Monday, August 21, 2017

It’s Not a Rip-Off – It’s an Homage

Classic TV fans are used to seeing certain stories told over and over across different situation comedies. Think about student-teacher crush episodes, or shows in which a character gets assigned to jury duty, or watching a stable household get turned upside down after a visit from an eccentric relative.

These recurring plots are somewhat derisively referred to as tropes. But Comfort TV fans enjoy their familiarity, and discovering how each show puts its own spin on a time-honored premise.

Occasionally, however, one comes across two episodes where the similarities are more precise. It could be a coincidence – or it could be a situation where a writer hopes no one will make the connection.

In its fifth and final season, The Dick Van Dyke Show presented an episode entitled “The Curse of the Petrie People” (1966), written by Dale McRaven and Carl Kleinschmitt. 

It opens at a party at the Petrie residence, where Rob’s parents present Laura with the “family heirloom” – a huge and hideous gold brooch in the shape of the United States. 

She dreads having to wear it, but to keep peace with her in-laws she agrees to do so – until it’s accidentally mangled in the garbage disposal. Mother Petrie expects to see it at a family dinner next week – what will Laura do?

Fast-forward 22 years to “Present Imperfect,” an episode from the final season of The Facts of Life

In this story, written by Howard Leeds, Ben Starr and Jerry Mayer, Tootie receives a huge and hideous pendant from the grandmother of her fiancée, Jeff. She dreads having to wear it, but to keep peace with a future in-law she agrees to do so – until it’s accidentally mangled in a blender. Jeff’s grandmother will expect to see it later that day – what will Tootie do?

Of the two versions The Dick Van Dyke Show mined several more laughs out of the set-up, particularly in the scene when Laura and Millie go to a jewelry store and try to have the piece repaired (the jeweler, upon examining the remains of the America-shaped brooch: “Would you settle for Czechoslovakia?”).

By contrast, the Facts of Life version is uninspired, not surprising for a show that was running on fumes since Charlotte Rae left. Worse, its garish ‘80s fashions and hairstyles almost make the pendant look tasteful and understated by comparison.

Here’s another one: “That Shoplifter” was an episode of That Girl from its fifth and final season. Ann Marie is working in Dawson’s Department Store, as she’s between acting jobs. A man introduces himself as the store’s head of security and offers her a chance to pick up some extra money by posting as a shoplifter. The idea is to test the store’s salespeople, and assess whether they are observant enough to catch her. 

That sets up several amusing sequences of Ann cleverly stealing everything that’s not nailed down – until she discovers her accomplice is not who he claims.

It’s a clever idea from writer Arnold Horwitt, and you’d never guess where it turned up again. Would you believe The Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show?

In “No Cash and Carry,” Pebbles takes a job at Gimbelstone’s Department Store. She is approached by a man who introduces himself as Fagenstone, the chief store detective. He wants her to test the store’s security by stealing as much as she can. Pebbles starts stealing, and Fagenstone happily drives away with the hot merchandise.

The first pair of similar shows could conceivably be explained as coincidence, though the plot point around which both revolve is specific enough to raise questions. But with the second pair, there is enough circumstantial evidence to imply appropriation. How fitting that it would happen with a story about stealing!

If I were prosecuting this case, I’d observe that both shows aired in 1971: “That Shoplifter” in February, “No Cash and Carry” in November. Both scripts include the same joke about Ann/Pebbles seeing her picture in the post office. Both also have friends telling them they can’t call the police because they’d never believe their story, resulting in an attempt to capture the phony store employee themselves.

True, Ann Marie never had to contend with Bad Luck Schleprock, but it’s stretching credibility to believe the same story wasn’t just transferred from Manhattan to Bedrock. 

So who (allegedly) wrote it? There’s no way to know – the same seven people received ‘story’ credit for every episode of The Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show. We’ve got a solid case, but our suspect remains at large.


  1. Very interesting. I'm sure this has happened a lot more. You also have in Bewitched where they recycled story lines throughout their run.

    1. That's true. But it's not as bad when you adapt your own stories as adapting someone else's.

  2. Homage?


    How about - haircut?

    Haircut is an industry term for when a script from one show is rewritten for another show - sometimes years later.

    Examples abound in both theatrical films and episodic TV.

    Here's an extreme example from serious TV, which happens to be the one that came to mind (and is a long-standing favorite of mine):

    In the early '60s, Naked City had an episode in which Frank Gorshin played a stoolie on the run from a mob hit.
    He spends most of the show playing phone tag with Paul Burke, while trying to get together enough cash to skip NYC and get back to a long abandoned family. Spoiler: He doesn't quite make it ...

    Fast forward to the mid-'70s:
    Police Woman has an episode in which Patty Duke Astin (as she was then known) plays a "police informant" on the run from the Organization.
    She spends much of the show playing phone tag with Angie Dickinson, while trying to get together enough cash to skip LA and get back to a long abandoned family. Spoiler: She doesn't quite make it ...

    The Naked City was written by one of their regular writers, Shimon Wincelberg.
    The Police Woman gives Mr. Wincelberg a co-credit with one of that show's regular writers, Edward DeBlasio.

    As I said above, this has been a common practice, especially in weekly TV, from the beginnings of the industry. That's how it came to have a name: Haircutting, as in "Give that story a haircut" to fit our show.

    Most (if not all) of the time, credit is given, directly or indirectly, to the original writers - sometimes pseudonyms figure into the mix.
    If you're a devoted reader of credit crawls, as I've always been, the info is usually right there.

    Remember, much of this happened long before five-a-week stripping, binge-watching, and continuity geeks were even imagined.
    Back In The Day, you generally had one shot at seeing a TV show - maybe a rerun later on, if the show ran long enough.
    Now, so many of us have built up libraries of old favorites; the facility to match up shows from years apart, which didn't exist when we were younger, is now all over the place.
    The fifteen-year gap between Naked City and Police Woman has disappeared, without anyone anticipating it.
    So there too ...