Season 1, Episode 4: Baby, You Can Drive My Car

Another week, another shot of the Ritz Discount/Caldwell Hotel exterior.  And also another indication that Twinkacetti gives precisely zero shits about whether he gets customers or not. That schmutz on the sign! Those pitiful flags!  Insert obligatory “Puttin’ On The Ritz” joke here.

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Balki and Larry engage in some simple physical comedy and the audience laughs politely once they’re done.  Listen, show, I know it’s only the beginning of the episode, but you set the bar pretty high with “Balki turns a radio off” back in episode one.  It takes more than a stack of motor oil cans to get this audience to cheer.  Larry complains that the pyramid isn’t perfect, so Balki takes a can from the bottom and puts it on the top.

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Larry says “Obviously, you don’t know the first thing about physics”, which is another mark in the “Balki is a cartoon character” column (cf. previous episodes where Balki is knowledgeable only when it’s funny, ala Roger Rabbit). Larry’s confusion may seem a little misplaced, but you must understand that it was only the year before this episode aired that the popular game Jenga made its way to North America.

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Twinkacetti enters, making a joke about how it would be incorrect to call his employees “gentlemen”. With this line, Twinkacetti makes both an accurate observation and a sad commentary on overpopulation in the United States as well as the semantic drift of any language when the society that uses it undergoes constant rapid technological changes.  Twinkacetti continues this thesis by showing off his new driver’s license, which stands a symbol for the change in social status markers over the past century from those of permanence (land ownership) to those of mobility.  Balki, very astutely, connects the masculine drives of power, status, & sexuality, guessing that Twinkacetti must have a pretty big boner over his renewed license.  Pretty smart for a dumb 80s show, huh?

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Balki is humbled to be allowed such a place of prominence in American society, working not only under, but alongside, such card-carrying individuals.  Larry tries to calm him down, posing the counterargument that things like driver’s licenses, rather than being symbols of status, are one of the grand equalizing tools of a democratic nation.  You know what? I’m full of shit and this path’s going to run into a dead end soon. This actually is a dumb 80s show: Balki makes a joke about Merv Griffin, and then a joke about how there was only one car on the whole island of Mypos.  Larry claims that Balki could get a license himself, but Balki’s not buying it.

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Larry agrees to teach Balki to drive, but then Balki reminds him that there’s only four characters on this whole show, so they’ll have to use his car. Given that the past couple of episodes involved Larry being maimed (albeit off-screen), my hopes are now officially raised.  Larry gets another good line here while he fumbles around saying he’s scared that Balki will wreck his car:

Larry: Well, Balki, a man’s car is not just a piece of machinery. I mean, my car is very special to me. I spent years saving nickels and dimes so that I could…  I mean, it’s not that I don’t trust you…

The joke that Larry owns a shitty car is marred only by the intro showing us Larry’s fuckin’ cherry Mustang every damn week.  Twinkacetti makes a bet with Larry that Balki can’t get a license, and here we are, already reusing the first episode’s structure.  Nah, I’m okay with it.  Balki getting a license fits perfectly with the theme of Balki trying to live the American dream.  Twinkacetti needles Larry enough the takes the bet and agrees to teach Balki in his simultaneously shitty/nice car (this is, truly, Schrödinger’s car, because its quality will collapse into one or the other state when next the audience observes it).

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Larry says “damn” again and I guess you really could say that on TV back then. Like I say, I started watching this show in its last 2 or 3 seasons, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all if ABC had cleaned up its act by that point. Catchphrases, boners, now I’ve got to keep track of Larry saying damn.  Let it never be said that I don’t work hard on these reviews.

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Balki’s so excited that he starts singing “Little Deuce Coupe” and shaking his pretend tits around.  It made sense when he was singing a Dolly Parton song back in “Picture This”, but not for the Beach Boys.  I can only imagine that his copy of the single on vinyl had goat crap on the words “Beach Boys” and he thinks “Surfer Girl” did the song.

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Larry asks God for confirmation that it’s a good idea to teach Balki to drive, and the motor oil can pyramid topples.

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Larry wonders whether that was a “yes” or a “no” answer, which is actually pretty shrewd.  Does everything Balki touches turn to crap? Or are disasters as well as miracles the purview of God, and Balki is under God’s protection so long as Larry believes in him (or Him)?

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In the next scene, Larry comes home with a bunch of groceries, including a plunger. I can relate. When I first moved away from home, I didn’t even think about a plunger until the very moment I needed one. So which one of these guys do you wanna bet stopped up the shitter?

Similar to how Larry’s been putting off getting some fiber in his diet (I mean, it’s gotta be Larry), Larry also has been stalling on actually getting in a car with Balki at the wheel. Cousin Larry decides that they’ll pretend the coffee table is the front seat of a car to “practice”, and Balki accuses Larry of not trusting him. Larry reminds him that they have to fill a whole 21 minutes and to sit the hell down and do a bit with the weirdly useful groceries he just bought.  Balki pretends to open and then slam the car door, which is a really elegant “yes and” for the padding premise: he’s playing along with the bit AND giving Larry an opportunity to whip out his catchphrase.

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Surprising everyone, Larry uses the plunger as a gearshift, frozen broccoli as the gas pedal, and grapefruit as the brake. (See? Larry is deliberately ruining high-fiber foods.)  Balki really commits to the padding scenario, pretending to ask for the keys, put on sunglasses, buckle his seatbelt, etc. Finally, Larry shouts at Balki and Balki knocks Larry off the table, fulfilling the characterization and “comedy” quotas for this scene.  If they had followed through with the tacit promise that Balki would stomp on the grapefruit, they would have used up their laughtrack budget for the whole episode.  Sitcoms are a delicate balance, people.

