Welcome back! I hope you all actually swallowed your food the past week.
We open at the Caldwell, where Larry runs in, throwing his briefcase and coat on the same couch they’ve always had for the past three months, declaring to Balki that he (he Larry) is the luckiest man in Chicago.
Certainly Balki had a playful response ready–”you found a penny?” or “the homeless man on the corner gave you a free bottle of Gatorade too?”–but Larry has come home late. Balki is upset because this week’s funny animal food is now dry and overcooked, and that Larry didn’t call him.
So, whatever, it’s a tired joke about how the daily lives of two grown men who live together can often intersect with that of a married couple. But we’re (we us) 112 episodes in here. It’s almost impossible that, even if the cousins made a point of eating together on workdays, this would never have happened before. Now, I’ve never been a part of any domestic couple where the other person would try to have dinner ready for me when I got home, so I don’t understand the part about it being overcooked. I’m supposed to understand that Balki is a great cook: no one has ever once disliked the taste of what he prepares. So please, someone tell me: does souffle get dry if you keep it warming in the oven? And if that’s what he was doing, why did he then take it out of the oven and put it on platters before Larry got there?
This episode is credited to writer Paula A. Roth, whose first writing credit for the show was “Hello Baby”, so I’m even more baffled by this joke. Whenever we see them, Balki and Larry are completely inseparable; and as we’ve seen over the past two seasons, Larry would drag Balki into a confessional booth rather than be parted from him. It seems that the only time Balki ever has to himself he spends hanging out in alleyways or going across town to Oscar’s Offal Outlet. But these men live together, they work together, for fuck’s sake they work in the same room, I don’t care if they do have two cars, we’ve been given every reason to believe they go to work at the same time. Larry’s a reporter, and often has work that doesn’t fit within a certain timeframe, so maybe there are times when he’s not going to be there at the end of the day. That’s fine. But if he’s there at the end of the workday, Balki will know it. If Larry isn’t there, Balki should know whether he’s gone home or out chasing leads. Even aside from the most important thing here–Larry don’t want Spleen Cuisine–Balki should have given up on them eating dinner at the same time years ago. But fuck it, who cares, the dishes are covered so there must be a great visual gag coming about how pig pancreas souffle looks.
Nope? Nope. There’s no immediate reveal, and it’s not a souffle. It’s not even a collapsed souffle. I don’t know what the fuck it is.
Anyway, Cousin Larry says that RT (Registered Trademark) Wainwright gave him two courtside tickets to that night’s Bulls’ game. (However, because of a 1989 Illinois state law that all personal transfers of printed materials must occur via delivery to someone’s residence, Wainwright is sending the tickets to the apartment that evening.) We all know that Larry’s the biggest Bulls fan this side of Interstate 90–hell, he talks about it constantly in almost every episode–so we don’t even need to be reminded why this particular game is the “biggest basketball game of the season”.*
Nah, j/k, Larry’s a man in a network sitcom who has never expressed interest in basketball before–of course he’s honor-bound to use the tickets, even though he promised to take Jennifer to the Ballet Russes and eat crêpes Suzette that evening. What’s more, Larry has “given the truth a handy” by telling Jennifer that he’s simply “doing something for Wainwright” that evening.
Balki censures Larry’s lies and refuses to accompany him to the basketball game. Balki says that he saw the exact same thing happen on a TV show once:
Nah, j/k, wouldn’t it be funny if this show ever repeated plots, though?
Balki: I saw the exact same thing on a rerun of a 1950s television show with a roly-poly bus driver, the names of either I cannot say lest it too quickly spoil the surprise for the studio audience and members of the home audience who didn’t watch any commercials or read TV Guide this week.
Perfect Strangers has played some neat tricks over the years: episodes where jokes were repeated, episodes that reversed their obvious lessons, episodes that were about characters or pets we didn’t see for the majority of runtime, and who can forget the time the show made a kid disappear? But even though I found out about this episode some time during season 3, I didn’t expect that Perfect Strangers would have the balls to show me the same story twice, except in one half of the show they’re wearing different clothes.
