Season 6, Episode 12: Hocus Pocus

Welcome back! I hope you’ve all healed from the sick burns I was dealing out last week.

We started this season with the image of a torn, mangled chair unsuccessfully stitched back together; and yesterday the theme has continued with a script patched together from ideas the writers had scribbled on Pizza Hut napkins.

And speaking of putting a show together like a jigsaw puzzle…

001

Carl Lewis just completed his 500,000th lap around the Caldwell! Congratulations, Carl!

Inside, Balki–who is still paying off a $140,000 house–has bought a number of high-quality magic props. He’s performing a trick for an audience consisting solely of Dimitri, because Larry’s tired of trips to the doctor to have the streamers removed from his auditory meatus.

001b

Balki: Abracapocus… Elia Kazan…

This is a perfect example of one of the problems at the core of Balki: his jokes are illusive (the other problem is that his jokes make me want to vomit). Almost every Balki line these days is some third-rate misunderstanding that would make Amelia Bedelia beat the shit out of him.  However long he stays in America, a complete internal knowledge of the rules of American English will always escape him, so it’s fine that misunderstandings will follow him for the rest of his days. (Tell me, for instance, why “French green little silver old lovely rectangular knife” is wrong; or why we say “tiny little”; or why we promise someone we’re only “running to the bathroom real quick”.) I studied abroad in Berlin in college, and on my first day there, used the wrong locational/positional word for “place” when I was asking someone if I had the correct address (I was using the word that had more of a meaning of “situation”).

It’s completely believable that Balki will mis-situtate words from time to time, and words like “abrapocus” is a fun way to mix up familiar words. All magic words come across to me as vaguely Arabic and Latinate, and without knowing their exact meaning, what does it matter what order they go in? But the character of Balki takes this one step further by being entirely unreflective about his use of language. “Elia Kazan” is a damn clever play on “alakazam”, but only at the writing level. It works if the person saying it means to upend a trope. But I have trouble believing that Balki wouldn’t know he was referring to a person at this point in his life in America.  It’s an illusion: pay no attention and it’s fine; turn it this way the writer appears and the character disappears.

But why make such a big deal out of this? Only one guy in the audience even got the Elia Kazan reference, so fuck it, let’s move on, I probably won’t get any mileage out of some stupid illusion runner for this week’s review. It’s too obvious.

002

Balki surprises himself by actually conjuring fire and I have no fucking clue what the joke was supposed to be, so fuck it, let’s move on.

003

A tired Larry comes home from work and can barely even muster the strength to come up with a good put-down for Balki’s magician name: the Great Foreigni.

*sigh* We need to talk about Balki some more. As we’ve been seeing for quite a few weeks now, Perfect Strangers appears to have no fucking interest in the man at all. Larry’s used him as a bank account, as a guy who can hold a video camera, and as a pocket.* When I started reviewing this show back in 2005, Balki was a wellspring of story. Sure, most of those were along the lines of “Balki brings home a foreigner/homeless man/diseased chimp/crack baby/war criminal/bananademon”, but at the very least he had a personality. Balki had desires, dreams, a viewpoint that–even if it wasn’t clearly defined–was always backed up by some aspect of the culture he came from. We should be getting stories like “Balki tries to change the Chronicle’s internal mail system to be like the one he grew up with on Mypos and constantly interrupts meetings by personally delivering letters”, or “Balki signs Larry up for some event going on at his college”, or “Balki celebrates living with his cousin for five years”. Yes, okay, Balki agreed to babysit without Larry’s permission, but on the other hand last week Larry recruited Balki to stand right next to him at a party.

I see no reason why Balki can’t have a life, or struggles, or events of his own. By the end of this show, he will still have lived almost three-fourths of his life on Mypos, and his cultural background should drive, if not the stories that he sets in motion, then at least what he brings to them. The closest we’ve gotten to this in season 6 was his rope snare to catch a burglar; and the fact that on Mypos they don’t discipline children.** I thought once that I preferred to not have to talk about Balki, and did my best to not mention his one-liners unless they were particularly egregious. But recently, that’s all that Balki has consisted of. That’s why I spent so much time on the “Elia Kazan” gag, because when a character becomes a single joke, that one joke has to be perfect or what’s the fucking point anymore?

So it’s a good thing that Balki’s learning magic, right?

