Perfect Strangers has been Reviewed

Goodbye, everybody.

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It’s been a long trip, longer than I had guessed when I set out to review this 150-episode sitcom, but I’m finally home. Time to turn off the chrome-plated megaphone, remove inelastic clothing, drink something to settle my stomach, maybe enjoy television again.

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I’ve been writing about Perfect Strangers for almost four years now; is there anything more I could possibly say about it?

Obviously. I mean, you can see there’s a post here. What a dumb question. Moving on.

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Like many sitcoms, Perfect Strangers was created with good intentions. I mean, it ended with its lead ordering the other actors off the set, but it began well enough. Its concept: hope for better international relations on the individual level.

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The United States was at the tail end of the “Second Cold War”, and there was a very real fear that Ronald Reagan would get the country nuked before the end of his first term. Thomas L. Miller and Robert L. Boyett, inspired by the global atmosphere at the 1984 Summer Olympics, wanted to get a foreigner-focussed sitcom going while the feeling was fresh. Bronson Pinchot, certain he was the next comedy superstar, held out until he realized no better offers were coming in.

And Bronson added to the formula; and when Mark Linn-Baker came on board, the sitcom changed further.

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Perfect Strangers seemed to be constantly undergoing changes. It changed first–and quickly–from a talky, intellectual-for-sitcoms-at-least show to one focussed on slapstick. It changed from one workplace to another. When it was well-placed to tell stories about crazy retail customers, and again when it was primed to offer workplace dynamics, it chose again and again to place cousins Balki Bartokomous and Larry Appleton into every possible other setting where two men could slap each other. Towards its end, it shifted settings again, to a four-person home, but again rarely asked what might happen there that couldn’t elsewhere. And, finally, it changed from a sitcom to a one-man showcase for an actor who, feeling trapped, demanded the show give him more.

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It’s a happy accident that ABC stumbled into, getting two actors who were willing to try out physical comedy, albeit each for their own reason. Leaning heavily in that direction resonated with some not inconsiderable share of television audiences, and wasn’t a bad choice. But the show could never quite find the right packaging for a 1980s version of Laurel & Hardy. It’s possible that this–a sitcom that regularly had no interest in its setting or side characters–is the best packaging that physical comedy conceit could ever get.

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I’ve been reading about the social model of disability lately. The idea is that–for those persons we would identify as having disabilities–the problem lies not with the person with a disability, but with the society around them. If everyone had a visual impairment, the world would function perfectly for those with visual impairments. If every sitcom were like Perfect Strangers, there would be nothing wrong with it.

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Doing critical analysis of a sitcom like this assumes, if not some perfect form, then a package of criteria to judge it against. Does it tell a story well? Does it have a unique voice? Does it provide a practical lesson? Does it know who its characters are? Does it do something surprising with those dynamics? Does it live up to prevailing mores? Is it progressive? Are the people involved in its production jerks or nice people? Is it funny?

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Perfect Strangers has some pervasive critical flaws, sins of both omission and commission. It had successes and failures for every one of those criteria. An interesting side effect of this type of reviewing endeavor, by the way, is how impressive those successes feel once the failures have been mapped out.

Hell, this type of review blog wouldn’t be half so interesting if those types of flaws weren’t so deeply embedded. Nor would it be interesting if it had the exact same flaws as all the others.

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Full House’s and ALF’s problems were from different directions. The former underwent network tinkering and became the whitest upper-middle-class sitcom ever. The latter existed under the tyranny of a puppeteer who thought the process of sitcom creation should revolve around his every whim. Perfect Strangers had both of those issues at different points in its lifespan; but mainly it could never find the balance between slapstick and story. Oh and also it refused to give the actresses any lines. And three minutes of every episode was spent pausing for the audience to laugh. And…

*ahem*

I’ve said all that already.

What these sitcoms share, though, is that they were often–maybe entirely–the diametrical opposite of what they wanted audiences to think they were. Full House wanted to portray a loving family that talked their way through tricky family dynamics, but couldn’t see how little that family cared for anyone else’s feelings. ALF theorized that a space alien would be most able to critique American culture, overlooking how poorly that might read when the alien spends most of his time terrorizing a family.

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Perfect Strangers, at the end of every episode, told us that it was about two mismatched people helping each other to do their best. Two men overcoming their disagreements through the power of family and friendship. From my perspective, either cousin would have been justified in throwing the other out, if not having them arrested, for how terrible they were to each other. The more the show became a cartoon–where reality might contain curing a horse with parsley, or Larry barking at Balki in front of their wives–the more incongruent those final synth-clarinet-scored lesson scenes became.