The first mention of Honeymooners on this blog was back between seasons 4 and 5, in a quote from Mark Linn-Baker. I’ll take that quote at face value, that those involved in the creation of Perfect Strangers had 1950s madcap household sitcoms in mind. No doubt fans and media made the comparisons as well, and now that I’ve watched a handful of Honeymooners episodes, I think that’s fair enough, at least starting with season 3. It’s interesting to me that Perfect Strangers began with an innovative-enough twist on the buddy comedy by adding elements of Taxi and Mork & Mindy but that, beginning with the addition of the girlfriends, it started wearing the edges off its own unique shape until it could slot nicely into a different established sitcom category.
To me, nostalgia cycles follow money: pop culture properties come back into vogue when the kids who grew up with it finally get steady work and have disposable income. Those cycles, I think, have followed a 20-30 year pattern for much of the 20th Century (I think it’s shortening since the Internet, but that’s a different story for a different blog). An ex of mine was in high school in the 80s and she bemoaned the never-ending 80s nostalgia-wank that persisted through the 2000s; I’m having similar feelings about the 90s (I was born in 1984).
I feel it’s a safe bet to say that the late 80s were littered with tribute to 1950s and 1960s shows. I’m limited by what I can remember or have watched in recent years, but here’s a short list: the remaining cast of Gilligan’s Island appearing on ALF; the Beach Boys on Full House; The Munsters Today; The New Leave it to Beaver; The Bradys. Of all of the ones I can come up with, the only successful 1980s sequel series was the revival of The Jetsons. The sense that pop culture wanted to revisit some golden era was sometimes an explicit wish, like when ALF refers to those bygone shows as “quality programming”, or when Michael Harris on Newhart had a personal crisis that that era of television was gone forever, or when Homer Simpson cried out in his sleep to “bring back Sheriff Lobo”.
So, you know, I don’t know, why not do a Honeymooners episode? If fans were already seeing the similarities, and if the show knew it had two whole seasons to mess around and have fun before ending with (gee, look, a real spoiler here) both cousins married, why not lean into the comparison and try it out? It’s not like there were *ahem* any other pressing ideas or character arcs or situations they could have explored, and besides, maybe they could get one of the original actors to say something nice about them like they did with Lucille Ball. And, you know, audiences back then couldn’t compare this to the source material unless they could shell out money for the CBS Video Library on VHS, or unless their grandparents had Nick at Nite. Nostalgia is a commodity, and Perfect Strangers didn’t have to compete with DVD or digital sales for getting a piece of Moon Pie.
So why not do a Honeymooners episode? Well, this show has a lousy track record when it comes to paying homage to 1950s television shows. When Perfect Strangers tried to be I Love Lucy (“Just Desserts”, season 3) it only just succeeded in the comparison by creating its own memorable food scene, though it left behind all hints of the subtle war-of-the-sexes commentary in the latter. When it followed a Dick Van Dyke Show episode beat-for-beat (“Aliens”, season 4), any direct comparison revealed that Perfect Strangers had no interest in using any of the personalities it had at its disposal: whether it could have matched the character work in the earlier show is moot because it didn’t even try. And even thinking about season 4’s “Piano Movers” raises my blood pressure, which is risky for my transplant kidneys, so let’s not go there.
I keep writing and writing, yet this episode is still paused at 3 minutes in. *sigh* Let’s watch the Hacky Gleason Show already…
Ralph comes in and sets down his bus driver’s hat. I beg you keep this in mind. It’s essential that you do.
He shouts out the window for Norton, who must have thought it a great joke to not even pretend that he wasn’t standing right outside the door.
In season 4’s “The King and I”, Balki’s idea of Elvis was a palsied, confused man. Balki’s idea of Art Carney’s Ed Norton is of a marionette controlled by a puppeteer suffering a heart attack. If this were parody I could understand a little better the urge to turn the dial all the way up on the physical. If I were feeling generous, I might say that he’s trying to condense Carney’s Norton across dozens of episodes; but I’ve watched the rest of this episode already, so I’m feeling anything but generous right now. To his credit, Bronson Pinchot does a good job at a version of Art Carney’s delivery and movements, albeit an Art Carney who took meth before every scene.
Before they can even establish the plot, Bronson does so much flailing around that he falls flat on his face, and I don’t think it was intentional. At least, Mark appears to be genuinely surprised.
