Sometimes the world looks perfect, nothing to rearrange; sometimes you just get a feeling like you need some kind of change. Well, standing tall on the wings of my dreams (whatever that’s supposed to mean), Perfect Strangers became the anchor show for TGIF in 1988 in its fourth season on television, joining the insipid Full House, stalwart Mr. Belvedere, and I-barely-remember-it Just the Ten of Us.
For those of you not familiar with a 30-year-old TV show, Perfect Strangers is a sitcom following the adventures of know-nothing know-it-all Larry Appleton and his distant foreign cousin Balki Bartokomous as they live together in an apartment in Chicago and try to make something of themselves.
Heavily relying on farce and physical comedy, along with the contrast in personalities between the arrogant Larry and the naive Balki, Perfect Strangers was a family-friendly hit and was moved from Wednesday to Friday nights to kick off the new TGIF branding. These two knuckleheads even did heavy promotion for this new block of programming:
I loved Perfect Strangers when I was a kid. It was easily one of my favorite shows and I watched hours and hours of the short-tempered Larry and goofball Balki as they went from one jam to the next.
Having vanished from TV after the show ended its run after 8 seasons and the show stopped being widely syndicated, I haven’t seen a Perfect Strangers episode in nearly 20 years. That is, until today! To keep with the TGIF theme, I’ll be watching season 4, episode 1, “The Lottery,” which was the first episode of the show to air to kick off TGIF in 1988.
I vaguely remember the broad strokes of this episode, but I was also 6 when it first aired and about 10 when I last saw it in syndication so my memory’s pretty hazy on the details. Here’s to hoping that the show holds up now nearly 30 years after its original air date.
“The Lottery” – Season 4, Episode 1
We open up on the sweet, sweet theme song, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now,” written by the same guys who wrote the Family Matters theme song, and this tune has certainly held up lo these many years. There’s those two wacky bachelors Larry and Bakli taking in the sights of Chicago as the title card of the show pops up on-screen.
The nifty summary of how they both came to Chicago and what kind of wacky human beings they are is summarized: Larry’s an egomaniac that buys the paper he writes for just to look at his byline and smile in smug satisfaction while Balki doesn’t understand how rotating doors work; and then these two are in tuxes and bounding out of the subway on their way to the Chicago Theater. Balki’s wearing short pants in this scene, which always bothered me as a kid and still bothers me as an adult (he says while wearing short pants). Anyway.
If you can see a man’s knee while he’s wearing a tux, he’s not wearing a tux right.
We zoom in on the Chicago Chronicle’s doors while a neat guitar lick plays and Balki’s the idiotic office boy that’s getting chewed out by the editor for going home at the end of the day. But the editor says sorry you wacky bitch, but you have to compile the new office directory.
But aha! Balki says I already did that, character actor! He lets Balki know that his days here are numbered because there’s no way a boss would say that to an employee that they wouldn’t want to fuck up everything in the office before quitting.
Some new character actress runs out of the elevator to let Balki know that she won the lottery and hey! Harriet from Family Matters saunters in to also say something. Harriet stops appearing in the show once she gets her own sitcom just a year after this episode, with the in-universe explanation that she quit that job to work security at some other building.
But this isn’t about Harriet; this is about some nameless lady that just showed up and started spazzing out at Balki about winning the lottery. Balki has no idea what the lottery is, and we also learn that this lady’s name is Lydia, and before she gets another line out Harriet takes over to explain to Balki what the fudge the lottery is. Turns out Lydia only won $100 and she now feels like a chump.
Speaking of chumps, Larry strolls in complaining that he had nothing to do with the issue that just got finished and he insults Lydia by saying that the lottery is a scam that fools people who missed the day they were handing out brains. Oh Larry: you’re such an asshole.
I guess with rugged good looks like this, you can be kind of a jerk.
The ladies stomp off in disapproval and Balki said yeah, Lydia won money in the lottery and I want to play the lottery and Larry says stop it, Balki, you foolish twit. As Larry explains that Balki has a better chance of getting hit by a car than winning the lottery, Balki says, “Well sure I do, but who wants to buy a ticket for that?” and it is a legitimately funny line that made me laugh. So that’s one laugh on the laugh-o-meter for Perfect Strangers–which is one more than Family Matters got out of me.