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But… Perfect Strangers did have another focus, and this is where it came closest to a worthwhile message. For all that Balki Bartokomous got most of the laughs for mispronouncing “laundry” every week, more often than not the stories were about Larry Appleton. Larry Appleton believed in the strength of his own ambition. He likely sensed that no one at his high school or college was as intelligent as he was, and saw the big city as his next step. But once he got there… he fretted. He hesitated. He lied about his abilities. He wondered would the pretty girls be just as dismissive as they were in Chicago. He needed constant reassurance and didn’t know how to get it.

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Over and over, Larry had to be told by his friends and bosses that he was fine, that he was lovable, that he was valued, that he was skillful.

And those final-scene conversations–doing a post-mortem on how something went, or coming clean to someone else about how you were feeling, making amends for wrongs done–are important. They’ve been immensely crucial to my well-being over the years. Perfect Strangers wasn’t in the best position to show us how, exactly, those types of conversations might go (cf. “The Break In” and “The Break Up” for bad examples vs. “The Defiant Guys” for a good one), but it never once questioned that they were necessary.

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And today, when both (some) conservatives and (some) progressives are willing to ditch civil conversation in an attempt to win the “culture wars”, it’s a message that still has some relevance.

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When I started this blog, I was still hanging onto the joke about how sitcom characters seemed to have to learn the same lesson over and over, forever, or at least for eight seasons. But I’ve lived just long enough to get some little perspective on my own negative patterns, enough to see how so many of them can be drifted back to without work. Larry Appleton is more realistic in retrospect than I gave the show credit for while I was in the midst of reviewing it.

And Balki… *sigh* Maybe it was better after all that the writers gave up on trying to write a nuanced immigrant character, given how often that meant infantilizing him or trafficking in stereotypes of the sleazy Greek male. Bronson left that largely behind, too, the “foreign” aspects becoming shorthand (mispronounce, misinterpret any homonym to be about livestock, speak gibberish) while he put his attention on more important things like Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions. Bronson Pinchot deserves a share of the credit for creating Balki Bartokomous, the happy-go-lucky, sanctimonious dodo who sang and danced and cried and misunderstood and didn’t misunderstand after all. I can’t imagine there have been many viably long-term live-action roles for a character who shifts gears so constantly. Balki was the best thing that ever happened to Bronson’s career, and–speaking of the indomitability of personality–something that he tried to recreate again and again without regard to whether it was appropriate to the context. Perfect Strangers was a good enough container for it, though it was 8 years after the show’s end that Bronson found another role–Shakespeare’s Autolycus–that deliberately called for something like that type of character. If he was any more famous, he’d likely be doing the same shtick today.

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It’s also fair to say that the #MeToo movement would have outed Bronson’s sexual behavior if he was any more famous. Let’s not forget that.

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So I guess I’m the third person to finish one of these retrospective long-form critical-analysis-and-weiner-jokes sitcom review blogs? (If there’s a completed one I’m not aware of, link me to it, please.) Judging by the other two–Billy Superstar’s Full House Reviewed and Philip J Reed’s ALF Reviews–the final post is a place to reflect on the project itself. To talk about the inspiration, the process, and how much it has transformed my life for the better.

The first is easy: Philip’s ALF reviews put me at serious risk of splitting my sides (no shit: I was healing from a kidney transplant and had more staples on my abdomen than a year of Playboy bunnies), and I, with my Larrylike, with my Bronsonlike ego, decided I was up to the challenge. As his project was inspired by Full House Reviewed, I guess I’m Billy Superstar’s spiritual grandchild.

The second is easy, too, but it’s bound up with the third, which I’m not sure I can attest to in quite the same way.

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You see, I’m very much a Larry Appleton. I hesitate. I wonder if my creative work will go unseen as always. Does it have a unique voice? Does it do something surprising? Is it progressive? Am I a jerk? Is it funny? I need constant reassurance and don’t know how to get it.

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My situation has changed over the course of this blog. I’ve gone from a bad job, to being unemployed, to being in a better job with less pay. I’ve gained friends, I’ve lost friends. Lots of things in my life are better now than they were in 2015. Some feel worse.

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I feel like I’m the same old Larry Appleton… but I know I’m not. Every experience is transformative, and I very much believe that most experiences are preparatory for our next ones, if we let them be. I’ve also learned not to take my immediate feelings on something as the final word. Remember how much Bronson hated Perfect Strangers towards the end, but later felt more warmly about it?

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I–meaning me right this minute–may not be the best person to tell you all of what this blog has done for me. You see, there’s this thing called

Psychology sidebar: the arrival fallacy. Journey towards any goal, and–unless that goal is, like, building a machine that pumps endless endorphins through your system–when you get there, you’re likely to feel a little let down if you told yourself along the way that it would make you happy, get you a mate, a raise, fame, or clear up your acne.  Like it or not, we are very emotional creatures, and we are prone to let our emotions tell us what we think. No endorphin rush = “I must not be happy”. (Ever hear stories where someone–usually elderly–starts believing that their spouse has been replaced by an impostor? It’s not that they don’t recognize the spouse–it’s that the neuro-level links between that recognition and the emotions tied to the person have degraded. They don’t feel positive emotions when they see their spouse, thus it must not be that person.) Let’s posit for the moment that happiness is the result of assessment, and not an endorphin rush.

