Welcome back! We just had two weeks of relatively good concepts on this show, and I’ve decided I’d rather not push my luck for a third. I contacted one of my old teachers, Dr. David James Poissant, who, as luck would have it, has self-destructive tendencies and quickly agreed to review an episode of Perfect Strangers. So watch (and learn) as Dr. DJP ensures he never gets another novel published under his own name. See you at the end!
David James Poissant
“A Catered Affair”
Disclaimer: I am not a blogger. I am not a reviewer, though a portion of my doctoral dissertation interrogated the rhetoric of book reviewing. No, I am a humble fiction writer with an interest in pop culture. More importantly, I’m a friend of Casey, the founder and scribe of this site. I’d do anything for Casey. I mean, I wouldn’t give him a kidney. But I’d, like, write a pro bono blog post for him.
So, when Casey told me he’d cooked up a plan to review every episode of Perfect Strangers ever, then asked me to review Season Six, Episode 21, “A Catered Affair,” I said, “Where do I sign?” And he said, “For the last time, I’m not paying you.”
Even so, I agreed. Because school’s out for the summer. And I’m between books. And I’m desperate for attention.
Also, I loved this show as a kid. I’m sure it will hold up all these years later. What could go wrong?
So, here goes.
We open on an establishing shot of a building with a brick façade and a disconcerting number of fire escapes. This puts me immediately at ease. No matter what happens, our characters are unlikely to catch on fire.
Cut to Balki in a cowboy outfit for some reason. For some reason, he sings and, for some reason, he stirs something in a deep metal pot. Seeing this, I’m reminded of that scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. You know the song, the one everyone fast-forwards through, where the mother stands alone in the night and croons and stirs what looks like a big vat of soup, except that the soup is clothes, so that you’re like, is she doing laundry or making clothes soup? It’s a song that’s right up there with Mary Poppins’ “Tuppence,” one of those sensitive, filler ballads the writers of films used to think they had to put in their musicals, the kind that bring drama and humor to a screeching halt.
So, Balki’s making soup, and not the clothes kind. Enter cousin Larry. He announces that he and Jennifer are going to a movie. His tie is floral. His pants are billowy. He looks somehow more ridiculous than fringe-chested cowboy Balki.
Larry sniffs the air. What is that smell? Why, it’s not soup. It’s chili! The pot on the stove, which was not steaming two seconds ago, now boils over with Halloween-style dry ice fog. Balki informs Larry that the chili is for a banquet he’ll cater this Saturday night.
Aside: Your author, here, did some catering. In my younger and more vulnerable years, I spent a summer working for a catering company. It was simultaneously the best and worst job I’ve ever had. On the plus side, I once got to put out a unity candle during a wedding ceremony when the garland-wrapped candle stand caught fire.
Speaking of fire, back on Perfect Strangers, Larry now samples the chili. He smiles. His eyes widen. Nope, too hot. He’s gasping. Oh, Larry. Balki sprays Larry in the face with a seltzer bottle, which they keep in the sink for some reason, and this puts out the mouth fire.
Aside: No, seriously, the candle stand was in flames. Someone had wrapped the thing in ivy, then let the ivy dry. Do you know what they call dry ivy in Boy Scouts? Tinder. It was an outdoor wedding in a garden, a cash bar already set up for the reception, and I ran from the bar, water pitcher in hand, and put out the flames, right there in the middle of the wedding. Got to be bad luck for that couple. Or maybe they made it. Maybe they have three kids and a house and make love every night. Maybe they cuddle, postcoital, and watch Perfect Strangers on Hulu. All I know is, I put out their unity candle during their wedding ceremony, which I reckon foreordains unluckiness in love.
So, we’re less than three minutes into “A Catered Affair.” Larry’s tie, as well as his shirt—blousing less, now, at the belt-line—are soaked with seltzer water. There follows a full minute of painful exposition wherein the prevailing joke is that the Texan accent Balki’s trying on for the weekend is even more upsetting to Larry than Balki’s standard accent. This conversation comes full circle with a shoehorned “Don’t be ridiculous” delivered in a Texan drawl, which Balki calls a drool, which Larry corrects, which, even the canned laughter is getting a little tired of at this point. The laughter dissipates, and Larry’s just left lecturing Balki on pronunciation, which, it’s like, come on, Larry, how many languages do you speak?
