Perfect Strangers (1984)

This week I have a really special treat for all of you. I’ve turned up what is essentially the lost pilot for Perfect Strangers!!!! No, not the one with Louie Anderson as “Cousin” Louie Appleton. It turns out that almost two years before the pilot with ABC, Larry Cohen wrote and directed the first pass at the essentials of what would become the beloved 1980s sitcom that we all sort of remember watching. Two males beginning a relationship in the big city, finding not only commonalities of interest, but also friendship; a conflict of backgrounds, one driven by the greed and various other evils of modern America, the other the picture of innocence; and lastly, the message that the importance of family should trump all else. But first a word about Larry Cohen.

Larry Cohen got his start in writing for television, mostly with one-off pieces for anthology shows. His earliest screenplays deal mostly with the criminal world, though he later branched into science fiction as well. By the 1970s, he was writing films. He dipped his toes a bit here and there, but seems to have felt most comfortable writing action/thriller/horror pictures (I think it completely fair to refer to these genres as “cousins”). If you’ve seen any of Cohen’s work at all, it was either It’s Alive or, more likely, The Stuff, a horror/sci-fi/comedy film about people consuming–and then being consumed by–an alien substance similar to Marshmallow Fluff. His earlier comedic effort – Full Moon High – left me unsatisfied, but The Stuff is a wonderful genre blend. Perfect Strangers was released in the years between these two films, and while it has a definite comic sensibility hiding within it, I don’t think we can blame Cohen for not committing to a full-blown genre mashup.

Anyway, I’m getting too wordy! This is an exciting find, so let’s get to it! (n.b. the characters’ names are different here, so I’ll refer to them by their sitcom names so it’ll be less confusing.)

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The film opens with shots of a trashy, lonely, seemingly empty city. Empty, that is, but for the shadow people on the building walls. We are meant to think of the shadows left behind by the victims of nuclear explosions; we are meant to understand that this city has no life, at least on the metaphorical level. It’s been burned out already by the capitalist and militaristic excess of 1980s America. Larry is introduced standing directly in front of not only one of these shadows, but also the message to “keep out”.

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Remember how Cousin Larry was so happy to have an apartment all to himself? How little he wanted the intrusion of Balki? In his first encounter with another person, Cousin Larry turns word to flesh, killing the intruder.

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This act of violence is witnessed by one of the newest arrivals to this country – Balki, age 2. Here, Susan is Balki’s mother, rather than a friend. But, ever the protector, she tries to shield Balki from the horrors of the grisly scene and pulls him back into the house (or, the “mother country”, if you will).

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She pulls a Tommy on him, telling him he didn’t hear it, he didn’t see it, he won’t say nothing to no one, he’ll never tell a soul what he knows is the truth. However – and here is our first fledgling sitcom setup – Larry knows that Balki saw him. He stops another child of similar age, trying to gauge the child’s memory capabilities. Larry fears how knowledge of his crime will be handled by the innocent. (Note how a church – an institute of judgment – looms large in the background.)

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We then meet Larry’s boss. While Twinkacetti’s mob connections were only humorously hinted at through the first and second seasons of the show, here they are out in the open. But, similar to the first episode of Perfect Strangers, Balki has fouled up regular operations, and Larry must fix it or lose his job. And I’m not familiar enough with mob movies to know if a lot of them do this, but damn if telling an employee that his ass is on the line while walking through a cemetery isn’t effective for making your point.

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And, similar to how sitcoms spend the beginning of each scene recapping the last, we’re treated to a minute straight of Larry tailing Susan and Balki on a bicycle while the news on the radio tells us what we already saw: that Larry killed a dude. But what’s not similar is how much time we spend with two women in the same scene with no guys around. Well, okay, Balki’s there, but he’s mesmerized by the toys on the shelves. But this scene takes place in a resale shop; Susan restores clothing and sells them to stores. Plus, like, look at that funky tuxedoed mannequin! Probably the funniest part of this movie and it didn’t make it into the show. Stupid ABC execs.

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Anyway, Susan and Other Susan have some conversation about turning the guy in, and whether it would be different if the murderer had been a woman; Other Susan sees the world through a “men vs women” framework. The resale shop, the mob boss, the “culture” war… similar to the recent BB-8 movie, there are a lot of similar pieces here that feel out of place. But then, we’ve seen ABC do lots of shuffling; sometimes you just move things around until they fit. The conversation also lets us know that Susan is separated from Balki’s father, Mypos. Balki begins to cry for Mypos when Other Susan brings up the topic of radiation and pollution.

And let me continue my Star Wars references here. Remember how in A New Hope, we cut from Obi-Wan talking about the power of the force to a scene with Vader using it on someone? Here, we switch immediately to see that radiation and pollution – symbolized by the shadow graffiti – have a common origin in Larry Appleton.

