The Top 10 and Bottom 10 Perfect Strangers episodes

Finally, after 45 months of psychological analysis and Zappa quotes, after innumerable inaccessible literature references and tongue-in-cheek exegesis, after painstakingly cataloging every moment of Bronson Pinchot’s 30-year career, finally, two weeks before Perfect Strangers Reviewed ends forever, here’s a straightforward post that might actually find an audience bigger than the three content scrapers that visit this blog.

Four years of hard work is nothing compared to a quick post that tells you how you should feel about things. Just ask the writers over at Slate!

One issue with trying to figure out the “best” or “worst” episodes of Perfect Strangers is that, on a good week, the show was a fairly balanced mix of passably clever punchlines, impossible linguistic misunderstandings, cultural conflict, and a disappointing sweeping aside of secondary characters. (On a bad week Cousin Larry would get condemned to eternal damnation for pocketing a penny from the tray at the convenience store register.) Very few episodes–even the great ones–are free from the show’s more serious problems.

 

Top 10

10. Eyewitless Report (Season 5)

001

Maybe this is a cheat, because I’m handing this spot to one-third of an episode. But I love parody so much, and this episode does it so well, that I’m perfectly fine bumping something like “Finders Keepers” or “A Blast from the Past” from the bottom of the list so I can include it..

Mr. Gorpley suffered the fate of all secondary Perfect Strangers characters: featured in only two or three stories before being reduced to a single character trait (in this case, that trait is being named “Gorpley”). Depending on how many episodes of the show audiences caught, they may or may not have known that he was Balki’s mean boss. Whatever you do or don’t know about Gorpley, taking him completely out of the work environment makes him a wildcard in a story about a work retreat to the mountains.

And then doubly so when the episode turns into Rashomon and he has to tell the police a version of how he and Larry and Balki squared off against an escaped psycho killer. Given that his usual take on things is how much the world has shit on him, it’s hard to guess how he might describe the events. His retelling is the only time Perfect Strangers deliberately engaged in self-parody, and Gorpley’s versions of the Cousins–brain-damaged, barely articulate children–reveals him to be even more petty and nihilistic than we suspected, willing to waste the police’s time just to get in some cheap digs and dirty jokes.

You have to ignore–as my commenters pointed out–that Gorpley wasn’t at all necessary, given that Jennifer and Mary Anne could have delivered just as effective a parody; but you have to ignore almost everything Balki says to enjoy the show at all, so.

 

9. The Defiant Guys (Season 3)

002

I almost put “Karate Kids” in this spot because it came so very close to making some kind of worthwhile cultural statement about the American (Caucasian) male’s warped idea of masculinity; but like so many episodes, it choked at the end, delivering the wrong lesson.

If “Karate Kids” failed to convey that talking through problems was the best way to resolve conflict, “The Defiant Guys” succeeded. Most episodes in Seasons 1 through 3 put Larry and Balki on common ground, where each thinks he’s an expert; but this is the rarer story where Larry is the only adult in the room, in his own way. Rarer than that, even: the secondary and tertiary characters take on actual roles in the story: Harriette doles out advice, Mrs. Van Weezer provides an obstacle, and Wainwright’s opinion of Larry actually still mattered. I’ve long suspected that Harriette and Lydia (like Twinkacetti and Susan before them) were meant to be advice-givers to Balki and Larry, respectively, and this episode is a window into how much better that version of Perfect Strangers could have been.

“The Defiant Guys” could stand next to any Season 1 episode, as both Cousins learn different lessons while handcuffed together: Balki to treat others how they want to be treated, and Larry to realize others will judge him fairly, even without the confidence a good flossing or a lucky pen will bring.

 

8. Pipe Dreams (Season 3)

003

The show’s regular focus on slapstick brought comparisons to Laurel & Hardy films, a similarity that Perfect Strangers–much to its discredit–leaned into on at least three occasions. I’m putting that too nicely: Perfect Strangers had no compunction about blatantly lifting scenarios beat-for-beat from far better media. But this was before that, when the show was still defining its boundaries and tone, exploratory but unified around Larry and Balki’s personalities. Tasking the Cousins with fixing a shower works as homage to 1930s slapstick because it’s a diffuse homage, and localized to the settings the show already had.

That’s not to say this episode had any real conflict–cultural or otherwise–between the Cousins. In fact, this was one of only three Season 3 episodes that gave Balki no motivation at all. (Think about it: life on a relatively isolated farm meant that household skills were probably possessed by all family members. Balki was less likely to seek out an expert Myposian roofer because that guy might live a day or two away.) Larry assigned himself the role of boss for a simple plumbing job, with Balki as assistant. And though it grated at the time, Balki’s rapid cycling through stupid, devious, sad, and disturbingly delighted earned the comparison to Stan Laurel.

“Pipe Dreams” hit all the right notes for the tried-and-true physical comedy scenario of failing to fix a house. It promises very clearly that it will end with water spraying everywhere, and delivers. It also marks the very last time that Larry would try to impress Jennifer without it feeling incredibly tired.

 

7. That Old Gang of Mine (Season 4)

004

In Perfect Strangers’s middle period, the setup was often dispatched as quickly as possible to get the Cousins into the scenario of the week. In many cases that impulse robbed the show of sense-making dialogue, but here, fuck yeah show me 12 minutes of Larry and Balki in over their heads at a biker bar.

(I’m going to go on record as saying that biker gangs are the United States’ single greatest gift to movies and television. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure wouldn’t be the same without those jolly badasses, and neither would The Garbage Pail Kids movie. Every sitcom should have an episode where the characters have a run-in with the local Hells Angels chapter.)

Another bad habit of the show was to get everybody but the Cousins off-screen, but here even that pays off when Balki asks a *ahem* well-hung Larry to pretend he’s the Scarecrow. It’s the only time in his entire career that Bronson demanding to make a Wizard of Oz joke was additive.

Unfortunately, the framing story for this is Balki’s girlfriend Mary Anne giving up a considerable promotion and the chance to live in London, where people don’t shun you for being smart. And Balki is invited to fuck the biker version of Smurfette. It’s a disappointing double-punch, and I’ll admit that other episodes about women (say, “Maid to Order”) had less problematic endings… but when it’s not being misogynistic, “That Old Gang of Mine” is a hell of a lot of fun.