Balki begins to briskly walk out of the office while Larry says hey, you’re not playing the lottery, but who gives a shit? They’re grown men, what is Larry, Balki’s dad? It’s a dollar, who cares?
Back at their apartment, which we zoom into its window accompanied by a sexy sax, Larry opens the door and Balki comes dancing in singing “If I Were A Rich Man” from Fiddler On The Roof, and his dance actually elicits woos from the audience. Larry bitches him out about playing the lottery and spending one whole dollar, which by the way Larry is moaning about it you’d think a dollar in 1988 was worth $5000.
While Balki tries to pay him back, he also offers Larry the opportunity to share the ticket and the winnings. I have to say, this show has really good timing and Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pinchot have good chemistry together. Larry snatches the dollar from Balki and acts like a pedantic asshole about everything, which is kind of his deal. He explains how a dollar works while he trashes the lottery ticket. Dude, stop ragging on the ticket!
Balki responds that the lottery ticket is worth a shitload if it wins and then gets back up and starts dancing and singing to “If I Were A Rich Man” and elicits more woos from the audience because I guess people were hard-up back in 1988.
Pictured: The epitome of sex, circa 1988.
Another transition zoom to their apartment window and their stewardess girlfriends are there, including Balki’s idiot girlfriend. I guess idiots attract. But she says stupid stuff along with smart stuff so I guess she and Balki are made for each other.
Larry is a smug jerk-o while everyone else is just trying to enjoy their desperate lives. Balki says a bunch of noble shit about helping people if he won the lottery and the drawing commences. Balki’s hidden the ticket but has written down the numbers on a piece of paper and I smell a plot device.
He asks Larry to read the numbers out because he’s too nervous and even the way Larry takes the paper from him reeks of condescension. As the numbers are read Larry’s face changes with each number because duh, Balki’s picked the winning numbers. This elicits applause from the crowd. Stupid crowd: NONE OF THIS IS REAL, YOU IDIOTS!
The ladies get up to leave but Larry says holy smokes you Mediterranean dud, you won! And the girls give Balki a jumping hug while Larry dives for some affection but no dice–he just falls flat on his smarmy face, unloved as usual.
After commercial break (there are no commercials in The Future, but let’s just pretend we saw the Snuggle Bear and a commercial for, I don’t know, Moonlighting), we zoom back into the apartment and the ladies are leaving finally. Once they’re gone, Larry and Balki do The Dance of Joy, a running gag in the show which I loved as a kid and still find kind of endearing. Larry starts in with that “we” crap because now he’s a worm that wants the money. Balki’s like BTFO bro: how could we win if I bought the ticket? They bicker over this while Larry tries to worm his way out of this like the worm he is.
Now it’s Balki’s turn to be the smug snake and he’s really enjoying making Larry twist in the wind. I am, too: fuck that guy. Larry begins to beg like a lowlife while Balki says no worries dude, I’ll share the money with you, and Larry kind of hilariously says, “In your face, Donald Trump!” which is even funnier in The Future where that guy was our president. But they didn’t know that then. Or did they?
Anyway, Larry asks while spitting foam into Balki’s face where the ticket is and Balki says, “I hide it,” which isn’t grammatically correct but get it? He’s from another country! But this sieve doesn’t remember where he hid the ticket literally a few hours ago and why did he even hide it? Oh, that’s right: plot contrivance.
Larry starts losing it but then calms back down because this is $28 million we’re talking about, which is like a trillion dollars in today’s money. Balki thinks that he hid it in his winter coat, so Larry tears through the closet tossing out coats while Balki names which season those coats are assigned, which is also funny, so that’s three genuine laughs this episode’s evoked from me (I kind of chuckled at The Dance of Joy, I’ll be honest).
Finally getting to the winter coat, Larry digs through the pockets, not finding it. So Balki thinks maybe it’s in a cereal box, so Larry pulls out all of the cereal boxes and he and Balki dump out all of the cereal. Balki’s all jazzed he found the Captain Power decoder ring (score) and Larry starts losing his fucking mind.
