Season 7, Episode 15: Going Once, Going Twice

This episode marks the point where Perfect Strangers moved to Saturday nights.* Good job, “Missing”!

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Here we are at The Auction House, where they’re auctioning off an Estate Auction. A bunch of rich people stand around reading auction catalogs, in contrast to Balki and Larry, who roll up and instantly launch into the physical comedy.

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Balki looks into the painted vases and calls “hello” into them to see if they come with their own homunculi or if he’d have to brew his own. Balki not understanding that *rich man-type sniff* one simply does not touch the precious things is comedy that leads from characterization; the height of Myposian artisanship is Davros cups, lint paintings, and Moogli carvings, and it’s likely that every vase Balki’s ever had has been functional. It’s easy to imagine that the only thing Balki’s been cautioned not to touch is an elder shepherd who’s currently inside a feisty ram.

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I didn’t like Balki scratching the painting of Lenora Dumont in “L. Ron Doortodoor”, but now I take that back because he’s explicitly seeing if this other painting is scratch-and-sniff. And… of course he does. His Wayne Newton poster is scented.

I’ve brought up a few times that Balki–meaning Bronson–has this habit of wanting to fondle every (and I do mean every) item he encounters in a new setting. Prop comics already occupy a pretty low level of the hierarchy, and adding improv to the mix doesn’t help (believe me, I’ve tried); and neither should be 1) on a sitcom or 2) in the hands of an actor who admits what he comes up with on his own isn’t funny. But Balki doing that every week makes starting the episode in a room full of breakable valuables an instant stakes-raiser.

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Larry reminds Balki of the rules they agreed to–to not say, touch, or do anything. The show is acknowledging that Balki can’t be safely let out of doors anymore. Between this and my secret hope that Balki will talk to an old rich woman about pooping again, this episode already holds a lot of promise.

Balki starts pendaloguing.

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Larry explains that, unlike Myposian auctions for staddle, cattel and chattel, this one is for the effects of the late Howell Thurston.

Balki, would you like to tell us what happens to people’s property when they die on Mypos? Is it given away? Does it become the property of the only person who can stand the smell? Is it–

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–oh, nevermind, Balki found a lady with her tit hanging out. Bronzen Pinchot spits on the statue and rubs its leg in a preview of his imminent marriage to Mary Anne.

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Larry swiftly and expertly ties Balki’s hands together** and reiterates why they’re even there. And the sputtering, broken calliope that is now Balki’s brain pays off: if he can’t remember for more than two seconds to not touch anything, why should he remember something as complex as what this event is, and why they’re there? This is a true rarity for sitcoms, to have the explanation after arriving somewhere make sense. I’m not claiming any sort of cleverness on the part of the writers; it just works here.

Anyway, like Larry was saying, they’re here for the estate auction of Howell Thurston the Interred because RT (Revocable Trust) Wainwright asked Larry to write about it because it’s a good story. Maybe I really don’t know what an editorial writer does for a newspaper? My understanding is that editorial writers get to print their own opinions developed from years of journalistic experience, and would speak to some big social or political issue, or on some other theme in the newspaper’s reporting. Larry was promoted, and then the very next stories we get about his work are that he comes up with comic strip dialogue and writes puff pieces about how much restaurant decor one man was able to buy in a lifetime. It’s the exact same type of story he was writing four seasons ago, and I wonder if this episode was intended to fall sooner in the season. But then Larry’s been an assistant journalist for a few seasons, so nevermind.

Balki gives us the Myposian word for auction, which reads like someone thought this would be the last time they ever got to write a Myposian word: toejamikitomdickharivicivercioongoongkari.  Larry repeats it.

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Balki, from an island in a climate conducive to viticulture, does not recognize a bottle of wine and tries to drink it. When Larry reads Balki the estimated price–$20,000–Balki comments that it’s more sensible than bottled water. We sure lost that fight with capitalism, didn’t we?

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The show doesn’t even pretend any other items here matter and gets right to it: it’s a bottle of Château Lafite from 1811.

