Great Moments in Sitcom History: A Eulogy—Part 3
“Delightful Accidents and Fortuitous Blunders”
Friends, The Jack Benny Show, Seinfeld
On a cold morning in 1930, Ruth Graves Wakefield, the innkeeper/chef at the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts, was preparing her famous Butter Drop Do chocolate cookies when she realized she was fresh out of baker’s chocolate. Improvising, she found a semi-sweet chocolate bar (that had been given to her by Andrew Nestle) and cut it into little pieces, expecting the pieces to liquefy and absorb into the dough.
To Ruth’s chagrin, though, the tray she (carefully) removed from the oven did not contain Butter Drop Do chocolate cookies. It did, however, contain butter cookies stuffed with slightly softened chocolate chunks. And so began America’s braying waddle toward childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes.
The point is, like chocolate chip cookies, several of the most iconic moments in sitcom history were the result of delightful accidents and fortuitous blunders…
Greg Malins (Head Writer: Friends): On the fourth season of Friends, we knew that Ross was going to marry that British girl Emily in the season finale, but we had no idea how it was going to end. Should Rachel stop the wedding? Should he stop it? Should Chandler and Joey talk him out of it? We were filming an episode a few weeks before and Ross had a scene where he was supposed to come into the apartment and say something like, “The cab is waiting downstairs, Emily.” But David mistakenly said, “The cab is waiting downstairs, Rachel.” I realized that’s what should happen in the finale: Ross should mistakenly say, “I take thee, Rachel” instead of “Emily.”
Claudia Lonow (Writer/Creator: Rude Awakening, Accidentally on Purpose): It was the best modern season ending, ever. I was with my stepdaughter when I saw it for the first time and we both went, “Oh, shit!”
Greg Malins: It turned out to be a pretty cool moment that people seemed to really like and remember. I like that story because the answer to our problem didn’t come from hours of hard work racking our brains—it came from something as simple as David Schwimmer flubbing a line. I wish it were always that easy.
Accidental good fortune also resulted in one of the longest laughs ever recorded in a situational comedy. But as writer Jay Kogen (The Simpsons, Frasier, Malcolm in the Middle) explains, good fortune in a sitcom is only as good as the strength of its characters— and the actors portraying those characters.
Jay Kogen: I’m not sure if this counts as the greatest moment in sitcom history because it was on the radio, but it’s the greatest moment in program history. On The Jack Benny Program, Benny’s character was insanely, hilariously cheap. When a robber comes up to him and says, “Your money or your life!” the audience roars with laughter before Benny even says a word. Then the robber says, “Look, bud, I said your money or your life!” And Benny says, “I’m thinking it over.”
The genius of this moment is that it can only come from a show that you’ve established all this information over the course of years. We know Benny. So nothing needs to be explained. That’s perfection. When I have written moments on shows like Frasier and The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle where a look says more and gets a bigger laugh than words ever could, I tip my hat in gratitude to “Your money or your life.”
Whether this is the longest laugh ever recorded is up for debate, largely due to the fact that, like this laugh and and this laugh and this laugh and even this laugh (following a joke written by one of our esteemed commentators, Eric Gilliland) Benny’s laugh was actually too long and had to be cut for broadcast. Regardless, fine company indeed.
But as George Balzer explains, the punch line was, essentially, an accident.
George Balzer (Writer: The Jack Benny Program): John Tackaberry and Milt Josefsberg [Jack Benny writers] came to a point where they had the line, “Your money or your life.” And that stopped them. Milt was pacing up and down, trying to get a follow. And he got a little peeved at Tack, and he said, “For God’s sakes, Tack, say something.” Tack, maybe he was half asleep—in defense of himself, says, “I’m thinking it over.” And Milt says, “Wait a minute. That’s it.” And that’s the line that went in the script. [via The Laugh Crafters: Comedy Writing in Radio and TV’s Golden Age]
In the process of researching a slew of accidental moments of sitcom brilliance, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that the final scene of our favorite Seinfeld episode was also a product of fortuitous blunder—a term that, according to the show’s cast and creator, embodied everything magical about the series.
Click here for more information about the sitcom writers and actors featured in this series.
- — C. Brian Smith