PART TWO: “The 20 Year Callback”

As we introduced yesterday, the “sitcom moment” (i.e., Sam proposing to Diane on the boat, Seinfeld’s “Master of Your Domain,” Lucy at the chocolate factory) has died. In memoriam, we asked some of the most respected sitcom writers and actors working today to pick their favorite moment in sitcom history.

Which is kind of like asking a fat kid to pick his favorite slice of pie…

Phil Rosenthal (Creator/Writer: Everybody Loves Raymond): One moment? That’s impossible.

Jonathan Schmock (Writer/Director: Real Time with Bill Maher): There are so many.

Eric Gilliland (Writer/Executive Producer: Roseanne): By asking me to choose only one moment, you do realize you’re asking me to ignore “Vitameatavegamin.”

Nell Scovell (Creator/Writer: Sabrina, The Teenage Witch;The Simpsons): And the life raft inflating in the Petrie living room on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Greg Malins (Writer/Executive Producer: Friends, Will & Grace): It’s hard to pick one moment because I watched so many sitcoms growing up, they’ve all kind of melded in my brain into one giant episode. Like, The Brady Brunch goes to Hawaii where Mallory has to confront a teacher who touched her inappropriately played by Mork’s son, Jonathan Winters who lived in an egg. Willis tried tried to tell his brother about it but he didn’t understand what he was talking about then Newhart woke up and it was a dream. Then at the end Ted Danson pulled off his wig and it gave me nightmares about going bald.

Phil Rosenthal: Every moment with my family on Raymond was a gift. Here’s one off the top of my head. MARIE: Don’t you tell me to be quiet. I have a mind of my own, you know, I can contribute. I’m not just some trophy wife. FRANK: You’re a trophy wife? What contest in hell did I win?

Eric Gilliland: There’s Rhoda’s Wedding…

Nell Scovell: And the substitute teacher (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) handing Lisa Simpson a note that read simply: “You are Lisa Simpson.”

Claudia Lonow (Writer/Creator: Rude Awakening, Accidentally on Purpose): And Mork’s first appearance on Happy Days. But maybe that’s just because Robin Williams had been sleeping on my floor for a month.

Stephen Root (Actor: King of the Hill, News Radio, Office Space): And Sammy Davis Jr. kissing Archie Bunker.

Claudia Lonow: And when Phyllis suspects Mary Tyler Moore of sleeping with Lars and says: “Did you know Lars has a pathological fear of getting hair stuck in his throat?”

Merrill Markoe (Writer/Creator: Late Night with David Letterman): On The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Burns played a guy who had a show. When he wanted to find out how the rest of the plot was progressing with his wife Gracie in the scenes he wasn’t in, he’d go upstairs, turn on the TV and watch his own show: Gracie, plotting behind his back with other characters. That double-edged surrealism so killed me that I kind of tuned out sitcoms for a long time afterward.

Nell Scovell: There’s Taxi when Alex opens the door for Death (a Girl Scout).

Stephen Root: And Opie shooting a bird with a slingshot and raising the baby birds on The Andy Griffith Show.

Eric Gilliland:…and Chuckles the Clown’s funeral on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

(Incidentally, the fat kid picked his favorite slice of pie a while back.)

Eric Gilliland: …and Roseanne, Dan and Jackie getting stoned in the bathroom.

Kevin Rooney (Retired Comedian/Writer): I don’t know what these people are talking about. My favorite moments of sitcoms I worked on (all bad) all concern personal interactions with other writers and staff in the writing room.

Kevin RooneyKevin Rooney, Retired Comedian/Writer

Jonathan Schmock: Those types of moments are not to be shared with “civilians.” Sorry. I don’t know if winemakers save the best, most complex wine for themselves, but sitcom writers do. They come in a flash and are gone, unexplainable.

Kevin Biggins (Writer: The Cleveland Show, Tosh.O): The jokes that don’t make it into scripts are often the funniest. Dirty stuff. Sometimes sexist. Mostly racist.

Kevin Rooney: …but the shows themselves and the scripts we were working on? No moment stands out as funny or interesting. Nothing. Junk. Distractions used to sell soap.

David Pressman (Actor/Comedian: Newhart, Mr. Sunshine): I loved the “very special” episodes. Like when Gary Coleman was molested by a photographer (Gordon Jump) on Diff’rent Strokes. Or in Growing Pains when Tracey Gold’s boyfriend (Matthew Perry) drives drunk and dies. Good Times seemed to have a “very special” episode every other week. But my personal favorite was when Edith was raped on All in the Family.

Moving right along.

Our esteemed panel of writers and actors did, eventually, choose their favorite moment of all time and, miraculously, each of those moments was different. With one exception: every one of them mentioned the finale of Newhart.

Wayne Federman (Actor/Writer: Curb Your Enthusiasm, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon): It was a superb gag that was 18 years in the making. Nothing else is even close in my book. (By the way, my “book” is currently out of print.)

A quick recap: The Bob Newhart Show ran from 1972 to 1978 and featured Bob Newhart as a Chicago psychiatrist named Robert Hartley. Newhart ran from 1982 to 1990 and featured Bob Newhart as an author named Dick Loudon who owned and operated an inn in Vermont.

In the final episode of Newhart, a Japanese firm buys up all the land in the town to build a golf course. After being knocked out by a stray golf ball, the scene cuts to a darkened bedroom: Bob Hartley’s bedroom from The Bob Newhart Show, where we learn that the entire Newhart series was all a dream.

Bob Newhart (Actor/Comedian, The Bob Newhart Show, Newhart): We were apprehensive. We didn’t know how it would be received because St. Elsewhere had been received negatively—people said, “We devoted all this time to this show and cared about these people and now you’re telling us it’s a dream?”

David Pressman: I had the honor of being on the last episode of Newhart, playing Mr. Rusnak, the town’s racist shoe salesman. To this day, that was the best job I’ve ever had. Anyway, I didn’t know the big reveal of it all being a dream until tape night. Don’t remember how they kept it a secret, but they did.

Bob Newhart: No one knew. That scene never appeared in a script, because we knew the tabloids would get ahold of it. I told some of the cast that morning. Later on, when the crew came back from dinner I said, “We’ve added a scene. Camera ‘A’ goes here, camera ‘B’ goes here, ‘C’ goes there, and when we pull the floater which hides the set from the audience, just start your cameras and keep shooting, no matter what happens.”

Nell Scovell: My first sitcom job was on the last season of Newhart, so I was there and got to stand in The Bob Newhart Show bedroom set. I’d watched that show as a kid so it was a very strange feeling. Like I’d ventured through the looking glass.

TV GUIDE named it “The Most Unexpected Moment in TV History”—including sporting events.

Bob Newhart: We brought Suzie [Suzanne Pleshette, who played Bob’s wife in The Bob Newhart Show] in from two sound stages over and snuck her into the bed. When they pulled the floater away, the audience recognized the bedroom set and started applauding even before they saw Suzie or me. We were apprehensive, but when we got the audience reaction we said, “That’s it.”

—C.B.S.
 

PART THREE: “Delightful Accidents and Fortuitous Blunders” – Friends, The Jack Benny Show, Seinfeld

Click here for more information about the sitcom writers and actors featured in this series.

CONTRIBUTORS

  • C. Brian Smith