Season 6, Episode 5: Family Feud

My dear Goatclench,

I would be remiss if, in answering your request for guidance, I did not take the time to congratulate you on your success thus far. Bravo, colleague! In not more than a month you’ve managed to exploit the flaws and oversights your predecessors left you.

I’m sure that Our Father Below is pleased with your work on the television program Perfect Strangers. I can’t imagine a stronger start on a franchise than the way you elegantly slipped in “Cousin Larry” throwing away a large Book of Rules and then showing your viewers how little it would have done had he read it in the first place. And then to follow that immediately with an implication that the spawn of single mothers are untrained imps! The Enemy would have the mortals believing that loving, and correcting, children’s mistakes is both a family and a community concern, so we must always spoil that image, and continue to push the idea that violent behavior is not the fault of the environment, or of chemistry, but that of the parents themselves. But I think you must consider dissuading these writers from keeping the child character–her talents show too much promise.

I’d speak more about your two most recent “episodes” (I would call them masterful if not for your inexperience in the field), but I know you are pressed for time. I hope it is not just on the basis of our familial relationship that you have reached out to me for clues to navigate your new role, but that you are hoping to draw upon my experience with the later seasons of the bygone programs Mork & Mindy, Happy Days, and The Bob Newhart Show.

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To answer your first question, the one you skirted around like a ninny, the answer is, yes, this is far more important than your previous toil capturing souls for Our Father.  The mass media have proven such an excellent distribution system for our messages that He has devoted battalions to their control.  I can tell by your tone how it chafes you to be one of two demons for each of these writers; and your simpering about being devoured for the failure of the others.  But consider that the Enemy wants these men to see all aspects of their lives as connected; it is our job to see to it that the mortals allow themselves to think differently in their different roles–to split their existence into “work lives” and “home lives”, into variable standards of “good” behavior for public and private. Logic demands that there is now even less of a chance of the Enemy spoiling our work with such double-duty.  And if you think you’re not up to gently directing the thoughts of an entire group of writers, actors, and crew, I have a recipe for a fine béarnaise sauce you would taste lovely in.

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And this should have gone without saying, but we have already achieved our goal of getting these puny beasts to acclimate to a more sedentary lifestyle. What a coup Our Father won by coming up with the idea that, instead of ending one’s work or school week by finding respite in those most loved, they should want to sit in one place–to not even touch their remote controls–for two hours! Those Gibbering, Idiotic Fools! But, as with any information conduit, the Enemy can and will use it relentlessly for His ends. There were mistakes made in the early days of relaying our messages more directly; victories like D.W. Griffith proved to be hollow as they became examples of vice to others. The mortals have, as of late, been passing around the notion of “why should the devil have all the good music”; but we have learned long ago that clogging up the channels with pap and garbage gains us far more souls.

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I’ve heard word that our current spate of programming is just a prelude to a much more pervasive sense of dread and hedonism among the humans, but for right now, the watchwords are sloth (for both viewer and “creator”), abstraction (of not only the characters, but by extension, ideals, personhood, and spirit), and disappointment (for all parties involved). The Enemy takes great delight in those who strive to produce quality work, no matter their endeavors. One of the lies we push most heavily on those already in the Enemy’s camp is that He is not concerned with the life of the atheist, or the Hindu–until they (the Christian) have prayed for their souls; but nothing could be further from the truth. A job well done is a reward in and of itself; aside from any material gain it gives them, they receive a chemical boost that the Enemy implanted in them long ago. If your writers do manage to put out a “good” episode, your goal at this point is to make each of them–as well as the actors–believe that they have achieved this success all on their own.

You, my dear Cousin, have lucked out to an extent–Perfect Strangers a corpse already swelling with maggots–but there is still much hard work ahead of you.  The characters you’ve been assigned were already fairly abstracted by the time you came on board.  Neat trick that was, having the main characters push all of the other actors’ roles to the periphery, so that barely any personality could be fit into 10 seconds of screentime. It is working wonders over here in its duplicate form with the “Urkel” avatar, for that purpose, as well as providing the younger mortals an idol to emulate. And this, of course, is one of the basic schisms we must always strive to prise ever wider–that things which are not in their presence, not tangible, are not “real”. Thank Our Father there’s not another Socrates to deal with currently!