*pulls an upraised middle finger out of a hat*

Balki is excited that he’s going to see “The Amazing Timmy” perform at the “youth center charity show”. Youth centers have never carried names of people or locations, thanks to landmark legislation introduced in the 1950s.

Look, I’m sorry, it’s not my fault if the show forces me to write gay jokes, okay? You guys keep asking me to quit and I’m trying my best but then it goes and does this kind of stuff:

004

Larry grabs Balki’s wand and it goes limp in his hands. Even stroking it doesn’t restore it to its rigid form.

005

Anyway, there’s a token role reversal here. Instead of Larry threatening to tape over his Dink, the Little Dinosaur episodes if Balki doesn’t dress up like a prostitute to help him catch a crooked alderman, Balki tickles Larry to try to get him to go to the Youth Center Charity Show.

006

Cousin Larry says he’s too tired to go because he’s been carrying this show for two whole seasons now.

Larry: All week long I dug, and I dug, trying to come up with a big story.

Maybe he should focus on living criminals, eh, folks? Wocka wocka!

And here’s something we haven’t seen since season 2’s “Since I Lost My Mrs. Twinkacetti”: two things going on at once.

007

While Larry is talking about his failure to produce a story idea that appeals to RT (Rejection Taskmaster) Wainwright, Balki and Larry each try out a trick involving the illusion that the cloth is being led around by a single hair held six inches away.  Balki is successful, while Larry is not. I’m just going to completely ignore the fact that the cameraman is at an angle that lets me see Balki moving his thumb, and that Larry’s at an even better angle to see it–I’m not even going to mention this because this is the kind of detail that we haven’t gotten in a long time. Failure plagued early Larry, all the way from major life goals like work and relationships down to whether he could successfully hang his coat (remember?). It’s a very Charlie Brown type of gag, and I didn’t know how much I missed it until now.

008

I guess what I’m saying is that we haven’t had a scene with this level of quality since Balki touched some hamburger meat back in season 2. God help me.

Anyway, Balki has been helping out at Youth Center to set up the Charity Show and really wants Larry to come watch him dislodge Milk Duds from the floor afterwards. The children, who have not yet been introduced to Christmas or Disney movies, have been looking forward to the magic show all year.

There’s a knock on the door and since it’s not someone important in his life, Larry answers it immediately.

009

It’s Mrs. O’Neill!  Hey, welcome back for the first time, Mrs. O’Neill! Evidently Balki has been working for Youth Center for some time, which means the show literally refuses to show you Balki’s life outside of home and work.

Mrs. O’Neill has come by to complain about how much work she has to do to prepare for that evening’s event. I can’t help but wonder if she might have more time if she didn’t drive over to Balki’s apartment at 6PM to give him programs that she could just as easily have handed off to someone at Youth Center.

Mrs. O’Neill lets slip that Margaret Thatcher will be coming to the Youth Center Charity Show. Ah, what a rare treat for those poor, racially diverse inner city youth! Getting to meet their collective hero and thank her for being the vanguard of making sure that state and local monies are kept away from public services will be a happy memory they’ll cherish for decades to come. Seriously, though, am I missing something here? I’m not up for researching Margaret Thatcher enough to see what kind of impacts her policies had on things like youth centers, but the little bit of looking on Google I did*** indicates that it’s likely. Is “Mags”, as Mrs. O’Neill calls her, coming by to congratulate the woman on being the rich private sponsor of a community good?

Anyway, what the fuck, who cares, Mrs. O’Neill is rich but can’t hire somebody to get the programs from the printing shop.

009b

She asks Larry not to try to impress his boss by lying to Balki about why he suddenly wants to go to the Youth Center Charity Show, strongarm Balki into being a replacement for the magic act when The Amazing Timmy shows up drunk, and then drag the show on too long when Margaret Thatcher is late just so he can get 1,000 words on page 8D.

Do journalist’s careers instantly die if they don’t land a big story every three weeks?

Mrs. O’Neill: Mum’s the word on Mrs. T.****

Larry, who once was excited to have an opportunity to be a male role model for a wayward youth, pretends to give a shit about kids and tells Balki he’ll go.

010011

Wow, what a huge budget this episode has! I mean, they had to go get new footage and buy a tree to obscure the actual center’s name and everything.

013

AH SHIT YEAH A VENTRILOQUIST

The ventriloquist is Bruce Lanoil, who I had never heard of before, even though he’s been a part of the Muppets for years.  From what I read, he mostly has done puppeteering work, with some minor voice roles.  I have to imagine that this was an actual act he did, and now I want nothing more than to see it.

