a result, no development of character for anyone at all, when that’s the direct promise of a fish-out-of-water story. Perfect Strangers is frustrating because it systematically refuses to give stories to the girlfriend characters or coworkers. But ALF even moreso because it’s obvious what the stories should have been, and exploring family dynamics is what it was claiming to do. Perfect Strangers far more seldom tried to sell itself as something it wasn’t.

Philip J Reed said about all there is to say comparing ALF and Get a Life when he reviewed the latter’s “SPEWEY and Me” episode, but there’s an aspect of the latter I’d like to discuss here. If ALF thought it was a cartoon and failed to write it that way for anyone but ALF, Get a Life would write its supporting characters as humans or cartoons, whatever worked for the next best joke. Chris Peterson, the aging paperboy, is also the greatest subversion of the wacky neighbor I’ve ever seen. (It’s been a few years since I watched it, so this is broad strokes.) In the first season, Chris is regularly portrayed as upsetting his friend Larry Potter’s domestic life. Larry’s wife Sharon hates Chris, because he does crap like destroy their kitchen, bring in an alien who vomits all over her living room, and be an overall bad influence on Larry. Ultimately, Chris encourages Larry to leave her to live a “carefree” life of his own, you know, like Chris, who lives with his parents at 30 and can’t get any better job than paperboy. Get a Life seemed pretty clear to me on the idea that, behind the eccentricities of Kimmy Gibbler or Urkel or Kramer or Charlie Dietz or Cody Lambert or Howard Borden or Larry, Darryl and Darryl or Maynard G. Krebs lies a basic inability to function in the world. Get a Life lampooned the character to the extent that he was a direct danger to the nuclear family, but the satirical point remains.

I have a couple more characters to talk about, but for the moment I’ll say this: Perfect Strangers does, to its credit, fall closer to Get a Life than ALF in this respect. To the extent Balki’s a cartoon character and pulls other characters into his loony orbit, he works. I’ve beat this horse dead, and then revived it with a single bay leaf, and beat it some more, but Perfect Strangers began by promising something more on the realistic side and never fully made it all the way over to Wackyland. But it went there often enough that when it does try to advance emotional arcs, like Larry and Jennifer’s engagement and wedding, it feels unearned. To the extent that the show tries to make Balki zany and dramatic at the same time, he doesn’t work–but more on that in a bit, you’ve been reading a lot of text and probably want some pictures.

This time, Larry navigates a successful path through the strict schoolmarm’s rules, and Balki comprehends that Larry’s referring to Mary Anne. Larry tells him it’s about to be too late now, too late now if Balki doesn’t go trade some seriously emotional malapropisms with her.

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Balki thinks Larry means that Mary Anne will die. He sobs for like three seconds, so we can easily mentally guess how severe his reaction would be if he knew the truth.

In case you weren’t absolutely sure on what was going on, Balki tells Dimitri about it.

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Mary Anne walks in asking if the newspaper’s there. She says she wants to read “the funnies”, which makes her the only actor on the whole show who actually ever read them in real life.

Balki responds by telling Dimitri “laughter is the best medicine”, in earshot of Mary Anne. If I were her, that’s when I’d beat the shit out of Balki (but I’m me, I’ve been aching to do it since “The Unnatural”).

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He sits her down to talk, expressing sorrow over what’s going on for her. When she wishes she’d been more blunt–

Balki: Should have, could have, would have… Mary Anne, let’s not conjugate our lives.

The audience realizes that that word has some sort of grammatical meaning and laughs.

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Man, Balki, fuck you, you didn’t offer your lap to Larry when you thought he was dying. I’ll grant the show this: at least Balki making an out-of-the-ordinary statement (“I want to spend the rest of your life with you”) reads as how he normally talks.

We’re at something like 70% awkwardly vague dialogue, with Mary Anne referring to their wedding as “the event”, but that manages to be the most minor problem here. For one, the words Larry used earlier led Balki to think Jennifer wanted him to plow her like one of his Myposian fields; but transferred to Mary Anne, Balki doesn’t once think Mary Anne wants sex.

Also, you know, maybe I’m making too big of a deal out of this, and if I am, please tell me and I will gladly give up reviewing forever; but where the fuck is Mary Anne’s character? Her sole trait is that she’s dumb, so dumb that, when she hears the first chords of Pachelbel’s Canon, she covers her ears. Perfect Strangers decided to dedicate a whole episode to misunderstandings, and didn’t let her have a single important one other than assuming Balki might be an adult for a whole minute. At least–and I feel my organs shutting down one by one as I type this–the episode about Lydia taping a TV show showed Lydia try to tape a TV show.

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Mary Anne says her mother will be there, and Balki is physically pained at the idea that a family member might actually show up to someone’s wedding on this show.

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Mary Anne shouts up the stairs for Jennifer and Larry.

Larry (off-camera): OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE WHAT NOW

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Jennifer confirms the “big news” and the women scream with delight. Larry congratulates Balki and despite everything else in this wreck of an episode, everyone cheering while Balki sits in confused, abject horror is damned funny and makes me kind of wish the whole episode had been him thinking this was just American culture.

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Balki stands up and shames them, and then Mary Anne is so dumb she too believes she’s going to die in a few days. Which, hey, if anyone knows this is a sitcom, it’s her, and that others opening her mail at the worst possible time is a distinct possibility. Jennifer corrects Mary Anne and turns on Larry, who promises Mistress that he used none of the forbidden words.

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Hark! Poesy ambrosial drips from plenitudinous lips:

Mary Anne: You’d marry me just to keep me from moving out?

Balki: Sure, and this way I won’t have to sneak around to drink Kool-Aid out of your shoes.

The last two long-running central wacky/other characters I think it’s worth discussing here are Mork and Steven Q. Urkel. Of the characters I’ve been looking at, they’re the most direct comparisons when looking at how sitcoms have tried to balance or marry comedic and dramatic elements of a character whose whole purpose is to be funny because they’re different.

Mork & Mindy, unlike ALF, had no trouble exploring what it meant for an alien to exist with humans. What would he think of Earth jobs? How would he interact with children? What would he have trouble understanding about us, or vice versa? What all would you need to know about him (and vice versa) to keep the secret? There’s even an episode where he finds that he’s allergic to Mindy, when challenging the central situation seems to be a relative rarity for sitcoms. At the same time, the things that were most accessibly alien about him stuck around far longer than made any sense: his greeting (“Nanu nanu”) and sitting upside down in chairs showed up in the third season of the show. Strictly they should have been gone after the first episode, because Mork was never meant to be an idiot.

Even with the bottom of the barrel of alien-on-earth plots not yet visible, Mork & Mindy did start showing some cracks in its third season. I know it exists–I mean, I watched it–but it’s still hard to believe that someone actually wrote an episode where an alien takes revenge on a lazy appliance salesman by having broken appliances come to life and put him on trial. By the end of that season, it was pushing Mork and Mindy towards marriage. There were some strikingly mature moments. For instance, an episode where Mindy goes out of town for a few days and Mork can’t stand being away from her is followed up by an episode where Mindy realizes that Mork has barely been around other human women in his three years on Earth. Mindy encourages Mork to date around, and… man, I can imagine Mary Anne having that idea, but can you imagine Perfect Strangers actually letting her say it?

Sure, Mork & Mindy had its mature moments, like Mindy having to think long and hard for 22 minutes about marrying an overgrown child, but it didn’t seem comfortable staying there very long. I’m certain that ABC executives and producers had a lot to do with this, but Mindy’s feelings for Mork felt stuck at an 8-year-old girl’s concept of love. Mork & Mindy never convinced me of Mork being capable of romance, but I could imagine a Balki who is by turns goofy and loving. Just as Rebeca Arthur convinced me that Mary Anne is more than a dumb blonde, prior to this season the writing and Bronson both had me certain that Balki would be the most caring boyfriend you could imagine, and that their marriage was delayed simply to keep the 8-year-old girls watching and dreaming of those lips.

