Great Moments in Sitcom History: A Eulogy – Part 5
Part One: “We Gather Together” — The Cosby Show
Part Two: “The 20 Year Callback” — The Newhart Finale
Part Three: “Delightful Accidents and Fortuitous Blunders” – Friends, The Jack Benny Program, Seinfeld
Part Four: “The Hams” Lucy, Gervais, Silvers, AbFab, SCTV, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show Ensemble
WE’RE IN THIS THING TOGETHER:
Honeymooners, All in the Family, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Roseanne
The remains of the World Trade Center were still smoldering less than a week after 9/11 when The Late Show with David Letterman returned to regular programming, the first non-news broadcast to do so. The show that night opened in silence – no music, no credits, no monologue – just a pensive, shaken David Letterman seated at his desk.
David Letterman: Welcome to The Late Show. It’s terribly sad here in New York City. We’ve lost [thousands of] fellow New Yorkers, and you can feel it. You can feel it. You can see it. It’s terribly sad. Terribly, terribly sad. And watching all of this, I wasn’t sure that I should be doing a television show, because for twenty years we’ve been in the city, making fun of everything, making fun of the city, making fun of my hair, making fun of Paul—
Letterman gestures to his loyal sidekick who, true to form, smiles and bows his head in deference. The audience laughs. Not a big laugh, but certainly the biggest on national television that week. And as Archie Bunker once said…
“Laughter puts years on your life.”
Jonathan Schmock (Writer/Director, Real Time with Bill Maher): That line comes from my favorite episode of All in the Family, “Stretch Cunningham, Goodbye.” Archie’s friend Stretch dies and Archie is asked to deliver a eulogy at the funeral. He bitches and moans about it. Then he discovers in the moment at the funeral that his pal Stretch was Jewish. Archie and Edith open the doors at the funeral home and the audience literally gasps a moment before they open the doors.
Jonathan Schmock: The whole episode is brilliant. Simple. No real guest cast. Just a simple, not very likable guy grappling with mortality and getting through it. You can tell the crew had curtained off the scene (the Star of David, the men in yarmulkes, etc) and unveiled it just as the Bunkers walk in, because everything changes. Completely different tone. All of a sudden it’s about life and death and very funny.
The eulogy is great because it’s a wonderful example of someone saying everything wrong and yet everything right at the same time. The final moment when Archie puts his hand of the coffin and says “Shalom” to his friend made me tear up. Then of course, there’s a joke.
Without exception, the very best sitcoms contain the following ingredients: Relatable characters in believable situations experiencing real, human emotions while attempting to overcome conflict and adversity in a comedic fashion. Few have executed this as successfully as Phil Rosenthal, creator, writer, and executive producer of Everybody Loves Raymond. Several years ago, Rosenthal was asked to adapt Raymond for Russian television and his experience (struggling to) do so is the subject of a 2011 documentary, Exporting Raymond, a hilarious film which also demonstrates how quickly a sitcom can lose its way when one or more of the ingredients listed above is missing.
Phil Rosenthal: Sony brought The Nanny over a few years ago, which fit right in since it was big and broad and The Russians only had sketch and variety shows for comedy on TV. The next adaptation, Married with Children was also successful for the same reason. When we brought Raymond over and I told them the tone was more like real life, they said “Real life here is terrible, why would we put that on television?” So it was a struggle, not just to get emotion into the show, but any behavior we’d recognize as believable from human beings.
Phil Rosenthal: My favorite moment in sitcom history is from my beloved “Honeymooners” and speaks to your point about ‘emotion’ directly. I cry every time I see it, and could well up just thinking about it. In this episode, Norton has pissed off Ralph so badly that Ralph has ended the friendship. He’s not even going bowling with Norton. He’s got a new best friend, (who acts exactly like Norton). As Ralph is about to go out bowling with his new buddy, there’s a knock at the door. There’s been an explosion in the sewer and Norton’s been hurt. Ralph is stunned and says “It’s my fault he was down there tonight. If something happened to Norton, I’d never forgive myself.” And his new friend says, “You just got done telling me you were through with him.” And Ralph gets in this guy’s face and says, “What I say about Norton is one thing, what I feel about him is another!” And he storms out the door as the audience cheers.