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Later, at the Ritz store, Balki is visibly shaken by “an accident in Cousin Larry’s car”.  This necessitates the presence of Susan, because Twinkacetti’s already too busy not giving a shit about sales to not give a shit about one of his employees. We find out that Larry died in a fire, putting the perfect punchline to the 3-episode joke of Larry getting physically harmed off-screen.

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Nah, just kidding, 80s shows didn’t have that kind of continuity; networks expected their audiences to not have seen the previous weeks’ episodes.  This means that Larry lives, continuing the theme of misdirected setups established by the unsquashed grapefruit (or grapefru-it, as Balki calls it).  It turns out that they hit a shopping cart in a grocery store parking lot and Balki tries to apologize; Balki says that, because of what he did, he must go far away and cover his face in shame.

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That’s a very specific atonement ritual for an island that has just the one car.

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After the act break, we find Balki back at the apartment, taking comfort from his stuffed sheep, Dmitri (not actually named here, but it’s Dmitri).  Larry comes in and apologizes to Balki for overreacting.  What Perfect Strangers does here in the space of two scenes, Full House would later elevate to an art form of taking up the whole episode: Character A does something legitimately wrong, Character B experiences legitimate anger and expresses it. This makes Character A sad, resulting in Character B apologizing.

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Larry cheers Balki by reminding him of his commitment to the American dream (“get back on that horse”, etc.) and the pair of them launch into a rousing… er, that is, purely platonic rendition of “America, the Beautiful”.  Ahem.  On to Balki’s driving test.

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They stand in line at the “State of Illinois Motor Vehicle Facility”, Balki visibly shaking (that’s not the horse Cousin Larry meant, Balki).  Larry asks if he’s nervous.

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Eddie Barth (whom I’m sure you all remember as “Additional Voices” in the cartoon Challenge of the GoBots) plays the cranky MVF employee.  Every show makes the “cranky MVF employee” joke but boy, it gets me every time.

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Balki gives Barth more reasons to be cranky, so it’s a good thing this episode has “not following through on setups” as its theme.  Wait–oh shit!–Barth does the road test too!  You got me good, show.

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I knew better than to expect to see the road test (this episode used up its one unique set on the MVF), so it’s back to the Ritz.  Twinkacetti is rude to a nun over the phone; where will this man’s reign of terror end?

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Balki comes back and tells a story… and god damn, how many times per episode am I going to have to say some variation on that?  Balki thought that the driving examiner was having a heart attack, but it turns out that he just had bad gas, having eaten a salami sandwich, french fries, and two chili dogs.

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(Should I use this opportunity to call back to what makes MVF workers cranky? A callback joke about Larry’s car now being farty instead of shitty?  Or go for the long shot of landing a callback to Larry’s bowel troubles? Vote in the comments; vote early, vote often.)  Twinkacetti keeps going on and on about how he wants his 50 bucks, the callousness of which troubles Balki.  Twinkacetti says what I can only hope is his catchphrase:

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But Balki says that the examiner was so happy not to be dead that he gave him a driver’s license.  And…yeah, sure, that’s not a gross misuse of one’s power as government employee, let’s go with that. Twinkacetti starts crying because now the local pimp is going to waste his ass over a lousy $100.

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Balki and Cousin Larry exchange the lessons they’ve learned to the dulcet tones of clarinet and synthesizer.  Balki learned to not give up because Larry trusted him.  And Larry learned that he should trust Balki more often, especially if it means getting an extra $50 every now and then.

Larry: Did you put on the parking brake?

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Balki: What’s a parking brake?

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But because every episode requires the “soft reset” of Balki still being a member of the sub-human class called “those dumb goddam foreigners” and Larry still being angry about having to put up with his shit, Balki has locked the keys in the car.

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P.S. Balki keeps mispronouncing Larry’s last name.  What’s up with that?

P.P.S. No jokes about using a shepherd’s crook to steer a car. What’s up with that?

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Catchphrase count:  Balki (3); Larry (1); Twinkacetti (1 hoped for)

Boner count: Balki (0), Larry (0), Twinkacetti (1 suspected)

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10 thoughts on “Season 1, Episode 4: Baby, You Can Drive My Car

  1. It’s funny how times have changed. I read teens living in urban areas today really don’t care about getting a car or even a driver’s license; they just use public transportation.

    Were you serious when you said 21 minutes? That seems awfully low for a sitcom of that time.

    Like

    • I just double-checked the running time: if you take out the opening and closing credits, it’s about 21:50 for the whole episode. At this point I think we can safely say these are most likely the syndication edits.

      It truly pains me to think of the catchphrases and boners I’m missing out on.

      Like

    • Yeah, I read that, too. It seems strange, because I recall in high school that sometimes when a kid was absent, one of his or her friends would explain, “It’s their 16th birthday,” meaning that the kid was absent because his or her parents had taken them to the DMV for a driving test.
      I guess it means more when you live in the suburbs and it takes all day to walk somewhere, rather than living in the city where access is closer. I never had a license when living in downtown Portland because having a car was actually a huge pain in the ass.

      Like

  2. – Damn. Now *I* need a cuddly sheep named Dmitri.
    – The possibly-awesome car only furthers to cement my theory that Larry purchases things to impress people.
    – I only vaguely recall “Damn” being Larry’s catchphrase. I remember this one far more clearly:
    Larry: “I have…”
    Everyone else in the room: “Oh, God!”
    Larry: “…a plan.”

    _

    “(Should I use this opportunity to call back to what makes MVF workers cranky? A callback joke about Larry’s car now being farty instead of shitty? Or go for the long shot of landing a callback to Larry’s bowel troubles? Vote in the comments; vote early, vote often.) ”
    Hmmm, I’m on the fence about this one. Could I see these options in a Choose Your Own Adventure format, please?

    Like

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