 

6. The Rent Strike (Season 2)

005

Like “The Defiant Guys”, this is another view into a viable path Perfect Strangers could have gone down. I suspect that the final two Susan episodes were leftovers from the scripts developed for Season 1*, which goes a long way towards explaining why this episode sticks out so much from the rest of Season 2.

Larry and Balki were both ready to take on the whole of America, but were trapped in dead-end discount store jobs, selling the dregs of the capitalist system. This was the first indication that they weren’t alone, that there were more supports around them than they thought, and that they might have more agency over their situation than they realized. The show would never again show you the other non-girlfriend residents of the Caldwell Hotel, but for this one brief moment, Larry and Balki were part of a community. It’s baffling that any sitcom could throw away a grouchy old woman as beautifully named as Schlaegelmilch, but Perfect Strangers made an art form out of squandering secondary characters’ potential.

ABC could easily have thrown out “The Rent Strike” since it was written for a version of Perfect Strangers that had already been left behind, but I’m sure glad they didn’t. It foregrounds the Cousins’ fraught and complicated relationship with their boss/landlord Donald Twinkacetti, and realizes the prop comedy potential of a junk shop in a way that very few episodes did.

*more on this next week HINT HINT

 

5. Wild Turkey (Season 7)

006

One of the worst choices Perfect Strangers ever made was to turn uptight, anxious, sarcastic, jaded Larry Appleton into a manipulative, opportunistic, insulting, pathological liar. The writers finally realized the shift had pushed Larry out of the realm of family-friendly sitcoms and solidly into cartoon territory… and so they spun turds into gold*, finding a new type of comedy by leaning into that very incongruity.

(Maybe this happened because of a Q&A session after a taping, where an audience member asked Mark Linn-Baker how he felt playing an asshole. Or maybe it was because Bronson would openly abuse the craft services people with a shepherd’s crook for asking if he preferred Perrier or S.Pellegrino, and needed the audience to think Mark was the mean one.)

Larry trying to make money by selling second-hand turkeys reads as a gentle lampoon of his earlier get-rich-quick schemes, but otherwise the episode appears to be heading down the well-worn path of the “lost wedding ring” story. The rug-pull comes when the Cousins find themselves face-to-face with the equivalent of a sitcom family–all named after Happy Days characters–and Larry basically transforms into a demon, creating one of the show’s single funniest sequences. He offers false prayers to God, he screams at children, he steals food, and finally he breaks an old man’s ribs.

You’d expect Larry to get a wrist-slap from Balki at the end of the episode, but “Wild Turkey” refuses to explicitly comment on his terrorizing of a whole family at all. No one standing up to a man blatantly disregarding social constraints is a stronger explanation for Larry’s behavior than “girls didn’t like me in high school”. It’s downright amazing this aired the same night as Urkel convincing a girl to stop putting out for everyone–or really on TGIF at all.

*Like in the fairy tale Rumpelshittin

 

4. Better Shop Around (Season 3)

007

Perfect Strangers‘s second full season still had something to prove. Outlandish plots like Balki becoming a rapper, or negotiating the sale of land on his home island, were still years away. “Better Shop Around” keeps the stakes virtually non-existent, opting instead to imagine how Balki and Cousin Larry would approach an “invisible” part of American life: the weekly grocery trip.

The episode brings Balki’s agricultural background to the forefront, contrasting it against America’s plenty. And the USian trend towards total disregard of the human aspects of commerce plays out in both Balki’s story (the cashier doesn’t want to chat, and she’s on the verge of being replaced by a self-checkout system) and Larry’s: when the Cousins are rewarded for being loyal customers, Larry sees an opportunity for personal wealth instead of community. For a show about a dumbass immigrant, Perfect Strangers was occasionally this smart.

One of the show’s strongest aspects early on was its handling of catchphrases. Full House gave each of its characters a catchphrase, though none of them revealed their peronalities.* Uncle Joey would tell people to “Cut. It. Out.” and DJ would exclaim “Oh Mylanta”. Tells you everything about them, doesn’t it? Similarly, I’ve yet to figure out what, exactly, poses “No problem” for ALF. But the best Perfect Strangers episodes understood Larry and Balki as reliable sets of responses to scenarios, and developed multiple catchphrases and catchphrase-a-likes to make that point. “Better Shop Around” is larded with them, with not only two instances of “Don’t be ridiculous”, but a “Where do I come up with them?”, Larry’s “Watch… and learn” and “I have… a plan!”, Balki running and jumping on the couch, and the Cousins playing catch with dead poultry.

*save for Danny Tanner’s “I like to get high off these cleaning supply fumes.”

 

3. Games People Play (Season 4)

008

I doubt any of you are surprised that three of the dead-bird-throwing episodes are in my top 10.

The very first televised game show was British, but I’d argue that the format is a distinctly American institution, interlocking with the Tocquevillian idea of socioeconomic mobility as a central support of democracy. (I mean, barely anyone in America changes social classes since the 70s, when the billionaires took over, but it was nice to dream for a couple hundred years.) A game show episode is very nearly a sure thing for any sitcom–Season 8’s “The Baby Quiz” proves this by showing how hard you have to work to fail at it–because it typically involves the characters bringing their personal beefs into a fun low-stakes situation. Television viewers are already experts at being a home game show audience, and know exactly how transgressive a sitcom’s characters are being. And this episode gives us that, but that’s not what makes it great.

The Banana Strippers are what make it great.

It was serendipitous that a sitcom essentially about slapstick and live stunts happened at the same time as the heyday of game shows with larger-than-life physical games like Double Dare, Nick Arcade, Finders Keepers, and Fun House. “Games People Play” is one of the few examples where removing logic from the setup turned out to be fully justified: Bronson Pinchot and Mark Linn-Baker had by this point built up their physical comedy skill to the point that you could fill a third of an episode with it. Having grown up on Double Dare, this episode scratched my own personal nostalgia itch the most.