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But you must push these trends in your program further–not quite to the breaking point, no, never give away the game–make the characters further derivatives of themselves. And I mean this in a near mathematical sense. Consider the cousins, and their relationship, as a function; and their female counterparts as constants.  A derivative would reduce the cousins to a constant; and the women to zero. I daresay you won’t achieve this–I could never convince them to remove the “Exidor” character–but keep at it.  Convince the writers to be lazier in deciding what ideas are worthwhile for your program (again, bravo on the dying horse); build on your impulse in the episode with the child to give away the ending at the beginning.

In general, do whatever you can to punish those long-term fanatics of the program. I suggest you review the previous years of the program again, find the worst aspects, and convince the writers that continuing them is a return to the program’s “golden days”. Stretch out jokes, remove the potential for side plots. The Enemy has given each of us–spirit and mortal alike–an impulse to outdo ourselves and each other creatively; consider how poetic your victory will be if you use that impulse in yourself against its realization in others.

It’s been two years since I last viewed Perfect Strangers but, off the top of my head, I recall use of alliteration, men crying, repeating lines two or three times, telegraphing Balki’s punchlines.

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You tell me in your letter that this week’s situation involves a centuries-old feud between Balki Bartokomous’s family and that of the Botulitises from the neighboring island of Skeptos. You’ve asked for advice on this as well, which I hesitate to give. It’s frowned upon to tinker too much outside of my assignment (and I do enjoy your work so far), but in general terms: rob the feud of any honor or logic, treat it as unseriously as possible, set up rules to be thrown away in the final act, and whatever you do don’t have it take place on Balki’s home island.

Your affectionate cousin,

SCREWTAPE

P.S. I did notice a distinct lack of these two men touching each other in your episodes so far; by all means, ramp up any homosexual undertones.

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P.P.S. Your Balki’s catchphrase, despite its original use, has become a guaranteed way of allowing him to be condescending. Moreover, the Enemy would love it if humans saw their fellows as complex.

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My dear Goatclench,

If I were not able to identify such raw talent in the draft script you’ve sent me, I would wonder if you had not taken on my advice about sloth personally!  Your obviously thorough understanding of the various brands of low comedy is unfortunately marred by some glaring oversights.

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The Enemy’s goal, mind you, is that all humans keep their Creator–and the respect He is due–in the forefront of their minds.  Anything we can do to in service of lampooning this idea is of the utmost importance. The viewer is already inclined to believe in the reality of any human they observe, no matter what they are doing; what’s more (and you must learn to rely on your demon brothers and sisters for this) we must assure them that they are not susceptible to this error.  No, they will tell themselves, Cousin Larry is certainly not real–after all, no one would blunder into savagely insulting both intimates and strangers (that sequence is stunning, by the way)–but all the while we have convinced them that the “intellectual” among them are unwilling to listen to the opinions of others, though this is often how they achieved such wisdom in the first place.

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The coded sexual imagery is a nice touch. Trying to get the audience to feel sexual arousal, and then misplace it when only men were present on the program, eh?  And the faux-Schuhplattler between the foreign characters is fine. Reducing culture to visual gags never ceases to amuse me.

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As I was saying, the humans do not realize just how real they think the television caricatures are, and we have an advantage in that regard. So does the Enemy, however, and this leads me to your question of whether the central thought in your writers’ minds should be that these men are to be depicted as realistic–that is, with compassion, and with depth, and with forgivable mistakes–or as full-blown cartoons, stretching and squashing as comedy calls for.  The answer is: yes, my boy, yes!  But you must be constantly shifting these, unbalancing the amounts.  Tell the audience that Goofus acts gallantly, and vice versa–and then switch them. Set up rules, and then break them; but do not give the audience any clue as to why you are breaking them.

For instance, you ultimately, in this scene, have Larry decide to fight the duel in his cousin Balki’s stead.  This is fine, but as it stands now, he is standing up for his cousin when Zoltan insults him. The Enemy would love nothing more than for examples of heroism, of defending the wronged, to propagate throughout the channels.  The origin of the feud alluded is stupid and derivative enough, and I applaud you; but go further, let your writers find humor in the idea that men from foreign countries are quick-tempered and have no deep ties to their own history. Better to have the Zoltan character decide to duel Cousin Larry, for no more reason than a mere insult (serving the dual purpose of breaking a rule set up in the first act); better to have Larry not know the stakes of the fight until agreeing to it.

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I fear I am likely to misplace this thought if I do not record it here: one penis joke is good; two penis jokes is better. This is a children’s program, after all.

