Before we get to the episode, a plug:
Philip J Reed’s Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash! is happening on Saturday, December 8 at 7PM Eastern! I’ve attended the past four Bash!es and they’re always the highlight of my year. We’ll all gather around our screens to watch 7 terrible old TV Christmas specials and make fun of them. It’s just like reading this blog, except you actually have to watch the stuff and make your own jokes!
And like always, the Bash! will be collecting donations for the Trevor Project, which offers suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth. You can RSVP on Facebook, or just look for details at noiselesschatter.com.
I hope to see you there!
We open at the Chronicle, where the Brinks truck reminds us that we are operating not only in a capitalist system, but one embedded in a culture in which it has been well-established that the average person cannot be trusted to not steal another’s money.
If you don’t like the reviews where I stick my tongue in my cheek and analyze the Cousins smacking each other around, skip this one. If you don’t like the sound of “Piano Movers Redux”, skip this one. I don’t get to skip this one, but I offer you this gift.
Remember how they built that new office set so we’d get stories about, you know, anything related to the Cousins’ new jobs?
HAHA NAH J/K
A couple of guys in coveralls tell RT (Recumbent Toiler) Wainwright that the couch he ordered will not fit in the elevator, even after its (the elevator’s) vagina-like anticipatory increase in interior size*. RT (Rearranged Turf) is upset, having planned his new 16th-floor office decor around this very couch. Note the rich man openly declaring how much of his business’s money he’s spent on his own comfort; he that loves silver will not be satisfied by silver.
Larry and Balki enter, and Larry instantly sees the opportunity to impress his boss by doing something entirely outside of his own job description: he’ll get the couch upstairs with TLC (Tender Larry Care).
Already I feel like this is going to be a throwaway plot, but there’s good lines so far. Larry claims that he worked for the “Eight Garibaldi Brothers” moving company in his youth, and was so good they fired four brothers. One of the gruff delivery guys tells Balki “don’t play with my dolly”.
On the other hand, RT (Run-down Trope) Wainwright tells Larry that he’ll fire him if he doesn’t get the couch upstairs. Since Wainwright is a third-generation copy of Mr. Spacely, we know he’ll never fire Larry, so it’s enough to make me wonder if the man isn’t just toying with Larry’s emotional state, setting up “chance” encounters like this.
Knowing that they’ll make more money when they have to come back to pick up the destroyed couch, and again when they deliver a second couch, the Pelican Delivery Company (almost certainly a furtive front for that fowl foe, the Penguin) leave.
Larry admits that he didn’t work for a moving company, and then says he’s never moved furniture in his life.
Will the lies never end, Larry?
Balki expresses doubt about getting this long pink object into the tiny brown box, and Larry says it’s all about the “magic angle”.
Do the Cousins have a good laugh about boners? No, but I invite you to step outside your workspace, take a moment in the restroom, the stairwell, the front portico of your office building, or even silently in the halls of your own soul, and have a good laugh yourself.
Balki starts talking about getting Beela the Goat Girl to suck on his ankles. You regret coming back now, don’t you?
Balki and Larry argue over which end of the couch each gets, and Larry tells Balki that if he can show off his biceps and triceps all season, he can lift a damn couch.
Balki starts demanding his rights as an American citizen (whom can vote), one of which is making unreasonable demands about taking things other people have claimed for themselves. He cries about it, this true American, until Cousin Larry relents and switches places.
This is our first indication that something deeper is going on with Cousin Larry. He sees Balki’s claim–that they have, personality-wise, switched places–and utilizes a long-dormant catchphrase to re-establish dominance. He urges Balki to swing it–both around, and on in–telling us in no uncertain terms that Appleton is Appleton: A is A.
(Also: I’m glad this catchphrase reappeared, because I can rest easy that Larry will be there to coach Balki on having sex with Mary Anne in a few weeks.)
Larry squashes Balki against the back wall of the elevator car; what you’re seeing is actual pain from Bronson, as this is entirely the wrong fetish.
Balki may never have mastery over electric devices such as elevators, but he does possess an innate understanding of physics such that, in many cases, pulling is a better force than pushing. He demonstrates this understanding to his cousin.