014

No, no, go back to the ventriloquist.

015

Larry sidles up to Agent Andy Griffith-Reagan and asks about Mrs. T.  Griffith-Reagan brushes him off and gets back to his job of making sure that there are no stage acts that involve firing sniper rifles into the audience.

Have you ever seen the variation on the inexhaustible bottle trick where somebody makes it look like they managed to pour a pitcher of milk into far more glasses than should be possible? Larry and Balki talk about how The Amazing Timmy is off at a stag party, and then The Amazing Timmy stumbles in and slurs his words, and then Larry explains that The Amazing Timmy passed out because he is drunk.

016

A man falls and hits his head on a hardwood floor and instead of being shocked or concerned, Balki misunderstands passing out and Larry casually takes a moment to explain the situation to him.

*whips away a sequined scarf to reveal an upraised middle finger*

Remember how Balki once picked up Larry and turned him sideways? Remember how Balki was ripped last week? You really should see a doctor about that bad memory of yours.

017

This goes on for a while, so let’s talk a minute about The Amazing Timmy before he chokes on his own vomit because the cousins left him lying on his back. He’s played by Nick Lewin, who was an actual stage magician (and still “is” as of this writing, since there’s a number to call to hire him on his website). Given both his and Bruce Lanoil’s presence, I believe that ABC actually put on a show for a group of kids in order to film this episode. Sure, from one angle, it’s a transactional thing–ABC gets a whole room full of extras they don’t have to pay–but turn it the other way and it’s a heartwarming idea.  I don’t ever hear children laughing in the live audience for Perfect Strangers, so I assume that adults were turning out every week to watch Balki shake his imaginary personality around. The thought that Mark Linn-Baker and Balki actually performed live for a lucky group of kids, though, is a sweet one, and it’s a moment that I never could have guessed the show would give me.*****  I’ll take this over a crowd of Beach Boys fans being disappointed that the Tanner family showed up at a concert any day.

When Agent Griffith-Reagan radios another agent to go ahead and take Mags to the airport because the show’s over, Larry butts in and tries to rouse The Drowsing Timmy.

Luckily, there’s no one in charge of the event, either in the audience or backstage, so the kids sit out there for 10 minutes while Larry convinces Agent Griffith-Reagan that The Great Balkini will perform.

Perfect Strangers Reviewed will be right back after I manage my expectations.

018012

Later, at E RECREATION CENTER Youth Center, Chicago’s only youth center with kids perpetually milling around the lobby…

019

…it’s the Amazing Sheepskin!

newhat

He calls for his assistant Cousini.

020

For their first trick, they ask for a female volunteer to be shaken until unconscious.

Nah, j/k, you don’t lead with that trick.

Here’s another great surprise for me: this is actually one of the best sequences I’ve seen in Perfect Strangers.

022

Balki’s limited understanding of how magic tricks work, plus Larry’s half-grudging, put-upon manner, provide a meta-level element to the entire magic act.  I don’t know if any of these particular jokes have been done before, but I’m sure the setup has.  Each and everyone of you know how kids’ magic shows work, and could easily name 10 tricks that you’re likely to see in one. It’s a set of rules and rhythms that most of us know as well as the Alphabet Song. Perfect Strangers maintains the rhythm, but breaks the rules, overlaying the magician-assistant setup with comic and straight man.

My favorite: Balki tears up Larry’s $10 bill; can’t put it back together; asks for a $20 instead; Larry deadpans “do another trick.”

023

It’s only a handful of gags when you get right down to it, but by God it works.

I submit that the main reason it works is that it’s accompanied by real children’s laughter: they are old enough to be familiar with how magic acts work, but young enough to believe that what’s being presented to them is intentional.

021

It’s still somewhat of an illusion, and only one thing spoils it: the story. The children are enjoying the spoof that the cousins have accidentally created, but turn it this way and you see Larry being an ass in public. The driving force of this story is that Larry wants the magic act to go on, and go on as long as it takes for Margaret Thatcher to arrive, but he can’t even pretend he’s enjoying being on stage for two minutes.  I’m finding it difficult to be upset about this, though, because I’m enjoying the illusion so much.

Oh, wait, both cousins are off-stage again and stay there for three minutes to give us more story instead of what was just working perfectly fine a minute ago.  Balki finds out that Larry’s only there to meet Margaret Thatcher and gets upset.