Balki: We buy our wine at 7/11.

Oh fuck you with your “horrible alcohol”! Won’t even let Larry have a drop of beer and you’re kicking back Thunderbird? Anyway Château Lafite is a real thing, and so was the year 1811. I’m so glad that this sitcom about ghosts and lasers and the pneumorestorative effects of parsley made sure to do its homework on French wineries.

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When the bidding starts, we sure are lucky that the first two bidders are sitting right next to each other in the front row, so we can establish this auction house’s procedure. Each bidder makes some small gesture–each person’s different–to indicate they have bid. Then the camera cuts to Larry tugging on Balki’s ears while getting a blowjob, running the bid up.

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I’m joking (it’s the other way around), but I really love this. When I was a kid, my dad would take me with him to auctions all the time; but these were Southern auctions. Maybe auctioneers everywhere did this, but in the South you’d get to hear someone singing the “auctioneer’s song”.

I thought it was all gibberish except for the numbers; I’m still not fully convinced it isn’t. The point is that I grew up thinking auctions were this impenetrable language that looked incredibly silly from the outside. So the show is already appealing to the understanding and sensibilities I had as a child, even without the added cartoony bonus of “rich people sure do act weird”.

And Bronson’s sense of himself as a master prop improviser finally lent itself to enhancing a story.*** Rich people have control enough to ignore itches or boogers, but Balki is so unsafe in this environment that Larry has already tied his hands up. And now we’ve learned that things are even more dangerous than we thought: Balki can cost Larry thousands without breaking a thing. The rope doesn’t stop Balki from still using his hands–

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–and that’s to the show’s discredit, but I still find it funny. Hell, one of them had to do it, either demonstratively or by accident. I think it’s okay for the show to ignore one thing it set up if it’s busy exploring another. Larry is proud to know the auction rules because he “once used the men’s room at Sotheby’s”.

…are you stealing my jokes, show?

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Anyway, in this room full of silent people, the auctioneer can’t hear two men talking four yards away, even when Larry starts talking to him directly.  Larry has to pay $21,000 for the bottle from Thirsty Howell’s private reserve.

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When they get back home, I’m sure you’re all surprised to find out it takes the Cousins a full six minutes to get the wine bottle safely across the room. So this is as good a time as any to talk about my relationship with this show’s physical comedy.

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When I was very young, I was told that I was a perfectionist. I think this was in elementary school art class. Maybe that’s true–I also believe that kids internalize these messages–because here I am, 90% of the way through this show, with a growing feeling that I have to get this right. It’s a deep-seated thing, because the adult me knows that any interpretation, any criticism, is down to how well you can argue it, and how many pieces of the text you pull in. (I’m sure it’s more than that, but I only ever took one literature class in college.)

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Right’s the wrong word, so let’s say I want to be thorough. I don’t want to miss anything. I want to feel that I have “mastered” the review blog. On the one hand, that’s impossible. Having commenters proves to me that there’s always something I’ll miss–

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–like, how have I gone 12 episodes not asking why there’s not a giant bush on the porch in the external shots? There’s always more to criticize, always more to praise.

There’s no rubric, and even a rubric wouldn’t account for the wide variability of sitcom faults, or writers’ voices, so… forget it, it’s impossible. On the other hand: if writing a review blog for three years isn’t mastery, then forget the whole concept. There’s room for every type of reviewing, be it blogs or podcasts or that one Tumblr tracking the fashions on The Cosby Show.****

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I’m getting away from the point, which is: I’m just me, with my own unique set of experience and points of reference. The point is also: I picked a show that has physical comedy as a central aspect, and I’ve been generally critical of it from the get-go. I’d like to not simply say that one sequence “works” or that another doesn’t. That’s claiming expertise I don’t have, and I hope that the subsequent “for me” is as implied as I intend.

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But maybe what I can do–like I said, there’s another four or five minutes here of bottle-throwing–is try to look back at some physical comedy scenes and see if I can figure out what I think works, and what doesn’t, and why.