Mork & Mindy handled its romantic arc far better than Perfect Strangers treats Balki and Mary Anne, simply by having both characters deal with their own thoughts and emotions about it. That arc came at the end of what I think ought to have been its final season. Season 4, once establishing that they were married, then introduced Jonathan Winters as their son Mearth (from Earth lol). It’s painful to watch a sitcom try to contain two improvisational solo comedians–but I’m straying from the point. Mork & Mindy put in as much drama as it could stand, and then snapped back to zaniness (did you know Orkans age backwards? How delightfully nutty!).

I’m going to hold up Family Matters as both the worst treatment of a wacky neighbor comedy-wise, and also the best drama-wise. So here’s what happened when both Balki and Urkel became runaway hits with children: they had to do double-duty as comic relief and the voice of morality. Both were (supposedly) written in their early seasons as children who don’t know any better: clutzy (Urkel), getting others into unlikely situations (Balki), assuming more familiarity than others were comfortable with (both). But then ABC layered morality onto it: it was wrong for Carl to be upset with Urkel or for Eddie to choose more rewarding social connections, and it was wrong for Larry to fib, or drink a beer. But at the same time you’ve got Balki trying to ram a plunger up Jennifer’s ass, and Urkel finding Laura asleep and debating whether he should run a hand up her shirt to find out if she’s got any Cs. (We were also supposed to believe that ALF could simultaneously convey the wonder of the universe and blatantly ruin a family’s finances.)

But Family Matters’s middle seasons had something Perfect Strangers didn’t. Jaleel White was a growing boy, to the extent that there were eventually issues about his tight, high-worn pants showing off his growing dick. His voice had changed, and it became clear that maintaining the same nasal tone was work for White. Because it situated Urkel as the main character, Family Matters gave him not only the stories, but the character sketch too. The aggregated details about Urkel add up to a bittersweet success story. His atheist parents hated him to the extent they were constantly trying to ditch him (and eventually moving to Russia without telling him); but Urkel finds faith and community in church, and freedom from his own biological restrictions through his skill in scientific pursuits. For most of the show’s run, the central joke–does this annoying nerd deserve compassion?–remained intact; but the inescapable fact of White growing up seems to have forced a change.

Family Matters held off a long time on maturing Urkel, but when it finally did, it was lucky to have as good an actor as White (okay, it had two things Perfect Strangers didn’t). White was equally able to sell an Urkel so nerdy he’d make the same pun about his Isetta every chance he got, and an Urkel who was devastated to not understand why his (o so pure) love wasn’t reciprocated. In its last couple of seasons, White was able to add believability to an Urkel who wanted to grow up not by turning himself into Stefan Urquelle, but by trying out new ways of being, dressing, and interacting with people. And, just like Mork and Kip and Henry (and soon Balki), his story basically ends with a marriage proposal to Laura. We can think ahead and know that Urkel’s still going to keep his fridge stocked with dairy, and at some point send an aging Carl Winslow through a wormhole to Planet Urkel, but we know he’ll be an adult about it. All of the changes he went through over nine years don’t read as a sort of loss; they’re accumulative and make Urkel feel like he became the sitcom equivalent of a real person. We can forgive the misdeeds of his youth (I, too, at twelve years old wanted to touch a breast) because he was a different person then.

And, as ill-conceived and inconsistent and quick to ditch Harriette as Family Matters often was, I still want to see what a married Urkel looks like. (And even if all Carl is doing is having an aneurysm because Urkel accidentally poked a hole in his ostomy bag at a fancy restaurant, Reginald VelJohnson will always be a delight to watch.)

Aside from the fact that Perfect Strangers isn’t likely to show me what marriage will do to the Bartokomouses, I don’t want to see it because this season has squandered what remaining affection I had for Balki. For all that it looked like he was the main character, Balki hasn’t grown at all. Even if his intelligence hadn’t actually regressed over the past 7 seasons, it would still feel that way.

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Mary Anne says she’s leaving because Balki hasn’t even thought of marriage. Balki says he’ll marry her just to make her happy, which she understandably rejects (which rejection, by the way, is as strong an abnegation of selflessness as anything in The Fountainhead).

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I couldn’t be happier for Mary Anne’s choice. She can finally get that promotion in London she turned down and be free of Jennifer’s verbal abuse in the bargain. I think the Perfect Strangers writers knew it was the right choice for her, and I’m glad they followed that instinct, even if it does mean a less satisfying reunion coming up.

The show admits there’s a problem with Balki, and tries to tell us that it’s solving it by redirecting our attention to the superficial aspects. But the real issue here is that Balki is just a heap of homonyms and organ meats and Mary Anne’s a real person. The most generous I can be, psychologicalsidebarically, is that Balki’s first glancing blow with human sexuality resulted in him losing everything he had, and that he either consciously avoided the concept personally, seeking sublimation through marriage counseling, or he had a true mental block around it; and it’s a reading I think you could apply to the next couple of episodes. Should I be surprised that Perfect Strangers is consistent in misunderstanding what’s frustrating about Balki?

The only explicit bar Perfect Strangers is setting for Balki is that he “think about” marriage. Somehow not that he needed to take a shit to prove his love, I still can’t figure out why they chose such a misleading title. Anyway, after openly telling Mary Anne all season long he would eventually dump her for someone else, the show sidesteps this to say that Balki’s most grievous sin is that he simply didn’t think about marriage. If he is to remain the moral center of this show, he can’t be accused of anything more than a simple error of omission.

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Oh man I’m laughing so hard that they forgot to actually have anybody say they’ll miss Mary Anne in this scene, and had to add Larry saying it over the establishing shot.

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Balki gives Mary Anne their season pass to the reptile farm. She says they can still be friends and go there and yeeeahhh rrrriiiiight.

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Balki goes on to say they can still make shadow animals. And eat Play-Doh and watch Romper Room and make boomboom in their diapers, I get it, show, you’ve made your damn point.

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Balki tries to kiss her and Mary Anne sets a boundary, saying friends can’t do that. Balki accepts this, perhaps recalling Twinkacetti’s words that sometimes men do those things for each other.

Run, Mary Anne! You don’t have to take care of his feelings anymore! Feel the wind blowing through your head! Run!

I’ve never felt less sorry for a sitcom character. You earned this, Balki.

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Join me next week for “Chicago Suite”.

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*Hopper, R., Knapp, M.L., & Lorel, S. (1981). Couples’ personal idioms: Exploring intimate talk. Journal of Communication, 31(1), 23-33.

**Bruess, C.J.S., & Pearson, J.C. (1993). ‘Sweet pea’ and ‘pussy cat’: An examination of idiom use and marital satisfaction over the life cycle. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 10(4), 609-615.

***A great analysis of Kimmy’s treatment was published last week; I recommend it.

****bonerface

Catchphrase count: Balki (0); Larry (0)

Boner count: Balki (0); Larry (1)

Unused Larryoke Countdown #10: “50 Ways to Grieve Your Lover” – Paul Simon

1. The reader is invited to recall the interplay of symbols on display in the episode “The Gazebo”, wherein Lawrence Gunther Appleton constructed, for his and Jennifer’s paired relaxation; and likewise invited, that is the reader, is invited, to join the author in their, that is the symbols’ (and concomitant interplay) extension here. The semi-open, semi-enclosed gazebo may be seen (and the author, it should be disclosed, is a proponent of this view) as a concession on Larry’s part to treat Jennifer as the woman of the 90s that she is (or, at least, that he believes her to be and, if not believing, at least believing in acknowledging the concept and also in adherence to the social expectation that this consideration be extended to American women) and not rein her in too tightly; and Jennifer’s eventual (in the episode “The Gazebo”) and continued (all further episodes heretofore) non-entrance into the gazebo itself as a rejection of closeness to Larry, her husband. If the author may be allowed some playfulness with the reader (and if the reader choose to accept this offer of intimacy, may submit informations to that extent), and at the risk of slowing the pace of this current review, he would like to invite further the reader to view symbols, on a meta-level, as similar to caterpillars, betimes entering their chrysalides and emerging as butterflies.

 

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Season 7, Episode 20: Stress Test

Tomorrow night at 7PM Eastern is the 6th Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash! We’ll be making fun of old TV Christmas specials for five hours and I’ll be eating a pizza! Perhaps you also could eat a pizza!