 

2. Stress Test (Season 7)

009

Given how dreadful some late-era episodes could be for any longrunning 80s/90s sitcom (you’ll notice no Season 6 episodes made it onto this list), the fact that Perfect Strangers’s 140th episode made it into my top 10 is a testament to just how well the Larry-Balki relationship could work when the writers understood it.

A psychologist putting Larry and Balki into stressful situations for his own and others’ amusement is about as metatextual as you can get. Since it’s a good bet the Season 7 writers felt the show was ending, it feels like a closing argument: no matter what tests life gives the Cousins, the results will be exactly the same. They’ll work together, they’ll fight, they’ll take turns wheedling and crying, and somedamnhow they’ll work showtunes* into it. “Stress Test” celebrates the fact that Larry and Balki don’t get along, asking you to pardon the earlier excessive missteps of discord (say, any time Larry made Balki cry) as something out of their control.

We also got solid guest-star casting with George Wyner’s third appearance. Wyner’s first two appearances as mob accountant Marvin Berman were among Season 5’s highest points, and it’s easy to imagine he was called back to help elevate another good episode. And whether or not it was intentional, that he would have been a familiar face to Larry and Balki added to the mindfuck elements of psych tests.

*Hey, I’ve never claimed that they were the straightest gay couple on television without evidence for it.

 

1. Get a Job (Season 2)

010

SHE’S A PARTY GIRL

Pushing characters out of their regular environment is a nice treat–as long as it’s not (ahem) overdone. Later seasons would dip into that well too often–the Cousins as caterers, stewardesses, hospital orderlies, and in Season 11, air traffic controllers–but this was the very first time, and driven by existing circumstances in the show’s scenario. The Cousins were still down on their luck, and broke besides, and when Twinkacetti fires them, they’re desperate enough to take the first shitty job they can find.

Part of Perfect Strangers’s original thesis is that neither one of these guys could make it in the modern world on the strength of their individual knowledge or skills, and needed each other. Putting them in a situation where they were truly out of their depth–where even their combined efforts were futile against characters more out of control than they were–is a rewarding subversion of that thesis that the show explored far too rarely. (And with variable results: “Since I Lost My Baby” and “A Catered Affair” are worthwhile, but “Prose and Cons” would be in my Bottom 10 if I could remember a single thing that happened in it.)

Perfect Strangers regularly cast good actors in one-off roles–such as George Wyner, Holland Taylor, James Hampton, Kimmy Robertson, and Leslie Jordan–who could match the show’s just-shy-of-zany tone. Susan Kellerman, here playing Fat Marsha Manning, is the only one who elevated a guest role to something more than what was on the page. The script appears to have portrayed Fat Marsha as a disgusting, frightening part of Chicago’s working class; but Kellerman plays her as a woman in control of her own life, personally and socially and professionally. Being fry cooks at Fat Marsha’s Burgers would never be right for Balki and Larry, but damn if I wouldn’t have loved seeing her as somebody’s boss every week.

I’d stop the post here if I could, but for every great Perfect Strangers episode, there were two or three pitiable ones.

 

Bottom 10

I’ve faced tougher decisions to make than picking out only ten worst episodes of Perfect Strangers, but not many. (For instance, one of my college philosophy courses actually set up a live “trolley problem”. I’ll never forget the screams, the screech of steel, the smell like rotten barbecued pork.) To an outsider, Perfect Strangers fandom would suggest that the show was delightful, charming, and heartfelt, and suffered only from coming at the wrong time in television history, pitted not only against ratings powerhouses like Full House or Family Matters, but also against a “meaner” trend in sitcoms. This show’s fans long for the simpler days, when nice characters like Cousin Larry would bring nice characters like Balki Bartokomous to tears with threats of deportation. So it was a surprise that so many full episodes–and many, many more individual scenes–left a bad taste in my mouth.

 

10. You Gotta Have Friends (Season 3)

011

20 minutes of Balki telling you Carl Lewis is going to show up, and one minute where Carl Lewis shows up.

Was this real? Was there really a time when Olympic athletes were so important that a sitcom would do anything to have one guest-star? And were they so universally loved you could just write absolutely nothing but their name over and over again and get away with it? And are either watching one perform, or meeting one personally, the only two possibilities for stories about athletes?

The 80s truly were a simpler time.

 

9. Here Comes the Judge (Season 5)

012

Seasons 5 and 6 were, overall, the show’s lowest points*, and there are very few episodes I’d recommend from either. If Season 2 suffered by making Balki an angel, Seasons 5 and 6 suffered by making Larry a devil.

Balki getting assigned to the Chicago Chronicle’s grievance committee, and Larry having a grievance filed against him for stealing office supplies, should have been a walk in the park for the writers. To their credit, they at least knew that Larry should try to weasel out of it, but everything else about the episode fails. That it has almost nothing to do with the fact that they work for a newspaper is only the tip of the iceberg here. We’re given hints that Balki might have to face some sort of dilemma around the fact that his coworkers are also his friends. The possibilities of Lydia’s anxiety or Gorpley’s vindictiveness playing a part are dangled before us only to be instantly ditched. The episode is incredibly un-self-aware and thus unmoored from continuity, overlooking or forgetting how often Larry had to bring his work home. Another season’s Larry might have tried to pump Balki (hehe) for information on who ratted him out; but Asshole Larry humiliates him in front of their coworkers, who in turn don’t comment on it.

Like with “Eyewitless Report” above, I’m cheating just a little. “Almost Live in Chicago” would have taken this spot but for the fact that I wanted one episode that was all-around disappointing, where at every point you can only think of the episode it could have been.

*Some would say Season 7, and I half agree.

 

8. The Unnatural (Season 2)

013

The initial six episodes in Perfect Strangers’s first season met my expectations that the show would be a mix of fun and bland, but with Season 2, ABC ushered in a brand new era of upside-down “morals”.

This marks the first time the show went out of its way to fellate Balki. Cousin Larry is one game away from winning the Greater Chicago Locally-Owned Business Baseball Tournament Jamboree, and Balki sees this as an opportunity to guilt trip him. The issue: Balki doesn’t realize Larry thinks he’s terrible at baseball, nor does he bother to tell him he was actually good at it on Mypos. One person being presented as a villain for daring to care about their own goals would prove to be Full House’s most-visited well. It was annoying enough there, even if you’re able to swallow that kids are too young to understand perspective-taking; but to see it play out between two grown men is worse. This show couldn’t even go ten episodes without infantilizing the very foreigners it wanted to praise as crucial to American society.

