Anxious, plump Larry Appleton came from the front porch, dragging a chest of wood from which hempen handles extended. A brown hairdo, unbound, was sustained gently behind him by the mild Chicago air. He turned the chest on its side and intoned:
–Jennifer, Mary Anne!
How can you do that, show? Show him not on the porch, and then on the porch? Don’t fool yourself, show, with Larry winking in and out of view. Just cut out the fucking establishing shots already!
Larry asks after Balki, but he’s still downtown, they say, taking his citizenship test. I sure hope he gets into Citizenship College!
Reversals abound again as we find that, this time, Larry has invited someone to stay without getting anyone’s permission. And, after a homeless man, a dog, and Twinkacetti, we get the most noisome¹ guest of all: Mama.
Mary Anne (Sagittarius), who is so dumb she doesn’t understand that one-off sitcom characters may not enter a home until the ritual four punchlines have been spoken, thinks that Mama is in the box.
Jennifer makes a joke (with the right amount of pause, too!), wondering aloud if Mama really might have traveled that way. And then Larry makes a joke about Mama standing outside, fascinated by their mailbox. Reader, I don’t know how to prepare you for Mama other than to say this: we’re all about to wish that the rest of this episode continued to be about three people standing around making jokes about boxes.
Do not stare directly into Mama.
Let’s treat Mama like Karl Duncker’s malignant tumor and approach from a few safer associative angles. The very first time I watched the Star Wars Holiday Special, I was most struck by just how terribly unfunny Harvey Korman’s performance as Chef Gormaanda was.
It was the same feeling that I have every time I watch any comedy anthology like The Groove Tube or Movie 43: when faced with something so stale that it comes out the other side as actively infuriating, I start wondering if the world just hadn’t figured out how comedy worked yet. Getting a shrieking Bronson in drag after two straight weeks of the show being so unable to come up with anything better than saying “this hand is a ghost” that it had to metaphorically dig up corpses of old comedians just to take a shit on them*, I begin to wonder if they just didn’t start enforcing the UN Convention Against Torture until 1992.
Our introduction to Mama is this: she comes in babbling Desperanto. She’s shrill. Two out of every three syllables are “iki”. I’ve been trying to transliterate all the Myposian on this show but fuck it. I think I did a pretty okay job last week of capturing some parts of “The Gazebo”’s essential irritant and tiresome nature, but for me to really convey to you Mama’s voice, I’d need to be sitting right next to you while you read this, sticking you repeatedly in the nipple with one of those pins that comes with new dress shirts.
She rips out their mailbox and brings it in, calling it a “little tree”. Maybe that’s some sly commentary on the industrialized first world, I don’t know. I’m too busy getting over my balls having retracted to right behind my belly button at the sound of that voice to think of much else right now.
Larry happens to have a Myposian-English dictionary, enabling him to fill in whatever translation gaps he has left after five years of living with Balki. Here’s the first page:
Aardvark – Aardvariki
Abacus – Countislidi
Abandon – Abandoniki
Abattoir – Backiporchi
Abbreviate – Makishorti
The show has begun stealing my jokes, because that’s not very far off. Mama refers to their fireplace as a walkinki cookinki (walk-in kitchen).
Did you know that there’s a Christian organization seeking to hasten the rapture via dictionary-making? On the basis of Matthew 24:14, they believe that Jesus won’t come back until every single nation has been preached the gospel, so they send people to live in remote regions of the world so they can study a local language, determine if it’s different enough from the others in the area; and if it is, make a dictionary so they can evangelize to them. It’s a very finish-all-the-quests approach, and I feel bad for the poor sap who got assigned to Mypos and had to record their 100 different words for bestiality.
Anyway, like I said, despite having seen the apartment kitchen in the video documentary Balki sent her, on her television where she watches 1950s sitcoms featuring kitchens, she thinks the fireplace is a kitchen so I don’t know what to make of Balki taking a shit there now.