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(Casey woke from a dream in which a theatre-themed episode failed to set up its own “break a leg” joke, and he began to pray for the well-being of Larry and his friends.)

The show, here in its semi-final season, has been exploring the idea that the Cousins have an audience. What does Larry’s wife think of them? What does the American nuclear family think of them? What does a 10-person cross-section of Chicago think of them? What do the dead think of them? And, when faced with the prospect of their spilled seed growing legs and wauling, what do the Cousins think of themselves?

It’s such a consistent part of the season that it shows up in the good and the bad episodes. The other consistent part of the season has been to turn up the dials on what Perfect Strangers considers comedy, which makes the good episodes exceptional, and makes the bad episodes* lead to me look up exactly what type of metal the brooch pin Oedipus used would have been made from.

Perfect Strangers has been saving the remainder of its story for the four episodes following this one, so “Stress Test” is its last shot at a “done-in-one” story for Season 7. I don’t mean this in any literal sense; ABC had been so desperately trying to salvage the show’s move to Saturday night by airing episodes out of order and ███████ the Wayne Newton episode earlier in a likely attempt to boost ratings. This one was filmed earlier in the episode order.

Placed where it is, though, “Stress Test” is one final gift from Perfect Strangers to me personally, before devolving–literally–into garbage the rest of this season, and before whatever horrors Season 8 conceals. The Cousins are dysfunctional, playing out the same patterns over and over, and “Stress Test” asks the ultimate observational question: can these dysfunctions be explained by an audience of psychologists?

That’s right, you heard right, I had fuckall to say about last week’s episode other than “Newhart did it better”, but this week the Cousins take a trip down to Psychologyland, and, well

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We open at the Chronicle, where TGIF (These Graphics Impart Figuration): in the left background, a Chicago Police meatwagon of similar design to the Brinks truck; on the right, the commodification of concepts of royalty in order to sell pressed beef. Government and capitalism are both forms of power, ain’t I the deepest.

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Larry enters his workspace. Finally, an episode about their new jobs, right?

No, *chortles*, I jest merely.

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Larry: Well, this is the biggest joke in the world.

Larry explains that Wainwright has brought in psychiatrists to observe the printers, and Balki is so amused he makes the same face I will if this show ever gets a revival.

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Larry, not understanding that the printers used to take pride in their work before his articles started appearing in the paper, thinks they can’t possibly be stressed. Sorry for focusing so much on the background details here, but look closely, young reader: those of us who were children in the 90s remember when computer monitors had enough space you could put a bumper sticker on the side.

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RT (Random Testing) Wainwright strides out and tells the Cousins he needs a Dimitri’s World strip a day early as they’re trying out a new format for the Sunday edition. Except for something like Doonesbury, I’m 100% certain it was standard practice for cartoonists to have a few weeks’ work built up as a buffer. Balki’s whole damn job is doing one strip per week and editing the page it appears on, and we’ve seen that he can crank out a strip in less than a minute. Can’t Wainwright just wait 10 seconds and get it now?

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Psychology sidebar: Putting him in the role of delivering exposition (or, Revealing Thesis, if you like), at least when you’re as stingy as Perfect Strangers is with it, pushes Wainwright’s leadership style in a single direction. In previous seasons, Wainwright has exhibited a mix of both task-oriented and relationship-oriented leadership styles. In earlier seasons, we sometimes saw the latter, when he would compliment Larry and Balki on their work. Here, he doesn’t even say hello before assigning tasks, but

Psychology sidebar: Social penetration theory suggests that–barring the obvious counterexamples–people become more open with each other the longer they know each other. Either Wainwright doesn’t care, or the Cousins don’t let others in.

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Yes Man Sr. tells Wainwright he’s correct to study those stressed printers, and the Yes Man Jr. starts laughing hysterically.

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Wainwright, on his way out via the Repaired Transport, says he’s sending those Roving Therapists upstairs to check out the “nerve center” of the paper.

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Larry is upset that he signed up the “city room” for testing, and Balki admits to problems with

Psychology sidebar: Meta-cognition. There are a lot of types of meta-cognition, and since there’s going to be like 100 sidebars this week I’ll try keep this brief. It’s thinking about thinking; about how well we think, about what types of thinking we’ll need to do for tasks, and thinking about how we learn. It has some scary implications, like: people who are good at a type of thinking and people who don’t know what that type of thinking entail both think they’re good at it. From an evolutionary psychology standpoint, it emerged as a survival mechanism, and in some highly-tenuous sense maybe it never emerged on an island where nobody dies, and if they do they’re just ghosts, and where they turn every English word they don’t understand into a god. But Balki knowing that he is bad at metacognition is a type of metacognition, making that a more satisfying gag than the writers intended.

Larry explains to Balki that all tests and measures reflect the values of the culture in which they were created, and moreover that

Psychology sidebar: Campbell’s Law is a more thorough exploration of the idea of surrogation. Surrogation is when a measure (test scores as indicator of student performance) become a target (test scores are student performance). Once this happens in the eyes of administrators, the measure becomes subject to corruption and being gamed by participants in a system, but nah, j/k, Larry doesn’t say any of that.

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You can tell he senses it though, because Larry breaks down crying about Dad and Brother Billy, the emotion forced out on the crest of a wave, a veritable pile-up of

Psychology sidebars:

Attachment: Larry says that dad always gave Billy more attention, which here stands as the reason for Larry’s personality. Larry must have developed an anxious-ambivalent attachment as a child (I assume Mother Appleton typically had two or three other babies hanging off her tits at any given time during Larry’s childhood), and is now anxious-preoccupied as an adult.

Self-verification theory: Larry says dad would have liked him better if he’d ever gotten the chance to show him who he was. This isn’t entirely negative: even at the age of 31, Larry still wants someone to recognize that he is good; the alternative would be to seek out people who confirm his negative views of himself. So here’s the scariest thing we’ve learned about Larry: he picked out the most reticent woman in a city of 1.4 million of ‘em so he could have himself a purty little father surrogate to keep playing out this pattern

Additionally, Larry has gotten some bad psychological help in the past, or was unreceptive to it, thinking that they were telling him it was either his fault that he’s neurotic and bitter, or that it’s unsolvable.

Sorry, y’all, it’s like I pulled out a stopper here. I’m just excited. Hopefully I’ve penetrated you well enough by now, socially, that you’ll stick with me on this one.

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Balki says he’s not worried because he’ll just be his own self, and shakes his imaginary tits to remind us who that self is. Larry says he knows that Wainwright could pick Balki’s test results out of a lineup and wants to coach him on what to say. For instance, Larry says he shouldn’t speak Myposian:

You can all relax now; I’m officially done with this season’s theme of the Cousins switching places, at least until next week.

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Holy shit, though! It’s Marvin Berman! Or… is it?

Well, it’s George Wyner, at any rate. It’s fascinating that they would call him back for a third episode, for an entirely different character from his first two appearances. This isn’t in the same category as Belita Moreno, because she was, and came back as, a regular. Season 5 was mostly forgettable, but his episodes were two of the high points of the season (name a more memorable episode. I’ll wait). George Wyner is a better cameo than whatever animated mound of painter’s putty played mean Mr. Glover, because he’s recognizable, and he’s recognizable because he’s good.

I mean, go back and look at either one of Wyner’s earlier appearances, and compare his body language between the two: he’s inhabiting different characters. As Marvin Berman, Wyner takes up more space. A lot of that’s the trenchcoat, but it’s also in Wyner’s posture.

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As Berman, he looms, he gets into others’ personal space. As Dr. Michael Aldritch, he hunches, he crosses his legs to keep others out of his. He’s a threat in both cases, a bear there, a coiled snake here. I don’t have any reason to believe that they wrote this part for Wyner, but I’m more than willing to believe they brought him back because–as we learned from Jo Marie–the producers really did care about establishing relationships with actors.

Anyway, Dr. Michael Aldritch (whomarvin) makes a weird face when he sees Larry speaking Myposian, which indicates he’s fallen prey to the

Psychology sidebar: Fundamental attribution error, that is, that he’s attributing behavior to personality rather than situation. The irony is that it tells him something’s wrong with Larry, but not the right wrong.