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A blog like this is a lot of work, especially if you push yourself to be funny. Many times, I feared that the next week, the next post, the next scene, would finally be the one where I realized the joke well had run dry. I mean, how many different ways can you describe an overgrown Jewish cherub and a shaved Yakov Smirnoff? But every time, I found my way through the thickets of episodes I thought I had nothing to say about. It was a practice (aren’t I so open, so vulnerable, so progressive to tell you all this) in overcoming the fears about my own abilities. Like young King David, I’ve killed the lion, and I’ve killed the bear; the next Philistine of a project I take on is surmountable too.

Did I worry that those achievements would still go unseen, or undeciphered? Sure, all the damn time. Today, even. It’s on my schedule for tomorrow at 2.

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But if I’m looking for endorphins, here’s the thing: I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun writing as I have making this blog. When I went off on the Daisyworld tangent in “The Gift of the Mypiot”, when I was pasting STOP over Balki’s face, when Mary Anne was so dumb she thought a postlude was a drugs-by-mail service, when footnotes, when Larryoke countdown #41: “Now I’m Peeling” (Irene Cara), when I NAME DIMITRI I TIME CROSS IT STREET, when (Sagittarius), when —, when Frank jumped…

I never questioned it then. I was immersed. I was in Csikszentmihalyi’s state of flow, and all my itches were being scratched.

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When it was difficult, it was character-building; when it was easy it was sublime.

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This is the first large creative project I’ve finished. And, having learned the terrain of my own psyche, its pitfalls and peaks, I’m more prepared for the next one. Any success is sweeter with those pitfalls mapped out. Expecting a finished product to clear my complexion etc., may be a trap; but lucky for me the process is so much fun. It’s worth some level of stress.

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While we’re on the subject of emotions, I feel a huge sense of loss now. There’s something to be said, I believe, for choosing a constant in your life, and making a religious practice out of it, even if everything else is in flux.  When I was on dialysis for three and a half years, my webcomic provided that constant.

When I started this blog, I had hopes that rewatching Perfect Strangers could, as Proust’s madeleine, transport me back to the feelings of my childhood. It didn’t, but in the meantime the show became meaningful to me in different ways. It became that constant.

And now it’s gone.

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When I finished my Season 8 Reviewed post, it hit me hard: I will never, ever do this again. For almost four years, there was always another episode. I’ll never get to see Larry and Balki do anything else, and I’ll never get to make fun of them for it. I can watch any of the episodes, at any time (spoiler: I won’t), but I can never write about them like this again. “Game Brain” was a momentary salve on the wound, one last hit, but… we’re done now. We’ll never talk again.

And I’m sad. I miss you already, show.

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But for a good long while, you–you reading–and I had this. We both showed up week after week to find out what I thought about this show. We were both dedicated to seeing this thing through. Your comments illuminated aspects of episodes I had never considered. You cracked jokes with me at Larryoke. But even if we were never in two-way communication about it, Perfect Strangers connected us. There were some weeks where having an audience kept me writing. If I made this blog for you, you made this blog for me as well.

I hope that you enjoyed it, and more than that–

As I hang my sitcom-reviewing coat–

That you’ll remember this.

This was important.

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Game Brain – an unproduced Season 1 script

We’re one week away from this blog’s scheduled demolition, and it dawned on me that I should probably write about this before that so I don’t confuse anyone. I consider myself incredibly lucky to be able to share with you something that I discovered earlier this year. I come to you as a prophet: the Sitcom Gods have revealed to me an actual unproduced Season 1 Perfect Strangers script titled “Game Brain”.

This is too good to be true, right? This must be Casey’s idea of a joke on us, you’re thinking.

No. If I wrote a fake “found” script, it would be about how Larry and Balki catch an alderman offering to disappear the local chicken processing plant’s health code violations in return for sexual favors. Gorpley and Twinkacetti would mudwrestle. Lydia would shoot Wainwright. Steve Urkel would ascend to godhead and bring Yaya Biki back to life. Be grateful I found a real script instead.

There were no doubt plenty of story ideas that went unused over the course of eight seasons. And since garbage like “Duck Soup” made it to air, there’s a former ABC executive story editor out there who deserves a rigorous handjob for sparing us from anything worse. But this one got fleshed out into a full script.