HA! Lookit that fat old lady’s butt, though! And here I was thinking they had forgotten how comedy works. I bet her giant butt smells bad and she always mooning the camera!
Mary Anne asks Larry if she’s remembering correctly that one of Mama’s three character traits is that she watches American television.
Mama begins to rapid-fire catchphrases from other shows while shaking her septagenary tits around. Larry finally leads her back to the others.
Myposians exhibit the pinnacle of everything good and pure about humanity, so after roughly thirty minutes of Mama singing the theme to Hawaii Five-O, she finally says hello to Jennifer and Mary Anne. Mama grabs Mary Anne’s ass and tits and tells her it’s not good enough for her grandchildren. I was going to call Mama “Clara Pellagra” or something equally erudite and witty (and above all accessible) but she asks “Where’s the beef?” so fuck it why even try with this.
Let’s try another angle here. One of my favorite comic series in the 90s was Groo the Wanderer, by Sergio Aragonés and Mark Evanier; it was my first proper introduction to stupid characters, and I’ve judged all others by Groo. They also put out a miniseries called The Mighty Magnor. Magnor was a superpowered being from another planet who crash-landed on earth and lost his memory. Similar to Mama, he could only repeat lines he had picked up from Earth television broadcasts, specifically lines from well-known infomercials.
Two down-on-their luck comics creators happen up on the amnesic Magnor and decide to stick him in a cape and tights and use him as a cheap model for tricky pose references for their new superhero comic. Magnor reads their vast comic collection and decides he’s a superhero, quoting every hackneyed one-liner you’ve ever heard.
I loved that aspect of Magnor, but it doesn’t satisfy in the form of Mama. And that’s because there’s neither commentary nor story. Magnor makes you realize that if there are aliens, they’re likely to think we’re the stupidest beings in the galaxy if all we can come up with is a more expensive way to fry vegetables. And what’s more, that same sponge-like persona drives the entire story. Mama doesn’t do that.
Does Mama need to? Maybe not, because that’s already what Balki was doing from the get-go. In the first few seasons, Balki was the commentary; and in a few episodes, Balki was the story. So Mama has potential, but, you know, GUESS WHAT.
When Mama hears Balki pull up outside, she tries to run out the door, but for some goddam reason they all stop her from running out into the street. Larry puts her in the closet, so she can hang up her goat.
The rest of the episode is going to be either matte overlays or a heightalike playing one or the other character, but what the show does here is worth pointing out because they didn’t have to make the effort. Mama walks into the closet, and Balki enters from the far end of the porch.
I don’t know if Bronson quickly threw off his costume and emerged from the other side of that “closet”, but his entrance sure makes it look that way. I really want it to be the case because I’d like to imagine a show that went to the trouble of creating a quick effect for the audience.
I was going to cheer our brief respite from Mrs. Snoutfire, but we just get Balki singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, so nevermind. Since he probably does that every damn day when he gets home, he clarifies to the others that he passed his citizenship test. Mary Anne and Balki hug. I wonder if they’re dating?
Balki picks up the phone to call Mama and give her the good news, leading to a good bit where, when she yells from the closet, he thinks she somehow knew he was calling her. I’m willing to put aside what would be my usual complaint (that Balki has used phones long enough to know which ear they put sound into), partially because, hell, for all we know Myposians can astral project or turn into beings of pure sound, or have jolly gnome servants who wipe their asses for them, and all it would take to make that real is Larry saying they can’t do that; but mainly because it’s funny. It even turns into a “Janet! Dr. Scott! Janet! Brad! Rocky!” bit!
The audience “awws” on cue when Balki hugs the member of the cleaning staff they quickly pushed on stage and filmed from behind. And Balki was transfigured before them: and his suspenders became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.
Mama, bibibabbling, starts pulling on Jennifer’s teeth and picks up the television to take back to the closet. Maybe that’s some sly commentary on foreigners benefiting from the goods the US produces without giving anything of value back but I’m too busy putting in a bulk order for ACE inhibitors from Canada to think of much else at the moment.
