We open this week at the Chronicle building, with a shot that gives us much more context than we usually are privy to. It’s one thing to tell us that the Chicago Chronicle is the United States’ #1 newspaper for the past two or three thousand years, or that its building is very tall. But its position here–as the prominent figure on this bit of land jutting into the water–mirrors that of the Statue of Liberty, representative and welcoming party of the priapic business world behind it.
We are told that not only does some distance still separate us from this world, but between us and it are white cars, both on the road, and lurking below, in dark doorways. We look–
and we approach–
–but can we get there from here?
Mr Balki Bartokomous ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls, but today, the postal system was in his mind as he moved about the basement softly. Who are the letters for?
RT (Rootin’ Tootin’) Wainwright exits the elevator, reading Balki’s internal newsletter which hasn’t been mentioned for two whole years. Whatever problems season 7 has–and did I mention there were always bigger ones?–it at the very least bothers to remember what happened in previous seasons.
Wainwright wants to talk to Balki about the the sheep “cartoon” he draws in the newsletter, “Dimitri’s World”. Balki apologizes for the quality of a recent entry and Wainwright assures him he doesn’t actually read it. The thing is, they’re dropping the Kangaroo Cowboy strip from their “cartoon page”.
Do you have to throw it back in my face when I compliment you, show? I’ll go ahead and get this out of my system because they’re going to do it all fucking episode: every time someone refers to comics, they call them “cartoons”. I think that the language around comics absolutely sucks, and this has a lot to do with me being a librarian and having a mind for description and organization. You’ve got the ongoing problem with people referring to comics as a “genre”, and the co-opted term “graphic novel” being used where “graphic album” would be correct. And–credit where it’s due–comics are made up of individual “cartoons”. A cartoon is a non-realistic depiction of a thing or person, so anyone drawing comics is a cartoonist. I’m not going to act like I’ve never heard someone call comics cartoons, and spoken English has never once in its history perfectly followed the rules we come up with for it. But it feels like an incredibly outdated way to refer to the comics page of a newspaper, even in 1991. I can accept RT (Rusty Terminology) saying it that way, and not Larry, and certainly not Balki who’s spent the past five years trying to figure out which order he’s supposed to read the panels in Spider-Man comics.
Anyway here’s the Kangaroo Cowboy strip that prompted the Chronicle to drop it:
Balki pulls Wainwright over to his “secret drawer” and shows him an unpublished Dimitri strip.
Dimitri is standing on a street corner waiting for the WALK sign to come on so he can cross the street. Dimitri then realizes he is too short to push the button to make the WALK sign come on. Where does he come up with them?! Seriously, I’d like to know so I can go burn that place down.
There was a running joke in Peanuts where Charlie Brown describes for one of the other kids a comic strip he drew. Whether or not you found Charlie Brown’s jokes as groanworthy as they were intended to be, the real punch was that none of the other kids found it funny. Wainwright hears this and still decides to let Balki fill in the Missing space on the comics page. To his credit his response is that they’ll hire a writer, but whatever savings he was hoping to benefit from by not just adding Baby Blues have just disappeared.
I’m not going to pretend I know enough about the history of comic strips to tell you anything new, but a newspaper having its own in-house artist doing an exclusive strip feels as outdated as calling them “cartoons”. Newspaper comic strips started out that way, sure, but the only late-20th-Century strip I can turn up (with a quick search) that was exclusive to a paper was Pogo, and that ended in 1975. I wasn’t aware of any comics that were only in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and I bet your paper didn’t have one either when you were a kid.
I mean, whatever, it’s a story, and if it were a good story, they wouldn’t matter all that much. Haha oops, spoiler!
Larry walks in and overhears that Wainwright needs a writer with a unique talent.
Larry: I can make a golf ball do anything!
I think I’ve neglected to mention this, but the show has finally gone all the way back to the season 1 & 2 sensibility of what their boss should be. Wainwright, when they bother to use him, alternates between insulting the Cousins and being harmed by their fuckery. *sigh* If only he had no moral compass…
And god damn it I did it again. I come anywhere near applauding the show for consistency and actual use of its secondary characters and it reminds me how much it sucks: Wainwright assigns Larry the task of “filling in the bubbles” of the “cartoon” as if that were the last part of the whole process. Oh, also, it’s only going to run on Sundays; unless Wainwright is going to hire Gorpley as a colorist, we can assume that the Chronicle has the United States’s only black-and-white Sunday comics.