By setting up the double standard that Balki was allowed to not care about Cousin Larry’s goals, but that Cousin Larry had to give into every one of Balki’s demands, Perfect Strangers made some serious headway towards ditching the relatively intelligent aspects of the talky comedy it started out as.

 

7. A Horse is a Horse (Season 6)

014

Man look this one starts out with the Cousins doing the Humpty Dance and ends with Balki resurrecting a dead horse with Mrs. Dash. At one point Larry sucks on a barber’s dildo. I don’t fucking know.

 

6. Aliens (Season 4)

015

Ideally, sitcoms offer an interesting umbrella premise, or a unique voice, through which everyday situations can be filtered; and presumably they get renewed because audiences respond to those two aspects. So an homage episode–where one or both of those might disappear–is a shaky proposition to begin with, and the bar is higher. A sitcom taking on the look and feel of another piece of media needs to do more than ask “Wouldn’t it be funny if one character dressed up like another?” It needs to ask if there’s something interesting to explore about its own characters, or if there’s some comparison or contrast it can make with other shows or films. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s “Old Lady House” poked fun at how laugh tracks try to transform the often toxic behavior between sitcom characters. Community explored one character’s break with reality through stop-motion animation in “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”. Roseanne’s “The Fifties Show” contrasted Roseanne with television housewives two generations prior.

When you think of Perfect Strangers, your mind immediately jumps to The Dick Van Dyke Show, right?

As if it weren’t bad enough to outright steal the 1963 Dick Van Dyke Show dream episode “It May Look Like a Walnut” beat for beat, without any indication that it was doing so, Perfect Strangers turned it into something far, far worse by removing all of the things that made the original work.

For one, it made virtually no effort to localize the plot to Larry and Balki and co. Instead of coming up with a way for anyone’s existing character traits–Lydia, Harriette, Jennifer, Mary Anne, Mr. Gorpley, RT Wainwright, Old Man MacDuff, Big Scooter, Li’l Scooter, or Chimpanzos, the Myposian Ape, to toy with Larry’s sense of whether he was going crazy… they just all wore vests. The vests themselves were the other problem. “It May Look Like a Walnut” offered a visual pun on the oversized pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers; “Aliens” detached the plot from its central joke and forgot to find something to reattach it to.

Imagine how much fun it would have been if Perfect Strangers had parodied some contemporary alien film, say, Cocoon, or They Live. Instead we got this shit.

 

5. The Break In (Season 3)

016

This episode–where Larry and Balki save a coworker from suicide by reminding him that he has a wife and kid–tried. It really did, I’ll give it that. But like imagine if it was somebody’s childhood dream to be a doctor, and after years of not going to medical school or going in for a regular checkup, they perform surgery when they’re at the grocery store and the checker has a heart attack. They tried, they really did.

This began as a lighthearted, wacky story, where everything Larry and Balki do to fix a mistake gets them in worse trouble. It was on its way to being a good episode right up until they meet Frank, the crime beat reporter, about to leap to his death to escape the horrors of the modern American city. I suspect the sudden swerve was to make Larry rethink how seriously he was treating his relatively minor problems, but the episode didn’t bother to make that clear. Aside from the tonal mismatch, it’s hard to believe that the Cousins–who can’t even handle hackneyed sitcom shenanigans–would suddenly be able to talk a man down from the ledge.

And then they go and gripe about how draining it was to save someone’s life. Fuck this one.

 

4. Piano Movers (Season 4)

017

“Piano Movers” aired one week after “Aliens”, and when I reviewed it, I thought it had a shot at being the absolute worst episode of the show. I struggled to find anything to say about it and was reduced to making repeated whimpering pleas that it end.

And then I found out that it too was a complete theft, this time of the Laurel & Hardy short film “The Music Box”. It’s some sort of impressive that this is both the only Perfect Strangers episode I hated twice as much after I had finished reviewing it, and the only one I have even less to say about now than I did then.

It was very difficult to not include “The Gazebo” or “I Saw This on TV” in the Bottom 10. But in retrospect, both of those episodes were honest about being homages. Plus, I can cut the latter some slack because I know seeing Mark and Bronson as Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton brought a smile to Jo Marie Payton’s face.

 

3. Duck Soup (Season 6)

018

Recipe for Myposian duck soup

Ingredients

  • 6 raw duck leg/thigh pieces
  • 16 cups low-salt chicken broth
  • 1 large onion, peeled, halved
  • 6 tablespoons finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 handfuls of semisolids from the nearest Five Guys dumpster

Step 1: Mix all items in large pot

Step 2: Place pot, covered, in trunk of car

Step 3: Book 3-week trip to Panama in late July

Step 4: Park car in uncovered parking at airport

Step 5: Upon return, climb into trunk of car, close trunk lid

Step 6: Top with sour cream

Voilà! You have put in more effort, and created a better end product, than the writers, actors, and producers of this episode. I can’t think of a bigger “fuck you” to an audience than sex noises and saying dinosaurs still exist.

 

2. Yes Sir, That’s My Baby (Season 7)

019

Oh wait I can it’s this doodoo hole. It’s a master class in almost every problem a sitcom can have.

Not only was this a fantasy episode; refused to answer its central question of what kind of fathers the Cousins would be; offered immense tonal discord by promising you that both Larry and Balki would go to jail for life for gross child neglect; never came up with a story; and made me wish I was watching “Piano Movers”, because it at least had Lydia; not only all that but it made damn sure you knew that Jennifer and Mary Anne’s sidelining from most episodes wasn’t actually a side effect of the show’s focus on physical comedy. Either the writers were deliberately excluding Melanie Wilson and Rebeca Arthur, or they couldn’t be bothered to give a shit that week at all. Oh AND you could make the case they were stealing from Laurel & Hardy again. Jesus.

An episode whose highest aspiration was putting Larry and Balki in diapers could have been almost anything; instead it chose to be nothing at all.

 

1. Season 8 (Season 8)

020

I hate it.