Anyway, Ralph tells Norton that they have a chance to fill in for a couple of guys at a bowling tournament that night. Norton sits at the table and eats fruit, because Norton eating the Kramdens’ food was a joke that appeared on The Honeymooners.
I appreciate what costuming and makeup did for Bronson now that Alice and Trixie Norton (Simulation) are here and look almost nothing like their counterparts. Sorry, I take that back: they are in black-and-white. Mary Anne gets to do a different voice, I hope you enjoy knowing that.
Look at that hair, couldn’t they have given him a wig?
They do hit a lot of other beats from The Honeymooners: Ralph shushes Norton about the “secret” when Alice reminds him they’re eating at her mother’s, Alice calls Ralph fat, and also Trixie exists sometimes.
Apropos of nothing, Norton starts talking about pancakes and Ralph yells at him to get the post-war fuck out of there.
The Kramdens’ apartment was fairly cramped: we only ever saw their kitchen/dining/living room area, and never (at least in the episodes I’ve watched) their bedroom. What must have been a low production budget (or maybe just the portion of the stage they could use) on The Jackie Gleason Show lent the Kramden sketches a true feeling of poverty. I’m guessing that Perfect Strangers likely had a different stage-audience setup, and maybe couldn’t use just a small portion of the stage, because the Kramden apartment set sure is fucking huge in comparison. But there is one detail I’m downright impressed that the show thought to work in. Because of those cramped quarters, Jackie Gleason would often walk close to the camera when he walked around the front of the dinner table. It’s an effect created by a very specific set of circumstances, but someone saw that as an integral part of the Honeymooners experience.
It’s too bad Perfect Strangers fucks it up by having the camera move way back before Mark does it, forcing him to put a few feet between himself and the table.
Anyway, Ralph tells Alice that he’s working an extra shift so he can buy her a refrigerator. The scene ends with Ralph smirking at the camera.
It’s not enough for us to know that Ralph and Norton went bowling, and that Ralph fell down, hurting his back: we get tons of Bronson miming bowling.
Ralph asks for Norton’s help in hiding his back injury; a jittering Norton counsels that Ralph should simply tell Alice the truth. Why the fuck would you need to hide a back injury? Why the fuck would you need another person to stand there while you tell your wife you slipped on somebody’s spilled Moxie soda?
It’s because Perfect Strangers, for all that it had been slowly morphing into a modern-day Honeymooners, wants us to forget that these 1950s comedies usually had two characters in on a lie.
Alice comes in to announce that the big twist the writers came up with is that Ralph has to move the icebox right the fuck now to make room for the refrigerator.
So, the next lie is that it will take a while to make all the payments, or that he’ll have to wait a few days for the refrigerator to be in stock, right?
Nah, fuck you, the writers aren’t that clever and Ralph agrees to move the icebox. Norton calls Alice an “inferior decorator”; what a classic Norton misunderstanding!
Like, there’s your excuse, right there, Ralphie boy: pretend to pull your back picking up the icebox.
This goes on for awhile.
Anyway, because there were, you know, never any other characters seen on The Honeymooners, Alice says that she personally took the bus that goes by the bowling alley and heard about Ralph’s fall.
Alice says that visibility and agency of housewives on television may have been fine and dandy in 1956, but this is the 90s and she needs to go upstairs to see Trixie immediately. They tried to set it up for fifteen minutes or so that Ralph and Alice actually live together, and barely made it halfway through before reverting to Perfect Strangers and putting the women in time-out together upstairs.
Look, show, you’re the one who wanted to do a Honeymooners episode; but you have no idea how to write dialogue between a man and a woman longer than four or five lines that doesn’t either end with a kiss or the woman leaving the room. I shudder to think of these writers’ personal relationships.
Shoot, I’m sorry, I’m halfway through this and haven’t managed a gay joke yet. *ahem*
Norton steals some honey and shoves it up Ralph’s moon. It was crammed in.
Norton dances over to the icebox and steals more food and then dances some more. This would be the equivalent of a Gilligan’s Island tribute where Skipper hits Gilligan with his hat every 20 seconds and calls him “little buddy” every 15.
Back in the real world, Balki says that Ralph had to stay home the next day and listen to Alice yell at him. Sure, yes, lying is bad, but let’s pretend that women in 1950s sitcoms were constantly being put in their place, never voiced valid opinions, and existed solely as punishment for men.