If you thought that Ditko, Kirby, Siegel, or Shuster got screwed over, consider the fact that Bartokomous & Appleton are offered neither contract nor money from RT (Remuneration Theoretical) Wainwright. Balki is so excited that he and Larry will be combining their creative juices that he runs away screaming and jumping.
Man, the look on her face, the pure regret that she even came down here today. Well, here we go, let’s repeat the past three minutes, just for her.
Balki picks her up and plops her down on his mail table, turns her on her side, and sticks his arm right up her twinkaseat.
Would shaped charges be overdoing it? she wonders.
Is the rest of the episode going to be Balki going Door to Door to show everybody his strip?
Larry tells Lydia that Jennifer still exists and she’ll likely divorce him once she learns he’s not writing for one of the top-tier strips like Barney Google & Snuffy Smith. He’s about to leave to tell Wainwright to forget it, but Lydia stops him. She tells him he’s got a golden opportunity to stretch a minor disagreement with Balki across the rest of the episode.
This is the same tired misuse of characters that we got in “Bye Bye Birdie” when Jennifer showed up to tell Larry to fool Balki with another parrot: Larry could have come up with the idea of marketing Dimitri all on his own with an offhand comment from RT (Root Tubers) Wainwright that Dimitri will be running right next to Snoopy. I’m fine also with Lydia encouraging Larry in a direction away from Balki; it’s an underlying structure I always thought was intended to be there, but they spent good money on wardrobe and makeup and craft services just for her to come out and say the one thing.
I’m going to go ahead and tell you that the rest of the episode is Larry and Balki disagreeing on what direction the strip should take and what kind of character Dimitri should be. Why not bring in the rest of the named employees for this plot, each giving their opinion on what’s the best way to market Dimitri to broad swathes of the newspaper demographic? Why not a variation on the theme of what Lydia, Larry, Gorpley, the Sports Department, Matt Minor, Doug Perkins, Mrs. Van Weezer, et al., think is funny, none of it matching what Balki wants for the strip?
Why not? Well, it’s an episode built around Balki’s sheep doll. If you were writing it, would you give a shit?
Anyway, what the fuck, who cares, fine, Larry gets to dream about receiving royalties on Dimitri-brand rectal thermometers even though Dimitri’s copyright status is likely work-for-hire given that Balki has been drawing him as part of his job for years. But, fucking seriously: there is no reason any of this story should take place at Hangshiscoat Junction.
Balki has come back to the couch, dividing self from self as he duplicates Dimitri onto a giant drawing pad with a felt-tip marker, you know, just like Jim Davis does it.
Larry asks Balki to think big-picture about what the strip should be about, which is a necessary conversation. Balki wants Dimitri to be a sweet strip about virtues like doing your chores, and Larry says kids will want a four-legged Bart Simpson* who tries to sneak into the movies. Larry says that kids want an icon who gets to do all the stuff they wish they could do, like finally find their dad’s porn stash or order from the full menu at Waffle House. And I was thoroughly surprised to find that, just two weeks after having to grapple with the flop and fall of dung that was the Mama Cycle, Larry and Balki have an actual adult conversation. Balki contends that popular culture is a means of instruction, a way to spur us all to our common ideals. Larry counters that popular culture must, if it wants to be seen, speak to the lowest common denominator among us, and speak from the people’s subconscious desires. Balki asks whether this only normalizes–
Nah, j/k, none of that happens. This scene is three minutes long and chores and sneaking into the movies are the only ideas they can manage to come up with. The only joke worth mentioning is Balki’s comment that they should just put more legs on Bart if that’s what kids want. Balki wants a “sweet” strip, but does he really think that’s going to hold its own against:
–a depressed kid who is targeted, physically and spiritually, by the world around him, and his dog who doesn’t have the good sense to sleep inside his doghouse?
–a child whose ADHD and visual and auditory hallucinations of a tiger go undiagnosed?
–an Englishman whose only escape from his physically violent wife is to drown his sorrows every night at the pub?
–a brutal depiction of the American armed forces where soldiers are regularly beaten by their superiors and commanding officers sexually harass their secretaries?
–a man who fails to find companionship because his cat does nothing but eat and shit constantly?
–a hellish noir landscape where the only vocation open to the physically deformed is to commit as much crime as they can before a hatchet-faced detective guns them down?