Unproduced scripts aren’t unheard of. In many cases, if the show keeps going and the script is good enough, it will get used in a subsequent season. In others, they might get the axe if the story is deemed too much for popular tastes (see Seinfeld’s nixed second season episode “The Gun” which, by the way, would have cast Ernie Sabella as a gun salesman). It’s impossible to know how rare something like this script is, because those involved in the production of media don’t always see the historical value in documentary materials (or have the authority to do anything about it if they did). For all we know, there are a dozen unused Small Wonder scripts in a nuclear fallout shelter. But it’s pretty damned rare!

“Game Brain” has gone virtually unseen the past 30 years, languishing in… well, somewhere.

I’m not the only person to try reviewing every episode of Perfect Strangers; in fact I wasn’t even the first. But if I had ever needed proof that I’m the first person to research it, it’s the fact that no one else has to discovered this. I won’t tell you where I got it, but it comes from the same place Philip J Reed & I got the unproduced Trouble with Larry script written by Charlie Kaufman. If you’re as smart as I am* and know where to look, you can find it too. The only provenance information I can give you for its legitimacy is the giant LORIMAR logo on the first page.

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I unfortunately can’t simply reproduce the script here; as a librarian, I’m all too familiar with the current state of copyright law. I’ve even met the people Disney sends to daycare centers to garotte the staff who paint off-model Buzz Lightyears and Maters on the walls. I can reproduce up to 10% of the script, and it’s 44 pages, so it shouldn’t be an issue.

It’s certainly not a final draft: it’s too long by far to fit into 21 and a half minutes, rough around the edges, and had some obvious issues that would need to be overcome to film it. But it’s one of the funner stories Perfect Strangers ever told. No idea who Gary Clemente is, and he’s got no credits on IMDB. He wrote at least two other scripts for other sitcoms, all unproduced. If they’re anything as fun as this one, it’s a shame he never got a bigger chance. I tried to find him, but I think he’s already passed on.

(I enlisted the help of fellow comics artist Adam Lore (http://www.adamlore.com) to bring the episode’s scenes to life. Hire him for a project of your own!)

The episode opens at the Caldwell, and is a direct continuation of one of the first scenes in “Knock Knock Who’s There?”. We saw Balki fascinated by color television and junk food, and within almost no time he’s made them part of his daily routine.

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We’re told right off the bat what kinds of differences to expect from the Cousins. Balki Bartokomous greets the new day with a smile, but Larry’s doubtful it holds anything worthwhile for him.

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I’ve noted before that Perfect Strangers worked in plenty of recurring gags and lines: here Larry can’t open a package of barbecued donuts, though Balki can.

The personalities are largely in line with Seasons 1 and 2, though they lack a little definition. There’s a strong element here of the father/son dynamic, or maybe older and younger brothers. Larry Appleton can’t function even if he sleeps in, cluing us in that he’s been engaging in some unhealthy habits.  There’s a token attempt to clarify that Balki’s Myposian–he’s somehow gotten ahold of mass-produced “pig chins”–but what signifies here is that Balki’s favorite television shows are lowest-common-denominator fare.

And our recent college graduate Larry is far too good for “Trixie’s Fun Factory” or the game show “Let’s Make ‘Em Squeal!”

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This is pretty solidly the Larry we recognize, but another aspect of his dialogue that was essentially lost by the end of Season 2 is that he was constantly delivering punchlines. As Balki informs Larry that he’s been trying to get on “Let’s Make ‘Em Squeal!”, and has gone so far as to mail in an application, Larry lets him know exactly how he feels.

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Some Larry lines don’t exactly land, but they’re consistently colorful.

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Balki’s dialogue, on the other hand, is fairly straightforward. The writers hadn’t started relying on homonyms or misapplied words, and the humor derives almost entirely from Balki misunderstanding sarcasm or idiom.

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I’m 95% certain the joke here is that the person answering the mail for the game show is telling Balki that he’s too crazy for their program and they’re sending the men in white suits with big nets. Its vagueness keeps it from reading well, but it’s a good way of promising the audience a conceptual battle of “weirdness”.

We’re not told exactly what to expect from the game show yet, just that the contestants are crazy.

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But then… this is a story written for audiences in 1986. They would have known exactly what was intended with a parody of Let’s Make a Deal (or, perhaps more specifically, the 1984-1986 iteration, The All New Let’s Make a Deal). Monty Hall would pick members from the audience at random to offer something they brought with them in trade for some smallish item Monty offered (say, a stand mixer, or $50; the “trader” could then trade the new item for mystery prizes that were behind curtains on stage. A curtain might hide a goat, or a brand new car.

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Monty would play head games with the trader at this point, offering them an increasing amount of cash to not choose what’s behind curtain #1, or letting them change their choice of curtain. The episode embedded below even has some Price is Right-style games involving guessing the prices of common household products.

Evidently, at some point in the gameshow’s broadcast history, potential contestants started dressing up–or being remarkable in their personality or mannerisms–to try to get Monty’s attention. By 1986, that’s almost 20 years worth of audience one-upmanship.