Next comes more exposition in which Larry tries to persuade Balki to expand his catering business by taking on multiple jobs in the same night. If this sounds like a bad idea to you, you’ve obviously never met cousin Larry. His specialty is recommending that Balki take on tasks he’s doomed to fail, thereby allowing Larry to feel morally superior. It’s all part of the toxic game they play in their domestic codependency. TGIF.
Following this is a moment in which actor Bronson Pinchot definitely forgets his line. You can almost hear the director in the background screaming, “Just go with it! We’re shooting on real celluloid, for God’s sake!” Mark Linn-Baker, as Larry, tells Pinchot’s Balki to take on more work, to which Pinchot responds, “Oh, well, I, you know…” He waves away the line. His eyes dart. For a second, he looks directly at the camera, as if to say: Help me. Instead, he says, “I’m just starting out…I want to go slow.” His eyeliner glistens. The scene is saved.
Larry then tells an illustrative story about childhood and lemonade and ice cream and regret. Balki informs Larry that in his country, grubs are a source of protein. Then, Balki exits, drumming his chest in a pantomime of horse hoof beats.
Conveniently, right then, the phone rings. Larry answers. The phone call takes a weirdly long time, even by Perfect Strangers standards. And, against Balki’s wishes, Larry signs Balki up for a second catering event on the same evening as the first.
What could possibly go wrong?
Aside: Speaking of things going wrong in catering, I once got to decorate a wedding cake. I was a server and bartender. I had, and still have, zero formal training in pastries or cake decoration. But the couple’s wedding cake never arrived, or perhaps there was sabotage, so the company, which didn’t even do wedding cakes, agreed to whip up a cake on the fly. The cake we baked was not a wedding cake. Basically, it was a sheet cake with strawberries on it. But, I got to do the frosting and arrange the strawberries and plant the little plastic couple on top, and, in this way, the reception was saved.
Another time, an older woman hosting a bridal luncheon ordered a round of mint juleps for her party. We explained that eleven in the morning might be a bit early for bourbon. We recommended mimosas instead. The host insisted on mint juleps. Turns out, she’d never had a mint julep. She just thought the name sounded pretty. One sip, and she sent them all back. So, there we were. Three servers. Twenty untouched mint juleps. I don’t remember the rest of that day, except to say that it was the most fun I ever had waiting tables.
Resuming Perfect Strangers: Cut to another establishing shot of the same fire escape-laden brick exterior, which I guess is meant to serve as a leap forward in time, since the setting hasn’t changed. Balki enters with groceries and runs to the ringing phone. This phone call also takes a weirdly long time. Balki informs the stranger on the phone that he is tormented by his cousin Larry, which, while true, seems a little TMI for phone calls with clients, but, suffice it to say, Balki agrees to a second catering gig that Saturday which, unbeknownst to him, comedy-of-errors-style, is actually the third event for which he’s been booked.
Cut to the back kitchen of a banquet hall, Saturday night, where Balki is cleaving meat with a hacksaw. For the record, this is ill-advised, though it doesn’t appear to figure prominently into the plot.
Meat note: While both hacksaws and your standard meat saw are known for their serrated edges, you’re going to want to avoid butchering even the cheapest cut of meat with your traditional hardware hacksaw. The blades differ significantly, and a hacksaw will produce bone splinters likely to lodge in your guest’s throat, turning your catered affair into an affair to remember a little louder because the court reporter didn’t catch that last thing you said, and, boom, you’re behind bars.
So, Balki saws the meat and cousin Larry talks and everything seems to be going okay.
Enter girlfriends Jennifer and Mary Anne [Sagittarius – Casey]. Some discussion of silverware ensues, followed by your author laughing very, very hard. Sincerely. Balki does a Garfield impression that is stunning. Ever wonder how one might undertake an impression of one of those plush Garfields, suction cups for paws, affixed to a vehicle’s rear window? Ever wonder how one might do this, hacksaw in hand? See: Bronson Pinchot at episode minute marker 9:34. For me, no joke, this is the highlight of the episode.
There follows a prolonged conversation between the cousins in which they come to the realization that they’ve inadvertently triple-booked the evening. That, in addition to the Texan feast, Larry signed them up for a catered dinner for a weight loss organization called Calorie Counters, while Balki signed them up for a German event. “Oh my Lord!” both exclaim in unison in that way that only happens on sitcoms.