They’ve already got a fine concept in the strip that Balki showed Larry: a sheep who is trying to live as a human but finds himself less than able to adapt to their city. Dimitri is Balki. Balki is his own best friend.
Larry fires Balki from the strip; Balki quits; Larry leaves the room. I feel I need to apologize here, because the very act of writing out what occurs in this scene gives the false impression that anything actually occurs. It’s just two men hanging out on the couch barely able to get upset during the argument they’re having. Thank god comics themselves never reached that nadir of comedic storytelling, right?
At the Chicago Chronicle, Larry sits at his desk, flatly refusing to use a pencil and eraser, have the sheep less than five yards away, or try drawing the doll’s over-simplified silhouette from any other angle.
RT (Readership Tanking) Wainwright walks in and comments that Dimitri is so well made that you can’t even see where the hole is. He tells Larry and Balki that, instead of two weeks, they now have just one day to produce a comic. Did the writers just give up this week on making plot and story fit? Before watching this episode, I was a full supporter of the practice of mining one’s own immediate experience, subconscious, and hangups and working them into what you’re writing; but if your experience boils down to “I can’t come up with anything and I’m also very bad at this” maybe it’s time to find another job.
Larry begs Balki for help; Balki refuses; we see Larry’s version of Dimitri:
That was the second of two laughs I got out of this episode. And then it’s just a rehash of the previous scene where they argue about who Dimitri should be. As plodding as this episode is, it at least finally reveals that Larry is a power bottom as he moves the drawing pad around under the pen in Balki’s hand.
Could there be a better visual metaphor for how Mark Linn-Baker has to carry this show? He’s doing everything he can to sell this scene, and I feel bad for him that he had to try so hard for such unfunny material. Larry asks why the hell Balki is so hung up on his “toy”. The music comes on, strong, meaning that Balki is going to win this argument.
Five years ago, the Balki of dreams stood at the door, unwilling to cross the threshhold for fear of the white cars rushing to crush him. He wanted to run but could not move. He has wandered far away over all the earth, captivity to captivity, his beautiful dreams changing not in tone, merely in detail. Barn doors have been replaced with street corners, but still the figures whitened in his mind unsolved: the cars threatening to crush him, Balki/Dimitri unable to cross fully to the shores of capitalism because he cannot reach the buttons granting him access. Is Dimitri, like Riva, just another fantasy that don’t come to America?
Larry, the capitalist mouthpiece on the far shore, the ruler of words, tells him what he needs to do to cross–to stand upright, perhaps, or to trick others into pressing the button for him. Balki, the freshly-minted American citizen, makes his first foray into monetizing his own experience, but quickly learns that the capitalist machine demands everything: the symbolic death of the self.
But this is one metempsychosis too many. Balki carries a real death, as Dimitri carries his own death within him. There was a real Dimitri, a sacrificial lamb who laid down his own life to save Balki’s by pushing Balki out of the way of an out-of-control oxcart. And the paper Dimitri plays out Balki’s internal struggle–will he brave the deadly traffic once again for Balki’s gain?
Seriously, though, back to Balki’s heartwarming story: Dimitri was so great, they never had to do any mulesing on him or anything. Balki took the wool from Dimitri’s fresh corpse and shoved it into a sheep doll. Then sometime around season 5 he threw that doll away and got this completely different one.
Larry finally concedes that American capitalism is big enough it can consume anything, even the idea that capitalism is bad. In fact, getting an audience by repeatedly exploiting the free work of others is kind of its favorite thing.**
Balki pretends to draw a full strip in 10 seconds with a felt-tip marker. And then we see that it’s a stripped-down version of the strip he already drew.
Oh fuck you, show! This thing has to be reproduced at about 1.5” x 7.5”! There’s maybe room for Larry to write “Dimitri” in each one of those word balloons.
–goddammit this was a room-changing episode? For all that they were essentially throw-away episodes, Full House at least nominally brought motivation and family dynamics into play whenever they needed to build a new set for someone’s room. But I think we all know enough about sitcoms to know that this is where the Cousins will work from now on since there’s already a damn drawing table there. And Perfect Strangers had every reason to believe it would be ending with this season, so forgive me trotting out the tired deck chairs/Titanic line. The show hasn’t even bothered to have the fact that the Cousins work at a newspaper drive a story in fourteen episodes, and now it’s wasted yet another opportunity because it all of a sudden needed to establish that Dimitri is the equivalent of Mother Bates. Jesus Christ, Perfect Strangers, come the fuck on.