Here’s another angle we can safely approach Mama from: Bronson’s own personal life. Bronson’s dad checked out early, leaving Rosina Pinchot to take care of Oliver, Bronson (then 5 years old), Jennifer, and Justin. I think it’s only come up all of once in one of the reportage posts, but it’s clear from whatever one or two other articles I didn’t cite that Bronson wanted nothing to do with his dad. My own father, I recently learned, came very close to disappearing when I was tiny, and eventually moved just two towns away instead of all the way to the state capital where he would have never lacked for work. Just the same way that Bronson was able to push for both his and Larry’s characters to be virgins (and it holds true even today), I’m guessing that he was adamant that Balki only have a mother. Actors playing their own relatives is a very TGIF (Tantamount Genes Incite Facsimiles) kind of thing, though the earliest example I can think of is Jethrina from The Beverly Hillbillies. Full House gave us Uncle Joey’s Uncle Jasper, as well as Greek relatives Stavros and Melina for Uncle Jesse and Michelle. Disturbing as she was, I’d take Myrtle Urkel over Mama Bartokomous any day of the history of the universe; but conceptually even scarier was Reginald VelJohnson playing Myrtle’s father, Big Daddy Urkel.
I have no doubt that, on any other show, we’d have gotten more than just one actor doubling up on roles. Hell, it’s not like the show could ever suffer from additional characters taking away lines from Mary Anne and Jennifer, so why not put give Mark Linn-Baker a vest and a mustache and call him Papa Bartokomous? Give him a stoop and a mustache and he’s Yaya Bartokomous.** Given how much the audience loved Bronson in drag, they’d fucking die of laughter if Mark walked in wearing a shawl and said “Sit on it, Potsie”.
But we only get Mama, and we can all thank worthless deadbeat Henry Poncharavsky for that.
Later, at the Chronicle building, we find Larry gunning hard for that promotion by standing around looking a blank sheets of paper.
Jennifer and Mary Anne have taken Mama shopping, and after she sets her bags down, she and Larry dance and sing the entirety of Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract”.
Larry scolds them for taking Mama shopping (what an absolute asshole, I mean, come on), and Jennifer explains Mama wanted to get souvenirs because it’s a Myposian tradition to make your hosts buy you useless shit to test how good they are at establishing boundaries.
As Mama starts singing Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and pulls several jokes I had planned to make out of the shopping bags, I begin to wonder if I haven’t figured out comedy yet.
Isn’t it funny that they made such a pretty dress in such a ridiculously large size, for ugly fat people? Isn’t it?
Larry calls her a “sex pistoliki” and has a good laugh about all the boners she’ll prevent.
(Suddenly, Casey felt something stop him, and he prayed fervently for the arrival of Lydia or Gorpley.)
Just to show that they’re good sports about having actual women get paid to act, the writers let Jennifer and Mary Anne say a list of all the scenes that would have been too expensive to film a montage of: Wrigley Field, the mall, and the entire homeless population of Chicago fleeing to Milwaukee.
Remember how Larry knows Myposian? Well, that makes only two of us because when Larry tells her Balki isn’t there she starts yelling “Balki”. Then she thinks the stairs are an escalator, starts encouraging Larry and Jennifer to start fucking right then and there and insults Mary Anne again and did I mention this is a two-parter?
Lydia chases an untucked Gorpley out of the archives, teasing him about how ticklish his balls are. I’ve been wondering why no one ever walks into a room on this show, but I suppose it’s good practice for, you know, if the Chronicle were ever to, oh idunno, blow up or something.
Larry introduces them as friends of Balki’s and Mama just says “Balki, Balki” over and over.
Gorpley quite reasonably asks if Mama speaks English, and when Larry says no, Gorpley picks up the phone and calls INS. Mama starts doing Three Stooges schtick while Sam Anderson wonders what the fuck happened to this show in the past three weeks.