There follows a commercial break for Venus razorblades, the all-new Hyundai Kona, and Neutrogena Ultra Sheer, because your author is too cheap to pay for upgraded Hulu without the ads. Depending on your demographics and region, advertising results may vary. Apparently, Hulu has decided that ours is a household that likes to drive and shave.
The episode resumes with Balki scolding Larry for booking an event without his permission. This is a reasonable complaint, though Larry argues the whole thing’s Balki’s fault. At which point, if I’m Balki, I pick up the hacksaw and see just how many bone splinters I can make out of Larry’s face. But, alas, I’m not Balki.
Though, you know who is Balki? Watching this episode, it occurs to me that half of the gags endured by Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara as the character Gloria correspond to the many language barrier jokes suffered by Pinchot’s Balki on Perfect Strangers. So that, when Balki informs Larry that they’re “up the creek without a poodle,” it’s nearly identical to numerous dog-based malapropisms that Modern Family will later appropriate for their own leading nonnative speaker. I’m not sure what to do with this. They’re both ABC properties, so it’s not theft, merely derivative. Just saying.
So, the episode grinds on. Larry has a plan. Larry always has a plan. They’ll stretch the food meant for three parties to two. Again, what could go wrong? Other than defrauding your customers and skimping on portion size?
Aside: Speaking of which, my catering manager often defrauded her customers, regularly inflating headcount and/or holding back leftovers that were the rightful property of the customer. I also once watched her steal $200 in cash from a Hallmark card meant for a bride and groom. I swear I am not making this up.
So, regarding Larry’s plan, there’s just one catch. The food they have is high-calorie and heavily salted. What will they serve the Calorie Counters? Here, Larry makes a fat joke. There’s nothing clever or nuanced about it, just a fat joke in the tradition of 1980s/90s sitcom fat jokes. You know, back when it was socially acceptable to make fun of those who were different.
Meanwhile, the Texans are getting rowdy, so they’re served first. There’s a physical comedy gag that involves flying corncobs that’s actually kind of a miracle of comic timing. I wonder how many takes it took to get this right, and, wondering this, I wonder why there was no second take when Pinchot forgot his line in act one?
Jennifer and Mary Anne, dressed as cowgirls, depart with four prepared plates. Confusingly, Larry announces, “We’ll serve the Germans next.” This gives me pause. Are there only four Texans, or are only four of them allowed to eat? It’s a question this episode of Perfect Strangers chooses not to unpack. No, in a burst of Lynchian brilliance, we saunter past that which we don’t understand, and the scene carries on unabated by the constraints of physics and of time.
Cut to a reestablishment of the establishing shot. Again, time has passed, but the stage remains the same. Larry and Balki sing a song to the tune of The Wizard of Oz’s “Merry Old Land of Oz,” complete with choreography. It’s implausible, even for a show that’s already implausible, but, laughing along, I’m beginning to believe that, maybe, if I suspend my disbelief and just go with it, the show might yield some good old-fashioned fun.
In short, the episode is gaining steam, and not the fake dry ice kind either.
That is, until Mary Anne enters the shot, lassoed, having “got away just in time.” She shimmies out of the rope’s clutches, a sight gag that kind of puts a damper on the frivolity of the past thirty seconds and reminds me that I’m not watching theatre. I’m still watching an episode of a sitcom that aired in 1991. It’s an unfortunate reversal, the sort of gag that begs the question: Who wrote this thing?
A quick Google search turns up that this episode’s writer was one Tom Amundsen. And, if you guessed that this writing seems like the work of someone whose IMDB feed lists more under “Miscellaneous” than any other category, the work of someone whose last project was an audio tech assist (uncredited) on Disney’s 2006 direct-to-video Brother Bear 2, you would be correct.
Okay, and so now I see that the writer is actually dead. Amundsen died in 2006. Now I feel bad. I’m sitting here making snarky remarks about a TV show that was cancelled twenty-five years ago, poking fun at a screenwriter who was probably A.) a perfectly nice guy and B.) someone who made bank, when C.) who am I, anyway? A snarky fiction writer with nothing better to do with his afternoon than watch reruns of old sitcoms and make fun of them? Who do I think I am? Not Amundsen, that’s for sure. I never made bank. Plus, that dude was probably awesome. And is it his fault that a Wikipedia search for his name turns up only the identity of a recently-deceased Norwegian sport rower and physician? That there’s not even a disambiguation link?