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Some of the misguided moves here are substantial enough that I almost question whether this was your work at all.  Perhaps you have not been a victim of laziness; perhaps you are overexerting yourself.  Let me hazard a guess: you spent your time giving each of the writers a different awful idea for how this episode’s plot might play out, didn’t you? I can see them now, each of them, surrounded by their empty McDonald’s containers (that whole “eat shit for dinner, too” campaign with the moon-headed man was actually my idea; that middenheap Scrimseep stole it from me), each of them in turn laying out the idea you gave them… and then realizing, upon comparison, that each was worse than the last. Nothing teaches concepts better than nonexamples, my cousin, and this led them to the halfway-decent story I now see before me?

Some of us in the television business have the benefit going in of a singular creator already belonging to us (did you ever see Gumthroat’s program, the one with the alien? Pity he couldn’t manage another year; on the other hand, he did make a tasty meal). But in your situation, it’s better to prey upon their inclination to shiftlessness, and rely on what these humans are now identifying and referring to as “groupthink”. Give only one or two of your writers a bad idea, and encourage them to speak it first; the others will follow suit.  And further, I would say, let both writers and actors alike think poorly of each other while doing so. Convince the writers that they are being the benevolent “better man” by letting the actors add their own flavor to the script; let the actors feel that they are saving the poor script.  Let everything be in service to the studio audience directly in front of them–the easy laugh, the broad movement, the exaggerated facial expression. You’ve inherited a group of writers who, I can see, have already long believed that, once they have picked out their goal (I mean the final act), they disregard the needs of every other part of the script. Reading between the lines, I believe you are frustrated by the Enemy’s never seeming to rankle at our corruption of his pattern; I share this frustration, but we must toil on. But again, lean into this impulse, make everything aside from the final act bent towards the next yuk from the idiots directly in front of them.

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It is good that your writers have decided to barely let these two international men not speak in their own native tongue to each other; I would like to assume that you have also demoralized the writers, telling them that their own apathy has made the decision.

Ultimately, a bad television program’s main end is to rob the Enemy of his purpose in having these mortals program respect towards any sort of creator at all.  If we cannot lull them into forgetting that people wrote this program, and that actors performed it, etc., then we must make them either wonder “who let this happen?”, or to proclaim to themselves and to those around them that they could do better. And we will always be there, at their side, convincing them that the solution is not to actually do better, but to change the channel until they find another technicolor soporific to launch their weekend of inertia.

Lastly, the child has to go, even if the content of her scene was not counter to our purposes. Having Larry’s and Balki’s respective finger food choices does simplify them to cultural caricatures, but any playful interaction between a child and an adult male has chemical repercussions for the females in the audience. But more importantly, if a female character with any sort of agency gains a foothold now, it will undo years of hard work. If you cannot succeed in getting the scene where “Tess” smashes crackers and cheese into Larry’s face, you always have the recourse of your editors.

Your affectionate cousin,

SCREWTAPE

P.S. Lest you think I’m operating some sort of charity with these letters, I do demand a nominal payment. The herd I am currently shepherding here for Family Matters are, sadly, too smart to let something like this go unnoticed, but I have long wanted to introduce continuity errors of the kind that we used to get placed in low-budget cinema a few decades ago.  Call me nostalgic, but humor an old spirit, would you? See if you can slip in something like a time-of-day blunder between your exterior and interior shots.

017
My dear Goatclench,

I caught your program yesterday evening, and bravo, cousin, bravo! Your program’s audience is shrinking, but my, what a field day the lessor tempters are having with them today. They have no idea where their disappointment stems from, which facilitates our connecting it to any random concurrent event in their lives.

018

Not only did you solve all the issues I addressed in my last letter, but you managed to surprise even me with some of your stunts. And I’m the one who convinced Garry Marshall to put a improvisational monologist on a failing sitcom back in 1981! But you have produced what is not only parody of honor, and bravery, and culture, and of seeking guidance from any greater knowledge, but is also a thoroughly bland episode of television programming.

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Clever, clever use of an obvious Torah stand-in for the list of feuding rules that Balki introduces and which fails to help Larry out of his jam.  It warms me to see that the mortals are being introduced at such an early age to the idea that rules are onerous and of too large a scope to grasp, or even finish reading. Our Father Below! Even the Zoltan fellow ignores the rules!