The three times that Bronson Pinchot was given any sort of control over a sitcom–Meego, The Trouble With Larry, and Season 8 of Perfect Strangers–are maybe the only extant examples of complete abdication of the responsibilities of television storytelling. Or at least, they’re the only ones I can think of, and there’s no way I’m thinking about this season a single minute more; the time I wasted watching these episodes would have been better spent gargling bleach. Perfect Strangers had always pushed the limits of how much necessary story it could chip away, but Season 8 set to the task of removing bricks from the show’s foundation with gusto. And it did this by allowing Bronson Pinchot–who hated the show by that point himself–to take as much time with his derivative “comedy” monologues as he wanted.

ABC was so ashamed that it even made these six episodes that it did everything in its power to ensure as few people as possible saw them. ABC put a lot of crap on the air, so it’s welcome to see that even they could recognize pure dreck.

________________________________________________

In two weeks: goodbye

In one week: I have one final gift for you

Advertisements

Loose Ends: Larryoke and Prizes

There will be three more actual substantial posts after this, but for today, I’m just going to get a few things tidied up

______________________________________________________

First, the videos from Larryoke 2!

And I think I forgot to post the videos from Larryoke 1 a couple years ago!

In some ways, I’m as proud of the 26 songs I wrote for both Larryokes as I am of the blog itself.

Larryoke started as a joke between myself and Philip J Reed (who wrote “Windy Chicagoan Nights”), and it seemed too fabulously nutty an idea not to do. And it turned out to be hugely rewarding. It let me push the boundaries of the review blog format, irrevocably setting the bar higher for the poor soul who just wants to make Thighmaster jokes while writing about She’s the Sheriff; it achieved some resonance with Perfect Strangers‘s own regular inclusion of songs; and it scratched some itches I wasn’t fully aware I had.

I grew up listening to “Weird Al” Yankovic, ever since I saw him in 1991 on Square One Television. Though I miss his earlier look and musical style (he was a pastiche of oddities specific to the United States of the 1970s and 1980s), I’ll follow his career as long as he makes songs. Along with MAD Magazine, “Weird Al” was my teacher when it came to subversion and recognizing the hollowness at the core of consumerism. But his was an empowering message in the vein of Frank Zappa: fetishizing Cuisinarts, SPAM, cable television, or infomercial products was obviously brainless, so the stuff I was into was fine by comparison. So long as it doesn’t cause a murder, etc. I would possess neither the sense of humor, nor the breadth of reference (academic or otherwise), to keep a project like this blog afloat if I hadn’t had a role model telling me I could pursue whatever weird shit interested me.

But… I never thought I would end up publishing my own parody songs.* Writing spoof lyrics is a very different kind of thinking from what I’m used to, because each line ideally needs to do four things at once: be about Perfect Strangers, rhyme with one or more other lines, retain at least one or two words from the original song, and be funny. I understand now how hard it must have been for the prophets to write Bible verses that were about ancient Israel and 20th-Century United States at the same time!

Some songs, like “Mypos Man” or “Sitcom Star”, basically wrote themselves. But others–and I’m primarily thinking of “Twinka ’90” and “I Reviewed Perfect Strangers”–felt like I only managed to finish them through sheer brute force. And I believe that “Where Have All the Good Shows Gone?”, which encompasses both the original and lesser, revived versions of TGIF**, could stand on its own outside the context of this blog. “Dim a Little Dimitri” is the Zappa-est song*** of the bunch, but “Where Have All the Good Shows Gone?” is the “Weird Al”-est. Could someone please get a job at the AVClub and write an article about Larryoke? Thanks.

Writing that many songs about Larry and Balki & co. could have been either a pure exercise of ego, or of madness, so I’m humbled that I had enough friends who also thought Larryoke was a good enough idea to put their time and energy into it. Or they helped out because they’re part of the global conspiracy focused on keeping me busy so I don’t find out about it. Whichever one of those it is, it was a lot of fun! Larryoke, and Larryoke 2, wouldn’t have existed were it not for all of the singers, who each brought their own interpretations to the lyrics, making them something much, much more than silly rhymes about a TV show. If you enjoyed either Larryoke, thank them.

______________________________________________________

Second, I have some prizes to give away! In February and August of last year, I announced both

LAST ANNUAL

PERFECT STRANGERS REVIEWED

CAPTION CONTESTS

 

Our first prize tonight is these Perfect Strangers promotional slides:

slides1

Ain’t they beautiful? They’re going to appear in the mailbox of Jennifer, who captioned this image:

contest1

“Mary Anne, I didn’t know your family was also from Mypos. It turns out you are my sister!”

This one makes me laugh because it would mean Balki is more attracted to her.

The other prize is a set of Impel LAFFS trading cards. Since it consists entirely of promotional images of ABC sitcoms, it’s very likely the cheapest trading card series ever made!

cards1

You won’t get the exact ones pictured, because I put those right in that toilet after taking the photo. But AN actual set of 80 cards will permanently bring down the resale value of John D‘s house because he submitted the winning caption for this image:

contest2

“Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten into me.”

This one makes me laugh because water is going up Larry’s butt.

Jennifer and John D, please comment with your email addresses, and then I’ll delete the comments. Or you can contact me through the Perfect Strangers Reviewed Facebook page.

______________________________________________________

One more thing: I truly do only plan to put up three more posts after this one. Now, maybe someone finally gets back to me and gives me an interview, or maybe the requests I’ve put out there to find a copy of the pilot end up fruitful, or maybe Bronson finally sues me for libel. If anything on that order happens, sure, I’ll write up a post about it. I wouldn’t withhold anything like that.

But I won’t make any more efforts to get interviews, locate rare Bronson Pinchot films, purchase a mint-in-sealed-package Dimitri’s Diner apron, or open a portal to a dimension where Season 8 never aired. And if the show ever gets rebooted, no.

Fuck no.

See you next week for the inevitable Top 10/Bottom 10 post!

______________________________________________________

*”Judy Eatin’ Fries” (John Fred & His Playboys), “Covered in Goo” (38 Special), and “Bennie & Her Boobs” (Elton John) will only ever exist in my Google Drive account.