013

Anyway Balki hugs him and the audience laughs because that’s the kind of shit gets you put in a straitjacket in the real world.

Dr. Michael Aldritch, accepting that the Cousins are the only two people who matter on the whole floor, says the next scenes will have inkblots and word associations.

Psychology sidebar: We’ve gone from mirrors revealing Larry’s true self to Larry becoming the mirror to ambiguous imagery. Even Hermann Rorschach didn’t like the idea of his test being used to assess personality: he had intended it to be a diagnostic tool for schizophrenia. Perhaps it is the case that any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the human soul, but I’d question the validity (does it actually test what it says it tests) and reliability (how well does it test it) of image interpretation alone. But what therapists are really looking at at is response time, facial expressions, whether the subject rotates the images, did they ask permission to do so, etc. Also I read that they’re not used as much as in previous decades because–thanks to television–people think they know how the test works and have seen the images besides. (The ones here are not from the original test.)

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Larry’s lines are the funniest I’ve ever seen in any Rorshach scene.

Larry: Man’s relentless quest to return to–and liberate–the child within, as I have.

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I would have guessed “what a cow’s head looks like when you open it with a rock” for Balki’s line, but he says “butterfly”.

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Larry: Man in turmoil, uh, struggling to reach the… level of inner peace I have.

Psychology sidebar: but already, Larry is trying to game the results. For one, Larry thinks that the testing will risk Balki’s–and thus somehow his–something at the Chronicle and has changed his behavior to project what he thinks Wainwright wants to hear. The demand characteristics of the experiment are impacting Larry’s responses, which aren’t even as concealing as he hopes.

Psychology sidebar: Why, after all, is Larry talking about turmoil, or his inner child? By claiming he’s overcome these things, he’s creating a Streisand effect which would lead even lay persons to think something’s there.

Or since we know him well enough to know these are his fears, read his lines as him actually letting slip what the blots make him think of, and quickly scrambling to claim mastery.

Psychology sidebar: Dr. Marvin Aldritch moves on to word association. The joke you usually see is that, like, “boy” → “girl” is healthy association**, and strange words, or repeated words are indications of a problem area; that’s the route Perfect Strangers took in Season 2’s “Beautiful Dreamer”. Being slow to offer an associated word can indicate repression, the subject thinking that their response is not appropriate, or reveals too much about them; but it could also mean that they have too many words coming at once, which limits the test.

But you know what? I still like them better than Myers-Briggs or Enneagrams, because they don’t pretend to be some super-tool of psychological insight.

Psychology sidebar: Fuck Myers-Briggs and Enneagrams or whatever test built from a theoretical model instead of experimental evidence that your boss bought for the office retreat so they can be lazy in understanding any of your individuality from then on. Fuck any test that tells you what you already know about yourself. It’s astrology for college graduates.

Anyway, I’m not put off by 80% of women’s dating profiles, you are. The rapid switching back and forth between Balki’s and Larry’s answers is a new structure for this show, and is miles away better than hearing them disagree every day over who gets to sit on which side of the couch, which slice of Pioli’s Pizza each gets, or whether they use the red or the black bück dich paddle. It’s a condensed way of showing their differences, and they similarities. When Dr. Aldritch asks Larry and Balki why he–he Larry married, he Balki bachelor–still live with their cousin,

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Psychology sidebar: each say that the other is helpless without them. There’s a little bit of downward social comparison there, but I’d put this one more in the category of illusion of asymmetric insight: “I know more about you than you know about me”.

Perfect Strangers, thinking it’s at the end of its run, knows these characters, and their relationship with each other, are fixed completely. There’s literally no time left for anyone but Balki to grow just enough to get married. The show presents the ironies before story takes back over, and it found a way to do so in a fairly pure form. And it’s piling up ironies faster than a Casey can write up a

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Psychology sidebar: Dr. Michael Berman pulls another face at the end of the scene, which in any other situation would create an observer-expectancy effect. It’s incredibly hard to create controlled conditions, and when it comes to face-to-face testing, it would seem researchers need the ultimate poker face to not influence a subject’s response. The irony, of course, is that it won’t register with a Balki whose mind–sorry I forgot this at the beginning of the episode–wanders quickly.***

020

We come back to the Chronicle later that day, Balki at drawing table, Larry obviously trying to squeeze a fart through his obstructed bowels. Enter Wainwright, who says that he’s going to use the data from Dr. Michael Aldritch to Rethink some of the office Traditions. That’s… unbelievably quick to be instituting changes to procedure or workplace paradigm, unless Wainwright is the most open-minded manager in Chicago and has no trustees or human resources department to answer to. I mean, unless their current practices were leading people to jump off the b…

Ah. Right.

022

Wainwright says that the Cousins have to report to Dr. Aldritch’s clinic the next morning at 9 o’clock. Forget the Dimitri strip Balki was working on, I guess. Balki is so excited he does the traditional Myposian butter-churning dance.

imchurninforyou

THEY’RE ALL LOOKING AT YOU, BALKI.

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Larry starts worrying that Wainwright’s looking to fire people who can’t stand up to stress on the job. Come on, Larry. Your job is to write your own opinion, sound smart, and keep Balki from picking his nose so hard it bleeds. Besides, you shot Wainwright in the ass. He would have fired you ages ago if he weren’t worried about a Wainlawsuitin’.

024

The “oh no” music comes on. Oh no! Larry might actually get the professional help he needs!

025

Here we are at the Dr. Michael M.B. Aldritch Clinic for Inverted Cousins.

02

Balki runs into the room (can no one walk?) and is so excited that I wonder if the joke is supposed to be he’s excited at finally seeing what a “clinic” is.

026

Balki starts cataloguing, but only gets as far as formica and simulated wood before Larry comes in, considering whether he should take up his uncle’s profession as door-to-door Meat for Life salesman.

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Psychology sidebar: you may have heard that there’s a huge reproducibility/replicability crisis in psychology, that long-held “knowledge” comes from experiments which, when run again, don’t give the same results. If knowledge is the end goal, I fail to see why anyone would feel it’s a crisis: getting to throw out bad theories in favor of new ones is how I want every science to work. We’ve already dipped into how experimenters can create demand expectations in their subjects, how subjects can second-guess experimenters, and the linear aspects of tests (like inkblots) becoming public. Lots of psych. experiments take place at colleges, and college students tend to change with their culture (and, hey, they’re not adults, and many of them historically American and white). Aside from the whole lab-setting-vs-real-life problem, aspects of where you test can come into play. Temperature, paint colors, windows, mirrors, something that looks like an eye, which questions come before others in an inventory–all of these can have unwanted impacts.

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All that to say it’s really damn weird to have this take place in what’s obviously a medical doctor’s office. How many of you have been to a psychiatrist’s office where they had tongue depressors? Balki, are the writers desperate for good jokes, or are they just really proud of this one?

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Nevermind. It’s thankfully the only major misstep in this episode. I’ve been trying to stay out of the psychiatric ward myself, so I’m not going to sweat some mismatched props.

Balki hugs “Dr. Mike” and–

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–yeah y’all can make your own joke about Balki sticking six inches of wood into someone’s mouth, because I’ve got a

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Psychology sidebar: It’s the woman who works in the basement, the one whom, thanks to the poor quality of the VHS copies I had in previous seasons, I had assumed might be Latina. What springs to mind here is change blindness: that we will ignore (or not even notice) a change in what we’re perceiving. One of my favorite studies is from 1998****, where one experimenter would approach a variety of people on a college campus asking for directions. While talking to these people, two men would rudely walk between carrying a door; the first experimenter would grab the door and keep walking, while the other experimenter took their place asking directions. Only 50% of the people they approached noticed the change, and even some of those who did notice continued the conversation without remark. What’s more–in the debriefing, when asked if they noticed anything unusual, some still didn’t say they had noticed it, only admitting to it when the experimenter asked specifically about the change of person.