Larry drops the couch on Balki’s foot–and there you go, that worked for him.
Balki suggests they tell Wainwright they give up and let him deal with the couch. Larry begins to cry, citing a need to prove that he’s not an idiot. Mark Linn-Baker can usually sell just about anything Larry does, but even if he were putting energy into his line reading here, he still couldn’t convince me Cousin Larry feels any stakes at all here.
You could make a narrow argument–that Wainwright letting Larry tackle this at all means he’s saying Larry is better utilized here than in his real job of keeping Balki’s feet out of their coworker’s faces–but it’s just RT (Reckless Treatment) Wainwright not acting like a human.
Balki’s next line is the first notes of this episode’s symphony of symbols:
Balki: If we could just get rid of the ceiling…
It would be easy enough to say that the elevator symbolizes upward mobility in modern America, and that the couch figures as the Sisyphean struggle of the modern American man to rise through the ranks of the post-industrial world, and leave it at that. It’s what a Season 2-era-third-location-hangup Casey might say, but lucky for you I’ve developed as a sitcom reviewer and can offer you the full range of meaning on display in this episode.
Let’s start with the elevator itself. This episode taking place in a basement elevator is necessary to an understanding of the whole story’s interplay of symbols. I guess you could say that the setting is… really deep 😎
Aside from tying this late episode into earlier chapters in the Cousins’ story and not-so-subtly letting us know that Larry has not advanced as far as he thought, the elevator as a modern invention is (ahem) laden with its own meaning.
Elisha Otis famously demonstrated his safety elevator in 1854** in New York, to demonstrate the reliability of his design to crowds who likely had seen first-hand the aloof metal cruelty of some of the Industrial Revolution’s novelties. All developments undergo decades of refinement (Otis’s design had no doors) and, sometimes, adoption along geographic vectors. It would eventually be the case that new buildings–offices, hotels, hospitals, apartment buildings–would start incorporating newer generations of elevators into their design.
It’s almost not metaphorical to say that the elevator turned building design on its head. Previous to its widespread adoption, rooms on higher floors of hotels were for the poor and the staff; no respected businessman was expected to take the stairs. But at the Waldorf-Astoria–opened in 1931–the most expensive floors were on the 30th floor and up.
Larry and Balki may be in the basement–which was never the hangout of the wealthy–but Perfect Strangers is reminding us that the Chicago Chronicle, est. 1915, is a member of this modern “upside-down” world. The elevator, an immediate symbol of technology’s triumph over hierarchy, is being used to force the common man into servitude to his uncaring masters.¹
Balki’s statement to Larry prompts him to realize that they could lower the elevator to the as-yet-unheard of second basement. What kind of Dante’s Inferno is this place? How many sooty cousins are down there turning carbon black into printing ink?
As Larry pushes the couch out of the elevator, Balki pretends to swim on top. I would have laughed at this as a kid.
From a storytelling perspective, I have no clue why Larry and Balki get in and go up to the third floor and then come back down; who called it up?; who called it down?*** Is there even more going on in this episode, symbolically?
As the frustrated orthodontist said to her most annoying patient: brace yourself.
“The Elevator” is the only episode credited to George Tricker, and my first glimmer of what was going on here came when I looked at his other writing credits. He wrote an episode of Joanie Loves Chachi titled “The Left Shoe of Selfishness”; an episode of Too Close for Comfort titled “Atlas Hugged”; and two episodes of Welcome Back, Kotter: “The Horshack Manifesto” and “What’s Ayn is Yours”.
“The Elevator” is an Objectivist farce, and Cousin Larry a failed Randian hero.
One of the core tenets of Rand’s philosophy is the “morality of rational self-interest”. Every action is done by an entity, and those actions are determined by the identities of the entities. Identities are free to think, or to not think. This episode features a number of characters not thinking when working towards their own self-interest. The delivery men, and Wainwright, are not rational: they act in terms of what they can have, not what they can do or be, both choosing respite from work.
Cousin Larry is the more thorough figure. He already knows his own strengths, and has an understanding of what he can offer the world through exercising them. Yet he still identifies happiness as something he can get from others: he wants meaningless accolades from an uninterested master. He knows to seek happiness, but possesses neither the internal tools nor external feedback system to be able to recognize his own contributions to the world.