Larry says that TV has nothing to do with the real world, and he’s right: Jennifer would yell for maybe 30 seconds and then spend the rest of the day in her own apartment.
And then Perfect Strangers undoes six years of its own joke by having Balki ask “do you see what I’m driving at?”.
Larry goes to answer a knock at the door.
Larry: There is no way in the world that Jennifer is going to find out about the basketball game, even if I stand right next to the door and talk about it.
GASP! Jennifer comes by with the basketball tickets, which were delivered to her.
Jennifer: Save your breath. I know everything. You’ve lied to me for the last time. I’m not going to, like, break up with you or anything, or have an adult discussion with you either. I’ll be back in 8 minutes to forgive you.
The “oh no” music comes on.
Oh no! There was no other way for her to find out about the basketball tickets and we got stuck with this shitty plotting! Oh no! Every single other person on the cousins’ floor wasn’t around to accept the tickets! Oh no! There’s going to be a whole other fucking Honeymooners scene!
Perfect Strangers Reviewed will return after I calm down from my realization that this episode aired 35 years after The Honeymooners went off the air, and it’s now been almost 25 years since Perfect Strangers went off the air.
It’s now precisely one week later, meaning that all the cars and pedestrians on Caldwell Ave are back at their exact same positions.
Balki is feverishly watering a plant when Larry comes in and gets sprayed in the face.
Larry–who is still paying off a $140,000 house–has spent the last week trying to ply Jennifer with gifts. Balki suggests that Larry apologize for lying, but Larry thinks he needs to do something heroic to win her back.
Perfect Strangers must have been trying to win some kind of limbo contest, because this might be lowest I’ve ever seen it set the bar for Cousin Larry. Larry, baseline heroic was established months ago when you won her heart by interrupting another man in public to say you kind of liked her.
Balki has waited a whole fucking week to tell Larry how the rest of that Honeymooners episode ends. Show. Buddy. You can’t have both a week pass and Balki tell two parts of an episode separately.
A week has gone by in TV Land as well, which makes even less fucking sense. Alice isn’t talking to Ralph and conveys what she wants to say to him through Trixie, which is probably the cleverest this show has ever gotten away with not writing Mary Anne any lines.
Norton says that he’s never once lied to Trixie in their 13 years of marriage and
I should just stop the play-by-play at this point and say that I did watch a number of Honeymooners episodes in preparation for this week’s post; enough of them to know that, whether or not he ever lied to Trixie directly, Norton being held up as some paragon of virtue is complete bullshit.
The Honeymooners episode this most closely hews to is “Oh, My Aching Back”, which featured Ralph hurting his back bowling. But the similarities begin and end with that precis. In “Oh, My Aching Back”, there’s a much more complicated lie. It starts out with Alice telling Trixie, line for line, how Ralph will come home and try to get out of going to her mother’s for dinner; and then Ralph comes in and does exactly what she says. His excuse for not going is a physical at work the next day–which is true–but he also wants to go bowling.
Alice leaves, but then catches Ralph and Norton about to go bowling when she returns for her umbrella. Norton leaves (!) and Alice scolds Ralph for lying, but she’s far more concerned that he’ll blow his work physical if he hurts his back like he did the last time he went bowling. He agrees not to bowl, and Alice leaves for her mother’s.
Norton reappears, and he goads Ralph into bowling, appealing explicitly to Ralph’s pride as “man of the house”. Norton criticizes Ralph’s alibis, but only insofar as to say that Ralph is being a pussy. And after Ralph hurts his back bowling, Norton is completely willing to be a part of Ralph’s scheme to hide it from Alice by faking (he Ralph faking) a fever.
Part of that plot is that Ralph is going to sleep in Norton’s apartment to use a heated sleeping pad on his back, so, yes, if they had been able to act on the plan, Norton may well have been ready to lie to Trixie.
Norton’s physical comedy in this episode is much more constrained, holding his hands up like a surgeon when taking Ralph’s temperature, and later (lying to Alice by) pretending to sleepwalk so Ralph will have to take him back upstairs.
Like basically every episode of The Honeymooners I’ve watched, Ralph’s downfall is by his own hand: here he helped the Raccoon Lodge win the bowling tournament and two members come by to give him a trophy.