024

Larry apologizes profusely for being so dedicated to his job that he would debase himself to bringing happiness to a child’s day. He already told Wainwright he’d get the story, and he knows that Wainwright, the Wainwright who studied under Edward R. Murrow, yes, that Wainwright, that compassionate veteran of journalism who sees a Pulitzer in Larry’s future, Rope Trick Wainwright, who has failed to land more interviews than Larry will ever write, will fire him if he can’t get an interview with an overbooked former head of state.

Balki says he doesn’t have any more tricks, but then Balki answers Larry’s pleas for help, so Hogpen & Feller return to the stage to do more tricks.

Agent Griffith-Reagan radios to whomever that Margaret Thatcher’s driver should turn around again and miss her flight so she can catch maybe one minute of a magic show.

The kids, their parents, and the long-suffering soul who starts and stops the tape deck have been patiently waiting for the last ten minutes and applaud the cousins’ return.

025

When planets align, they don’t stay that way for long. It’s more of the same bumbling, except where Larry’s impatient asides to Balki were part of the parody, Balki’s threats to Larry about wanting an interview don’t make any sense to the children. I never thought I’d be complaining that Perfect Strangers’s story was getting in the way, but, hey, welcome to season 6, I guess.

026

Haha, that’s funny because cold liquid makes penises shrink!

Cow Pie the Magician asks for volunteers to be cut in half, and then picks Cousini.

Larry cursing at the children for not wanting to be volunteers legitimately made me crack up.

Nothing’s funnier than the idea of 20 parents beating the shit out of Larry in the alley behind Youth Center after the show!

027

If you don’t know how this trick works, there’s a couple of ways, and I’ll leave it to you to look them up (one hint: doesn’t Larry sure look a lot taller lying down?).

028

I should say that it is a strange choice to show the trick to the home audience as though Larry is actually cut in two–we see Balki lock Larry’s actual feet in place, for instance. So another thing I’ll leave up to you is whether you want to believe that Larry’s sudden fear is a change of attitude on Larry’s part and he’s actually playing along with the meta-aspect of the act; the alternative is that Balki can actually do magic.

029

Anyway, if you don’t look at it too closely, this is finally the near-perfect mix of cartoony and real that the show has been attempting for the past few seasons. Good job, Tom DeVanney! This is the most I’ve enjoyed an episode in a very long time.

Finally Mrs. O’Neill finishes taking a shit and comes out to tell everyone that Margaret Thatcher will be there shortly. The children applaud this news and suddenly the illusion that they’re real disappears.

031

Larry demands to be put back together and we find out that Balki has no idea how the trick works.

*turns over a playing card to reveal the middle finger of clubs*

030

What I mean by this is that Bronson has no idea how the trick works because he only tries to unlock the feet end of the boxes. In this sole moment, it works that Balki can’t get Larry out because he can’t get the empty end open–but Larry stays locked in there after he’s off-stage, and the show doesn’t establish that the other side is locked. It strikes me as odd that Perfect Strangers is so adamant about not revealing the trick, since I’m assuming that everyone already knows how this one works.

032

I’ve read that, in the original airing of this episode, this shot goes on long enough to see the actual recreation center director run out of the building, shouting at the cameraman.

We started this season with the image of a torn, mangled chair unsuccessfully stitched back together…

033

The final reveal is that Larry was left backstage, alone, testing the limits of his pelvic floor muscles for an hour or more while Balki interviewed Margaret Thatcher.

Larry apologizes to Balki for not being honest.

034

For his showstopper, Balki gets Cousin Larry to beg to put his name on an interview consisting of questions like “what this?”, “who is your favorite Smurf?”, and “are you a Brit, or just Brit-ish? Where do I come up with them?”

Join me next week for “Finders Keepers”!

______________________________________________

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

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

Cut for syndication: Tess breaks the neck of the rabbit that Balki was supposed to pull out of the bucket

*no, not that way, that’s gross, stop

**I am so not going to count “A Horse is a Horse”, even with the possibilities it affords for jokes about magic

***I’m aware of the bias involved when you search for particular connections and find them; after all, I wasn’t searching in order to falsify the hypothesis

****She knows. SHE KNOWS

*****It appears that they filmed some of these scenes for the children, and then showed the footage to the studio audience; somebody didn’t realize how much better the scenes would have played if they had cut out the studio audience’s laughter altogether

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