‘Three’s Company’ in ‘Friends’

This scene appeared in 1994, in the second episode (the first, if you don’t count the pilot) of the NBC sitcom Friends.

The fifteen-second sequence suggests some of the things I like, and don’t like, about Friends. On the like side: the reference to Three’s Company is canny. That comedy, which aired from 1977 till 1984, was also about a coed group of young people who lived in proximity to each other (Friends doubled the number to six) and relied a lot on sex jokes and innuendo. But with this early scene, Friends’ creators — David Crane and Marta Kauffman — signaled that this was a new era. Their show would be less broad, smarter, and (I hesitate to use the word) more realistic.

On the don’t-like side: Friends relied way too much on Chandler’s sarcastic wisecracks, and often they weren’t great wisecracks. Like this one: “I think this is the episode of Three’s Company where there’s some kind of misunderstanding.” It’s well-crafted, I grant it that — although it would have been better if the writers had respected our intelligence a bit and left out the words “of Three’s Company.

More of a problem is that even in 1994, it was a tired joke. I remember going to comedy clubs in the early ’80s and hearing comedians talk about being in hotel rooms and turning on Gilligan’s Island — “It was the episode where they almost get off the island.” Beyond that, Chandler’s line isn’t specific to Three’s Company. Probably three quarters of all sitcoms, at least before the ’80s, revolved around some kind of misunderstanding.

Of course, Friends doesn’t need my approval. It’s been voted as the greatest sitcom by IMDB and Ranker, and Netflix just paid $100 million for the rights to keep airing it. It even has become the means by which just almost all Spanish-speaking baseball players attempt to learn English.

But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ (and a lot more) in ‘The Sopranos’

In an online discussion of movies-in-movies, the critic Tim Page brought up HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007). I didn’t watch the series when it was on, but the more I looked into it, the more I realized Mr. Page had opened up a can of worms. In his book The Sopranos: Born Under a Bad Sign, Franco Ricci talks about the show’s rich use of background images, objects, and actions to provide almost a counterpoint narrative to the main one: “Contemporary pop posters or recognizable artworks surge to the fore and proffer unexpected commentary behind the characters, a television dialogue playing on a distant TV set may fill in the blank spaces of silence in character dialogue.”

The stuff on the TV set is obviously to the point here. Ricci notes that series creator David Chase and the other writers depict the characters, especially Tony Soprano, as forever watching  TV, and choose carefully what they’re watching. He writes that what’s on the screen “often faithfully mirror the actions that transpire in that particular episode. Or, they may contradict information previously revealed in the episode and may portend an uncomfortable, unresolved end.”

Looming over the entire series are The Godfather and its sequels. Tony and his boys are obsessed with them, always aspiring to the Corleone family’s style and stature, always aware of how their exploits fall short. In this scene, the guys settle in to watch a bootleg copy of Godfather II, even as Tony says, “I can’t watch this again.”

I can’t decide whether the technical difficulties Chase concocted were because he thought literally seeing the movie would somehow undercut its metaphorical significance, or because he didn’t want to pay Paramount for the rights.

Ricci has an appendix in his book where he itemizes all examples of TVs playing recognizable programs in The Sopranos. There are an astonishing forty-two of them (and that’s not even including cases where commercials or news programs are on), from Tony watching his beloved History Channel in season 1 through Tony and his wife Carmella watching a rerun of Dick Cavett interviewing Katharine Hepburn in one of the last episodes of the final season.

One of the most TV-besotted episodes, if not the most, is “Where’s Johnny?”, from the fifth season in 2004. In the course of the fifty-four minutes running time, characters watch This Old House, a nature documentary about prairie dogs (nature docs are to Uncle Junior what the History Channel is to Tony), a Tony Robbins infomercial (which includes a spurious Henry James quote, “It’s time to start living the life you’ve imagined”), an unintelligible talk show, and a scene from the movie His Girl Friday which we don’t see but from which we hear a snatch of dialogue between Abner Biberman, who plays a small-time thug, and Rosalind Russell, as reporter Hildy Johnson: “Hi, Hildy. / Oh, hello, Louie. How’s the big slot-machine king? / Oh, I ain’t doin’ that no more; I’m retired.”

The implicit video commentary is so incessant that at one point, when we glimpse an unturned-on TV set, it’s shocking.