At every point along the way here, Perfect Strangers cut storytelling corners and replaced that empty space with Balki Nortokomous dancing and holding food and saying things wrong, because that’s all Bronson and the writers can come up with at this point. In the original, Ralph’s lie was much more complex than Larralph’s, the women got their own (albeit Bechdel-failing) scene together, Alice was upset at Ralph for multiple aspects of what he was trying to get away with, there weren’t any off-screen asspulls like Alice’s bus going by the bowling alley, and Norton wasn’t a blameless angel. Ralph devises an overly-complicated scheme to hide his back pain, but all that Perfect Strangers can come up with is Larralph being unable to state a single reason why he can’t move an icebox. Ralph would get himself in trouble because The Honeymooners allowed his plots to get traction; Perfect Strangers opts to shut down the story by having everyone gang up on Larralph, and evidently half the episode that Balki watched featured Alice yelling at him.
And one of the most disappointing aspects of watching “I Saw This on TV” is that Mark Linn-Baker is not an adequate Ralph Kramden. Maybe he’s doing the best he can with what show is asking him to do, but he doesn’t have anywhere near the presence of Gleason. Neither his body, nor the personality he puts on here, take up the same physical and attentional space as Gleason’s Ralph Kramden (and the relatively giant set here doesn’t help either). Mark’s Ralph Kramden doesn’t have the same puffed-up sense of self and entitlement that can only end up deflated in the final act. He doesn’t stare helplessly at the audience when he’s found out, trying desperately to hide his own embarrassment; but then again he’s not being asked to do that here. He’s simply being asked to sit there while Bronson tells him how wrong he is.
The only way that Perfect Strangers can compare itself to The Honeymooners is by making The Honeymooners look like a terrible show.
God help me there’s more of this episode left.
While I was writing all that, the dialogue got so off-track that Norton is reciting a poem to Trixie. (Though we finally get a second good “Mary Anne is dumb” joke this season when she says that Norton is “a poet and don’t even know that he is”.)
So Balki’s telling this story to Cousin Larry as a way to encourage Larry to apologize for lying, right? Ralph apologizes to Alice; Alice calls him fat and leaves.
Even though lying is bad, stealing constantly and remorselessly is fine. What weird morals 1990s people thought 1950s people had!
Ralph tells Norton that they should pay homage to multiple episodes of the classic 1990s television series Perfect Strangers, and that Norton should dress up as a Fake Burglar and break in that night to steal Alice’s wedding ring.
Alice slips in behind them and hears the plan, which is lazy writing, but who can blame them? There just wasn’t time left in the episode for more petard-hoisting; I simply don’t know where all that time went.
Norton won’t agree to the plan, and Alice tells Ralph to buy her a fur coat and the scene ends with the supposedly 1950s cameraman zooming in on Ralph’s face for a catchphrase.
Ralph: Yabba dabba doo!
Evidently this Honeymooners episode took place over most of a month, as Balki tells us that Ralph had to sleep on the fire escape for two weeks. So… Ralph ended up not carrying out some zany scheme, and he and Alice still didn’t talk about it or make up? Great lesson, Balki!
Cousin Larry, having ignored that whole fucking thing, says that he’ll never get to adjust Jennifer’s horizontal hold because he’s a liar. Like, that’s one of Larry’s two traits at this point; how have he and Jennifer not talked about this since getting engaged?
Anyway, Jennifer comes by with a teddy bear she found on her fire escape, and Larry admits that he didn’t give it to her.
Balki set up a test of honesty for Larry!
Seriously, fuck this show.
Balki does some Ed Norton shit, and then Larry tells Jennifer “baby, you’re the greatest” and shows her some love, Honeymooners style.
Ugh, show, Darla Wayne is a not a person!
Join me next week for “Speak, Memory”, where the cousins recreate scenes from Vladimir Nabokov’s early life.
Catchphrase count: Balki (0); Larry (0)
Boner count: Balki (0); Larry (0)
Cut for syndication: Tess fills Balki’s spray bottle with sulfuric acid
*What the hell would make a game “the biggest of the season” anyway? Once you get far enough into a season, isn’t each game the biggest one, until the next?