**Television Ghosts Invoke Fear

***I wanted so, so badly to do a version of Zappa’s “Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt” (“Mypiot in a Wet Cousin”). There was no karaoke track available for it, which is a shame, because the original song has a “50 bucks” line and everything.

Interview with Ross Brown, creator of Meego

On March 22, 2019, I had the opportunity to speak with Ross Brown. Ross Brown has been a writer and producer on television sitcoms since 1985, for shows including Webster, Step by Step, The Facts of Life, and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. He also created the 1997 sitcom Meego, which starred Bronson Pinchot.

001

I really appreciate you taking the time out of your day to answer some questions I have.

Sure, sure, I appreciate–I’m glad you sent me the questions, there, and I think I can answer… most of them. Some of them I don’t know the answer to!

You’re credited as the creator of Meego.

I am!

 

So what, in 1997, what went into creating a network sitcom back then?

Well, there were several ways it happened, but in… it could happen, but in general, a writer/producer/showrunner would go to a network and pitch an idea. Sometimes you would have an actor attached to it. In this case, the process started with Bronson. I knew that CBS was going to be looking for a family comedy, because they were looking to expand the amount of family comedies they…  or, family-friendly comedies they had. And, so I talked to Bronson, because I was working with him at that time on Step by Step. He had a part on Step by Step, and I said “You know, look, if it’s going to be a family show there need to be kids, and you tend to play an Other, there, and you’ve already played a, a, somebody from a foreign country, so…” You know, I said “What if we did, you know, Mary Poppins from outer space?”, basically. A nanny from outer space. And Bronson said “Okay, that could be fun.” And so we developed the idea, we talked about it together, we talked about it with the production company that I worked for and that Bronson worked for at that time–Miller-Boyett–and then, you know, went with them to meet with the senior executives at CBS, and pitched the idea. And they liked it, and from that point, I wrote a script, and they gave me some feedback on the script, and then we shot the pilot.

012

What was the turnaround time on that? How long did that take to go from the pitch…?

Golly… Usually from the pitch to getting a story approved for, you know, there’s one thing, when you pitch a pilot, you are usually not pitching the story of the pilot episode. You’re pitching the series concept. What is the series gonna be about, in a, from a 30,000-foot view? And then you go in separately and you pitch the actual story of the pilot episode. You know, so you’ve gotta make some decisions. You can pitch a story about a nanny from outer space, but are you showing that person being hired? Or are you picking the story up where that person’s already been working for the family for five years? You know, those kind of decisions.

So but I’d say it takes about three months from when you pitch an idea and get approval for it, to then go develop a pilot story, refine it, go back into the–when–probably about two months. Develop the story, and then another couple months to write and re-write the script, show it to the producers before you show it to the network, and then show it to the network and get feedback from them.

193

I think something that I’m not aware of, you know, in looking at these shows is: how does it come about that someone like Bronson is working with CBS to try to develop a show. Did they reach out to the actor or the other way around?

I’m going on my memory now. My memory is that I talked to Bronson first, and he was comfortable working with me. And then we went to the senior producers, to Tom Miller and Bob Boyett. And they said “Yes, and we’re going to be talking with CBS.” And then they made the call to CBS and said “We want to pitch a show for Bron… with Bronson attached to it.”

So but there are other shows–not this one–but there are other shows where the network has made a, a deal with an actor saying “We’re looking for a pilot for you” and so they’ll have a deal with an actor already, and then they make pitches from writers about shows that could star that actor or actress. Or they may have a writer pitch a separate show that they really like and then say “Have you thought about Actor X for that show?” And they–so it happens in different configurations.

 

Right. And that latter situation that you’re referring to, I suspect that was– I mean, I don’t have information on this, but I suspect that may have been how Bronson’s previous sitcom, The Trouble with Larry, came about.

Could be. I don’t know, but it could be.

468

Let me ask you about the writing aspect of it. Because the popular image of the television writers’ room–it’s just a bunch of funny people spitballing their ideas.

(Laughs)

 

So how do stories get developed, and broken, and, you know, script assignments given out?

Sure. Well, every writing room is not the same. There are some, I’m told–though I was not there–I’m told that the Frasier writing room was quite sedate and scholarly. And people would say [adopts a sedate voice] “Well, what if this happened and Frasier said something like that that?” “Yeah, that’s funny.” And they were not particularly raucous. And other rooms are raucous, there. But I’ll tell you what my general process was on Meego and other family sitcoms. I would come in with the writers, and there would be, say, myself and five or six other writers. And we would spend the first couple of… we would come in 6-8 weeks before we were going to start shooting episodes, which would generally be 6-8 weeks before they were going to start airing on television. So we were coming in right after around Memorial Day, if the show’s going to premiere in September. And we’d spend a couple of days saying “Let’s just talk about every half-baked idea anybody has for the show.” And we’d throw out 50 ideas, and then try and say “Well, which of these seem the most promising?”, see if any themes emerge from that. And when we identify the most promising idea or where we might want to start, we talk that story through. Usually it would take the writing staff a full day to sort of grapple with the story and say “Okay, so what are the themes? How do we use the other characters in the show that aren’t featured in this particular story line? Can they have a role in this storyline? Do they need to be part of a, what’s called a B-story or a subplot?” And really lay the story out scene by scene.

178

Then, on most shows, you have to clear the story with the network. So the showrunner–me, in this case–would call the network person and briefly describe the outline of the story. And they would comment on it, and give you notes if they had any. And then I would–at that point in time, that’s all group work. Then when an actual draft has to get written, you’d send one of the writers out of the room and say “Okay, you’re going to go write the first draft of this.” And I’d give that writer six or seven working days to write a first draft of the script, and then the rest of the room would go on to episode two. “What are we going to do for the second episode?” Pick a story, and go through the whole process once again.

Eventually, the writer writing the first draft will turn in the draft to the group. Everybody will read it, and then we’ll get together and talk about the–what our reaction to the draft is, what seems to be working well, what doesn’t work quite as well, are there things that should be re-written, or are there missing things? And then the group will reconvene as a group and do a re-write. And if I were leading the group, I’d say “I’m good until page 3, anybody, anybody got anything before page 3? No? Okay, on page 3, this line here doesn’t quite work for me. Let’s try and find another joke”, or “Let’s find”–”I’m not sure I believe this attitude that the character’s expressing” or whatever, and we work through the whole script until we have a revised version.