In retrospect, season 1 was actually pretty light on it. It was almost entirely one of the cousins grabbing the other from behind, so really, I should be grateful that the show so willingly handed me the one joke that’s gotten me through 135 episodes.

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Season 2 was… well, a lot more grabbing each other from behind, but also Larry sitting in Balki’s lap a lot. But it also introduced some basic physical comedy elements like running around, fighting over things and throwing things. The ones I loved featured some type of extreme: the exaggerated “walking bush” gag in “The Rent Strike” and the exhausted Cousins struggling together to hang up the phone in “Hunks Like Us”. What I hated were the ones that happened in the wrong locations or with the wrong people. Why not try out skis at the ski lodge? And why not play tag with the kid, if that’s what the whole episode is about?  The physical comedy wasn’t the main aspect of the show, and generally didn’t take up a lot of space relative to the story.

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Season 3 is when, I think, things began to go badly. Perfect Strangers, in the midst of trying to find a new identity through a new workplace, had pretty much already decided that physical comedy was its main feature. Sometimes the show managed to find a story that worked on its own, and led to physical comedy: see “Karate Kids”, “Better Shop Around”, “Pipe Dreams”, and “The Defiant Guys”. But mostly it would jam a phone booth into an open hallway, make the cousins fight over a remote control, have one or the other walk around weird, run around in a corporate office, or save a suicidal man through the power of slapstick. Singing and dancing is a real thing that people do when they bake; exploding is not something pastries do if you stir the batter quickly.

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Is this the division, then, what’s realistic–what follows–or what’s not? Maybe. And maybe more is whether the slapstick derives from the plot, or if it felt like the episode was developed the other way around. Season 4’s “The Lottery” feels reverse-engineered from “throwing books around”. Balki’s bowling technique and the car episode can go on a date to Chef Robert’s House of Poopoo and order the sampler.  And I swear to God I’ve been living a moral life for the past couple of years, because I’m sure “The Piano” is what would be playing on repeat in my own personal hell.

But was putting them both in a sleeping bag logical? Did Larry pretending to be the scarecrow while hanging on a biker bar wall come out of anywhere but left field? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for Balki to have won tickets for the game show he watches every day? But I liked each one of those, especially the Wizard of Oz reference; it feels like someone, maybe even Bronson, got to that point in the script (or during a rehearsal) and said “Hey, you know what this reminds me of?” “Games People Play” was reverse-engineered, but it felt like the writers wrote the premise first and had fun building the mechanics of it second. It offered surprises, especially in terms of the demands involved.

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Season 5 had nice touches, both small (Balki wiping an injured Larry’s mouth) and large (HONGI BONGI feels like an inflation of a first-draft joke). (Excuse me while I call my therapist to talk about “Almost Live From Chicago” for the twentieth time.) Season 6 inflated the ridiculous aspects so far that it either negatively impacted the story (“The Sunshine Boys”) or they had to walk it back and call it a dream (“Call Me Indestructible”). Season 6 added two innovations: to have Balki and Larry fight over who holds every little thing, or who stands where; and to give their antics an audience.

The former is really the minimum you can do to call something “physical comedy” and it hasn’t led to anything story- or otherwise. But the latter is transformative: it took the show’s own preoccupations and said “this is just who the Cousins are”. The writers are telling us that all that happened because the Cousins couldn’t be any other way; they exist in a cloud of slapstick. Them slipping on the marbles last week didn’t register to me as anything more than “yeah, they’re that dumb now”: just something that had to happen because marbles were there.

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What have I learned? Of them? Of me? There’s some broad strokes of commonality: the physical scenes that follow from the story or build on something already present work for me. The ones that feel shoehorned in, or replace story possibilities, rarely do. But for much of the rest, I think it’s down to my taste and attention.

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I was ready to be mean and petty about how long this scene is, or about how $21,000 doesn’t even get you a gift bag, but I just wanted to pause and try to decide if I was being unnecessarily critical about the baked-in aspects of this show. I assigned myself the task of crapping on this show week-to-week, but I’d like to think I’m the type of person who gives credit where it’s due.