This is kind of an inversion of that (for inverted cousins), so call it role change blindness, I guess. Either it’s not registering to the Cousins, or Balki’s forgotten these people and

Psychology sidebar: Larry’s not willing to question authority, or any part of what’s going on, for fear of a “bad score”. See Milgram’s obedience studies.

More on role change blindness later. Larry takes Balki three feet away (psychology sidebar: lack of object permanence?) and whips him.

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For now, Dr. Aldritch says the devices around Larry and Balki’s necks will monitor their “stress” levels. Balki argues briefly over who sits where.

035

Dr. Aldritch and–well, let’s call her Linda–depart into the next room. Balki is overwhelmed by the possibilities of the colors and shapes on the table before him.

034

Cousin Larry tells Balki that Dr. Aldritchhorror can see them through the two-way glass, so Balki starts doing a Richard Simmons impression in front of the mirror.

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Okay, two major missteps for this episode. But, again, the ironies on display here are great. Cousin Larry screams at Balki and pulls him away, and then immediately warns that they could be revealing the depth of their thoughts. And–the funny voice and the controlling behavior–that’s it, that’s as deep as these guys go anymore. Even Mary Anne–who’s so dumb she thinks cerebellum refers to the period after the Civil War, pons Varolii was a Star Trek character, and kids afraid of Santa are claustrophobic–has moments of profound insight.

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Larry flips out over Balki putting bunny ears on him (doing this to people was my constant goal from ages 6-10), and the camera switches briefly to the observation room, where Dr. Aldritch is laughing.

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I’m sure you held no worries about Larry’s continued employment at the Chronicle, and I doubt the show thought you would either; but this hint comes at the perfect moment. The show tells us we don’t have to worry, but it also tells us not to expect Larry to worry like a normal person would. The hint that Dr. Aldritch is not a serious professional is a promise that the Cousins are about to be even less so. It also puts the audience on Aldritch’s side.

Larry’s Mother Box starts going off, and blame it on that electronic bell, boy, but it stresses him out even more.

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This episode is so good it even remembers details from past seasons: Balki encourages Larry to practice the breathing exercises from the Think and Grow Calm tapes from Season 6’s “See How They Run”.

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Balki: I am a Halloween.

I’m really amazed that the writers are putting forth this much effort. Taking the time to ask themselves whether the subject matter had been treated in a previous episode is a rarity for any 90s sitcom, not just Perfect Strangers.

Dr. Aldritch tells them they have one minute to assemble the United States. And, gosh, folks, ain’t they already done that? Don’t the Cousins’ relationship just about resemble that ol’ melting pot itself? Shucks.

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Larry wants to have a plan to put together the mostly-already-done (puzzle? tangrams? Unclesamgrams?) and Balki wants to make a game out of it. Larry screams and cries, curiously not setting off his monitor.

Together, Larry and Balki sing their way through the United States. Psychology of personality is something I’m not well-read on, but

Psychology sidebar: while they hum a few bars I’ll fake it. So, I fall more on the side of social psychology: moment to moment, our behaviors are determined by what or who is around us. But at the far end of this kind of thinking is B.F. Skinner’s claim that he could take any kid and make a doctor, lawyer, whatever he wanted, out of them. The nature side–assigning personality types to people–always strikes me as deterministic and hopeless, but, sure, if you want to divide people up along various axes, go for it. Various typing models divide people into groups based on their values, their manner of relating to themselves, to each other, their locus of control, their drives, their focusses. I think my head spins (it simply swurls) because a) the vocabulary we use about personality seems pretty straightforward until you try to systematize it and b) I don’t know enough to grasp the applications of typing people. (Also the models are super culture-bound.) Even the middle-ground of debates of nature vs. nurture seem to focus on childhood, when both aspects will change across a lifespan. I basically just wrote 200 words to shrug, but it’s too complex for me right now.

043

Balki somehow knows the 1924 Al Jolson song “California Here I Come”.

P.S.: But where I’m more comfortable is talking about personality disorders. Per the DSM-5, Cousin Larry has an avoidant personality disorder. He exhibits “low self-esteem associated with self-appraisal” and “excessive feelings of shame and inadequacy”. He has intense “preoccupation with criticism or rejection” as well as “reluctance to get involved with people unless… certain of being liked”; emotional and experiential detachment, and constant “negative affectivity”, marked by “worry about the negative effects of past unpleasant experiences and future negative possibilities”.

Larry also could be diagnosed with a paranoid personality disorder, as he meets five out of the seven criteria: doubts about the trustworthiness of others; holding grudges; believes his reputation is under attack (without objective evidence); suspects intimate partners of being unfaithful; will not confide in others for fear of being betrayed.

Balki sings “The Yellow Rose of Texas”.

P.S.: Balki presents with some elements of a schizotypal personality disorder. He has incoherent goals; “pronounced difficulty understanding impact of [his] own behaviors on others” (treatment of Mary Anne); as well as misunderstanding others’ motivations; says unusual and inappropriate things; odd thought process; engages in magical thinking and ideas of reference (random events have personal significance). If it weren’t for the qualifying statement in the DSM-5 that the behavior can’t be caused by head trauma, it would be an easy diagnosis.

044

Cousin Larry starts getting into it and sings “My Old Kentucky Home”.

P.S.: Jennifer Lyons-Corn-Appleton meets four of the seven criteria (all you need for a diagnosis) for schizoid personality disorder: she takes pleasure in few activities; has little interest in sex; lacks close friends; and has a flat affect (—).

Balki and Larry join together on “Oh! Susanna”, and then “My Old Virginny Home”. America: co-opting black language and experience for the white man’s entertainment since 1848!

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P.S.: Mary Anne’s fine.

The Cousins end by singing “Theme from New York, New York”.

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P.S.: Of course, a general criterion for any personality disorder is that it significantly impair the individual’s functioning in their daily life. Larry could advocate assassinating heads of state in his column, and Balki could draw Dimitri mounting his sheep buddy Giorgos, and neither would get fired. Also, these constellations of personality traits are not considered disordered if they’re normative for the person’s sociocultural environment. They’re in a sitcom (whom borderline personality disorder: unstable self-image, frequent mood changes, dissociative states, impulsivity; and narcissistic personality disorder: exaggerated self-appraisal, intimate relationships forged for personal gain, attention-seeking), so they’re doing all right.

048

Dr. Aldritch: Wonderful, boys! You just got renewed for another season!

The Cousins are so excited that they do that move they do sometimes where they pretend to rip the testicles off God Himself.

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The final test that Prof. Herr. Dr. Dr. Michael Aldritch, LCSW, Psy.D., M.D., M.B., T.G.I.F., gives them is to sort and count colored sheets of paper. While they do this, he has Linda raise the temperature to 100 degrees; he all but drools over how fun it is to do this to people. Someone, in between writing Aldritch’s lines and Larry & Balki’s lines, forgot what the test was supposed to be, but that’s okay, it can work on a different level: Balki would easily misunderstand and Larry’s stressed enough to forget.

049

And at this point, it’s clear that Dr. Aldritch is just plain fucking with the cousins. He starts asking them questions to disturb their task (what is your phone number, are you jealous of your wife working with attractive pilots, if Mary Anne is your girlfriend what color are her nipples).

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Eventually Balki turns on the fan, blowing the paper all over the place. Man, they got lucky getting this shot:

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And the scene ends with Dr. Aldritch telling Balki that Larry is going to Disneyland without him; and Larry realizing that the whole thing was a setup to pit them against each other. Jeez, they were really gunning for a two-parter at Disney next season, weren’t they?

053

The show doesn’t have a good punchline to end the scene, but that’s okay. Not every joke has to have a good punchline. If I was going to improve it at all, it would be to end the scene with the both of them crying. But it all still works.

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Actually, things working on different levels, and a combination of good writing and luck are how I would describe this whole episode.

Psychology sidebar: Let’s talk Solomon Asch and social norms/conformity. His famous studies from the early 1950s***** involved a test being part of a group (of 7 to 9 others who were secretly working for Asch), seated in two rows, being asked to look at successive images of a lines and say which one of three other lines (a, b, and c) was equal to it in length. For the first four images shown, all secret experimenters gave the correct answer; but after that unanimously gave the wrong answer for the rest of the images. The question is: would the test subjects go along with what they knew were incorrect answers? Yes, about 75% of them would. Very few went with the group every time, but most would part of the time.