Phil Rosenthal: This moment cements the bond you know these two nincompoops have for each other, and more than that cements you to them as people: real friends that you care about. It ups the stakes not just for the episode, but for the series, and shows true compassion onscreen. Norton only made you laugh (perhaps the funniest character ever on tv?) and the thought of him hurt devastated me as it did Ralph. This serious moment also does something else, it provides perfect contrast and set up for what’s to come: Ralph rushes to the hospital to give Norton a transfusion, but there’s been a mistake: Norton’s fine (a sewer cap just landed on his head) and Ralph has to go ahead with the transfusion for a stranger. Norton sees Ralph’s big belly pass by on a gurney and gets weepy that Ralph was there for him. I love these guys and always will.
Eric Gilliland (Executive Producer/Head Writer – Roseanne): The Dick Van Dyke Show is the reason I went into sitcom writing. Unlike other shows of its time, this one offered huge laughs and dug into characters’ hearts a bit – and that’s the best one can hope for and aspire to in a situational comedy. My favorite scene comes from the first episode of the last season.
Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore) was on a game show and the smarmy host tricked her into telling all of America that Alan Brady (Carl Reiner), an incredibly vain and megalomaniacal TV star and, more to the point, her husband’s boss, wears a toupee and is actually bald. Unbeknownst to her husband, Rob (Van Dyke), she bravely goes to Alan’s office to try to apologize and save his job. The characters had been so well established that the second you see the nicest, cutest woman in America timidly approach this hilarious ogre of a man… well, the scene is electric.
Eric Gilliland: Carl Reiner is at his meanest, sarcastic best. As she stammers her way through an apology, Alan gets angrier and angrier – and funnier and funnier. And yet, considering how absolutely, over-the-top mad he is… for the first time in the series, we see Alan show a tiny little moment of compassion. And reason. And maturity. It’s brief. But it’s there. When Alan asks what he should do with all these now-useless toupees, Laura earnestly offer up, “There must be some… needy bald people.” Sure, it’s a huge laugh line. But it comes out of the sincerity of a woman grasping at straws to make the awful situation better. Only it makes it worse.
I would never have been able to write for a show like Roseanne had it not been for scenes like that in The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Nell Scovell: The very end of the Roseanne pilot has stayed with me. Dan and Roseanne are in the middle of an argument in the kitchen when the middle daughter runs in bleeding with a cut hand. They patch her up and move on from their fight. Roseanne turns to Dan and says, “You hungry?” He says, “No.” She says, “I’ll start dinner.”
Eric Gilliland: “Make the big small, and the small big” was one of the writing credos on Roseanne. In the first episode I ever wrote for the show, both Roseanne and Dan were unemployed and incredibly broke. To complicate matters, their eldest daughter, Becky, defiantly eloped with her boyfriend, Mark, and moved to Minnesota. Just when you thought things couldn’t suck worse for the Connors, the electric company cuts off their power for lack of payment.
Darlene is getting the brunt of her parents’ grief and anger about Becky’s elopement (Dan hasn’t talked to Becky in weeks). Darlene’s boyfriend, David (Johnny Galecki), accidentally spends the night in Darlene’s room (They were innocently working on a comic book.). At the end of all the yelling and the accusations, seeing that the family falling apart even more, quietly, alone in the middle of the night, Dan calls Becky. Not to yell or scold or judge – but rather, to make sure her apartment has been winterized. It’s a quiet moment where a father becomes a father again. We didn’t end the episode on a laugh, or a big specific wrap up of their problems where people apologize and hug. That wasn’t our thing. Because that’s not how things usually play out in life. And that’s why I was honored to work on that show for four years. And that’s why I am honored to write for sitcoms.
“Great Moments in Sitcom History: A Eulogy – Conclusion” – Modern Family/Two and a Half Men began the 2011-2012 season with record ratings and sitcoms appear to, for the first time in a decade, be stealing viewers from reality programs. But will the moments return, too? As the credits roll on this series, we ask our panel of sitcom writers and actors to share with us their favorite moments from shows they worked on. We’ll be right back…
- — C. Brian Smith