(Also, this gave me the same problem “The Gazebo” did: this kind of comedy doesn’t lend itself well to play-by-play reviewing. I had to talk about something!)

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So the bit doesn’t work: it takes up time that could have been given over to more scenes with Jennifer and Mary Anne, since Larry’s goal is to hide it until the next auction, and Balki’s goal is to make him feel terrible for lying. But the real problem–the one specific to this episode–is that even after seeing Balki trip and fall, roll the bottle across the table, try to open it with his mouth–he keeps letting Balki hold it. To me, this is analogous to the episode of ALF where Willie gives ALF his wristwatch, knowing it would be destroyed. We opened with Balki’s hands tied together. We know Larry knows better.

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But the bit works: Well, for one, the bottle isn’t destroyed. For another, the sequence comes out of the story. If the episode was reverse-engineered from this scene, it’s the rare case where that approach has felt seamless. It’s creative: the setup that Balki may have attention issues lets him turn on a dime and forget the value of the bottle, or that he’s supposed to be carrying it.

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And finally: it’s masterful. I’m willing to believe that this whole scene was done in one take. Larry throws the bottle behind him. Balki throws it while falling. Larry slides a pillow under the coffee table to catch it.

And at the very end, Mark Linn-Baker appears to improvise and get a real laugh out of Bronson. Perfect Strangers is showing off the mastery of its own practice, honed over six years. It’s flexing.

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Speaking of showing off, let’s get back to my jokes, by far the most important thing here. Here’s what they discussed during the past six minutes: there are sacred straws on Mypos; the show steals my joke about how Jennifer is okay with Larry’s idiocy; and Brother Billy’s wedding present to Larry was a re-gifted bottle of crème de menthe (his other seven siblings kicked him in the nuts). Larry keeps that bottle in his liquor cabinet.

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How in the fermenting fuck is Balki okay with a liquor cabinet? Sitcom logic snaps back into place–Larry hides the wine in what will be the first place his wife looks–and so does Larry’s symbol: he hides the key in a bowl on the mantelpiece.

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All it takes is the mere mention of the word “psychic” for Balki to launch into non-sequiturs about the Mypos Fertilizer Festival, featuring such games as “pin the fly on the dungheap”, which is further evidence that Myposians learned English completely aurally. Balki says he hopes the psychic will tell him who the Queen of the festival will be so he can jerk off to her lithograph before anyone else.

At the Perfect Strange High House in the Mist, we get the shittiest rain effect I have ever seen.

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I guess they must be close to building a whole second house out there in the backyard by now, because Jennifer and Mary Anne (Sagittarius) got from car door to house door without getting a single drop of rain on them.

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Mary Anne hopes that Balki will enjoy a meal made with regular old cow muscle simmered in burgundy, and responds Amelia Bedeliacally to Jennifer’s suggestion that the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach; and further goes on to say that emotion resides in the limbic system, the parietal lobe decodes information about taste, and ultimately that decision-making is a joint effort between the striatum (in the basal ganglia) and the prefrontal cortex. Mary Anne forgot to buy wine, though.

Anyway, Jennifer lets Mary Anne know just how dumb she is for questioning proverbs. She’s so dumb she thinks Pinot noir was a movie about a wooden detective brought to life by a fairy, that Blanc de Blancs is how cartoon characters swear, and that malolactic was the Irish guy in her high school math class.

The rain is offered as the excuse for why they don’t just go back to the store to buy wine, and I get that you need to explain why they’d go to the liquor cabinet, but they also say the Cousins will be home soon. Isn’t the time constraint a good enough reason? If the show couldn’t scrape together a good effect for the external shot, and the rain didn’t get the women or the grocery bags wet, why is it an obstacle? Why put it in at all?

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Jennifer goes to the liquor cabinet and–

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–NO–

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–quit stealing my jokes, show! It either means you’re funny or I’m not! Mary Anne (Soothsayeress) also sees the swarthy maiden Machalla, in a gown of onionskin, crowned with nightsoil, resplendent.