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The text of the episode is good enough on its own. It’s another example of this season’s answer to the source of Larry’s problems: it’s both internal and external. Others pick on Larry, and then he does the rest to himself. “The Sunshine Boys” failed by only hinting at this, but “Stress Test” marries the two together beautifully. You could pick basically any Perfect Strangers episode up to this point at random and accuse it of (psychology sidebar: “social trap”, a tragedy-of-the-commons style effect where individual impact affects a whole, like power outages caused by everyone turning on their air conditioners; see also law of triviality, where more effort is put into easily-grasped aspects of developing something complex) going for physical comedy at the expense of character and story, but this one draws the former directly out of the latter.

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And Larry “passing” the test by seeing through its facade is a better single-episode character arc than most sitcoms have. It’s not Uncle Jesse promising Michelle he’ll spend more time with her fifty times over; it’s Larry having an epiphany that doesn’t necessarily need to carry over into other episodes. If it does, we can’t say what form it would take: he might stop worrying about perceived external threats because they’re hollow; or he could be even more paranoid.

But the different levels at play here, and the luck, and the Asch stuff, and the “role change” blindness, comes from the possibly-inadvertent use of George Wyner and Basement Linda. It turns a sequence about an unethical psychiatrist into a test of whether Larry’s willing to call out what’s going on. First he’s one of only two people on his floor being tested; and by a man whom he’s interacted with twice before; and in the face of shortened deadlines, is asked to ignore his work for a day; and finds that the psychiatrist’s assistant is a person he saw daily for almost five years. The Prisoner got nothing on this!

Balki will protest Larry’s lies, but finally go along with them; Larry will swallow bullshit like it’s Maalox all day long.

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After the weary weary while both for patients and doctor, we finally return to The Chronicle, where Larry is on the phone with Alice******, Wainwright’s secretary, who tells them he’ll be there soon. After 140 episodes, do you really think I’d question the Cousins just knowing on their own that Wainwright will soon be in his office at the beginning of a workday, show? No, what’s weird is that Larry and Balki say “Alice” together like it’s some long-running catchphrase, and even more weird that they couldn’t walk the five yards downstage to Wainwright’s office to talk to her.

The Cousins apologize to each other until RT (Rigged Trials) Wainwright comes in. He tells the Cousins that, per Aldritch, they’re the perfect team because each personality corrects the other. He reveals that he watched the tape of their clinic test, and he’s planned a viewing party for it that very night.

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And here’s the luck part again: this episode was filmed before “The Elevator”, but aired here, it’s F.J. O’Neill’s final speaking episode. His role over the past five seasons has mostly been to introduce the plot of the week, set the Cousins on their way to physical comedy, and Retreat Tacitly until the final scene. But the suggestion that he’s a Ringleader, Troublemaker, that he employed people from the Cousins’ lives to gaslight them (ahem) elevates his character. I mean, isn’t that all it would take? Scare Larry with the mere thought of psychologists studying employees, and two seconds later he’s begging to be studied. You couldn’t ask for a higher level of reliability in an employee. It’s as though Wainwright has embraced his role on a meta-level, and it’s a great send-off for the character.

“Stress Test” is easily my favorite episode of season 7, and maybe even the second half of Perfect Strangers. For all that I complain that the characters don’t respond to situations like real people would, or that there’s never a focus on real-life concerns like giving a shit what your wife or girlfriend think or feel, “Stress Test” is a good argument that completely fabricated situations can be fruitful sources of character-driven comedy. Really the only thing that could have brought my opinion of this episode down would be if there was a psychology expert character that the show forg–

Ah. Right.

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The music comes on, obliterating any chance that Larry might consider suing Wainwright. Larry and Cousin Balki take on each other’s voices and catchphrases again, missing their deadline for the Sunday edition, staunch in their misunderstanding of each other, de-natured boy and un-nurtured man, piers undisappointed, aware of the dangers of “Bridge”, fighting their way to the credits, fine on their islands, no longer needing to compare themselves to Gilligan and the Skipper, filling each others’ holes.

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Join me next week for “…Or Get Off the Pot”!

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*Just in case you’re wondering, I think “The Play’s the Thing” was a very, very bad episode.

**Larry: young, well adjusted urban warrior with a desire to help others on his way toward adulthood.

I laughed so fucking hard.

***Psychology sidebar: I’d hate to skip over a possible diagnosis of ADHD–or worse–anterograde amnesia. The implication that Balki can’t form short- or long-term memories makes this the only time I’ve ever seen a sitcom provide a reason for why the dumb character is so dumb, and even more–why characters can’t remember lessons they’ve learned.

****Simons, D.J., & Levin, D.T. (1998). Failure to detect changes to people during a real-world interaction. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 5(4), 644-649.

*****Asch, S.E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 70(9), 1-70.

******Alice? Who the fuck is Alice?

P.S. P.S. for P.S.: Nowhere this really fits, but for extra credit watch these 1960s kids take a hammer to an inflatable Bobo doll: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmBqwWlJg8U Try and tell me that’s not Larry-as-a-Boy.

Catchphrase count: Balki (1); Larry (0)

Boner count: Balki (0); Larry (0)

Unused Larryoke Countdown 11: “No More Mr. Wainwright” – Alice Cooper

0720dimitri

Season 7, Episode 19: The Play’s the Thing

Hey, y’all. After 138 episodes, it finally happened: an episode of Perfect Strangers that I had almost nothing to say about. The entirety of my knowledge of the theatre and experience with acting boils down to one college elective course and being in the high school drama club. I like to be erudite in my reviews, but for this, I didn’t even know which of the Shakespeare brothers (Miller and Molière) it would be more appropriate to make reference to.

So I reached out to Catie Osborn, theatre expert, actress, playwright, teacher, slam poet, and most recently, a person who will demand money upfront for any writing she agrees to do. You can read more about her work at www.catieosborn.com.

Catie, may you follow in Twinkacetti’s footsteps and break a leg.

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When I was asked if I’d be interested in evaluating this episode, I was excited, but I was also nervous—I know literally nothing about Perfect Strangers, I’m not familiar with the characters or their relationships with each other, so I’m going in blind, or at least very neutral. I’m going to be reviewing season Seven, Episode 19. Honestly the fact that this is SEASON SEVEN is really the thing that blows my mind.

About me— a few years ago, I decided that what I needed to do more than anything else in this world was get two master’s degrees in Shakespeare. I figured in this economy, why not. Prior to that, I got my BA in Theatre and I’ve spent the better part of my entire life working in theatre. So I’m sort of an expert, (okay, I’m absolutely an expert but I was raised in the Midwest where it’s impolite to say things like that about yourself) but mostly I just consider myself a passionate artist and theatre maker.

Let’s go.

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First, I  just need to say that I was very pleased to discover that Perfect Strangers has the single greatest theme song of all time. It’s now my ringtone, and honestly it makes my day a little bit better every time I hear it.

So the show opens with an establishing shot of the haunted castle where they all apparently live.

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We find out, with some truly hamfisted exposition, that Larry, played by Mark Linn-Baker (or, as I’ve known him for most of my life, the original Toad from A Year With Frog and Toad), has written a play: “Wheat”, which he says is still a work in progress…but oh no, racist accent guy (IMDB tells me his name is Balki) has given it to the local theatre group and it opens in a week! It is also important to note that Larry insists on pronouncing “Wheat” a la “Cool Whip” from Family Guy for no apparent reason.

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Balki reveals that he’s been working on the show AND he’s the stage manager! His duties, he says, include opening and closing the curtain. I have a lot of questions about the rehearsal schedule, and how Larry hasn’t noticed. I’m going to assume that this is a community theatre production, which tend to have a longer rehearsal process—and rehearse in the evenings. So hypothetically, Balki has been gone every night (since he’s the stage manager, he’d need to be there first and leave last) for, let’s say, 4 hours for the past four weeks, and Larry hasn’t either noticed or cared to ask, which, either way, makes Larry kind of an asshole.