“…lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes…”
Balki starts crying so Larry tries to get him to remember. Larry starts pushing him around to various places in the apartment to jog his memory to no avail. Larry starts really losing it at this point and Balki says it’s hidden behind the books so they tear off all of the books on the shelf, but nope! Balki says it’s in one of the books, so Larry begins shaking a book furiously to find it. He really goes fucking nuts at this and grabs Balki by the lapels.
Surmising that Balki must have hidden it in the corner of the carpet, Larry says no way, I would have found it while vacuuming, at which Larry just tears the fucking vacuum cleaner bag apart looking for it like an unhinged ape. This leads to dust flying all over the place and Balki picking through Larry’s hair and almost breaking character, which is also pretty funny.
They split up to destroy the apartment to look for the ticket and by the next morning, when the girls stop by to say hello before they go to work(?), the whole place is a goddamn mess.
“We’re contractually obligated to appear in at least two scenes per episode.”
Balki tearfully explains that he lost the lottery ticket and his girlfriend says well easy come, easy go, and who gives a shit? Also, duh, Balki’s girlfriend has an envelope that he asked for her to hold, and of course the fucking ticket’s in there. How his girlfriend didn’t figure this out almost immediately is beyond me.I guess her intelligence runs hot and cold, much like a broken faucet in the cheap apartment building they all live in. Anyway, Larry and Balki lose their shit at this and funky music plays as we fade into the lottery office.
They hand over the ticket and the guy behind the counter verifies the numbers while Balki and Larry are just going bonkers in a little bit of physical comedy that makes me laugh a bit. Turns out they’re off by two numbers. Duh, idiots.
Larry doesn’t react to this information well, and by that like a sane person, and tries to get the millions of dollars he thought he was going to get by letting his furious spittle fly in the clerk’s face, but Balki pulls him back. Turns out they won $100 and Larry has a mental breakdown.
Back at their trashed pad, Larry is suicidal while Balki says don’t worry, cousin, we did win the lottery! We won $100! A bunch of dated references about what $100 could buy in 1988 are read off, including a pair of Air Jordans (not anymore), 20 trips to the top of Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower and it would buy you 4 trips), and a 4-year subscription to Sports Illustrated Magazine (not in 2017). Man, inflation is depressing.
And the May 1988 Sports Illustrated cover featuring Michael Jordan? Priceless.
Larry asks how Balki does it, to which he replies, “Oh, cousin, it’s simple: you just take the little postcard out of the magazine…” which got another chuckle from me, so that’s four laughs so far. Larry says, no you idiot, how are you happy with the $100 instead of the $28 million you lost? Balki says hey man, it’s $100 bucks we have in hand, like you were saying earlier, you hypocrite. Larry says he sees the glass half-empty, while Balki sees it half-full. Balki looks around like Larry’s fucking crazy (he is) and says, “I don’t see a glass at all,” and fuck yeah! That’s the end of this little slice of comedy.
I forgot how goddamn insane Mark Linn-Baker played Cousin Larry: in this episode alone he loses his mind no less than three times and plays it authentically each time. I think that was a pattern on this show, where Balki would ratchet up Larry’s increasing frustration over this foreign coo coo’s misunderstanding of the world around him.
As mentioned in the recap, this show had really good timing in the dialogue and the chemistry between Baker and Pinchot is pretty impressive.
It’s a tightly spun sitcom and I really enjoyed the re-watch; I could even see myself re-watching other episodes for my own amusement in the future. It’s dated, but anything from 30 years ago is dated by this point (or any point in history; the telescoping of the cultural past is a bit of a trip to consider in itself).
But as a common thread in all of these recaps is that the nostalgic appeal of these shows is a powerful one for me. Having been a kid that watched these shows when they first aired, it’s comforting to see these shows once again, and it’s even more surprising when I find myself enjoying them in present day.
Although I only counted only four actual laughs that this episode drew from me while watching it, I was still amused by Larry and Balki’s shenanigans throughout. I like the dynamic between Larry’s cynical pathos against Balki’s sweet hopefulness. Heck, I still like this show. I might just watch another episode right now. Let’s celebrate finding out that something I loved when I was a kid is still as good as I remember it by doing The Dance of Joy!
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