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Later, the men make masticatory vocalizations. Pardon my Hulu piracy, but you can see that not a bit of that is beef burgundy.

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Balki can’t even praise the food without qualification (he basically says “it’s not pig”), and it’s been so long since Larry had normal food he has to ask what it is.****

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When they find out, the Cousins run screaming from the room, which is the best thing you can do when a good friend tries a new recipe. (Don’t ever let anyone tell you that “risk-taking” is a masculine trait.)

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In the next scene, they’re throwing up and straining the wine back into the bottle.

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Nah, j/k Larry shouts at Mary Anne and no one tells him to shut up. And you all thought the show would get worse in Season 7!

Larry shouts at Balki and Balki responds in the most hurtful way he can: by improvising in a Munchkin voice.

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The women ended up borrowing a corkscrew–and more wine–from the Deus ex Finleys next door.

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Jennifer is acting like she’s found Larry out because he freaked over the wine in the food. To her credit she was willing to not use the wine when she found it, but it’s implied that she set up this situation to see how Larry would react if he thought the bottle was gone. It’s the same problem in “Bachelor Party”: Melanie Wilson can squint her eyes all she wants, but it’s not going to make up for the lack of explanatory dialogue the script gives her.

Does Jennifer know that she lives in a sitcom, and anything hidden has a whole backstory? Or was Williams-Sonoma out of aprons that said “Kiss the cook and tell her why in the world you have a wine bottle in the cabinet expressly made for such things”?

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There sure is a lot of falling forward and falling backward this season, isn’t there? Larry apologizes with grave husbandwords for spending $21,000. Balki acts like he had nothing to do with it and Mary Anne says oops upside his head, she says oops upside his head.

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Art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences. The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring. Whoever wrote this must have a deep one indeed, for they realize that if Socrates leave his house today he will find the sage seated on his doorstep. If Judas go forth tonight it is to Judas his steps will tend. The Cousins walk through themselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, criminals, farmers, kings, charlatans, wives, bachelors-in-love. But always meeting themselves. And so they return to The Auction House, where every night’s Estate Auction night, to find themselves again: every single person who was there before felt the same agenbite of inwit for their purchases.

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This might be the first time I’ve seen Perfect Strangers recap the plot for you 18 minutes in: Larry must get $20,000 for the wine or Jennifer will kill him.

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The auctioneer calls out, going up by thousands, a reverse countdown to the end of the episode.

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Larry bids on his own auction. I’m pretty sure shill bidding is illegal, but the first 8,000 results on Google are about eBay and I have to finish this review this week.

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The show tries to force some last minute stakes by having Balki bid $22,000 and then turn to Larry and all but say “hey, turns out I’m an idiot and you shouldn’t have brought me again.” It’s kind of unnecessary in the face of the much better joke of Balki tickling the other bidder’s neck with a piece of hay or whatever it is rich people stick in their vases.

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It also delights me that the auctioneer refuses to listen when the old man protests that he didn’t bid. His girlfriend promises to fingerponder nightly his hole and he lets the $24,000 bid ride.

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See? I told you the Cousins would make money if they just stayed still for three seconds!

During the bidding for the next item (a snuff box), Balki runs around the room tickling everybody and running the price up. This auctioneer has got to be the slickest capitalist in the entire run of the show by pretending to not notice what’s going on.

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This is a great joke to go out on, a Hey Judean fade-out of the episode as a whole, cementing the idea that rich people are just as doomed by their behavior as the Cousins, an inverse of the “audience” theme this season. That, in their commitment to decorum and civility and controlled behavior, they’re punished for being unwilling to call someone out for breaking the rules. I would go on to say how poignant this is, considering our current political situation and everything, but even with a six-minute physical comedy scene, this show has another minute left. Even when it finds a conclusion it can not stop Balki getting one more joke.

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Larry hangs his coat. Remember this. This is important.