Like Howard Roark before him, Larry Appleton says that “nothing’s going to stop him now”, but does not trust anything to fall in line behind him. And thus he uses force to compel the unreasoning Balki. John Galt swore to never ask another life to live for his sake; generally Larry “asks” by simply not refusing Balki’s allegiance, but here he actively exploits his cousin. Further, Larry ties up his own self-interest with that of others, living his life for their sake (see illustration below).
And Larry doesn’t even exploit Balki well: one of them needs to be outside the elevator on the 15th floor, to hold it there, while the other unloads the couch on the 16th.
Again, the question: does Larry do himself more harm by not rationally acting in his own self-interest, or is it caused by others like RT (Rationally Typhlotic) Wainwright, for not nudging Larry back on course to the job he’s paid to do?
I could go on, but I trust that you can all extend this lens to understand Larry’s relationship with his wife, or even why the Cousins are gay, all on your own.
Anyway, enough subtext, let’s get back to the text, where Balki has somehow learned to utilize metaphor that he would misunderstand if someone else said it (“this has disaster written all over it”).
In a further misapplication of self-interest, neither cousin has thought of the others who might call the elevator, which would have told them to put “Out of Order” signs on all the other floors. They just hop right in on top of the elevator and stand around like dumbasses.
From a storytelling perspective, I have no clue why they both got on top of the car and then realized one of them needed to press the button for the 15th floor.
Oh, no, wait, I forgot: this show doesn’t care about story. It gives Balki the opportunity to disagree about one more goddam thing: which of them will descend inside to press the button. They both do.
Even more evidence that Chicago is a world of identities acting irrationally towards their own misunderstanding of self-interest:
The Redding Elevator Company stress-tester does not put out-of-order signs on all floors, nor does Wainwright let anyone in the building know that the elevator was being worked on that day. This is downright dangerous for both of them to do. What if, oh, idunno, the Chronicle blew up, and the entire sports department was stuck between the fourth and fifth floors?
I do want to point out my favorite joke of the episode: the Redding Elevator Company being a reference to Elisha Otis’s company.
Okay, back to complaining: Repairman radios Gus to “see how much punishment this baby can take”. I’m not about to go sift through OSHA standards, but I’m pretty certain that you don’t ensure the ongoing safe operation of an elevator by pushing it well past its usual functions and then immediately leaving.
The “oh no” music comes on, as in “oh no! Most elevators have an alarm button or a phone inside! Whatever shall they do?”
Kudos to the show, though, for actually having a spatial sense and reversing which side of the ceiling that hole is in. Makes up for how the Hulu rips let me see that they didn’t smooth out that concrete-colored fabric outside the little window.
Balki is surprised that, for once, a Larry plan is working, and says he may have to “eat his worms”. At this point, I have to wonder if, after 7 years of Balki confusing near-homonyms, the writers were trying to (AHEM) elevate the joke into something more, because Balki means what he says here. It’s easy to imagine that, with just a few hundred people and a jerry-rigged radio that only picked up English broadcats, Mypos built its whole society out of the rubble of 1950s bomb testing.
Also, Myposians being force-fed worms when their doubts are proven wrong is surprisingly a way of explaining why Balki is so trusting any time Larry’s like “No, Balki, Jennifer’s ex wants us to shoot him, it’s how we do things in America”.
One more major complaint and then let’s talk about the good stuff. Again, no idea how elevators work, but Mr. Repairman here is talking to someone over the walkie-talkie as though that person is in another part of the building and possibly also working controls. It’s all just for the audience’s sake, but I have to wonder if the show could have gotten away with the repairman talking to himself, or not talking at all.
The rest of the episode isn’t worth detailing, because it’s what you expect. The elevator goes U.P.: up, and it goes down too. Multiple times. The end.
But “The Elevator” does accomplish a couple of things, things which surprise me, because they’re things the show has spent three years convincing me it didn’t know how to do.
