I’m not going to be doing many posts after we hit the final episode. Conceptually, if I did a standalone Season 8 reportage post, where’s the stopping point? We could easily go on until the current day, and I just don’t have the time to do that deep a dive into Google and YouTube.
Which, by the way, from a librarian’s perspective, have both fucked so much with the algorithms determining which results they return that any effort towards completion of coverage is abortive. You honestly can’t trust Google or YouTube to take your search terms and search parameters exactly as you’ve set them any longer.
Perfect Strangers in the cultural memory is a bit outside the scope of the blog anyway, and a bit too overwhelmingly amorphous at this point. I think the pop-culture mining of shows like Family Guy, Robot Chicken, and The Simpsons are largely responsible for part of this. I remember an early Family Guy episode that, to me, was the beginning of pop-culture-mastery boasting. It was a scene in “Death is a Bitch” (March 2000), where Peter scolds some teens for not having seen Airport ‘75. The joke was on Peter for not keeping up with the times, but there was a second layer: the writers, by playing with the age gap between themselves and their demographic, were establishing a precedent. Being able to get every joke on Family Guy meant being as familiar with a wide breadth of pop culture as they were. The follow-up punchline (another character cites more entries from actress Karen Black’s film career) was a clear statement that the show would be unrepentant in these kinds of jokes. If viewers couldn’t keep up, it was their own fault. Knowing more than someone else about obscure media wasn’t nerdy: it was cool.
So for the next twenty years, lots of people (including me*, I’m doing better now, thanks) rose to the challenge of being pop-culture completists. And when a show runs twenty or thirty years, it eventually will run out of jokes to make about high-profile retro touchstones like Kool-Aid Man or Bill Cosby or Sonic the Hedgehog, and it will start grabbing whatever else it can find. Lest this become a full-blown essay, I’ll cite three examples to make the point. 2011/2018’s Ready Player One features a futuristic game that can only be won through mastery of (*cough* male-dominated *cough*) pop culture knowledge. Guillermo del Toro’s “couch gag” sequence for a 2013 episode of The Simpsons really could have been written by any serious horror fan. It’s just three minutes of drawing as many horror characters as possible in the Simpsons style. I mean–
–congratulations, you named all the Phantoms. By the end, it’s not even trying for jokes. “Here’s all the ones we didn’t have time to show killing Homer one by one.”
Media have moved from poking fun at the stupider aspects of our shared consumerist history to being worthy of derision themselves. One last f’rinstance: a 1990s-themed Garbage Pail Kids card series–released just over a week ago–has one card featuring Madballs.
Which were released in the 1980s, the 2000s, and the 2010s. The completionist drive has finally outpaced the knowledge drive.
Not to say that pop culture itself is the final word on the legacy of its earlier generations, but I’d argue it does heavily influence people’s thinking.
Anyway, before I go off on any more tangents, the point is that it’s no longer the case that just the cream of the past gets saved and brought back. When everything merits a reference, nothing is more important than anything else. It’s a short-circuiting of nostalgia. Who cares how good these things are, or whether anyone enjoyed them, or what impact they’ve had?
It very nearly approximates Season 1 Balki’s approach to American popular culture.
In information science, there’s a method of sussing out which published academic literature is most important. Citation analysis looks at just that: who has cited a book or article, how many times it has been cited, and over what time period. Rather than necessarily telling you the quality of any published work, it at the very least shows what impact it had. (Even bad articles–think Andrew Wakefield’s retracted vaccine/autism study–get cited like crazy.) If something from the 1960s is still being cited today, it’s seminal. If something was published only a year ago and has hundreds of citations, it’s groundbreaking or controversial. I inherited my dad’s 1960s/1970s MAD Magazine collection as a kid, and it was pretty clear to me what was popular to a wide audience. Parodies of Peanuts, or shows like The Mod Squad; nothing for Big Ben Bolt, or Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp. I suspect we may have hit a point where pop culture citation analysis would be less useful.