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There has always been an intransigent focus on the two leads in Perfect Strangers, but I daresay you’re the first assigned to the program to pull off a whole story featuring only three characters, with the third a total cipher. By reducing Zoltan’s role to simply that of a swarthy fellow driven by bloodlust, you’ve all but guaranteed another generation which will think any foreign culture crude and savage. Going for the very heart of the premise, I see! Risky, but the payoffs are spectacular.

What was presented as history on the order of the Hatfields and McCoys has been reduced to three men fighting with play swords for virtually no reason at all.  I chuckle even now to think of a group of professionals telling each other that, yes, staging the duel in the office set was a matter of comic incongruity, and not simply borne out of it being the only set that allowed for “homage” to swashbuckling films of decades past.

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I would wonder at how you convinced Bronson Pinchot to openly research the color of his co-star’s nipples if I weren’t far more impressed with how you slipped in such blatant bondage imagery for Zoltan’s costume.

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I suspect you overstepped your job description and whispered in the ear of some Standards & Practices drone, though I plan to keep that between us. I do not think I have ever before had the privilege to tutor such an apt pupil; but do be careful.

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You must tell me how you pulled off the trick of no one thinking that the actors should practice their swordfighting on the set prior to filming. It’s a move so obvious I cannot believe I have overlooked it to this point.

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My cousin, you have more than proved your skill at television; I need not inform you of what you have done, nor how in line with our mission statement it was.  I simply wish to relish the accomplishment, to savor it by fixing on paper my favorite aspects. That Balki is willing to assume a new feud on an even shakier basis–that Zoltan frightened Larry (should Balki not take his own life at this point? I wonder)–pales in comparison to what I must call your crowning achievement: that you took up nearly a third of the story with swordplay. A sitcom with barely any dialogue!  And what is there cannot be said to advance any story, to solve any situation but “someone must fight”. I see now the beginnings of what may become your trademark: a full blockade on any possibility of a clever denouement. There is nothing so beautiful to a demon’s eyes as that of a show so bland that, even if some poor soul somewhere were to try to speak intelligently on it, they would find themselves at an utter loss for words.

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The final details strike me as similar to the fat which lingers in the mouth after devouring a soul well-marbled with sin: that Balki is somehow able to individually end a feud without the consent of all parties involved must leave the audience shortly asking–and then giving up on asking–why Zoltan would have any incliniation to report the same; proof of both characters having someone un-learned the lessons the episode had for them; capping off the sexual undercurrent with a final, phallic image.

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Cousin, there is nothing more I can teach you.

On the strength of this, and your other episodes to date, I am putting in a recommendation for your promotion.  I think your sensibilities would be perfect for a program that we are developing for next year’s schedule by the devious name of Home Improvement.  The “celebrity” attached to it has been in Our Father’s pocket for years now.

I will see you at the next feast; I am told Tinscrape will be the main course. Pity she could not manage to find a chink in the armor of the Simpsons writers.

Your affectionate cousin,

SCREWTAPE

P.S. You hinted in your letter that your next Perfect Strangers story will not only deepen your overarching theme, but will tackle religion head-on. I look forward to it with the greatest anticipation. I encourage you to also take time to view mine next week; I was inspired by a story your program ran last season.

_______________________________________________________

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

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

Without apologies to C.S. Lewis.

5 thoughts on “Season 6, Episode 5: Family Feud

  1. Oh! It’s the one with the “Box his ears” bit. I loved that bit, once my parents explained to me what Larry thought “box his ears” meant.

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  2. I actually do like the “Balki misunderstands” joke structure here. Having Balki say something casually without realizing it has an idiomatic meaning is a nice change from the usual. I don’t think this is great content for the joke; you either have to have it explained to you, or you see the punchline from a mile off.

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  3. This is the Perfect Strangers/Screwtape Letters crossover we’ve been waiting for! Finally going for mass appeal here… there must be dozens (dozens!) of people familiar with both.

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  4. Join me next week when my special guest jokes will be a reference to I’m OK – You’re OK, an extended riff in the style of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, and Joan Embery of the San Diego Zoo!

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  5. A gag reel on youtube has bits from this episode where real-life balki can’t keep his sh*t together when the zoltan guy says “your snout puffs are a little on the runny side” and “who you callin’ a snout puff?”. Those bits are less torturous than this episode.

    c.s. screwtape satire being somewhat compatible with a PS episode is evidence of the hidden depth of this show!

    Apologies To Doris Kearns Goodwin.

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