Let’s talk about the way kids think. I only somewhat remember the content of my child development psychology class–it was taught by a middle-aged Jewish man whose sense of humor existed on a plane parabolic to my own, only intersecting at certain points. I do remember various theorists–Vygotsky, Piaget, Dewey–and on a vaguer level, their theories. At any rate, I think it’s safe to say that children all have the drive to be little constructivists, little epistemologists, using new information as building blocks, seeking answers, testing limits, with often a keen sense of skepticism. Tiny Aristotles, seeking their final causes: have you ever seen the trope of the child who continues to ask “why”, no matter how many answers their parent has given?
We all still have a bit of child in us, some more than others. We carry around the questions we had back then, the things that never were answered satisfactorily–what about that tree in the forest? why does Santa hate poor kids? (For me, it’s “where do babies come from?”) Sometimes kids are dedicated enough to get the answers for themselves–a schoolmate in middle school determined the average number of licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop. But sometimes it’s not until you get old enough, independent enough to have access to resources, that you dredge up these questions and get answers. Perhaps these days, it’s easier–and even encouraged–to do so, no matter how silly. You can post whatever the hell kind of “shower thoughts” or “explain-like-I’m-five” questions to Reddit and find someone who will back you up.
The idea of the child-as-adult, the child with power over its environment, has been a deep, deep well of inspiration for stories. There’s the occasional remake of Freaky Friday, the “principal for a day” trope where the kid learns about responsibility. It’s been years since I’ve seen Big, but it’s basically about Tom Hanks just buying a bunch of toys, right? And I’ve never seen Jack, but it’s basically Robin Williams buying some kids some porn, right? I did read Stephen King’s 11/22/63, and for all that it was founded on extensive research as well as being a warning against thinking you know everything and are qualified to fix anything, it was also basically King’s inner child wishing he could go back to the world of his youth with a bunch of money so he could get a nice car and date a pretty teacher. On the other side of the trope spectrum we’ve got the evil child in horror: The Omen, the Twilight Zone episode “The Good Life”, Children of the Corn. Like I say, a deep well that hasn’t run dry yet because the tension between the child’s and the adult’s approaches to the world still exists.
And hey–Balki’s a kid! This is a perfect opportunity to explore some of those types of things–Balki’s from a country without much scientific, technological, or even cultural knowledge. We dip into the child-as-adult well this week, but I guess we can only blame the length of Perfect Strangers’s rope, or the size of its bucket, for the fact that we end up getting a whole episode about raisins.
The episode opens with Larry trying to set up his stereo equipment. I guess it’s been sitting around for two years now, why the hell not, we’re “taking stock” this week, right?
But Ethel runs in, excited that she’s come up with a new get-rich scheme. He got a letter in the mail about “Mrs. Elvira Worth”, and I’m honestly glad that we’re getting a second instance this season of Balki struggling to read something out loud. The wording of the letter makes it obvious that it’s a junk mail kind of thing, trying to sell people on the idea of buying stock in some company. Larry tries to discourage him from messing with the stock market, telling him to leave such matters to Jews like him who can pass for gentile. I still point to “Check This” as the high-water mark of Larry teaching Balki about money, but at this point, I’ve readjusted my expectations. You plan to direct this episode into an opportunity for physical comedy, don’t you, Balki?
Larry takes the time to explain the difference between business stocks and livestock to Balki (you can’t stick your penis into an abstract concept like sharing ownership); but there’s no depth or confusion involved after that, because as Dale McRaven said, people just want to laugh, not think. I’m not knocking you on this, I’m just saying I see you, show. Also, thank you for the bit here where Larry tells Balki he could lose his shirt and then quickly adds that he means that as an idiom for money. Another tiny step forward!
Balki gets all mischievous and says he’ll go ask his dumb girlfriend to help him explore the stock market, and Larry agrees to help. This is also progress! There’s definitely a confidence here, that the writers know they can show Balki and Larry knowing each other well to know each other’s blind spots, and what buttons they can push. Plus, we can also reference that Mary Anne is dumb without her being there (so dumb, in fact, that she thinks the stock market is where you go to buy footage of trains going through tunnels).
A mere three weeks into his job, and Larry is now solidly a mouthpiece for the Chicago Chronicle. He opens up the newspaper to the stock section and asks Balki which one he wants. Instead of letting Balki actually pick, Larry just says “here’s a good one” and they go with that.
He picks out the Unicorn Company (“United Corn”), which makes breakfast foods. Balki is instantly sold because he’s a huge fan of “Raisin Poofs”, the cereal that promises one hundred raisins in every box. Balki sings the commercial song and dances around a little.
Balki, ever the child, has a very specific amount of money available to invest: $38.10. Larry has to loan him $1.90 just so he can buy one share. I’ll be forever anchored at season 2’s repetition of $50 as the cost of just about everything, so I’m trying to interpret this as signalling to us that one share at $40 is a nice, conservative way for Balki to enter the stock market. I’ll take a moment to point out that this is one of the core elements of the child-as-adult story: children, having someone to provide for them, have very little to lose, and tend to seek rewards without a full sense of risk. Even teenagers take greater risks than adults; research has shown that this is not because they don’t understand the potential negative consequences–it’s that they value the rewards that highly.