426

Then you get into the production cycle of it, which is–there’s a table reading with the actors, where the actors read the script out loud, and you have the crew there, the writer/producers, the studio and the network representatives and the director. And you get another glimpse of what’s working and what isn’t working. You get feedback–certainly from Bronson if it’s a show that features Bronson as the lead actor–and the writers do a re-write. And then the next day the actors rehearse it from 10 to 4 and you come and see what’s called a run-through. And they perform the script without cameras, and then you get more clues about what needs to be re-written. And you do that again a second time, on a Wednesday. Thursday’s a technical day, a camera-blocking day. And Friday you shoot the show in front of an audience. And that’s the basic process.

One of your questions was whether the show was filmed in front of a live audience. It was, largely, although there were some scenes–because of the magic elements in the show–that needed to be pre-taped. Because they had, they were technically cumbersome and you needed to start and stop a lot and things, scenes that did not flow in front of an audience. But by and large, it was a live audience sitcom.

272

One of the things that I see about Bronson across many of the things that he’s done is that he really likes to improvise.

Yes.

064

He likes to come up with jokes on the spot, especially when he’s doing characters. So what kind of leeway has to be made in the script for an actor who likes to do that?

Bronson does more than improvise. He will come in in rehearsal with ideas for jokes and so on. So some of the jokes that were not http://cuts%20out that get filmed, you know, Bronson’s been working on all week on that stuff, and some of it he might improvise in the moment. But I–when you’re, when you do live audience comedy, and you’ve got somebody who is skilled at improvisation, and at creation and so on, like Bronson is… that’s a gift, and you’ve got to make room for that. You’re a fool if you don’t make room for that. And, look, Bronson is a highly-trained actor in addition to being a very funny guy, and he knows when there’s an essential part of the script that he can’t just eliminate, that’s part of the storytelling. And he wouldn’t, you know, throw you that kind of a curveball, there. But I really value Bronson’s input on the show.

103

Absolutely. One of things I’m trying to suss out is, you know, how much is him and how much, you know, is everything else. So that’s very illuminating.

Well, because live audience sitcoms have this rehearsal process, there’s–it’s–you really get to work together with the writers and the actors and the director during a rehearsal process and a preview process, very much like a play. And so it’s collaboration.

070

For the other cast on Meego, how are those decisions made?

Ed Begley, Jr. was suggested to us by CBS, and we really liked the suggestion, thought he’d be great for the dad in the show. Jonathan Lipnicki was, was, I believe, already in mind when we wrote the little kid character, that–once we knew we were going to have a family–that he had become fairly well-known because of the Jerry Maguire movie. And we said “Well, let’s put him in a TV show”, so we wrote the part for Jonathan. The other two kid actors, we held auditions for the part, and ended up with the actors we did.

004

I think there were a lot of great casting decisions. Ed Begley, Jr.–he’s, I feel like he’s the rare sitcom dad that can kind of rib somebody, but you can tell it’s from love.

I really like Ed as an… he’s, you know, he’s a terrifically nice person, but also he’s a very good actor. And he was somebody that, you know, I hadn’t seen as a sitcom dad at that point in time. And so it felt fresh.

 

I want to go back–you were talking about, you know, submitting scripts to CBS. Just to give you my background, I was born in 1984, and so I–in my mind, some time in the mid-90s, you know, there seemed to be a shift in network sitcoms to a little bit more blue humor. So what were the boundaries?

Unquestionably. Well, there’re different boundaries. And it’s, you know, it’s… I remember–this is not about Meego, but I tried to do, use a word. And I don’t even remember what the word was, but whatever word I wanted to use–this was not CBS, this was an ABC show I was doing–they said “You can’t say that on your show.” I said “Why not? They used that word on Roseanne, which is on your network at 9 o’clock, and my show’s on your network at 9 o’clock.” And they said “Yes, but the audience has a different expectation for the shows on TGIF on Friday night than they do for other parts of the week.”

367

And so they, you know, the–each network has a, an actual department that’s called Broadcast Standards or Standards & Practices or something like that, and they review each script and send you a memo that says “You–We have a problem with this word” or some–”this other word” or so on, you know. I went through this on a pilot–again, not on CBS, on another network–where it had a scene where… the show was about a… the older brother of the family having to adopt his younger brothers and sisters and being the youngest dad in the world at age 23 [this would be the 1995-1997 series Kirk–Casey]. And it had a scene where a six-year-old boy came in and said “I’m ready for school” and the script said he was wearing a cowboy vest and underpants, and… and they sent me a note saying “Russell”–that was the little boy’s name–”must be wearing boxer shorts.” And I called them back and said “He’s six. He doesn’t wear boxer shorts. He’s a little boy, he wears, like Spider-man underpants.” And they said “Well, we don’t want to be seeing–we have a rule on our network that all males in their underwear have to be wearing boxer shorts.” I said “Yeah, but this male is six! It’ll look stupid if he’s wearing boxer shorts.” And they said “Well, we don’t want to be seeing any bulges on television.” I said “Once again: he’s six, he doesn’t have a bulge.” And they finally, they finally relented and let me show a six-year-old boy wearing underpants on television.

But to get to the heart of your question: there used to be something on television–earlier–that was called “the family hour”. And you were expected to have shows between… in the first hour of prime time–so 8 o’clock to 9 o’clock on the West and East coast, and 7 to 8 in the middle of the country–that were family-friendly, and had rules about language and so on. That went away in the 90s, and it was left up to the networks to make decisions. And they started putting shows like Friends on at 8 o’clock.  And so you were then in a position, even if you were doing a family show, of going “My god! These other shows are, have much more appeal to adults, how am I going to compete with that?” And it’s part of why shows like Step by Step and Meego and all the TGIF shows stopped being on television. They’re just… they couldn’t compete.

 

I never knew that!

Yep! And they, you know, largely now, those family-friendly shows are available on Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel, and not on broadcast networks.