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Of course Balki wants to be on “Let’s Make ‘Em Squeal!”. And so do we: Perfect Strangers has already told us that Larry and Balki are strange bedfellows (ha), but now we’re offered the chance to see if they’re as weird as the rest of us.

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Season 1 is about the only season I’d be willing to watch whatever Bronson Pinchot turned this stage direction into. Bronson didn’t know everything about Balki yet. Neither did Gary Clemente, though he prefigured Balki eventually having less and less patience with Cousin Larry’s high-falutin’ bullshit.

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I honestly wish that kind of back-and-forth had become a recurring bit.

It’s at this point that the story diverges from the typical Perfect Strangers story. Most episodes would push Larry and Balki towards one plot, and Season 4’s “Games People Play” would explore Larry’s internal struggle between strategy and naked greed. But Larry is so disgusted with Balki’s goal–winning prizes with no effort–that he gains a bit of self-awareness of his own unhealthy habits, vowing to give Balki an example of clean American living.

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Check it out, y’all, Balki says his catchphrase. I told you this was a real script.

As if the Cousins’ stories actually diverging for once weren’t intriguing enough, the next scene is at Ritz Discount, where:

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SUSAN IS BROWSING, Y’ALL.

I’ve gone three years thinking I’d never see her again.

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She even gets punchlines. I realize that half of Susan and Larry’s three pages of dialogue would have been cut if this got made, but knowing that there would have been a ninth Susan episode is almost too much for me to take. I may weep openly.

Susan’s presence here is what has me convinced that this was one of the initial batch of scripts developed for Perfect Strangers’s sample season. Lise Cutter appeared as Susan Campbell, RN in two Season 2 episodes–”Lifesavers” and “The Rent Strike”–and in retrospect, I think those were leftover Season 1 scripts too. Given how quickly the show dumped the character of Susan in favor of Jennifer and Mary Anne, it’s hard to imagine someone getting tasked with working her into an episode by the time Season 2 got the go-ahead.

So why keep her in Season 2 at all? I think that’s explainable.  “Lifesavers” was the first episode filmed for Season 2; the girlfriends hadn’t been introduced yet, but Larry still needed someone to recap the plot at. And “The Rent Strike” needed lots of apartment residents. So there’s your first possible reason why “Game Brain” wasn’t filmed: Lise Cutter was gone too quickly.

Further, those two episodes would, by the end of the second season, feel tonally off-brand. Can you imagine Balki brandishing a gun at another human being? Can you  imagine a version of the show that cared about the Cousins’ neighbors? “Game Brain” is similarly outside the show’s comfort zone in terms of zaniness by putting Balki in a “7-foot tall” green bean costume.

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You know, maybe they threw this script out because it’s too good. No other episode went to the trouble of making one storyline work as a visual pun on the other.

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This is a perfect line.

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This is funny, y’all.

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God damn is this funny. Gary Clemente was having so much fun playing with the show’s established elements. And Twinkacetti is delighted to have fodder for future ridicule–a rare sight–rushing out the door to find a notary public to witness Balki’s outfit. Seriously, what asshole shoved this in a file cabinet and forgot about it?

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By the way,  here’s the catchphrase again. He says it. I’m kind of over it at this point but here you go.

I said at the outset the script has some problems, and we’re hitting one now. The Discount store scene ends with Balki asking Larry for a ride to the studio…

…and cuts directly back to the Caldwell Hotel apartment ONE WEEK LATER. Balki is looking through the junkmail–

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God, I would have written 300 words on that rubber clothing line alone.

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Anyway Balki believes the copywriting on a sample bar of deodorant that he’s “won” two million dollars. It’s a nice variation on the episode’s topic of the relationship between success and hard work, and it’s the kind of scene that it’s hard to believe didn’t make it into any Season 1 episode.

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But I still have to imagine it would get cut, because it’s straying a little too far from the story. It’s four pages of script until Balki even clarifies that he didn’t get picked as a contestant on “Let’s Make ‘Em Squeal!”.

Or that he didn’t get picked to be in the audience? Balki answers in the negative when Larry asks if he’s heard back from the show, and even mentions that he swung from the studio lights. Between “hearing back” and the earlier misfired joke about the show sending a car, it’s beginning to feel less clear by the moment how one gets to be a contestant. Maybe Gary Clemente didn’t know, but I find it far more likely he just needed time for his B-plot to, um, take root.

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You see, Larry has been eating nothing but carrots the past week. He’s lost weight and his skin has turned orange. His eyesight has improved so drastically he has to wear sunglasses. I would have written 300 words on his improved bowel health alone if this had been a real episode.

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Guys I’m not kidding Gary was dedicated to this story about food. It’s honestly great.

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Well, okay, one potentially racist line, but overall it’s still really good.