So what impact has Perfect Strangers had? How fondly is it remembered? Well, I’m writing this and maybe 50 of you are reading it; but past that we’d have to hack into Hulu’s computers to find out how it compares to Cheers or Golden Girls. Which, speaking of Hulu, here’s a wonderful illustration of how everything’s available, with very few road signs to guide today’s young emigrants to the past:
I’ll finally bring it back around to this week’s actual topic: whether audiences thought Perfect Strangers was ending with season 7 or season 8, there doesn’t seem to be a wealth of extant reporting on either. Some of that must come down to season 8 being announced and then shelved for a year, but I have to guess that other shows got a little more promotional buzz when they were ending. Not only that, but our actors are particularly reticent about something they likely had every reason to believe was ending very soon.
As always, my source for these articles and videos is Linda Kay’s Perfect Strangers website, which I’m honestly considering offering to take over for her and keep paying the rent to keep it live. And not even for the purposes of this blog. Even though a completed document–like this blog will soon be–invites deep-diving and pick-and-choosing, I doubt sitcom review blogs get that many people doing that after their completion. There’s a kind of “momentness” about the whole effort that I decided finally to embrace, and which let me be as experimental as I wanted. Just like mine probably will be, her site is a time capsule not only of a show, but of a period of Internet history and a period of fandom where those efforts were being made.
Anyway since that’s been my source so far, and endlessly worthwhile, I’m just going to give you my sense of the articles & videos she curated. It’s bound to be incomplete, but it’s far more than I would find anywhere else. Wherever they end, I end. If they go too far ahead and talk about Mark’s or Bronson’s other work, I’ll probably leave them out.
So, let’s start with Summer 1991 (after the end of Season 6) and see what we get.
Rebeca Arthur/Melanie Wilson
Rebeca and Melanie appeared separately on The Chuck Woolery Show, which lasted less than four months in late 1991. There’s another aspect of citation analysis for you: something’s importance can be determined by who is citing it. If I mention Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp, who the fuck cares? But if Family Guy mentions it (they haven’t), then more than one person okayed the joke. That Melanie and Rebeca–during a season of Perfect Strangers where they were both getting married and enjoyed marginally-increased roles–were no longer landing spots on A.M. Los Angeles might be indicative of something.
In Melanie’s appearance in October 1991, it’s the exact same stories about her dad’s acting career and her marriage to Joe the contractor. The only extra piece of the story we get here is that Ernie Sabella introduced them. The extent of Melanie talking about Perfect Strangers is that even though she’s blonde, they don’t give her dumb lines, making her “by television standards… the smart one… the TV brunette.”
Rebeca’s apperance in December 1991 is just as short, if more enjoyable. Someone (an audience member?) asks her if blonde is her natural color, and Rebeca is more graceful than the person deserved. She laughs the question off with a quick “Of course it is. I paid for it.”
There’s a bit of the interview missing, but we get the tail end of an exchange about Melanie’s husband Joe:
Rebeca: We have a deal: if she dies, I get him and her line on the show.
Chuck: Her line?
It’s always nice to have my jokes validated, but it’s even better that viewers got such nice continuity across episodes of The Chuck Woolery Show.
When Rebeca was one of the hosts for a 1992 United Cerebral Palsy telethon, the main host asks her how Perfect Strangers is going and Rebeca just says “wonderful”. I’m making too much of this, right? She wasn’t there to talk about the show. But still.
Did any of you ever have celebrities come to your school to talk about their work? Melanie–per this article from Lansdale, Pennsylvania–did quite a bit of it, to talk about acting in general and answer kids’ questions. When I was in middle school, a local radio DJ came on career day to talk about how he had to train to lose his accent so he could do silly voices. I found it so interesting I went on to become a university librarian! Celebrities really do make a difference, folks.
Rebeca’s appearance on Attitudes in February 1992 (the link will tell you March, but even Lindas make mistakes) is much more substantial, and really the only discussion of the show we get from either actress this time around.
When asked to talk about Mary Anne being a dumb blonde, Rebeca makes the distinction that Mary Anne is a naive blonde. It’s something she’s brought up before, but here she claims that any nuance to her character gets cut out in post, leaving only confusing scenes of others giving her “long takes” when she says something smart. (They also not only ask her whether she’s a real blonde, but to tell some dumb blonde jokes**.)