So, let’s not let Amundsen be forgotten. Life is short. Do what makes you happy. I hope Amundsen loved what he did. I hope he was happy making people laugh, writing for shows like Perfect Strangers and Full House [Amundsen wrote the Papouli episode – Casey]. So what if these shows aren’t super-funny by today’s standards? So what if they don’t quite hold up? They were funny then. They made people laugh. And isn’t that enough?
Except, there are still those glaringly insensitive fat jokes to contend with, jokes delivered at other people’s expense. Those jokes make me a little uncomfortable. But I’m sure that part of the episode’s over. No sensible episode would keep trying to get more and more mileage out of fat jokes, would it? I’ll assume it wouldn’t. Assumptions—what could go wrong?
So, Mary Anne leaves her lasso, and the fab four get back to plating food. It’s time to feed the Germans.
Watch here what the women do. Jennifer removes her cowboy hat. Mary Anne removes hers. Then, Mary Anne puts her hat back on, but she tilts it to the back of her head. Then, both women don German Alpine hats and exit, Mary Anne now wearing two hats, cowboy in back and German on top, while Jennifer wears only one. I don’t know why, but this bothers me.
Enter a woman from the Calorie Counters club. They’re hungry, she informs Balki and Larry. When she attempts to poach a piece of cornbread, Balki slaps her hand. No, seriously. He literally slaps the bread from her hand. “Please hurry,” the woman begs Larry. “Some of us haven’t eaten since lunch.”
My honest assessment? This whole exchange, like Larry’s earlier fat joke, is beyond cringeworthy. We’ve moved past caricature into an arena so cartoonish, I wouldn’t be surprised if, later, the Calorie Counters use a club member as a battering ram to try to break down the kitchen doors.
Look. Comedy is comedy. It often comes at someone’s expense. But, try as I might to reconcile this humor or defend it, I can’t, and I don’t want to. These aren’t jokes about the intolerance of the two thin men in the room. These aren’t subtle or sophisticated or ironic jabs at the dangers of grotesque societal standards of beauty. These are, quite simply, jokes delivered at the expense of larger people. Which is gross. And people used to love this shit. I don’t know what else to say about that, except that I’m troubled. I want the episode to be better than this. I want it to be less lazy. More than that, I want it to be less unkind.
Enter a German man named Gunter. He speaks German. He grabs Jennifer’s ass. Jennifer screams. The men do nothing. Gunter exits. And that’s the end of that transaction because, you know, 1991.
The episode continues. Other than Jennifer’s sexual assault and the fat shaming of an entire segment of the American population, things seem to be going according to Larry’s plan. Enter a new wrinkle. The Texans and Germans have been fed, but the dynamic duo is out of plates. Larry has a new plan. They’ll retrieve the plates from the Texans, wash them, and serve the Calorie Counters.
Balki and Larry enter the Texan ballroom.
And there’s that lasso again. Dang it, y’all. I know it’s 1991, but if this gag wasn’t funny the first time, it’s extra unfunny now. Balki stands lassoed while a Texan compliments the cooking. The bit goes nowhere, but once you have a lasso in a sitcom, I guess it’s like Chekhov’s gun. It’s got to go off.
So, Larry and Balki attempt to retrieve plates from cowboys. This goes the way you’d expect, which is to say it does not go well.
Dishless, Larry and Balki return to the kitchen. Jennifer and Mary Anne return from the German ballroom. Meanwhile, the doors to a third adjoining ballroom are held back by a representative of the Calorie Counters. On the other side of the doors, men and women writhe Walking Dead style, so overcome by hunger that they threaten to “take hostages.” They then use a club member as a battering ram to try to break down the kitchen doors.
I swear I am not making this up.
Two thoughts: First, what industrial kitchen has three sets of double doors entering onto three separate ballrooms? Is this even architecturally possible? Second, for the love of Pete, more fat jokes? Seriously?
Commercial break: Dixie Ultra paper plates. Walmart Free 2-Day Shipping. Nerf Solo Glowstrike Blasters. Tide Pods.