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Larry moralizing before it’s time for the sappy synth music angers the Sitcom Gods, who reward Balki with an acceptance letter from “Let’s Make ‘Em Squeal!”.

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There’s always room in every script for improvement, let me punch that one up.

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And that’s the end of Act 1. Act 2 begins–on page 25–back at the Ritz Discount, before Balki’s television debut.

In other words, we’re more than halfway through the episode and still not at the gameshow. It’s occurring to me there’s another major element here which strongly suggests it was in the very first batch of scripts written: it’s incredibly dialogue-heavy. Aside from Balki pretending briefly to be a gameshow hostess, and the Dance of Joy, there’s no real mention of physical comedy (spoiler: Larry gets shoved later).

I’m not complaining! We’re getting a lot of insight into how Cousin Larry thinks and talks. Larry not knowing as much as he thinks he does is still present in Seasons 1 and 2, but we’re seeing a little more of the thought process he goes through before making some decision that will backfire on him.

And even here, in this scene, we’re shown a side of Balki that I don’t remember** seeing before: he’s not willing to put in the work required to be prepared. He’s bought a giant trivia encyclopedia and enlists Larry to quiz him with it. But at the very first question Larry asks, Balki gives up:

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It’s a very Perfect Strangers scene. It’s thematically and situationally something worth exploring, but suffers a little in the execution. One of the questions is about haboobs, which are called “habobs” on Mypos. It’s a tidy way of showing how damned frustrating Balki can be, but I’m guessing there’s an even chance you had to go look up what a haboob is.

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If I were going to cut a scene, though, it’s this one. It does advance the “hard work” theme by showing us Balki’s not up to it, and by revealing that Larry is just as susceptible to the promise of money. Hell, it’s even got some great Twinkacetti lines:

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…and even directly refutes Larry’s umbrella philosophy of America as a civilized (and civilizing) nation:

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But unfortunately, it dials back the nuttiness that had been ramping up pretty steadily at this point. And, most importantly, there are zero trivia questions in the gameshow scene later on. I’m pretty sure The All New Let’s Make a Deal didn’t involve trivia questions. At least, the ten minutes of an episode I watched didn’t.

So anyway this scene does some nuanced work on the thesis level, which I really appreciate. The presence of the scene makes “Game Brain” the clearest window into the mature sitcom Tom Miller and Bob Boyett originally had in mind. I’d toss it… and I suspect those in control of the show would have as well. The points it wanted to make–modern American culture left behind the ideals of honest work for honest pay, but darn if things aren’t more interesting now–have already been made. We know that Balki is going to be in a green bean suit, and Larry’s inadvertant ochreface has inadvertently made him even likelier to stand out from the crowd. It’s all set up and there’s really no reason to delay the fun scene we’ve been promised.

Here we are finally on the set of “Let’s Make ‘Em Squeal!”.

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We can only dream that the two-headed person was played by the Cousins’ guardian angels, PaulAndre and Basement Linda. But… how the hell did Larry get in without three weeks’ worth of multiple types of application?

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Let us take a moment to mourn “Game Brain”, the only Season 1 script depicting actual violence against Larry Appleton, taken from us before its time.

We’re introduced to Art French, “AN ABRASIVE HUCKSTER”.

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That’s such a perfect name, isn’t it, commenting (so I’d like to think) on the erosion of culture and honesty in modern American pop culture? “I’m rich, but hey, we’re pals! You can have money, too… if you can outwit me.” (Also: just how old a phrase is “party people”?)

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If you watched any of the episode of The All New Let’s Make a Deal earlier in this post, you probably saw how Monty Hall would engage in some introductory patter with the contestants before they played the game. It’s a chance to humanize the contestants–and give the host fodder for callback jokes.

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Art talks with Balki and Larry; Balk misunderstands Art’s questions, and both Cousins embarrass Larry. It’s… fine.

I’m not knocking it. It’s just not terribly exciting on the page. For one, it’s the part of the script that most jumps out at me as needing the process of the cast doing a table read. Some lines read a little clunky to me:

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And many of them would benefit from the actors’ interpretations. Yes, I’m actually saying this: this scene could have been improved by the nascent comic sense of Bronson Pinchot. Gary Clemente knows what Balki would do, but Bronson knows how Balki would do it.

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You can easily imagine what Bronson would have done with those, can’t you?

Compared to Larry’s funny lines in earlier scenes, Art’s dialogue is simply okay. And I can see how the actor playing Art could transform these lines–exactly as they are–into something more interesting. He could think he’s saying the funniest shit anyone’s ever come up with, he could draw out the meanness present. He could even play it cool and collected like Monty Hall himself. It would work, I think.