When asked what it’s like to work with Mark Linn-Baker:
Oh, he’s adorable. He’ll just be standing there, so sweet and quiet, and he’ll watch Bronson bouncing all around, cause Bronson’ll be off on something, and making us all laugh. And then all of the sudden, Mark will just come in with something hysterical. It’s sort of like working in a kindergarten.
And lastly, Rebeca offers some interesting behind-the-scenes intel. The signature Mary Anne/Balki kiss where she–in Rebeca’s words–”whips him over” was criticized by Bronson’s girlfriend Wren. Not because they were actually kissing and Wren was jealous; Wren was giving them notes on their acting, claiming that it was too overdone. Christ, where do people who don’t act get off on thinking they have anything to say?
And it’s the charming Bobbye from Canoga Park up next in her bid to argue the Cousins’ legacy:
Fun fact: they got that giant kitchen for stories about Balki cooking (can someone remind me which episodes those were in?), and Bronson and Mark demanded the bar counter so they could choke and pull each other over it.
I can’t find any narrative to pull out of articles on Perfect Strangers in general other than to reiterate that it simply wasn’t being talked about as much. A lot of what Linda has saved are pieces from Entertainment Tonight. I was going to put this down to ABC doing cross-promotion, but the little bit of searching I’m doing for ET indicates it was aired on each of the Big 3 (in different regions of the country?). But then, that show’s coverage was going to be more complete than others’ (they cite everything). They got soundbites for Wayne Newton (“I was on it”, essentially), and from Mark and Bronson for the taping of the final episode. Mark puts a good spin on it, that it’s good to know when they’ll end, and equal time is given to mentioning what they’ll be doing in the future. Mark was working on a movie (Me and Veronica), Bronson on The Trouble With Larry.
The eighth season was filmed in July and August of 1992, and was supposed to be aired during the 1992/1993 season. At some point its episode order was reduced from 13 to 6. There’s a week lapse between the tapings of the third and fourth episodes of season 8, so if I had to guess, and I did sign up for this blog, so I do have to guess, I’d say that ABC execs looked at those three episodes and told everybody to end it. It would make sense that moving an ending up would slow things down by a week.
The stated reason for the reduced order, per a USA Today article was to give Camp Wilder a chance in its timeslot. Unfortunately that explanantion doesn’t completely hold water, because Camp Wilder was airing on Friday nights in 1992. That had been Perfect Strangers’s timeslot, but not since January of 1992; perhaps it was to move back to Friday nights? But if that USA Today article can be trusted, season 8 was supposed to start airing April 9, 1993.
Linda, there for each of the tapings right up until the end, started a letter-writing campaign during that seven-week period. She claims the episodes were being held onto as a mid-season replacement. Season 8 episode 3 “Lethal Weapon” was taped July 29, episode 4 “The Baby Quiz” August 12. Linda’s campaign flyers are dated August 10.
Firefly it wudn’t.
So let’s track the timeline here:
July 1992: Perfect Strangers has either a 13- or 6-episode order, films three episodes
? 1992: Episode order is shortened to 6
August 1992: Final three episodes taped
September 1992: Camp Wilder premieres
February 1993: Camp Wilder is cancelled before airing all episodes, Where I Live and Getting By brought in as late-season replacements for Friday night.
April 1993: Perfect Strangers slated to air, pushed back again.
July 1993: Season 8 premieres
Other than Entertainment Weekly making the first nationally-published Perfect Strangers gay joke, the only other relevant reporting at this level is on the Miller-Boyett team. They disagreed on whether Perfect Strangers or The Hogan Family is the quintessential MB sitcom. Bad news, boys: you’re both wrong! A 1991 blurb in The Hollywood Reporter, which reads as though every word was hand-selected by Miller-Boyett’s PR team, implies that other shows were cheating when they did stories on controversial topics:
“They don’t always get the press given to producers intent on ‘crossing the line,’ but America loves their work.”
I have to go to the restroom. Have fun with this puzzle while I’m gone.
So let me admit to a little bit of sloppiness: when I write the “how I spent” posts, I look at IMDB; when I write the reportage posts, I look at Linda’s site. I *should* have covered Bronson co-hosting the 1991 Houston Thanksgiving Day Parade there, but it actually fits in well here.