Two more thoughts: First, Tide Pods? Seriously? Those are still a thing? Second, way to go “Ultra.” Two products in twenty minutes. This adjective is making a comeback!
The episode resumes. New plan. This time, Balki, Mary Anne, and Jennifer will purloin the plates from the Texans while Larry distracts the room with an impromptu square dance. Balki, however, gets caught up in the dancing. He extricates himself, attempts to collect plates, and chaos ensues. It’s a whirlwind, and Balki is knocked into a cactus, first face-first, then butt-first. It’s a whole thing.
Now, worlds collide. The Calorie Counters discover the Texan room and scavenge it for food. The Germans join in, looking to party. The viewer waits for everyone to turn on Balki and Larry, but, miraculously, everyone joins in. They sing. They dance. It’s like if Titanic ended with the big dancing scene, iceberg averted, end of film.
Aside: My catering manager used to yell at us for using the bathroom. Female staff were allowed to go. Men, she said, could hold it. “I’m not paying you to pee,” she’d say. She had a British accent and a gap between her two front teeth. I also have a gap between my two front teeth. This trait immediately endeared her to me, right up to the second she yelled at me the first time I had to pee during work hours.
I left that job at the end of summer. This was eighteen years ago. The manager asked me to return in December to help with the holiday rush. I said I would. I lied.
A Perfect Strangers denouement: Cut to the fab four washing dishes. “Well,” Larry muses, “everything seemed to turn out all right. Everybody got fed.” It’s a low bar Larry’s set for himself, but they’ve cleared it, and he’s taking pleasure in that.
Larry monologues for a while. He reluctantly accepts blame before attempting to find a silver lining that leaves him the hero of the evening.
Then, wait, what’s this? The lasso was not the Chekhov’s gun of the episode after all? Chekhov’s gun was…wait for it…the seltzer bottle from act one!
For, now, somehow, Balki, Jennifer, and Mary Anne all have seltzer bottles, and all three hose Larry down in tandem.
The laugh track goes wild.
As a boy, I watched Perfect Strangers religiously. So, how do I feel about today’s viewing, twenty-seven years later? Honestly, my reactions are mixed.
I know it’s just a sitcom, and that TV doesn’t necessarily age well, but I was kind of hoping for more. I wanted the show to be smarter, cleverer. There are flashes of brilliance. There’s the high energy, the comic timing, that great Garfield bit. And there’s the unmistakable chemistry between the two leads.
I don’t know much about the show, its history or its actors, but I can guarantee you that those two men love and admire each other. It’s there in their performances, in every shot, every scene. Their enthusiasm, working with each other, can’t be faked, and that’s refreshing to see.
There’s something refreshing, too, about the show’s simplicity, it’s formulaic structure and predictable plot. But I wouldn’t call it innocent. And I wouldn’t say it hails from a better time. I hate to trot out the word problematic, but I challenge even the most cavalier viewer to watch a few of these scenes without squirming.
At the end of the day, Perfect Strangers remains a show anchored by stereotypes. Stereotypes, as they’re dissected and dispelled over time, short-circuit the very short cuts that made them funny (to some) in the first place. Plenty of shows make use of stereotypes today, but few to the extent of the sitcoms of yesteryear.
TV is changing. Shows like Parks and Recreation and Man Seeking Woman ask not who deserves to be mocked. They ask how we can learn to laugh at ourselves. Meanwhile, shows like The Good Place and The Last Man on Earth are less interested in what it means to meet a quota of laughs per episode. Instead, they’re interested in what it means to be a good person.
Most things, given enough time, trend toward empathy.
So, where does that leave Perfect Strangers?
Where does that leave me?
Why am I here?
Have I come to mock a TV show? To criticize it? To lightly poke fun while celebrating the nostalgia of a form that meant a lot to me as a kid but leaves me a little cold as an adult? Or was all of this just an excuse to reminisce about the best worst job I ever had?
Don’t be ridiculous.
I’m here, dear reader, for the same reason Tom Amundsen wrote for this show, for the same reason Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pinchot acted their hearts out on its behalf. Gentle reader, all I want to do is make you laugh.
Thanks, doc! I guess this one was about food or something? Join me next week for a special bonus post!
Catchphrase count: Balki (1); Larry (2)
Boner count: Balki (0); Larry (0); Gunther (1)
Cut for syndication: Tess laces the Weißwurst with anthrax