Balki comes in and he and Mama say a “joke” about the elevator. I’d complain but it’s either this or Bronson getting away with touching and commenting on women’s bodies.
That night, at Balk Momma’s House, Mama calls everyone to come and see what horrendous organs she’s put into their brand new plastic blender, which will retain the taste for years.
Larry and the two sets of breasts and ovaries come in and stand as far stage right as they can.
Mama grabs Mary Anne, shoves a funnel in her mouth and gavages some Lyons’ Brand “Touch My Whole Kernel” canned corn down her thrOH GOD DAMMIT
You know what, I give up on trying to outdo Mama. It’s like fighting Dark Link: whatever I come up with she does.
Did I… did I create Mama? Isn’t this a dream come true? Isn’t this a nightmare too?
Thirteen minutes in and they’ve just been fucking around by inflating every single one of Balki’s character traits into a whole scene about how Mama does it too. Does Balki watch TV? Mama watches more. Does Balki say catchphrases? They’re the very mother’s milk he suckled upon. Does Balki sing songs? Mama sings five. Does Balki eat every part of the pig? Mama flosses her teeth with chitterlings. Does Balki think America is wonderful? There’s a Mama who’s sure all its litter is gold.***
Maybe the episode structure is mirrored by the padding in Bronson’s bra, but I’m too busy filling out this form to get my name changed to think of much else right now.
This is a two-parter, and we’re about to get more story than there’s time for, but in the meantime every scene has Mama and Balki apart, and then together. The show has already proven its commitment to characters standing on opposite sides of the stage at all times, why can’t we just start with Balki present?
Balki comes in saying he has bad news, pauses for a full minute, and then says they were all out of some funny food name. Somehow being stuck with apple**** pie, the most iconic American food you could offer someone, is bad news. The bad news is that the show spent years telling you Myposian guests die when they visit and then pulling the football away right when you want to kick it the hardest.
Larry raises his glass of Great Bluedini to make a “signifiki klinkitinki” and oh fuck you. Let’s approach Mama from the last safe angle of attack I have.
I didn’t grow up with cable, but my grandparents had Nickelodeon and, for years (1989 to 1994) any time I was there I would hole up in the spare bedroom and take it in like a sponge. I wasn’t there for its absolute beginning, but I did start watching during what must have been its last year before whatever tipping point of homes with cable TV resulted in channels like Nickelodeon having money to go wild with original programming. I was there for the premieres of Nicktoons, Hey Dude, Clarissa Explains it All, Salute Your Shorts, and most important to me, The Adventures of Pete & Pete. (I’m taking the long way; this is Mama we’re trying to sneak up on.)
There were very few redhaired main characters in my viewing experience up to that point; there were even fewer shows that blended weird humor, indie music, and emotional depth. If you’ve never seen it, here’s the basics relevant to this discussion: you had an older brother and a younger brother, on either side of puberty, both named Pete. Big Pete had romantic blossomings and the urgency of figuring out the adult world, and Little Pete cultivated a childhood as grubby and rebellious and foul as possible. Big Pete was rapidly leaving childhood behind and Little Pete did everything he could to pull him back lest he face the truth that his own childhood was draining away by the minute.
It ran for three seasons, you should check it out. And four years after it ended, it got a movie called Snow Day with a different cast. Both main actors had aged too much by then, and one of the only two actors that carried over from the show was Iggy Pop, who got all his aging done early in life. Lots of plot details and characters got shuffled around. The brothers were no longer Petes, and were in fact now a brother and sister, but one character seems to have survived fully from the original script: a third brother. This third brother–who I’m sure would have been named Littlest Pete–was the wild, unrefined abstraction of Little Pete. He blows bubble in his soup, gets his fist stuck in his mouth, fills up his shoes with the refrigerator icemaker.
I can’t find a page for this type of character on TVTropes, but who cares? You know what I mean, and you can probably name some others. Littlest Pete***** was a distillation of a set of character traits that viewers would have already been familiar with.