Remember Rebeca commenting on Bronson making them (the actors) laugh? I don’t know what you’d call this–ability? fault?–but Bronson has a habit to turn on a dime and switch which audience he’s playing to.
We don’t even have to dig that far back into Perfect Strangers to find an example. In “…Or Get Off the Pot”, Bronson improvs a little too long, makes Melanie nearly break, makes Melanie lose the moment where her scripted line would have gone, and then doesn’t let her finish her attempt at getting things back on track. There have been plenty of times when he would do it to Mark, and they had established a tight enough rapport (read: had more than just two scenes with just the two of them per season) that Mark could give as well as he got. It wasn’t intrusive there, because the two of them fucking around is what drew an audience.
In this Thanksgiving Day Parade, Bronson is making jokes to his co-hosts (Lisa Trapani and Don Nelson) that he never lets the audience in on. He repeatedly (and I’m talking like five callbacks over an hour) brings up that his hair isn’t moving. I can fill in the blanks that he and the other two got some heavy hairspray since they would be out in the wind for a couple of hours, but jeez, at least say hairspray once and leave it alone after one callback. He also refers to a Cabbage Patch Kid doll as reminding him of Mark Linn-Baker. How many of you knew him by name back then?
I’m all for people asking questions to learn something they don’t know (DID I MENTION I’M A LIBRARIAN?). But I guess I expect celebrities to do this out of sight, and not into a live microphone while someone is about to sing a song? Maybe three seconds into the instrumental intro to Aaron Neville’s cover of “Everybody Plays the Fool”, Bronson thinks Neville isn’t going to sing, and makes sure viewers all across SE Texas knew this.
I’m being just a tetch unfair to someone who simply didn’t keep up with pop music (Bronson also, when a dance group performs to “2 Legit to Quit”, misrecognizes the song: “Oh, ‘Do the Jerk’!”), but this is part of a pattern. Bear with me.
Bronson did a few appearances to promote Blame it on the Bellboy. Man, thank God this is the last time I have to watch an A.M. Los Angeles interview (this from from July 1991).
Steve Edwards and Tawny Little (Bronson goes straight for grabbing her thighs) have the energy of used motel towels. Bronson kind of rotely refers to the film as a “big hit comedy”, which Edwards immediately calls him out on, the movie’s release still eight months off. Bronson (seeming a little turned off, here) lets slip some cynicism:
Bronson: Well, they’re all big hit comedies (laughing) they’re all big hit comedies until they come out. And then, you know… then some of them are huge, and some of them are… are not huge.
It’s not long before he’s casting his line out into the audience, looking for receptive persons to play to. He calls out a shy woman who doesn’t want any attention on her, which results in her discomfort being saved for us to look at now, and for you to show your grandkids when this blog becomes part of our shared popular mythology.
He mentions preparing for a stage show called Love Letters, which he was doing with Amanda Plummer. Look at those CVs!
I’m really mean, aren’t I?
Bronson appeared on Attitudes to promote Bellboy, maybe a month after Rebeca was on. At the end of the A.M. Los Angeles interview, and at the beginning of this one, he admits to things making him nervous or frightened (like being interviewed, or some new bit of physical comedy on PS); so I have to imagine that’s what’s driving his behavior here. They barely mention the film before he starts playing with the gaffer’s tape he brought out to make a joke; and before the hosts can ask him any questions he wants to launch directly into the Q&A portion with the audience.
And even then he can’t pay attention to what’s going on. Maybe he was just having an off day, but he gets off track quickly while answering questions. He gets distracted by people in the audience, listening to their questions without putting the microphone near their faces. The hosts have to bump him back on track to answer the actual mic’ed questions he’s being asked, and to physically guide him to audience members. The host who’s more on top of shepherding him gets rewarded by him trying to tickle her ear with the felt-tipped microphone.
Which is worse, y’all: scolding the audience or trying to play to every single audience member one by one?