Then the show seems to read my mind. Balki uses the phrase “business typhoon”, but when Larry starts to explain what a typhoon is, Balki rolls his eyes and says he meant it as a joke. The show wants two rewards here: to make a joke, and to signal character growth. The risk is that I will forever suspect Balki of doing this from here on out.
Balki pretends to have trouble with a lint brush so that Larry will take it from him and rub it on his nipples for awhile.
Balki has framed the stock certificate, but Larry doesn’t just step on the joke, he jumps up and down on it wearing hobnailed boots. Larry, that joke was fragile to begin with, lay off. The cousins are supposed to be going out to dinner with “the girls”, so you know what that means! Let’s just fuck around so we can reduce their screen time!
Balki fucks around with the lint brush, removing lint from Larry’s coat and then putting it back on. They fight over the brush.
Jennifer and Mary Anne (Sagittarius) show up, and there’s a line about how they share clothes. You know, because they’re the same person. Anyway, Balki wants to show off his stock certificate, and after the show takes a minute to put down Mary Anne for being stupid, he does. So we repeat the joke where they look at the stock certificate. And then Balki starts spouting what I assume is verbiage from the form letter that came with his certificate. We are never, ever going to see these four in a restaurant, are we?
Mary Anne then appends the word “savant” to her one character trait by saying that Unicorn’s promise of 100 raisins is no longer true, and that she switched brands a long time ago. A disbelieving Balki hauls out his box of Raisin Puffs–replete with pasted-on paper like season 2’s “Puff” cereal.
Larry and the women leave for the restaurant while Balki counts the raisins from an already-opened box. When we come back, we get a nice miniature version of the difference between season 1 and season 2: Larry’s aborted story (setting up a stereo, an activity involving purchasing power, the ability to read, and some technical know-how) being taken over by Balki’s childish hangups. Larry comes in hangry, and we get a really nice reveal shot of how many boxes Balki has gone through. The props department even threw in some cardboard cases! This lets us assume a scene where Balki wore down a grocery-store manager until he let Balki buy a bunch of full cases. I have to assume, though, that Balki bought–and has now wasted–more than $40 worth of cereal.
Balki makes a good point about consumer fraud, and is putting real proof to the vague sense–shared by even the dumbest consumers–that a product is no longer of the same previously-high quality. So he’s a child, fixated on minutiae, but he’s not just a child:
Balki: My new family has been cheating the public!
Family is the most important thing to Balki. But that’s not all: he got this notion from the form letter sent to him by Unicorn’s Chairman of the Board, Henry Casselman. This is a nice follow-up to the “Mrs. Elvira Worth” letter at the top of the episode. Remember how I was complaining that it was easier to extrapolate Larry’s experiences than Balki’s? Here, we’re allowed to infer that written letters hold high importance where Balki comes from. And then, for once, in explaining how America works, Larry doesn’t try to treat American business like a cereal raisin and sugar-dust it, he tells it like it is: big businesses are faceless and heartless. On Mypos, however, is very simple: the woman go out in the field, she have her baby, and then she go home and handle every aspect of the business.
Larry then shouts the entire hierarchy of a big corporation at Balki, and Larry, don’t do that, don’t tell him who he has to talk to. Larry tells Balki that he’s just one man, with one share. Balki counters that if both of them go to the chairman of the board, they’ll be two men with one share. And if three people go to the chairman of the board–can you imagine?–three people, walking in and singing a bar of “Balki’s always right” and walking out, they may think… wait, sorry, wrong 18-minute protest story.
We zoom in on a very high floor of a nameless and thus faceless office building, so we must be somewhere important.
The show makes up for putting construction paper on cereal boxes by having an actual “Unicorn” sign in the office–the “N” is even a unicorn head!
Balki is instantly met with an ouroboros of bureaucracy. Larry, knowing that Balki houses many tensions–child versus adult; deep-rooted Myposian values versus surfactual American goodies–tries to lure him away with the promise of frosty chocolate milkshakes. These inner tensions cause Balki to visibly shake before he renews his commitment to his new raisin family.
Balki lays on the lightest of guilt trips on Larry, asking if he came to see Balki fail, or help him succeed, so Larry says they’re going to have to engage in subterfuge.
Someone just under Mr. Casselman emerges from the office, and Larry lays his dick on the table (it’s a metaphor, Balki), letting Mr. Crocker believe that “Balki Aristotle Bartokomous” is a substantial stockholder with his own island. Mr. Crocker offers Balki an espresso, and there’s a tidy joke here where Balki’s misunderstanding (“are you the waiter”) serves to enhance the illusion of wealth. Then Mr. Crocker claims that he’s next in line to be “top dog” in that tone of voice. You know, the tone of voice that lets you know a punchline is coming? What surprised me, though, is that Balki makes a Deputy Dawg joke. This is honestly the first time I’ve ever heard a Deputy Dawg reference anywhere. Like, chances are you’ve never even heard of Deputy Dawg.