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The gameplay is a series of reveals that Larry has chosen incorrectly. He chooses the money (two $20 bills paperclipped together); he trades it for a box; the money Larry was holding turned out to be worth more than he thought (a $500 bill in between the twenties); the box contains one slice of deli meat.

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At each point, our normally self-assured Larry is gripped with indecision. The crowd is shouting at him, Balki is shouting at him, he tried to stay out of this, but now that he’s here, on live television, holding up his pants with an orange hand, and Art keeps giving him last chances, and Larry keeps falling for it. And of course his prize is a non-vegetable food; the joke is on Larry Appleton, both for going overboard on his dietary goals, and then for deviating from his commitment.

It’s another part of the scene that needs the audio and visual aspects to make it work; and as someone who has only ever written comics, I’m impressed at the ability to write a scene that will come alive once both aspects are there.

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The focus shifts to Balki. He gets to choose between the $500 Larry lost to him and one of the “three cheaply simulated bank vaults”. Of course Balki gets to make the signature choice, because even here he’s a very special boy.

And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales; and he received sight forthwith:

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I’ve forgotten so much of this show at this point–thank God for small favors–but I think this would have been the first time that America didn’t live up to Balki’s idea of it. It’s a very quick moment–even quicker, perhaps, when you’re reading a script–but it’s crucial to what Perfect Strangers once wanted to be about.

It was once very deliberately a show about two men figuring out how little they really knew about how the world works. About adjusting expectations of one’s own skills–as well as of what could be achieved. About how the existence of a whole wide world of potential doesn’t equal the ability to take it on. Larry learns that not all celebrities have lurid affairs. Balki learns he has the right to demand better of his superiors, but can’t control them. Larry learns a woman’s smile is no guarantee, but that he can have–can be–fun wherever he goes. Balki learns that checks don’t bring endless wealth, but he can buy nice things for his friends sometimes. They couldn’t conquer America right off the bat, but normal human challenges–helping deliver a baby, having a nice chat with a woman, sticking up for oneself and others–were easier than they thought.

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Oh and it was also about violence towards immigrants when they step out of line.

The transition from the gameshow scene back to the apartment could use some work. Balki isn’t forced right then and there to choose one of the simulated vaults: he chooses to come back the next day to do that. And when we see them again in the apartment, Balki has already made his second appearance on the show, which the Cousins watch.

There’s nothing wrong with skipping over action so you can reveal what happened; Perfect Strangers did that all the time. But it’s too bumpy here. I certainly wasn’t watching gameshows in 1986***, though I’m sure there were times when a contestant ran out of time and had to come back the next day. Or “next day”, I should say. Some gameshows film multiple episodes in a day, which would save them a lot on production costs.

But the final scene makes it clear that Balki did go back the very next day. I’m not going to quibble about the fact that this means the entire episode of “Let’s Make ‘Em Squeal!” lasted about five minutes total. I simply don’t see the need for Balki to come back. The script could have gotten away with Art telling us Balki would choose between the vaults right after a commercial break. I understand that Balki needs to be able to tell Larry in the final scene what happened (can you believe it? a Perfect Strangers writer who refuses to have characters tell each other about something they were both there for) but, hell, Larry passed out. Leave him passed out so he misses Balki’s big moment!

So anyway we’re back at the Caldwell now.

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If I ever meet the former ABC employee who scrapped this story, I’m going to knee them in the groin.

I’m going to knee them in the groin for Gary.

There’s a nice exchange where Balki drags out the moment of refusing to tell Larry what happened.

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And when Balki finally turns on the TV–

–hey, wait, that’s pretty damn fast turnaround time to get a TV show on the air–

–anyway Balki turns on the TV, and Larry’s curiosity is once again brutally and needlessly stymied.

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I can only remember one instance where Perfect Strangers had crucial audio coming from a television set the audience doesn’t get to see. It wouldn’t pose a problem for home audiences, though I do wonder how that would have been handled for a show filmed in front of a live audience in 1986.

Gary Clemente really wrings as much humor out of Balki’s inability to choose a vault as he can. Cousin Larry can’t take it, the “Let’s Make ‘Em Squeal!” audience can’t take it (a woman dressed as a geranium attacks Balki), and finally Art’s patience has run out too.

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Balki’s prize?

A year’s supply of Shecter’s pre-fried barbecued donuts.

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What a perfect capper! The very thing Larry had tried to flee. Proof to Balki (though he’d never see it) that something as vapid as American television is part of the same system that only cares about you buying junk.

I mean, think about it: the episode of The All New Let’s Make a Deal I embedded above literally rewarded contestants who could prove they were so good at consuming that they knew the exact price of a bottle of detergent. This is a fairly pointed message about television, certainly one more pointed than ABC ever let Perfect Strangers make.

The Cousins state the lessons they’ve learned: worthwhile rewards take more work than Balki put in, but not everything worth doing has to be as difficult as Larry made it. It’s less nuanced than everything that came before it, but at least it’s not grossly watered down.