It’s not an exaggeration to say he cannot focus for more than four seconds in this interview. I mean, acting off-script is the type of bit he chose, but you’d kind of expect him to get good at it, right? Robin Williams will likely be our model for a comedian who could go off on wild flights of association and build a manic, frenzied show all on his own–will likely be this for decades before someone fills his shoes. I have to imagine Bronson had this type of personality as a goal, but I’m not convinced “admirable” and “impossible” are interchangeable. At least he’s not taking off his sh–
OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE BRONNIE
NOT IN A CHILDREN’S MAGAZINE GOD
Again, all for asking questions, but Bronson had been doing TV interviews for almost 8 years at this point. It strains belief that he doesn’t know what it means when a crewperson flashes a WRAP sign at the Attitude hosts. Maybe he hasn’t seen that particular signal that it’s time to go to commercial, but Bronson drawing attention to it reads as him wanting control, wanting to decide when the segment ends.
Psychology sidebar: And that’s the other side of the constantly-seeking-an-audience coin. Bronson assumes he has the skills to run the show. This is some variant of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Bronson deserves the success he’s had (I mean that in both ways), but he overreaches when estimating his own skills. Early on in this series of posts, we learned that Mark would work on the details of the physical comedy they’d do on the show; and them claiming authorship of lots of it has been regular enough, and fully believable. But Mark Linn-Baker’s career at this point was being a stage director. I have to wonder if Bronson thought he could do it too.
In the Season 6 Reportage post, the “rag mags” treated Bronson like a diva. They may have more truth to them than Linda would like to think. Here’s Bronson in a 2009 AV Club interview (thanks commenter Justin for sending this one my way):
And then toward the end of the show, you know, just being really brittle… The girl that played my girlfriend came in one day and was in a snotty mood, and I stopped and said, “You can get a stand-in to rehearse her scenes, and she can come in later.” I regret that, but there was crap like that.
So maybe Bronson felt like he could–or should?–run things. But hell, even his still-photographer girlfriend was qualified enough to have her performance notes for a nationally-televised sitcom taken seriously, so who am I to comment?
By the way, critics hated Blame it on the Bellboy. They really hated it. Even one that liked it still admitted it was dumb and obvious and featured muted performances.
Bob McCabe of Academy Magazine is my new hero: “Laugh? Well, someone did, but he was promptly stoned to death by the rest of the audience.”
Speaking of things enjoyed better while stoned, guess who’s back.
There was a five-hour process to get Bronson in the makeup and outfit, which included a vest that had chilled water running through tubes so he wouldn’t pass out under the 16lb-breasts.
The five-hour process is only one part of what makes his appearance as Mama on The Arsenio Hall Show impressive. Mama’s characterization on Perfect Strangers was just VERY NICE a repeated VERY NICE blow VERY NICE to the head, but here, Bronson’s actually trying to be in disguise.
It was timed very well, as “Citizenship Part 1” had not aired yet, meaning the studio and home audiences had not seem him dressed as Mama yet. Mama (here “Bibi”***) came along with two other old lady “friends”, Didi and Gigi. She has a full conversation with Arsenio, talking about how she watches him every night, criticizing him for making dirty jokes, doing a poor imitation of Arsenio’s signature “woof woof”, handing him random food out of her purse. She makes reference to Bronson’s previous appearance on Rick Dees alongside Tiffany, but that’s really the only misstep.**** On the whole, it’s the most thought-out and well-executed bit I’ve seen Bronson do outside of Perfect Strangers; and I’d be willing to believe Bronson came up with every joke. Bronson’s just playing cute old ethnic woman, and it works. He’s playing directly to Arsenio, but within parameters of a bit that was designed for the audience.
When he later sits down with Arsenio, out of his makeup, he’s again a little tone deaf, a little cynical. He cracks a joke about Perfect Strangers only having three viewers left, and a guy in the audience calls out a single syllable that signifies “oh come on, that’s mean”. Bronson says he was trying to be humble, and I’ll partially buy that. He knows from the inside that the show’s golden years are behind him and that the audience was shrinking–but made the honest mistake of forgetting that his fans–the ones who “get it”–would follow him here and maybe feel insulted.
One last article about Bronson, just to note that he was actively trying to find other things to do after Perfect Strangers. A June 1991 article in The Hollywood Reporter discusses his success in commercials for Domino’s, Videotel, Pepsi, and Maxwell House, and implies that his positive testing with young audiences made it a foregone conclusion that a planned children’s show for CBS would be a hit.