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Next, we travel to the theatre, where they’re rehearing the play, which is established by a shot of a recreation center, then the stage proper.

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To be quite honest, I got a good kick out of the stage. It looked like every community theatre set from my childhood, complete with the same old timey stove that every theatre company in America seems to possess. The recreation center thing is also a clever nod to community theatre—while many community theatres have their own spaces (some of then far nicer than the professional theatres nearby), many of them fall into the “found spaces” or ‘cafegymnatorium’ quandary. There was something sort of inherently realistic and familiar with the design, which gave me the feeling that the writers (or designers, or both, I suppose) all had at least some experience working in the community theatre medium—which then, conversely, makes the rest of this episode even more shameful in its laziness.

We then quickly learn two important details: Larry has based the character of Laurence on himself and opening night is sold out!

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Trevor, the director, tells Tony the Pasta Palace Waiter that Laurence is a complete buffoon, and “don’t let the words get in your way, we can always change them later”.

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Unable to take it, Larry jumps on stage and says the words are “sacred” and “every word is in the right order”. I have two master’s degrees in Shakespeare, let me tell you about how many times I’ve heard some variation on this speech.

Then, for some inexplicable reason, the director decides to immediately be a dick and tells Larry that this is clearly his first play and if he works real hard, maybe some day, he can get a job writing game show questions. I struggled with this section for several reasons. The first is that while it is not super common for a playwright to be in the room, particularly for new works, there is usually a dramaturg, who, if not in the room, is at least on call to answer questions and parse out textual questions…so having someone in the room whose job it is to preserve textual integrity is…pretty par for the course. Plus, there are many theatres where, particularly if it is new work that’s been commissioned or written for a specific group of actors, the playwright may very well be on hand for a few rehearsals.

Granted, this is usually for professional houses, but it’s also pretty rare for community theatres to do new work, so I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt on this one, mostly because I’m just grateful they’re not doing Streetcar or something. Honestly though: the fact that Larry’s local theatre is doing a new work by an unknown author is a HUGE DEAL.

Small community theatres that support new work are a vital part of the theatrical landscape. Go see a play you’ve never heard of before and give room and space for new and diverse voices. Push your local board to select shows that challenge the community and nurture new talent. There are so many incredible playwrights in this country who have no opportunity to present their work because everyone is busy doing the same plays we’ve seen a million times. Your community doesn’t grow and learn from another production of Greater Tuna, but a new work about the experience of marginalized voices in your town might foster important conversations that desperately need to be had.

(end of soapbox).

So Larry drops a solid King and I joke, which is, weirdly, really the only theatre joke in the entire episode. I was getting a real Frasier vibe from Larry, I expected more highbrow jokes about Mamet.

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Then Trevor the director quits, apropos of nothing, and Tony the Pasta Palace Waiter also quits—along with the rest of the cast because apparently, they were all sharing the same van. Right.

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The producer, Lydia, comes in and is very upset, because oh no! A fancy play reviewer named “Clive Rich” was supposed to come on opening night, and our dynamic duo realizes that they are gonna have to put on this whole show by themselves.  I have a lot of questions about why they just can’t reschedule or push back opening, but for the benefit of Plot Device, I will just roll with this one.

The question still remains, though— what is the big deal with the reviewer? Larry says “THE Clive Rich?” and then it’s never really brought up again. They never specify what paper he’s from, why he’s important or why it’s significant that he’s coming, but he can, apparently ONLY come on ONE SPECIFIC NIGHT. WHY CAN’T THEY JUST RESCHEDULE? THIS MAKES NO SENSE. But instead we have to majorly inconvenience everyone directly involved with the show rather than minorly inconvenience the likes of THE Clive Rich.

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Larry comes in the next day having re-written the entire play and casts …his friends? Again, I have a lot of questions about why the entire play had to be re-written. This is never really discussed or brought up again. I can’t tell if it’s a numbers thing—like his original show had 46 people and he’s reduced it to five, but even then, doubling exists. I would argue that a small-scale cast of 5 playing an entire town has a certain inherent entertainment value to it (and yes, that’s why I shit on Greater Tuna earlier, it all comes back around, you’re welcome).

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Larry claims to know everything there is to know about theatre and then, for the rest of the episode, proceeds to act like the most irresponsible director in the history of theatre. Cool.

There is a great moment with a throw away joke where Larry’s wife comments on why Larry has cast his wife as his mother. It’s a solid joke, but more than that, it’s a great commentary on “stage age”.

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When I talk about Shakespeare, particularly in discussions about what something might mean or why a character might be acting a certain way, I think it’s really important to contextualize what was going on at the time. (I wrote one of my theses on this concept), because since Shakespeare was generally written for the common people, there are constant nods and references to things that were happening in, say, 1595, that audiences in 2018 miss because we aren’t living in that same frame of reference.

One of my favorite examples is about swords. (I actually wrote my thesis on this, so if you want to get real nerdy with me, look it up sometime). So let’s time travel back to 1597. Shakespeare has just written Romeo and Juliet. In it, there are a crap-ton of sword fights. “Cool”, we say, as a modern audience “sword fights are exciting, I guess, something to break up all of this talking”.

But what if I told you that in 1597, public duels were beginning to get so popular that people started trying to get them outlawed? Or that the rapier, a type of sword specifically mentioned over and over again in the play, was the new and fashionable weapon of choice? Or that Italian fencing had come into popularity, which many older people mocked for being too youthful and stylistically different than the traditional style of English fencing. And then remind you that R&J takes place in Verona…Italy?

So suddenly, we’re sitting at a play where the youths of the city are fighting with the trendy new weapon in a trendy new fighting style, fighting for honor and self-satisfaction in a way that would be outlawed by the Queen only 12 years later– suddenly, these random moments in the play make a lot more sense to us as audience members up on popular culture. Romeo and Juliet is a goddamn commentary meme about those young hooligans and their newfangled swordplay and ideas about honor.

Sorry, I get excited.

So let’s look at this moment in the context of 1992. In 1991-1992 (when this episode originally aired), the top movies included*, most notably, Basic Instinct, The Crying Game, The Bodyguard and Scent of a Woman, and Silence of the Lambs won best picture…so objectified women and women used as sexual objects and bargaining chips for the sake of the plot are pretty familiar to anyone watching this on network TV in 1992.

*Also Aladdin, Sister Act, Beauty and the Beast and The Rocketeer which are all great movies. Remember when Disney was in its golden Renaissance? Damn.

So maybe it’s just a throw away joke, or maybe, for a brief moment, the writers touch on something very real facing female actresses in 1992.

Moving on:

So Larry decrees that they shall begin rehearsal on stage, which is, depending on your school of thought, either totally normal or very strange. Some directors like to start with table work—read through the show, some like to jump right in to get a sense of what the ensemble brings to the show, but, for the most part, no rehearsal ever begins with jumping on stage and setting your play in stone, but fine, Larry is a non-traditional director. No big deal.

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Balki is concerned because he is cast as the mean brother, Billy, which he doesn’t feel he can personally connect to. Larry gives him the advice to think about someone in his life who reflected those characteristics and bring those into his character. Balki comes up with this mean kid from his home country, Brunos. He coaches him through a vision exercise—what did this character look like? Sound like? What did he feel to be like him?

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Balki then has a breakdown, then struggles to connect his emotions to his acting, so Larry decides to create a trigger word for him—“bridge”– which he uses and Balki then goes into a rage-out fugue state and throws him off the stage.

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Now. This is the part of the show where I debated nit-picking for the sake of this review, but I decided, ultimately, that it was problematic enough that I wanted to address it. First, let’s acknowledge that there are many, many schools of thought on acting. Nearly all of them revolve around the idea that “yes, you’re pretending, but try and find ways to make it seem realistic”. They all come at it from different ways. For instance, the Stanislavski school of acting basically says “what would I do if I was in this character’s shoes”, and you play those circumstances, whereas Uta Hagen’s school of acting says that you basically find a link between something in your own life—say, a time that you got mad about missing the bus, but take that feeling and apply it to a scene, where, say, you’re angry that your boyfriend is leaving you.