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Larry: Who is that? Who is that? That’s me! That’s me! That’s me.

At this point I really have to admire the economy of the sitcom format. What it took this movie 12 minutes (and me 600 words) to establish in terms of situation, the sitcom version takes only the length of the theme song.

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Larry continues to “shadow” Susan and Balki through the city until he finally gets up the nerve to ask her out. And like, geez, we get it, he’s an extension of the evil city itself, a shadow come to life, what a wacky life it will be when he and Balki get together, blah blah blah. Let’s fast forward a bit, because there’s plenty of padding here.

Larry and Susan and Balki go on a date; Balki recognizes Larry but, as always, cannot express himself perfectly; Mypos is absent; Larry goes to a mob-owned barbershop where he’s again threatened. The plan: Cousin Larry must seduce Susan so that he can get close enough to kill Balki.

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The next day, during a subplot about a Take Back the Night Rally that no sitcom would ever have done, Balki is kidnapped! Oh no! It’s not quite a physical comedy bit, but Susan does run around a lot until she finally chases down Mypos, who is played by Joe LoTruglio’s dad.

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EVERYBODY’S LOOKING AT YOU, MYPOS.

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Then the Take Back the Night Rally subplot is here and gone just like that. It’s basically a way for Larry to lie about caring about women and their problems; if ABC had been willing to touch that kind of topic, this 30-second scene could easily have been a two-parter.

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Later, back in the apartment, Larry and Susan are putting Balki to sleep, and… holy shit! Larry starts talking about how messed up it is to soothe a child by singing about a different child plummeting to its death (“Rock-a-bye Baby”), just like in “Two Men and a Cradle”!

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What’s even more messed up is how this discussion turns Susan on. Does she secretly harbor a wish to kill Balki as well? Does Larry even really need to seduce her? Anyway, Larry and Susan go off to bump uglies, and then we cut immediately to

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I guess this is symbolizing some sort of loss of manhood, or at least, the Sicilian Mafia version of it. Larry is trading his meat monolith for a more balanced meal of meat, bread, dairy, and juice; he’s trading “the” family for “a” family.

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There’s a short scene with Larry and Ur-Tina, which is pretty pointless, and just for the purposes of exposition; understandably we don’t see Tina again for the rest of the movie. Just think how different the 80s would have been had someone told Cohen how much potential he had for sitcom writing!

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Then there’s just some more padding and repetition with Larry and Susan and Balki in a park, Larry and Susan having sex, Balki cleaning the discount store and singing the Hokey Pokey.

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We get a few more glimpses of things to come now. First, the scene where Mypos kicks and pisses on Larry’s beautiful car (here a Bonneville instead of a Mustang) prefigures the weekly culture war between Mypos and America.

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Second, the scene where Balki’s on a merry-go-round on the back of a truck, and Larry’s chasing him around. The barrier between Larry and Balki here indicates how even Cohen knew that physical comedy didn’t work unless the actors were really, really good at it.

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Then Stephen Lack from Scanners shows up as a toned-down gay stereotype of a police detective; he sounds a lot like Scott Thompson. Again, Cohen knowing that this story needs some comedy, but not committing to it. Anyway, it’s another pretty pointless scene, just more padding so that Balki can look at the police photographs and recognize Larry. Balki picks his nose, Susan sends Stephen Lack away.

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The visit from the police detective – a reminder of the degradation and crime in modern America – prompts Susan to make a reconciliation with Mypos, for Balki’s sake. Note how Mypos is an artist; Mypos is the purer culture, from whom flow natural expressions of emotion and joy. But, as we’ve seen throughout seasons 1 and 2 of the sitcom, even Mypos has a limit (cf. “A Christmas Story”: “now you’re making Balki mad”).

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Mypos has hired a German private detective (man, Perfect Strangers and its ethnic stereotypes, amirite?) to trail Larry and find out why he’s hanging out with Susan. Mypos talks about his feelings: he feels like he’s similar to a character in a movie who’s died, but has come back to look at his life. He can see everything and everyone, but he’s invisible to them. (Note how we’ve not seen the island Mypos on the show.)

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Also, good grief, Perfect Strangers and its restaurants. Restaurants are the third location, like, every four weeks on the show; this is the third one for this movie!

In case you were worried that the homosexual undertones (with their inherent pederastic complications due to the Balki the Kid theme) wouldn’t show up, here you go:

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Larry gives Balki a bath and asks if he wants to look at some magazines with him. Is this about to turn into that Spider-Man public service comic I had as a kid?