Mark Linn-Baker has been the toughest nut to crack in these reportage posts. He regularly limited himself to a set number of talking points. Melanie does the same thing, but with her, some of it is that she likely resigned herself long ago to having always to go through the whole story about her dad. With Mark, I sometimes got the sense he was just uncomfortable being there. He’d mumble and evade, giving a particular brand of non-answer. In the Season 5 Reportage post, we got this exchange on A.M. Los Angeles:
Host: Any new twists and turns in the plotline we should know about Perfect Strangers before we go?
Mark Linn-Baker: Just, uh… same stuff, physical comedy, Balki and I continue to work together, and hopefully it’s funny.
But here towards the end, he opens up just a little bit to tell us what he thought about the series in its early days. On a March 1992 appearance on The Dennis Miller Show, he admits to not having a sense that the show would last so long until they’d done it for about three years. In a Los Angeles TV Times article in July 1992, he’s even more candid. For both Season 1 and 2, he didn’t believe that they would be picked up again. (Put this together with how, when we looked at reportage in the wake of Season 2, many critics cited Mark as the true-but-understated comedic draw of the show. This is the other side of the Dunning-Kruger effect: moderately-competent people sometimes don’t realize how much more competent than others they are.)
Lest we read too much into Mark’s doubts, in that same article (published right before they began taping Season 8), Mark argues that critics missed the point of the show. He argues that its success stemmed from the fact that no one else then was doing “major physical comedy”, and that they were doing it as well as I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners. I’d argue the same for certain episodes; “Games People Play” and “Going Once, Going Twice” come instantly to mind.
Would you believe that doing armchair psychology across a quarter-century, with no psychology degree, based on like maybe 2 hours total of one man’s life in highly-visible the-network-and-let’s-not-forget-your-career-are-depending-on-you situations, is really difficult?
Based on everything we’ve seen of Mark in this series of posts–which sure isn’t much–it would be a real stretch to make some conclusion on how Mark felt about Perfect Strangers.
But he damn sure seems to feel differently about it than he does about his theater work. He’s relatively animated on Dennis Miller, more so when he talks about a restaurant he bought than about Perfect Strangers.
With the caveat that people grow, shed their insecurities, and deepen relationships with others over time, Mark seems almost a completely different person in Regis & Kathie Lee appearances in 1994 and 1996.
In the former, he’s plugging the play Laughter on the 23rd Floor, which he did with Nathan Lane; in the latter, the play A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, alongside Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella. He’s actively joking with them, sharing stories, doing voices, obviously excited to be helping his close friend Lewis Black with the pilot for Harvey Berger.
Mark would demur when asked about stories from the Perfect Strangers set, saying simply that no backstage conflict made the topic too boring for talkshows. Seeing Mark talk about his theater work, it’s hard not to wonder if that also meant that there were no happy or amusing stories from the show either.
I’m left with resonance with my opening points about untangling the complexities of citations. What impact did Perfect Strangers have on contemporary and current audiences? You tell me.
What impact did Perfect Strangers have on its actors?
For Rebeca, enjoying watching Bronson and Mark goof around. For Melanie, finding love and marriage (twice!) through connections with her colleagues. For Bronson, some stress and disappointment, but some fun too. For Mark, feelings of accomplishment and mastery, a lack of stress.
I refuse to believe that’s all. But it’s what got saved, filtered through Linda’s abilities to capture it, and then through my sense of relevancy and–let’s be honest–my humor agenda.
Join me next week for–probably–a review of Season 7.
*In my going-on-two-years-hiatused webcomic, I had planned a type of pop-culture-character apocalypse; in the time between my initial idea (circa 2006) and now, it’s been done several times. *sigh*
**The context indicates that dumb blonde jokes were a newish thing then. Does that hold up for anyone’s memory?
***Bronson refers to “Bibi” later in the appearance as Mama Bartokomous’s maiden name (???)
****It puts me in mind of Alan Partridge in I’m Alan Partridge thinking that farmers who get up at 4 in the morning watched (and remember) a catchphrase from his previous celebrity talkshow. Thanks for visiting the endnotes once again for reference to things you haven’t seen.