So contextualizing this DEEPLY PROBLEMATIC scene in that way, the best I can figure out, Larry is sort of bastardizing the Meisner Acting Technique, which says that actors should fully throw themselves into the emotional “state” of the character onstage. So the actor isn’t pretending to be mad, the actor actually finds a reason to get angry.

PS theatre nerds: I know these are very broad and somewhat lacking descriptions, don’t @ me, I’m reviewing an episode of Perfect Strangers not writing a treatise on acting.

However, the issue I have here is that what Larry is doing is actually REALLY dangerous for an actor. There is, in stage combat, such a thing as a “red light” actor, who is fine in rehearsal, and then when the excitement of performance sets in, creates an unsafe fighting environment for the actors around him/her. I’ve seen this happen in community AND professional acting scenarios, and every time, it ends with someone getting hurt. I’ve seen broken fingers, split lips, shattered swords…and here, this show presents a scenario in which the actor, during rehearsal, red lights so hard that he throws someone off of the damn stage.

Fun fact, when I sent this article in, I got some comments back from our fine Editor.  He provided the following insight into this whole scenario, which I am just going to present here:

But—oh man—Bronson is a red light actor. I know of three instances where he ended up causing harm; I have to imagine there are dozens across his career. In a “Honeymooners” themed episode in season 6, he overdid a bit of physical comedy and landed flat on his face; in a season 4 episode when Balki is shaking Larry, Bronson shook him so hard that he (Bronson) hit his teeth on Mark’s forehead and Mark had to get stitches; and when Bronson was in the play Zoya’s Apartment, he misread the lead actress’s “readiness” for some bit of physicality they had discussed (but not made plans to incorporate into a performance) and says he ended up doing a handstand on her face and falling down.

I get it, it’s comedy, but it’s just…it’s not funny. It’s not okay. The dual “joke” of psychological trauma and unsafe stage technique is just….squicky. PARTICULARLY given the background that our editor just provided—this actor—not Balki playing Brunos—but the ACTUAL PERSON who is portraying this character has a history of behaving just like this—and rather than confront it, or bring in a qualified stage combat person to deal with it, they turned it into a “hilarious” inside joke. That’s just….so deeply not okay.

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So the next night, the show opens. Larry introduces the play with a sort of vague overview of the plot as narrator, a convention which will carry through the rest of the show.

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Larry’s wife is still mad that he made her play the mom, and then refuses to complete her blocking, forcing Larry to improvise. A brief note: this is a really tried-and-true convention for comedy plots involving theatre. The actor is upset at a coworker, therefore they will punish them onstage. FYI: This is not a thing real actors do, and if they do this, they are A: not an actor that you want to work with B: an actor you won’t have to worry about working with because they will never work again. It’s funny in practice, but in the real world, this kind of behavior is just…it’s not a thing.

Balki jumps his entrance….three times. Sure.

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Lydia the Apple Lady is paralyzed by stage fright. Fine.

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Larry continues to have to improvise as the play falls apart around behind him. Reasonable.

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The door is broken, Mary Anne (Sagittarius) can’t find her prop.

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Fun fact, these are all things that really happen all the damn time in theatre. Door flats are notoriously difficult to build, and prop doors have a funny way of sticking. There’s actually a great video of Mary Poppins on Broadway in which the door gets stuck and she has to improvise through it. Losing props, too, is, while generally frowned upon, something that happens on occasion, even in the professional world. Find an actor and ask them about a time someone forgot a prop on stage, I guarantee every single person you talk to will have at least one good story.

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Then Balki misses his entrance and comes on stage eating a bagel. No. This is not a thing. I don’t care how dumb you are, I don’t care how little you know about theatre, no one in their right mind is going to show up for their entrance eating a snack.

Then Larry stops the scene to compliment him. Again, this is not a thing. Like….we’ve all seen little kids at the Christmas pageant wave to their mommy and daddy. That is adorable. Larry is a grown-ass man, there is no reason why this should be a thing.

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Oh no, then he accidentally uses the trigger word again while Balki …transforms into a werewolf behind him. Balki drags Larry off stage to…presumably murder him, then returns to the stage to …once again throw Larry off of it.

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We are transported back to the magic castle.

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Larry returns home with a neck brace, cast and crutches. Please see my above note regarding unsafe working conditions.

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Larry feels bad because if he hadn’t interfered with Trevor’s assuredly expert directing, it’d probably all have worked out alright, and says that it’s water under the bridge, leaving Balki to meltdown again as proof of the lasting psychological damage he did to his friend. The end.

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Dramaturgically, I have questions about Larry’s premise. First, we never really get to the whole “Wheat” thing. We know that the play is about a wheat farmer (or something) and his childhood on the plains, but the whole thing is narrated by these weird Ibsen-style monologues featuring basically, just Larry.

I get that the joke is supposed to be that everyone else is under-rehearsed and/or fucking it up for Larry so he has to improvise, but really, the biggest problem I see with the show is that it’s basically a one-man show that he stuck a few extra characters in to. Of course everyone else in the show is annoyed, they’re basically set dressing for Larry’s weird ego trip of The Wheaty Vagina Monologues.

What is fascinating about this episode is that it came out almost 6 years before Waiting for Guffman, one of the best films about the insanity that can be working in community theatre, but yet it hits nearly every cliché joke: the overzealous director, the talentless actors, the problematic rehearsal process, the low budget, general ineptitude…we’ve seen it all before.

Aside from the deeply problematic behavior set up for “comedy”, I suppose the thing that really irks me about this episode is just how cliché it is. It’s lazy writing.  Even before I knew anything about this show or this particular episode, I could have made a list of every trope and general theatre stereotype we were going to see, and been mostly right. Frankly, I’m kind of surprised we didn’t see a deeply offensive portrayal of a gay man, but maybe that’s what Trevor was there for. Who knows.

The meta angle, of actors working on a show in which they portray actors putting on a show has, I suppose, some generative qualities to it…but it seems, at its core, contradictory. Take the whole “Larry’s wife is mad about her character” thing—this show is TERRIBLE. The writing is awful, the plot silly and the main character (I guess?) Balki is literally the worst…but yet these actors showed up every day to film episodes presumably just like this one—and it was their job to make that material compelling, interesting and semi-watchable.

What is even more irritating is that Mark Linn-Baker (Larry), is, and was, a pretty successful theatre director in New York. By the time this episode came out, he’d directed at the Public (which is a huge deal)…and he founded his own theatre company. It’s not like this dude was a clueless actor who had no idea how the stage side of stuff went… after seven seasons, I feel like maybe he should have had a little more say in how his character handled this situation, SINCE HE LITERALLY DID IT FOR REAL.

There are also shows that have done it better. Slings and Arrows, for example, remains one of my favorite television series of all time—and it’s wholly about theatre people doing theatre people things—but the difference is that they give it heart, and motivation. The characters’ (sometimes crappy) behavior is rationalized out by their backstory and circumstances, whereas with this episode, it just feels like everyone is going through the motions as the omnipresent hand of the writers forces their pawns to jump through humiliating scenario after scenario for the enjoyment of the audience.

So why then, is it funny to watch actors failing for the sake of comedy? Wouldn’t it have been a stronger choice to make everything look like a disaster, but then, because they all care about Larry and the fate of his play, they all come together and put on a truly good play? Maybe Balki, it turns out, could have been a fantastically good actor, and Larry’s wife could have been a great director. The critic could have come and been wildly impressed. But instead, the writers chose failure. They punched down, rather than have the characters rise up to overcome the odds. It just feels lazy, like the writers couldn’t be bothered to think outside the predestined sitcom box of expectation.

But it’s season seven after all, so maybe that’s exactly what was happening.

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For this relief much thanks, Catie.

I didn’t watch this one, but it sounds like Larry pissed off a guy who sells pasta and then had to harvest wheat to make his own? I don’t know and never will.

Join me next week for “Stress Test”!

Catchphrase count: Balki (0); Larry (0)

Boner count: Balki (0); Larry (0)

Appearances left: Gorpley (1); Lydia (1)

Unused Larryoke countdown #12: “Wheat Writing Man” – The Rolling Stones