Monday, November 28, 2016

The Ten Funniest Situation Comedy Episodes By Decade: the 1950s

This may seem like a silly question but that’s never stopped me before: does a situation comedy have to be funny to be successful?

For me, the answer is no. There are many shows from the classic TV era that I own and enjoy in which laugh-out-loud moments are rare. I love them because of their familiar characters, their worldviews and their values, and because they have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Watching them is like visiting old friends.

But funny is good too, so I thought it might be fun to do a series of pieces on the ten funniest sitcom episodes from the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Obviously I have not watched every episode of every show from any of these decades, but I think I’ve seen enough to provide some informed recommendations.

Before getting started with the 1950s picks, a couple of ground rules: This is for sitcoms only, which eliminates some brilliant comic moments from variety shows like those hosted by Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs (and for later lists, Carol Burnett). And though I’m usually not a fan of quotas, I placed a two-episode limit on any one series – otherwise it would be too easy to pick ten Honeymooners classics and call it a day.

Ready? Here we go – though I reserve the right to amend this list with an entry from The Jack Benny Show as soon as I gain access to more episodes.

I Love Lucy
“Lucy Does a TV Commercial” (1952)
If there were a Louvre Museum for television comedy, the Vitameatavegamin bit would be its Mona Lisa. While the brilliance of Lucy’s performance in this one seminal scene deserves every accolade it has received, it also overshadows the fact that the rest of the episode is packed with laughs as well. 

The Honeymooners
“The $99,000 Answer” (1956)
Alice: For the last time, Ralph, I'll be very happy if you win the 600 bucks.
Ralph: $600? Peanuts! What am I gonna do with peanuts?
Alice: Eat 'em, like any other elephant.

Fans of “the classic 39” could probably make a case for almost every episode as deserving of this list. But “The $99,000 Answer” achieves classic status even among classics. It has everything Honeymooners fans treasure –Ralph launches another get-rich-quick scheme, assisted and aggravated by Ed Norton, and a deservedly famous final twist that brings Ralph’s dreams of wealth crashing down. 

The Phil Silvers Show
“Court Martial” (1956)
It’s not easy to upstage Silvers as Sgt. Bilko – unless you’re a chimpanzee. In this brilliantly chaotic episode, Fort Baxter tries to set a record by inducting more than 300 new recruits in less than two hours; at some point during the frenzied confusion they mistakenly induct a monkey. A court martial is hastily assembled with Bilko serving as defense counsel. It’s one of the funniest scenes ever broadcast, not just for what was scripted but for the chimp’s antics, which do not conform with how the scene was written. The show’s cast of vaudeville veterans, long accustomed to coping with the unexpected, just go with it, improvising around everything the monkey does. 

Leave it to Beaver
“The Haircut” (1957)
Yes, nearly all the laughs flow from one sight gag. But it’s a good one. After Beaver loses the money he was given to get a haircut (a whole $1.75!), he asks Wally to do the honors, with predictably disastrous results. The boys try to hide Beaver’s scalping by donning stocking caps that they can’t take off, as part of a secret club initiation. But Ward and June ain’t falling for that. Barbara Billingsley’s reaction when she first sees what Wally wrought is priceless. 

The Donna Reed Show
“Sleep No More My Lady” (1959)
The preternaturally beautiful Donna Reed could never be Lucille Ball, and her long-running series rarely put her in the type of bizarre situations that Lucy Ricardo caused every week. But that doesn’t mean she couldn’t thrive in physical comedy or farce. In “Sleep No More My Lady” Donna inadvertently overdoses on tranquilizers before her husband is to deliver a speech at a medical convention. That scene, and the hotel room hijinks that follow, offered Reed a rare chance to be something other than the poised and perfect homemaker. 

The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show
“Harry Morton’s Cocktail Party” (1955)
Given my limited exposure to this wonderful series, it’s possible that there may be 50 episodes funnier than “Harry Morton’s Cocktail Party.” But this one certainly deserves a place on this list. George provides the details: “Blanche just told me that she slugged a masher in a book shop. And Harry Morton is inviting this important executive to dinner tonight to make a good impression on him. Wouldn't it be funny if they turned out to be the same man? It better be funny or I'll certainly speak to my writers!” The episode ends with a Burns and Allen vaudeville bit, as funny now as it was 70 years ago:

Gracie, on her Uncle Harvey: You don't want to hear about the job he had helping that plumber? Well, the only reason he lost the job is because he did what the plumber told him to.
George: That's why he lost it?
Gracie: Well, yes. You see, what happened was they were trying to hammer some pipe through a hole in the wall, so the plumber held it and he said to Uncle Harvey, ‘Now, when I nod my head, you hit it with that big hammer…’

The Honeymooners
“The Golfer” (1955)
“Hellloooooo, ball!”
Ralph believes the key to career advancement at the bus company is getting to know the new manager over a round of golf. Now, he just needs to learn how to play the game in two days. From the moment Gleason appears in his golf outfit, this episode offers non-stop laughs. 

I Love Lucy
“Job Switching” (1952)
As with “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” Job Switching” is an episode famous for one unforgettable scene, that also delivers big laughs before and after its most memorable moment. Ricky and Fred’s attempts at ironing and cooking ‘pollo y arroz’ are nearly as entertaining as Lucy and Ethel frantically wrapping those accelerating assembly line chocolates. 

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
“Love is a Science” (1959)
The series’ third episode is propelled to greatness by Sheila James’s first appearance as Zelda Gilroy, Charles Lane at his grouchy best as Dobie’s science teacher, and money-mad Thalia Menninger, who insists that Dobie give up poetry (“Name me one rich poet”) and study to become a doctor: “Do you realize the money there is in hospitals? Do you know the markup in oxygen alone? And the poor customers, what can they do? You’ve got ‘em flat on their backs!” 

The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet
“Tutti-Fruitti Ice Cream” (1957)
After reading a news story about a lost boy enjoying tutti-frutti ice cream at the police station, Ozzie gets a craving for the stuff. As with so many Ozzie & Harriet episodes, a simple slice of everyday life develops into a surreal adventure, as Ozzie (and eventually his wife and neighbor) set out on an all-night quest for tutti-frutti. The highlight is an out-of-nowhere 1920s-themed musical dream sequence. 

Next: The 1960s

1 comment:

  1. Very good list. I'd probably have to have that second BILKO on there somewhere, with "The Centennial", "The Empty Store", "The Secret Life of Sergeant Bilko" and "Bilko's Perfect Day" being the four top contenders for it.

    AMOS N' ANDY: "The Rare Coin" is another top contender; another series that had several laugh out loud segments.

    THE BOB CUMMINGS SHOW/LOVE THAT BOB would also be hard for me to leave off. I think "Bob Gives S.R.O. Performance", "Bob Gets Harvey a Raise" and "Bob Batches It" might be my top contenders.

    Hard to narrow the 1950's down to just ten. But it will be just as hard to with the 1960's as well, I'm sure.