In the most notable use of video, Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), who in a subsequent scene proudly declares, “I have cable,” sits down to watch television. Tommy di Palma, who’s looking after him as his dementia worsens, clicks the channels, briefly alighting on a reality show featuring “glass-house couples” and an unidentifiable (by me) black and white film noir. He lands on “The Doll,” an episode of the HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Uncle Junior doesn’t only have cable, he has premium cable.) Junior gets some strange notions about what he’s watching.

 

A couple of ironies, or at least interesting connections, here. First is that the Curb scene is also about uncertain identity. And second, Junior really does look like Larry David, and Bobby really does look like Jeff.

Writing posts on each of the other forty-one TV-in-TV Sopranos scenes for this blog obviously isn’t a smart idea, but I definitely will pick my spots and return to the show from time to time.

 

 

“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” in “The Simpsons”

Poochie
Poochie

As viewers of The Simpsons know, The Itchy & Scratchy Show is a cartoon often watched by Bart, Lisa, and their friends; it’s about a mouse who finds ever more baroque ways to maim and/or kill a cat. The cartoon-within-a-cartoon first appeared in 1988, when the characters who would become The Simpsons were a feature of The Tracey Ullman Show, and, according to the Simpsons Wiki, has been featured eighty-seven times on The Simpsons proper.

“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” (1998) was a milestone for The Simpsons: with it, the show passed The Flintstones for the most episodes produced for a prime-time animated series. Probably not coincidentally, the episode provides a deliciously meta look at the problems confronted by a long-running show. You see, ratings for The Krusty the Clown show are plummeting whenever Itchy and Scratchy comes on, and Krusty isn’t happy. “But Itchy & Scratchy is critically acclaimed!” the cartoon’s producer, Roger Meyers Jr., tells him. “Acclaimed?” the clown snorts. “I oughta replace it right now with that Chinese cartoon where the robots turn into blingwads!”

The attempts to get Itchy & Scratchy back on its feet were surely taken from The Simpsons’ staff’s own experiences, from the self-contradictory focus groups (“So you want a realistic, down-to-earth show that’s completely off-the-wall and swarming with magic robots?”) to the notes from network execs. They’re sure the show needs a new character–a dog. “We at the network want a dog with attitude,” one suit says. “He’s edgy. He’s in your face. You’ve heard the expression ‘let’s get busy’? Well, this is a dog who gets ‘biz-zay.'” (Remember, this episode appeared in 1998, when the “let’s get biz-zay” Arsenio Hall Show had already been off the air for four years.)

The ploy doesn’t, of course, fool Lisa: “Adding a new character is often a desperate attempt to boost low ratings,” she confides to Bart. Magically and without explanation, a new kid appears in the Simpsons household, Roy; like Poochie, he wears shades and a backwards baseball cat. Á la The Fonz, he calls Homer and Marge “Mr. and Mrs. S.”

Improbably, Homer is hired to provide the voice of the cartoon dog, Poochie. He appears with “June Bellamy,” who does Itchy’s and Scratchy’s voices, at a fan event. And that gives the episode’s writer, David X. Cohen, a chance to skewer the bulletin-board-lurking obsessives The Simpsons had already begun to attract. One of them, Doug, pushes up his glasses and asks a question.

In episode 2F09, when Itchy plays Scratchy’s skeleton like a xylophone, he strikes the same rib in succession, yet he produces two clearly different tones. I mean, what are we to believe, that this is a magic xylophone, or something? Ha ha, boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder.

Homer: I’ll field that one. Let me ask *you* a question. Why would a grown man whose shirt says “Genius at Work” spend all of his time watching a children’s cartoon show?

[embarrassed pause]

Doug: I withdraw my question.

[starts eating a candy bar]

Everybody gathers at the Simpsons house to watch the episode.

Nelson’s right, it stunk. As usual, Lisa has the sharpest take: “It’s just that Poochie was a soulless by-product of committee thinking. You can’t be cool just by spouting a bunch of worn-out buzzwords.

To which Bart inevitably replies, “Don’t have a cow, Lise.”

Cohen gets in more jab at the “fans.”

Comic Book Guy: Rest assured I was on the internet within minutes registering my disgust throughout the world.

Bart: Hey, I know it wasn’t great, but what right do you have to complain?

Comic Book Guy: As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.

Bart: What? They’re giving you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? If anything, you owe them.

Comic Book Guy responds with the first iteration of what would become one of The Simpsons’ own greatest buzzwords: “Worst. Episode. Ever.”