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Larry talks to Balki about E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, asking if he remembers how E.T. was kept a secret so he wouldn’t get hurt. Geez, movie, if you’re trying to land the child abuse metaphor, WE GET IT.

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Then the German private detective eats some pizza while following Larry, and then Larry kills him. End of that subplot, I guess. I think the pizza and the murder were supposed to symbolize Larry’s relationship with the Mafia at this point in the movie? Cohen might be getting a little too brainy for me. But I can tell that, just like how sitcom Cousin Larry has to learn the same lesson about lying over and over again, movie Larry still has a long way to go, cut-up sausage or not: when he kills the detective, he is once again a silhouette, a shadow against the walls of the city.

Then in the next scene–

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OKAY WE GET IT MR. BIGSHOT HOLLYWOOD DIRECTOR YOU’RE GOOD AT VISUAL METAPHOR

Cousin Larry has brought Balki back to his apartment, and gives him the hard sell on the American way of life, telling him about being rich and “getting things” and how in America, you just have to take what you want. Shades of Vegahhhssss are clearly evident here. Doesn’t Balki want a room at the Ritz? Wrapped in velvet, and covered in glitz?

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Balki drinks a Coke and Larry drinks his beer, but then some of Twinkacetti’s goons show up. Larry has to hide the fact that he hasn’t killed Balki yet! The goons keep wanting to look around the apartment, and Balki has escaped from the bedroom! Oh no! Balki has comically misunderstood Larry’s admonition about taking what he wants and has grabbed one of Larry’s beers! Oh double-no! How is Larry going to get out of this one? There’s such a solid sitcom sensibility here that, The Stuff aside, I think Cohen missed his calling. I mean, how many episodes of Full House were there where the daughters try to hide something from Danny and the Uncles?

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Anyway, Larry just makes the goons leave. I don’t know whose work that is on the wall, so I’ll leave it to commenter Sarah Portland to tell us all if Cousin Larry’s taste in art changed between this and the show.

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Later, we get a preview of “The Unnatural”, but before anyone can break a lamp, the police detective shows up again and starts talking to Balki through a fence. Is this just how things were in the 80s? Did every grown man act really creepy around little kids?

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The detective grills Susan again about whether she’s seen any of the people in his photographs; this is a nice mirror of the bathtub scene. The character standing in for justice is trying to spark memories with photographs; the criminal uses them to force others to suppress memories. Anyway, Susan intentionally fingers the wrong crook (hehe) to get the detective off her back (hehehe). This is sort of an unrealized sitcom setup. I mean, Seinfeld would have handled this nicely (like, the other criminal would have been the guy who supplies combs to the Mafia barbershop or something). I guess we can’t really blame Cohen for not being as innovative as Larry David five years before Seinfeld was even a thing.

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Cousin Larry and Twinkacetti meet up in the cemetery again, and you know, for all that it meant that the Other Susan character got dropped, I’m glad that they put Twinkacetti in the shop for the show, even if, by the end of season 2, the Ritz Discount store setting was really kind of played out. Unless you’re The Munsters Today, cemeteries just didn’t lend themselves well to the 1980s sitcom aesthetic. Anyway, similar to the plot of “Get a Job”, Twinkacetti is firing Larry and has hired someone named “Carl”.

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Restaurant scene #1,317: Cousin Larry tries to convince Susan and Balki to come away with him. Has Larry given up on killing Balki? Is he beginning to actually treasure what family can offer, even if there’s no traditional family ties involved? We’ll have to wait for the music to come on to find out, because Brad Rijn is really not a good actor. The script here is supposed to make us think that Larry is softening and falling in love, but Rijn just can’t seem to express any emotion other than “80s hair”. Just like a politican after getting the party’s nomination, Larry is moving towards center; but so is Balki. But in his typical literal-minded way, Balki comically misunderstands.

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Larry: Balki, how’m I gonna get that cop off my back?

Balki: *swings knife through air*

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Cousin Larry takes Balki to a small city park and puts him on the swings. The temptation to sacrifice Balki to the city is clearly laid out: Larry can push him high enough on the swings that he flies off and lands on the spiked fenceposts. Typical Larry. Thinks he’s fixing a situation when really he’s just preventing Balki’s dreams from coming to fruition. Luckily, Mypos comes in to save the day, stopping the swing.

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Larry and Mypos shout at Balki, and then they start figihting. Susan stops them, and Larry grudgingly admits that he was wrong. Susan tells Larry to stay away from her and Balki, so Larry runs away, I assume to ask Gus for some hot tips. Then Susan gives Balki some advice – Balki’s lesson for this story. She says that daddies don’t always win their fights, but it remains Balki’s job to safeguard his daddy. He alone must preserve the culture he comes from, no matter how many body blows it takes while in the big bad American city.