Mama is a distillation of Balki’s character traits. Whoever decided who Mama was–and I suspect Bronson had a lot of say in it, because the writers gave up years ago on housebreaking the man’s personal sense of humor–understood so thoroughly what Balki had become over the years that Mama is a perfect distillation of what makes season 5-7 Balki unique. I can appreciate that. Mama is the second-closest this show has ever come to outright self-parody, and I like that. I love that type of character on the conceptual level. The show set up its own goal and hit a bullseye! Hell, half of the jokes about herare mess I’d come up with if the show had characterized Mama in any other way.
But, fucking hell, did we have to get Mama so long after Balki had become a haphazard pile of warmed-over gags? If achieving your goal means creating a character who gets shuffled from one set to another so she can squawk and mumble through the whole list of catchphrases and songs the writers wrote down, change careers.
I love Mama.
I hate Mama.
Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. Mama is large.
Anyway, Larry’s toast reveals that he’s been saying “drivers license” instead of “Form N-400: Application for Naturalization”, meaning that Balki hadn’t said shit to his mom about applying.
Whatever enjoyment I get out of the form or content of Mama is spoiled by the fact that they don’t do jack shit with her here for the story until the last five minutes. An exaggerated character like this really should be used to put up a mirror to the base weird character. If ever there were an episode that should feature only two characters, it’s this one. The only scene we got where Balki showed Mama anything about America was when he showed her the elevator at the Chronicle. Who cares what he showed her or where they went? It could be anything at all. Balki needs to be the one leading Mama through his life in America, correcting her, giving her whatever sideways understanding he’s constructed² about how the country works.
I think the show painted itself into a corner by having Bronson play two roles that should have had screentime together. I’m guessing it was less an issue of editing expense and more one of not wanting to give the studio audience a far worse experience than the home audience (this episode was filmed over the course of two days instead of the usual one, for whatever that tells us). On Full House, the story was about Stavros running a con and everyone but Uncle Jesse seeing the truth, which was set up by Stavros interacting with everyone but Uncle Jesse. On Family Matters, they basically said “Steve’s not here this week; please enjoy Urkel with tits”. Those episodes had stories, and even emotion, if you count hating a different Urkel as emotion. Perfect Strangers can’t be trusted with story, but even a clip show of Mama looking through a photo album of The Adventures of Cheat and Bleat while Balki’s finishing his citizenship test would have been a better structure than what we got here.
My point is: when Mama stands up at the head of the dinner table and shouts for five minutes–
–it needs to have some weight behind it, even if it’s just half a pound of pathos in an early scene where Mama says she’s looking forward to Balki coming back home with his emaciated wife. Bronson beautifully deadpans his translation–“Mama’s upset.”–and I feel for him when the audience doesn’t pick up on it fast enough.
Mama asks Larry “No more Mypiot?” and good god, please, no more Mypiot forever after this.
Mama pulls a chicken foot out of her pocket, hands it to Balki, and storms off, prompting the most heart-rending music you can buy the rights to for three bucks.
The chicken foot, which she sure fucking had ready to hand, is the symbol of a mama’s grief. Balki must return to Mypos or get disowned and not inherit the full set of…
(waits 10 seconds to make sure the show doesn’t say it first)
…the full set of My Mother the Car collector’s plates, the industrial-strength pig BeDazzler, and the 100 ALF dolls she bought from QVC thinking they were midget slaves.
The next day, Balki is packed up and ready to go; but before he can step out the door for a send-off by a bunch of extras we’ll never see again, Larry tries one last time to stop him. I’d ask how in the hell Mama found her way out of the house and onto a plane, but I wouldn’t want to make it look like I thought she should stay a second longer.
Larry tells Balki his future is in America, but Balki–not realizing that girlfriends turn into wives, bosses into colleagues, and Mamas into corpses–has no future if he broke Mama’s heart. It’s very touching that Balki and Mama are so close that it never once came up in conversation what he planned to do with the rest of his life.