Larry tells the women they didn’t make much money and Balki wasted it anyway.

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The Wizard of Oz reference in the biker bar worked; Balki finding a new way to draw attention to himself doesn’t. I don’t know, y’all. I guess sometimes jokes are funny, and sometimes they’re not.

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Join me next week for “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby”. Let them parturiate!

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Catchphrase count: Balki (0); Larry (1)

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

Unused Larryoke countdown #16: “Didn’t I (Throw Your Wine This Time)” – The Delfonics

*This is the most boring footnote I’ve ever written. There was a whole lot of deck-chair arranging in ABC’s 1991-1992 season. Who’s The Boss? got bumped from Tuesdays to Saturdays to begin its eighth and final season in Sept. 1991. Growing Pains went from Wednesdays to Saturdays three episodes into its final season. Capitol Critters premiered in Jan. 1991 and got tossed around the schedule before landing on Saturday nights as well, and it and Perfect Strangers ended up alongside the other two on Feb. 1, 1992. Schedule-hopping can mean swifter death for niche-y shows like Capitol Critters, but that year killed off both Growing Boss and Who’s That Pain?. And all three of the sitcoms had multi-part stories at the end of their seasons, each of which could function as series finales. Perfect Strangers’s Nielsen ratings were cut almost in half thanks to the move. It’s impossible to know everything that resulted in three out of four shows on the same night ending at the close of the season (all three were long in the tooth; and NBC and Fox were killing in the ratings with Golden Girls and Cops, respectively), but it’s fascinating to me that of those three, Perfect Strangers got another shot. I mean, it’s Bronson Pinchot versus Katherine Helmond and Kirk Cameron. Baffling.

**This is the most redundant footnote I’ve written for this blog. The cousins are gay.

***This is the cringiest footnote I’ve written for this blog. Isn’t intimate partner violence hilarious?

***This is the saddest footnote I’ve written for this blog. That Tumblr died too soon, and I have no idea if I can ever enjoy anything about that show anymore anyway.

****An observation I’ve missed despite years of reviewing this show: how have none of them gotten trich-or-treatinosis from eating so much pig? Happy Halloween, y’all!

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6 thoughts on “Season 7, Episode 15: Going Once, Going Twice

  1. I wonder if sitcom writers of the 70s/80s/90s realize what a disservice they have done to the auction industry; convincing everyone below a certain class in the viewing audience that if you accidentally sneeze at an auction you’ll automatically be out $20,000.

    Like

    • I didn’t even think to wonder whether other shows had done this! It looks like this story pops up quite a bit, and I wonder now if, on other shows, it meshed as well as it does here with season 7’s concept of the Cousins.

      Like

  2. I would probably be okay with one “big” physical comedy episode per season. They can twist each other’s nuts all they like in regular episodes, but making it the core focus of just one each year would have been nice, and I think this episode is exactly the way to do it.

    The physical comedy here springs perfectly from the plot. Maybe the writers envisioned the cousins moving the wine across the room first and built a story around that, but I’d be just as willing to believe they thought of the wine story first and the physical comedy grew naturally out of it. That would make sense to me, whereas something like The Gazebo or Piano Ticklers could only have come from laziness.

    I agree with you when you say the physical stuff was truly impressive here, too. I guess I don’t find it all that funny when someone gets hit in the head or whatever, but the timing necessary to get all of this business with the bottle correct makes this something I can enjoy on a level beyond slapstick. There’s craftsmanship there. And it’s not just a matter of being in the right place at the right time…it’s the matter of just barely being there in time, so the bottle is actually in constant danger of being dropped.

    I liked this one a lot, and I definitely did not expect to.

    >Join me next week for “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby”.

    Nah, I’m good.

    Like

  3. I really enjoyed this one too. An enjoyable story with physical comedy that worked – and was impressive to boot.

    Bronson really seems to have internalized Laurel… at about the 13:45 mark he seems to briefly slip into his “befuddled” mannerisms from The Gazebo.

    Like

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