For one, it’s the prototypical man-against-machine physical comedy sequence that I’ve been talking about ever since Season 3’s “Pipe Dreams”. The hapless “hero” must interact with some system whose convolutions or rules make it incomprehensible. Once one rule is overcome, another presents a new challenge. “Pipe Dreams” works well enough because most of us have never had to deal with a plumbing system and wouldn’t even know what all we’d need to learn. In Season 4’s “Car Wars”, the Cousins repair a car–only to learn that they’ve messed up the transmission in ways that are impossible. In Season 6’s “Great Balls of Fire”, the show wanted one of these sequences so badly that it pretended fire wasn’t bound by the laws of physics.
These things rely on the viewer not understanding how the systems work, and that’s why they feel like kiddie fare. The only adult comedy I can think of that fits into this category is the complex lessons Larry David unsuccessfully transfers across social situations in Curb Your Enthusiasm.
I know Perfect Strangers has no surprises for me along those lines. If this episode had bothered to have Gorpley or Lydia complicate plans by calling the elevator, I would have shit myself and taken a photo to prove it.
But it does give the audience a situation that is surmountable. I have the luxury of spending a whole week to review this episode, but the home audience is trying to figure out both how they would go about transporting the couch upstairs, as well as anticipating how it will go wrong, at roughly the same speed as Larry. A repairman isn’t the most likely complication, but he is the episode’s way of saying “we’re about to shake the Cousins around a lot”, which lets the audience both imagine how it will go, and see close to what they’d pictured. This episode keeps pace with the audience instead of talking down to it, like it usually does.
The Cousins fall, it messes their hair up, and they scream. Gee, if only there were some medium through which sound could travel…
The other thing this episode accomplishes is it manages to hit upon a scenario that actually feels like it deserves to be compared to Laurel and Hardy.
Let’s be honest: the content, and the content alone, of “Piano Movers” and “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” is enough to render them two of the worst episodes in the whole 8 years of the show. But once you bring in the fact that Perfect Strangers was stealing Laurel and Hardy ideas, the only questions I can ask are “couldn’t they come up with their own shit?” and “if not, couldn’t they at least have improved on it?” And I’m open to arguments that “The Gazebo” was made at least partially out of love, and not wholly as a stunt****, but it still steals an existing film and strips out all of the clever parts.
I could be overlooking some Laurel & Hardy film that extensively used an elevator, but this episode feels like it could have been one, had elevators been quite this standardized in the 1930s. The issues I have with “The Elevator”–the repairman explaining what’s going on, the stakes involved, Balki talking–could all be improved by making this a silent short. I don’t know if the writers didn’t realize they had a better story for the homage episode, or if Larry Harmon insisted “The Gazebo” be based on an existing movie.
All that said–I’m finding it incredibly hard to like this episode. But like so many other episodes this season, I can still appreciate what it offers. It’s impossible to know, but I think I might like this one if I hadn’t been subjected to such subpar Laurel and Hardy ripoffs three times already, and twice this season alone. I wish we had gotten something like this far sooner. It would have fit nicely along some season 4 episodes, and the best compliment I can think of to give it is that it’s what “Piano Movers” should have been in the first place.
Maybe it’s because I never was truly on board with the physical comedy aspects of the show in the first place. Do you think I’m being unfair, Balki?
Yeah, maybe I am an RT (Reviewer Tired), and maybe I’m putting unfair stakes on these final episodes. We’ve slogged through a lot of shit on this blog, and having to watch Mama of the bountiful bosoms and Baby Balki shitting his diaper and the Cousins sharing a fucking coat doesn’t help that feeling abate. Every remaining episode is one more chance for Perfect Strangers to achieve something, giving every already-terrible choice the added flavor of disappointment. It also makes the successes that more sweet. Some payoffs take so long to reach that it makes you wonder whether the journey was worth it (learn from my mistakes, kids: skip all the Friday the 13th movies and just watch Freddy vs. Jason).
Judged against most physical-comedy-heavy episodes, and Season 7 in particular, “The Elevator” is a success. But, as with any Chronicle episode that doesn’t do much with the coworkers or actual work situations, an incomplete success.
Jeez, if you’re not into pretensions of hard-hitting textual exegesis, there’s not a lot of jokes in this review, huh?