Balki: Please. Just… every now and then. Put your penis in him.
Balki thanks Larry for the cultural exchange of the past five years; Larry says he got more than he gave, but they treat all foreigners that way.
Thank god for the Hulu rips so we can see those tears.
Four Days Later, Larry, Jennifer, and Mary Anne are all sitting on the couch watching Miller’s Crossing on VHS, a smorgasbord of fast food laid out before them.
Larry: Oh my god I haven’t had a corn dog in years.
Jennifer: What meat is this, anyway?
Larry: I don’t know! I’ll never know! I love it!
(Mary Anne lifts her leg and farts, wet and long)
Nah, j/k, they’re all wallowing in their own misery by eating snouts.
Mary Anne (Sad n’ teary puss) faces the truth: her increased role this season is to be treated like shit by Balki every other episode.
Larry, frustrated at having let Balki leave, says he’s going to Mypos. He’s evidently memorized the number of Transcontinental Airways, who pick up after you only dial five numbers.
Haha j/k Transcontinental Airways was hiding in the closet!
And damned if that’s not a great promise for a second part of a story. It gives the whole thing a feeling of balance that wasn’t really earned by what we’ve seen so far. Balki becomes American; Larry must become Myposian. Reversals abound.
Mama spent her time on screen making good on every awful joke I’ve made about Mypos; if next week’s episode manages to do anything more than have Larry either a) finally given an herbal cure for constipation or b) thrown into an actual deep pit for lying, it will be a miracle.
Join me next week for “Citizenship, Part 2”!
Catchphrase count: Balki (0); Larry (0)
Boner count: Balki (0); Larry (0)
Appearances left: Gorpley (3); Lydia (4)
1. Man I bet you cussed me out when you saw that number
*TGIF: “The Gazebo” Isn’t Funny
**Whom we have no reason to assume has died
***And I’ve blocked up my airway by heaving
****Fucker pronounces it right, too. I’m watching you, show.
2. Haha got you again
Unused Larryoke Countdown #24: “Lydia and Sam” (John Mellencamp)
A little ditty ’bout Lydia and Sam
Two American kids screwing in the gents’ can
Sammy gonna be a mailroom czar
Lydia gives advice and dines on fresh caviar
4 thoughts on “Season 7, Episode 7: Citizenship, Part 1”
Harvey Korman is a disappointing spot in what is otherwise the second best piece of film in the star wars canon (Seriously; SWHS is my second favorite star wars film. The over-the-top hatred it gets is entirely unjustified. Yes, it’s cheap, but that would only justify mild derision, not outright hatred. That’s all down to the fact that Star Wars fans, by and large, cant’ stand the thought of anything silly or goofy in their Star Wars.)
And am I right in saying that the establishing shots at no point support the thesis that there ever was a mailbox or indeed anywhere a mailbox of that sort could possibly have gone in front of that house?
I actually appreciate the commitment to not subtitling the first half-hour of the Wookiees talking to each other. It’s a perfect product of that era, and that moment in time, when they maybe still thought Star Wars wouldn’t be the giant success it turned out to be.
I can see one possibility, and one only, for there having been a mailbox: that it was across the street. The only places I’ve ever seen this are out in the country where I grew up, but it’s not unheard-of. Obviously the mailbox for this house must have been bolted to the wall, to the right of the front door. But how in the world could three different people working on the same television show share information about what sorts of props might be needed across interior and exterior shots? You’re really asking a lot there, Ross.
Our mailbox was actually down the street a block and a half, along with everyone else’s in Redacted, iowa. I don’t know if that’s how they do in the fancy big cities like Chicago, though. I remember as a child thinking that it was the height of luxury to have a mailbox attached to your house.
I like to think Mama’s shrieking was due to the NASA-developed, liquid-cooled undergarment that Bronson was apparently wearing (according to linda’s site). Maybe they brought the temp down too far.