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At this point, we’re about 80 minutes in. We’ve had numerous restaurant scenes, Larry threatened multiple times, the same basic scene between Susan and the detective twice, metaphors hammered into the ground. I mean, here we are again, with Balki on the tiny merry-go-round, endlessly passing by the same scenery. So I’m very happy to see Larry steal the truck the merry-go-round is on the back of, seeing if he can make this circular story actually get somewhere in the end. (Note also the red-and-blue colors on the truck; very Spider-Man, no?)

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Cousin Larry drives the truck to a warehouse, passing a graffiti silhouette on the way. Is he leaving it behind or has he driven into its neighborhood?

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Larry: Come on, Balki, don’t look at me like that. I’m still your buddy.

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Larry and Balki play hide-and-seek one last time; Larry’s hope is that Balki will have an accident and that he, Larry, will remain blameless. Remember “Babes in Babylon”, where Larry kept trying to convince Balki of the evil of Vegas, when really the evil came from the lies Larry told himself? Larry wants Balki to lose, when they live in a world where everyone can win if they just commit to the idea of family. Larry catches Balki, holds him over the water, and apologizes.

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Back in the apartment, Susan is offered moral support by all of the Other Susans.

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After they leave, Susan, finally looks at the stack of police photographs, and just like every episode’s finale, Larry’s lies reveal themselves. And dammit if this movie doesn’t have sitcom logic down pat. The police had a photograph of him, so he HAS to be a criminal! Let’s just ignore the fact that, if they had any hard evidence on him, he’d have been put away by now.

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But oh no! Now Larry’s at the door!

And then Mypos shows up outside the building! But ultimately, battle of the sexes or not, he’s “kept out” of Larry’s city by Other Susan. She may recognize the large and problematic male/female dichotomoy, but the gun in her hand has blinded her to the fact that she acts as a tool of the American Way.

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Mypos: You’re all crazy!

Even if, as I suspect, Cohen at least knew on some subconscious level that he was developing a sitcom, he had already committed to the medium of film. There could be no joke right before the credits. There could be no soft reset the next week. There could be no running joke about Wayne Newton. He had to finish this up in a way that the crime/thriller genre demanded.

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Larry comes in the apartment, Susan stabs him. He falls, revealing Balki. But as much as he pouts, this version of Balki will never again get what he wants from Cousin Larry.

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Larry may have learned the important lesson about family, but it did him no good in the end. His sin – thinking about killing a child – was too much. It’s understandable now why sitcom Larry’s sins are so tame (lying about going to the gym, accusing the wrong person of stealing his bicycle, hesitating to testify in court); we must crucify sitcom Larry weekly for minor foibles, lest he revert to his movie persona and think about committing atrocities so heinous that we would have no choice but to kill him once and for all.

Moreover, I think it’s easy to see how this movie came to be a popular network sitcom that ran for 8 years. You’ve got the solid situation comedy setups, plus the core element of a carefree, innocent child-at-heart who tries to rescue the everyman from the criminal pressures of trying to make it in 1980s urban America. Even the minor elements – Susan, Twinkacetti, and the discount store – are present; all it took was for ABC executives to rearrange them and give them a little spit-and-polish to make them more palatable to mass audiences. I kind of have to laugh. Full House had some of its minor elements changed season to season to match what tested well with audiences. Perfect Strangers has the distinction of being the only sitcom to have that done to it before it even went on the air! I think I can see, also, why Larry Cohen didn’t want his name attached to Perfect Strangers once it finally began its television life: it might have negatively impacted how theatergoers reviewed It’s Alive III, or Wicked Stepmother.

I hope you enjoyed this look into one of the rarely-seen corners of sitcom history. Next week we’ll move on to the season 3 opener: “All the News That Fits”.

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5 thoughts on “Perfect Strangers (1984)

  1. Stephen Lack just could not catch a sitcom break. This one got recast, and Scanners didn’t get past its feature-length pilot.

    Still pissed about that. It lent itself to an adventure-of-the-week format very well, and it even had my all-time favorite catchphrase:

    *concentrates*
    *head explodes*

    The t-shirts write themselves. 😦

    Like

  2. I feel like you’ve got the salami-slicing metaphor wrong here: the guy slicing the meat and Other Susan (the misandrist) were combined and softened to become Fat Marsha, who is a strong, independent woman who don’t need no man. The salami represents the obvious castration of a man running her life, but the gun of Other Susan clearly shows that she is using a man (a phallic tool) to get what she wants: at Marsha realizes that she must hire men to run her diner, and must also serve men as her customers, lest she miss out on 5% of her profits. The combination of these characters into one, and the addition of flashy leggings, makes for a better-rounded character on the later show.

    Like

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