Larry scares Balki by making him think Chester is back.
So here’s something to fill the time while the Cousins stand around and talk about the room they’re only staring at one wall of: this isn’t the only show that used this layout as an office for someone making comics. I just this past week started watching Bob, the 1992-1993 series featuring Bob Newhart as a former 1950s superhero-comic creator in the vein of Bob Kane. Bob gets hired for a gritty reboot of his character Mad Dog, and this is the AmCanTranConComCo office where he works:
I decided to start watching Bob because I wanted to see whether other a show about making comics actually bothered to show more than one piece of professional art on-screen (OF COURSE IT DOES JESUS CHRIST PERFECT STRANGERS)–
–but seeing the same office was a surprise. It’s obviously not the same pieces, but it’s the exact same layout. Perfect Strangers and Bob aired on different networks and were produced by different companies, which makes me wonder whether how many other layouts got used across sitcoms. I work in a university library, and all libraries get catalogs from companies like Demco and Brodart which offer carts and displays and desks. I have to wonder if there was a similar setup for television sets, and whether a catalog existed that producers could choose designs from, and what kind of copy they used to describe them. Jesus, it always feeds back into capitalism with me, doesn’t it?
Anyway, at least the writers are upfront this time and don’t even bother introducing us to new employees they’ll never utilize again. But Larry’s convinced again that Wainwright is about to fire them over the comic because, seriously, why bother coming up with any other type of interaction between them at this point? There is absolutely nothing at stake this week. Wainwright asked for a comic with pictures and words, and that’s what he got.
RT (Review: Terrific) Wainwright enters and says he loves the exact same Dimitri’s World joke he saw at the beginning of the episode. He especially loves the part where they didn’t just make him a Bart Simpson with four stomachs.
Balki tries to do the Dance of Joy but Larry tells him there’s still a few minutes left in the episode.
Wainwright asks if they realize that Gorpley is only there because ABC is contractually obligated to give him lines.
RT makes Balki the editor of the Sunday newspaper’s “children’s page”. I remember in the early 90s when the Olympic mascot “Whatizit” was unveiled, Atlanta news stations reported on worries that the name would result in a decline in children’s spelling skills. Balki editing anyone’s writing is far, far worse.
Balki: I’m a predator?
Wainwright: Yes, but also an editor.
oh goddammit Bronson
You know, I’m not even sure the writers showed up this week because when RT shows him his new desk, Balki misunderstands chair height. No one but Bronson would find this funny.
Larry invites everyone to his pity party, which will be held in the basement. He starts whining about how he never got a promotion, not even stopping to think that Balki’s job on another floor means he might get 10 minutes to himself on weekdays.
Wainwright gives Larry the job of editorial writer. What a logical result of a season and a half of Wainwright wanting to fire him!
There was some joke about bats that wasn’t worth mentioning but here’s a gif for it:
Gorpley rolls up and asks why it is he’s even in this room. Wainwright tells him he’s disappointed that Gorpley hasn’t been doing his job, and that he should do his job. What a ballbuster, this guy!
The way this last five minutes has played out is just painfully inept. The Cousins got to the upstairs office before Wainwright just so Larry could needlessly worry that he’d be fired, and Gorpley’s only there so he can be taken to task without having to film on two different sets back-to-back. I don’t see why we didn’t start in the basement with Gorpley, and then end up here. But I guess we wouldn’t have gotten that lovely gag about Balki having two chairs, so maybe it’s a good thing I don’t write for TV shows.
Gorpley threatens to poison the Cousins and leaves.
Balki asks “is it okay now?”. Larry looks around, unzips his fly, grabs Balki by his hair, and–
Oh, wait, no, they do the Dance of Joy.
Join me next week for “Car Tunes”!
Catchphrase count: Balki (1); Larry (0)
Boner count: Balki (0); Larry (0)
Dance of Joy running total: 22
Appearances left: Gorpley (2); Lydia (3)
*His catchphrases include: “I’m not a cow, man” and “Shear me, turn my wool into shorts, and eat them”
**Thanks, Professor M!
Larryoke Unused Countdown #21: “Funeral for a Flock/Love Lies Bleating” – Elton John