The final joke of the episode–in addition to rejecting the subtextual indictment of television–provides the hard reset:

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So the remaining question here is: why in the world did this not get used?

It can’t be solely because Susan was in it. She could be switched out with Jennifer; or Mary Anne, if Jennifer eating potato chips didn’t jibe with her job at Reuben’s Perfect Body.

And it can’t be because there were simply too many good scripts once the show got a full season. This is better than a third of the stories that made it into Season 2.

It’s easy for me to imagine why it didn’t end up in Season 1. We know from reportage on Perfect Strangers that they had to scramble to put six episodes together for a “sample” season in the back half of the 1985-1986 TV season. “Game Brain” has hurdles, like the Cousins watching television, or being in a large crowd of costumed people, that–though minor–were probably too much to coordinate in that short turnaround time.

There are three major reasons I can imagine led to the script not being used.

One is that Larry and Balki aren’t working together towards some goal. Larry does help Balki practice his trivia, and he ends up on the gameshow. But the latter works as an unexpected result of Larry’s B-plot. Larry and Balki being largely unconcerned with each other’s goals is the least Perfect Strangers aspect of the whole thing.

Another is that “Game Brain” is a little outside Perfect Strangers’s early comfort zone. It’s more explicitly silly than, say, Larry getting beaten up at a bar, Larry getting pulled down the street by a large dog, Balki hugging a bank manager, or Balki throwing a birthday cake at a window. My immediate reaction on my first reading was that it felt more like a late 1970s/early 1980s sitcom script. I could easily see this as a Bosom Buddies episode, since Kip and Henry usually had their own story arcs. They were normal guys in extraordinary situations, where Balki and Larry are extraordinary guys in normal situations.

And speaking of Bosom Buddies: that show’s conceit was not only that Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari were in drag, but also that they had to quickly switch in and out of it. It was (for a while) the entire concept.

But “Game Brain” would have been just one script out of many for a show that essentially had two different premiere seasons. Given that it renders both its leads nearly unrecognizable for most of a half hour feels like too big a risk for a show that ABC didn’t fully believe in in the first place.

That the script didn’t get used for Season 1 makes a lot of sense, logistically. That it didn’t get used at the beginning of Season 2 still makes sense, risk-wise. That it never got used speaks to how firmly Perfect Strangers had chosen its alternate path (physical comedy and no B-plots) by halfway through Season 2.

Or it could have been left out for any number of other reasons we’ll never know. The writers could have forgotten it existed. For all we know Bronson didn’t like Gary’s shoes. But these three reasons seem likely to me.

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And that’s it! Unless the pilot episode with Louie Anderson ever surfaces, or someone gets the cast back together for a reunion, “Game Brain” is likely to be the very last “new” Perfect Strangers anything, ever. I feel incredibly lucky to have found it, just in time for the end of this blog. I’ll never love the show as much as its hardcore fans, but I bet they (you) enjoyed this more than I did.

For me, it’s more than just getting one more “official” Larry and Balki story. This was an opportunity to see a script before it went through the process of getting to the screen. If most 80s sitcom scripts started out this way, it feels like a crime to cut them down for the sake of commercial breaks. I’ll admit to some bias, too: it’s very easy for me to read “Game Brain” as a justification of my own opinion on what Perfect Strangers was intended to be. For better or worse, Mark’s readiness to respond to Bronson’s fledgling comedy ideas changed the show indelibly.

“Game Brain” also came at the right time for me because of how stark a counterpoint it provides to Season 8’s “The Baby Quiz”. Season 1 would have given us a story that cared about far more than just the trappings of contemporary gameshows: it was concerned with what a gameshow meant to both Larry and Balki. Cousin Larry sees the gameshow as incompatible with American mores; Balki sees it as the pinnacle of the American experience.

“The Baby Quiz”, on the other hand, just said “fuck it” and let Bronson take over the story with his warmed-over impressions. The gameshow itself became an afterthought.

“Game Brain” got rid of the bad taste “The Baby Quiz” left in my mouth by proving that there are still hundreds of viable ways of approaching the same subject matter.

You know what? This find is too good to not share the whole thing with you, so here you go: a half-hour radio play version of “Game Brain”. Just for today, screw copyright.

Credits:

Balki Bartokomous: Andrew Strobel

Larry Appleton: Ian Chris Hayes

Mr. Twinkacetti: Shawn Green (http://www.halfwayokay.com)

Susan, additional voices: Vivian Lajoie

Art French, narration, additional voices: Casey Roberson

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*I’ve got some bad news for you

**Hey, cut me some slack: it’s been four years since I watched Season 1

***Though I am told I would excitedly shift my baby walker over to the television any time the M*A*S*H theme came on

Next week: goodbye