The self-important Mr. Crocker stockblocks them, keeping them from seeing Mr. Casselman and pressing them on how many shares Balki owns. Balki tries to be honest and keep the conversation on raisins, but Larry keeps trying to puff up Balki’s importance. (do you like my pun, i like my pun)
Mr. Crocker calls security, and now that it’s come back around on the guitar, you can all sing it with me: It’s Physical Comedy Time!
At first I thought something was wrong with my episode, but they actually do almost the exact same running-around bit twice, except for at the very end, where the cousins and the security guards try to get a fuck train going.
Casselman finally emerges, and after Balki explains the situation…
Everybody in this office sits there and counts raisins. Oh no! The counts average in the forties!
Oh shit! It was Mr. Crocker! Crocker apologizes to Balki, and Balki forgives him. The punchline is “to be an airhead is human”, but given that typhoon business earlier, we as viewers know that Balki has now leveled up and has gained Larry’s ability to insult people without them knowing about it.
If Crocker knew that there were previously at least 100 in each box, and cut down on them, there has to be a way at the input end of the system to set how many raisins are in the box, at least at a base level, or a range, even. So shouldn’t there be paperwork, or at least the ability to demand that Crocker change some numbers, tell a foreman something, anything? And if not that, what about however the raisins go from what I assume is a giant crate of loose raisins, into a machine, and then into a cereal box, mixed with cereal? Like, did Crocker demand verbally of the foreman that they slow down, shit, I dunno, the conveyor leading out of the giant box of raisins, but keep the conveyor belt for the puffs at the same speed? Even if that’s the case, and there’s no documentation of the order, then couldn’t you look at how the cost line for raisins went down? There should be documentation for that, or for how they only had to order new raisins every month instead of every three weeks. What I’m getting at is why the shriveling fuck did two security guards have to sit there and count raisins?!
We find out that Crocker is married to Casselman’s daughter, and the secretary caps off a tiny running joke about nobody wanting coffee. She asks out loud why she bothers and somehow isn’t fired. Was job security better in the 80s?
Casselman, desperate to rend the veil separating businessman from consumer, personally signs Balki’s form letter and takes them on a helicopter ride during which they “buzz the Kellogg Factory”. Yes, go scare the minimum wage workers at a factory, that’s a great way to show that the chairman of the board loves the little guy.
Larry and Balki fight over whether Larry had anything worthwhile to offer to this episode. Balki compliments, Larry gives a more nuanced description of events. This is totally me, every time my boss tries to praise me for something at work. I think I understand now why I can only afford the cereal with 40 raisins.
The episode ends with the cousins confused, and I share the feeling. How did we make it through this whole episode without a single reference to the California Raisins?
I initially didn’t like this episode because it culminated in Balki and Larry running around an office suite because of frickin’ raisins, but I came around on it while I was writing this review. The adult in me appreciates the depth of the character-driven plot, and that Balki got to be a grown child without being (too) annoying. The kid in me likes that the episode was about raisins, because raisins are a funny thing for a grown-ass man to be hung up on. (do you like my cereal commercial reference, i like my cereal commercial reference)
Join me next week for “Your Cheatin’ Heart”!
Boner count: Balki (0); Larry (0)
Catchphrase count: Balki (2); Larry (1)
7 thoughts on “Season 3, Episode 4: Taking Stock”
“Gonna hump ya. Like Deputy Dawg…would hump ya.”
– Alan, I’m Alan Partridge series 2, episode 5
I figure you can add that to your scrapbook.
*cuts Alan Partridge quote down to postage stamp size*
I remember this episode! As a kid, I cheered Balki bringing a corporation to its knees. As an adult, I’m like “Nope, this would never happen.”
What I have to wonder, though, is why Balki is still so trusting of junk mail and corporate promises after living in Chicago for well over a year.
I can’t shake the feeling that this plot is also a TV trope: little guy goes to big corporation to tell them off about a drop in quality. Middle-management weasel tells them to fuck off. Head honcho meets little guy anyway, and little guy finds out that head honcho is just the nicest guy! Then little guy makes his complaint, which surprises the head honcho. Turns out that middle-management weasel has been down-grading quality to save money. Head honcho returns product to former glory and thanks little guy. The weasel does not get his promotion, and the head honcho, a kindly, slightly rotund man in his sixties, laughs and tells the little guy that weasel’s lack of promotion will teach him humility, and that he won’t be doing THAT again. No one gets fired. Product becomes awesome again, and Lil’ Balki makes a new friend in the head honcho, promising to return at a later date because they’re friends now.
…and I almost hate to say this, but I’m going to give ALF props for going slightly different with that trope in the Castellaneta episode.
Agreed. I’m always pleasantly surprised when a show goes with some tired old storyline or trope, but then goes in a completely different direction from what I expected.
“We’re going to do this same crap, but we’re going to do it our way.”
No, you’ve just done the same old crap with your particular characters. Still the same old crap.
I think I would have preferred it if Balki had been completely disillusioned following his meeting, and Larry had had to explain gently that sometimes people let you down. That would have at least been realistic, if nothing else.
It didn’t occur to me until a few minutes ago that I’d been misremembering this episode since the ’80s. For some reason, I’d remembered it being about miniature marshmallows instead of raisins.