Balki, who has never once criticized the viewing of horror films for the negativity they inflict on the psyche, no, not even ONCE, NEVER–
–says that the elevator must be possessed, based on the situation’s similarities to the plot of Christine, and that they’re headed straight for Hell. All it takes for Larry to agree with him is for the elevator to drop all the way to the bottom of the shaft.
Let’s see what we’ve got here for jokes…
Subtle continuation of “upside-down” elevator theme as the Cousins attribute spiritual forces to what’s essentially a glorified pulley, whereas the advent of simple machines (among other things like animal husbandry) was the beginning of the end of belief in supernatural control over accidents, that is, if a machine breaks, you can attribute it to shoddy parts or construction and not to divine ire? Nah, I’ve done enough of that mess this week.
Wordplay about the Cousins going rapidly up and down a shaft, resulting in a There’s Something About Larry hairstyle? Yeah, there we go.
Somehow the repairman’s job doesn’t involve actually looking into the elevator shaft to see what these tests are doing to it, or else he’d see the couch or hear Larry banging on the walls.
Balki starts caressing and speaking soothing words to the elevator. Larry looks at his watch and realizes it’s time to remember there’s an emergency call box.
These guys will fight over every. fucking. thing. Balki wants to cancel all of his magazine subscriptions:
Hustler for 11 Men
Ladies’ Shoe Journal
Vague (purchased for Mary Anne)
Seventeen (the subscription was only $8, he thought he was getting a good deal)
Better Troughs & Hogpens
Perfect Stranger Rick
Redbook (he’s confused by this one, every month)
Mr. Redding E. Repair hears them fighting, tells Gus he thinks it’s the cables, doesn’t open the door to check if maybe the cables are damaged, and sends the elevator all the way to the top.
Somehow the top of the elevator shaft isn’t a mess of cables and pulleys and the couch gets shoved through the ceiling. At least I can say some of these shots are daring for Perfect Strangers; I assume much of this episode must have been shown to the audience already filmed?
The repairman tells an unconcerned-about-where-the-fuck-his-couch-went RT (Rope Tension) Wainwright that the elevator’s all good to go, and leaves.
You know how I’ve been going on most of this season about how the Cousins’ antics are enhanced by giving them an in-world audience? In this case, it’s downright frightening for the elevator doors to open on Larry silently strangling Balki.
Scaring a family in “Wild Turkey” got to remain cartoony because it was manic and Larry got his hand caught up a turkey’s ass. Here, Wainwright witnesses one of his employees murdering a man and just shakes his head wearily.
Later, at home–
Cousin Larry is trying to figure out how to pay for his half of the cost of Wainwright’s couch, and has decided on buying a series of car radios, insuring each one, and staging their theft. Balki reveals that, every time Larry says
he puts a dollar into the Cousin Larry App-le-ton Emergency Relief Fund.
The show tries to have it both ways with its final joke: there’s only three dollars and some Junior Mints in the jar, but there’s also a photograph of a villa Balki purchased.
Considering that seven episodes this season have at least tangentially dealt with the Cousins’ tight finances, this joke makes me very angry!
Join me next week for “The Play’s the Thing”, where Larry and Balki get jobs as gravediggers.
Catchphrase count: Balki (2); Larry (0)
Boner count: Balki (0); Larry (0)
Unused Larryoke countdown #13: “Ain’t No Sofa Long Enough” – Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
*compared to other episodes; see “The Break In”
**1992-1854=138; this is the 138th episode
***Seriously, what the fuck
****Do not send these arguments my way.
1. Given the reader’s certain complete and total understanding of all aspects of the communication discussion as laid out supra in “The Gazebo”, the author wishes to briefly point out that the elevator’s placement to the immediate right of the vintage US Mail mailbox is no doubt, that is in the author’s mind, intended, that is the juxtaposition of the two, intended to signal the viewer that the elevator is a communication channel, and that the elevator’s promise is that of transforming the sender into the message itself. Given that understanding, the author wishes only to point this out so that the range of implications in regards to noise, positive, negative, or otherwise, arising from such a situation, may be more readily grasped by the reader.