324

That clarifies so much! I’m also remembering when I was a kid, having to beg my parents to let me stay up past 9 to watch the shows that were a little, you know, more risque.

Right.

Well, and, you know, I should say: with the Standards & Practices people, it’s not just risque or nudity on adult dramas that they deal with, you know, they deal with all kinds of things. There are books out there–and I don’t remember the title of them–but that have collections of these Standards & Practices notes, some of which are humorous. You know, they–in gory shows, where they’ll say “We assume that when character A gets shot in the head, it will be done tastefully.”

 

(Laughs) That’s great!

(Laughing) So, yeah, and then they…they, they used to–I’m told–that there were network notes–maybe not Standards & Practices notes–and I think there’s actually a whole book with this title out there–on a show My Favorite Martian where they gave the note “A Martian wouldn’t say that.” Which would lead one to say “How exactly do you know what Martians do or don’t say?”

What else can I answer for you?

467

The big question is: Meego ended up being cancelled, at least in the US, halfway through. Like, I think six or seven episodes into the full 13. So how does that kind of decision get made?

Yep.  It gets made based on ratings, and… at the time, what happened was CBS picked up two shows that had been part of the ABC TGIF lineup that were done by the same production company, by Miller-Boyett, and Warner Bros. They picked up Family Matters and Step by Step. And then they ordered Meego and one other show, and I can’t remember what that other show was off the top of my head. It might have been a Gregory Hines sitcom.

239

I think you’re correct.

Anyway, anyway, the–so on one week, Family Matters–which was the lead-off show for the night–ran a re-run on ABC and it got a 15 share. And then the following week, the new episode–and new episodes almost always get better ratings than re-runs–but the new episode, for the first time was on CBS at 8 o’clock, and it got a 10 share. So they’d gotten a 15 share one week with a re-run on ABC, and a 10 share w– (laughing) with a brand new episode of the same show a week later on CBS. It just… that what was clear was: the audience wasn’t mov–the family audience that had been loyal to these kind of shows on ABC wasn’t showing up on CBS. It just wasn’t… CBS could not get their audience younger. And they–it took them a long time to try to, for CBS to get their audience younger, and they’ve tried various things. And they still are not as young as ABC was in those days.

 

Yeah, and looking at the reporting from that time, it seemed that Family Ma–getting Family Matters and Step by Step was, was essentially a major coup for CBS.

It absolutely was a coup. They were two, you know, established shows, and… that had loyal audiences for many years. But, look. Family Matters was in its 9th year, and Step by Step was in its 7th year, and, you know, they… It’s very hard, especially with kid and family shows to keep that going for a really, really long time, in part because the kids aren’t really kids anymore! You know, they’re in their 20s (laughing) and you’re trying to tell… to figure out how can I tell a convincing story about someone who, in reality, is two years away from the characters they’re portraying on Friends? But I can’t do those stories.

You know, they had trouble when we had gotten, on Step by Step, the oldest girl was in her 20s, the character was, at that time. And we got her a boyfriend, and there was a scene where she was making out with her boyfriend. And the person at ABC was like horrified and going “Oh my god! Dana’s just, you know, making out with this guy!” I said “Dana’s in her 20s! In real life she’s doing a lot more than making out with her boyfriend, and this is a cheat, what we’re doing.”

But, you know, that’s TV. Or, that kind of TV.

368

So, in terms of Meego, were there sort of general ideas of where to take the show if it had gone to a second season? Like larger story arcs?

You know, we–the larger story arcs really would be “Well, would the dad find out where Meego really came from?” You’d probably play that sort of tension there. But mostly what happens in a, in a family sitcom where you have kids, the new angles for the stories have, at least half of what influences that, is what age the kids turn each year, and what are the rites of passage for a kid at that age. So, you know, if you … in that case, we had Michelle Trachtenberg, who was, you know, 12 years old, I think, on, or so, on the show. I’m sure that she would eventually start dating boys and Meego would have to get involved with that, if we got that far in the show. Because, you know, you just follow the natural evolution. In fact, that’s–to get back to your original question, where did it–how do you come up with story ideas. Part of what I would do with the writers in the early pre-production development is say “Okay, let’s talk about each of the characters”–the kids, what age they are, and “what was going on in any of your lives or your kids’ lives when they were a boy or a girl that age?” And we’d, you know, you’d say “Well, that’s the year we went to the prom” or “That’s the year you get your driver’s license” or “That’s the year you go to your first boy/girl dance” or whatever, and those would be sort of–the starting points for finding stories is just real life and rites of passage for kids and families in those phases.

502

That makes sense. So, of the 13 episodes that got made, do you have a favorite?

Well, we only got to make 10, as I recall. They ordered 13, but cancelled us, and I think we only made 10 and I’m not sure–as you said, I don’t think they aired all of them, there.  I don’t–you know, the pilot’s my favorite just because I spent the most time on it, there. But it’s been a long time since I did the other episodes, and I’m not sure I remember them in as much detail as you might want me to.

079

That’s fair. It has been 20 years.

Although I will tell you this, that this is ironic to get a call from you about this, because literally two weeks ago a guy who’d grown up in France and I think is now going to school in New York wrote me and asked if I had copies of any of the episodes, because it was his favorite show growing up in France. So somehow (laughing) it made it to France!

Jaleel White showed up in a couple of episodes of Meego in uncredited parts. A lot of people take that–that that was his Urkel character showing up, because he’s wearing the glasses and all. So can you settle the big internet argument as to whether it was Urkel?

I can’t! Because I don’t even remember Jaleel being in the episodes! (…) I don’t have any memory of how that came about. I know there were–at various times that I’m mixing up–some of them were on Step by Step, and some might have been on Meego, where there was discussion of “Can we have Urkel in the episode?” And if we did, I’m sure they wanted people to think it was Urkel, or know for sure it was Urkel because Urkel was one of the most popular characters on television then.

080

The mystery goes on! Any other memories or thoughts on Meego?

I don’t have anything else to add. You know, it was fun to do, it’s disappointing when it gets cancelled, but, you know, most TV shows do get cancelled before they become hits–without becoming hits. So that’s just life in TV!

 

Thank you for your time!

Thank you!

170

Next: Prizes