Friday, March 29, 2019

Comfort TV Delivers Its Elevator Pitch

Most of us don’t approach elevators with any sense of wonder. But in the Comfort TV era, these simple conveyances provided a plethora of plot lines and punch lines.

The most recurrent option, used almost to the point of cliché, was to trap incompatible characters in a stuck elevator and let the sparks fly.

The gold standard for this trope, not surprisingly, comes from The Dick Van Dyke Show. The flashback episode “4½” finds Rob and a pregnant Laura trapped in an elevator with hold-up man Lyle Delp, played by Don Rickles. 

This is arguably the best of Rickles' many 1960s sitcom guest spots, and the entire episode is packed with quotable lines (“They should have stuck with Sidney!”) and classic physical set pieces – I’m not sure anyone ever got more laughs out of an umbrella than Van Dyke does here.

Less satisfying is “Fire” from the final season of WKRP In Cincinnati. Of course it’s Herb and Jennifer that get trapped, so no bonus points for not going with the obvious. The execution fell short of the potential.

Night Court could have told the same story with Dan and Christine, but instead, in “Earthquake,” they put Dan with Roz on that stuck elevator, along with two hungry sumo wrestlers. That’s more like it. 

The final episode of That Girl, “The Elevated Woman,” finds Ann and Don in the same predicament (without the sumo wrestlers), but this one is mostly a clip show. Marlo Thomas preferred to end the series with a strident women’s lib message instead of the wedding of two characters that have loved each other for five years.

And from the “you couldn’t do that now” department of sitcom storytelling, there is “Porko’s II” from Gimme a Break, in which Nell and her weight loss support group all crowd onto an elevator, that gets stuck because they exceeded the weight capacity. You’ll hear fat jokes aplenty, but the only funny scene is when Nell hears an echo in the elevator shaft.

Two shows stand above the field in their creative use of elevators. First, The Bob Newhart Show, in which the elevators in Bob’s office building provided dozens of memorable gags over six seasons. Case in point, the ever-neurotic Mr. Carlin, waiting for the elevator, tells Bob he always thinks other people are laughing at him; Bob says he’s just imagining it, and right on cue the elevator doors open behind him, and we see a crowd of laughing passengers.

But that show’s record for most elevator moments in one episode belongs to “Death Be My Destiny.” That’s the one where Bob steps into an empty elevator shaft.

Bob: “I was almost touched by Father Death”
Emily: “That’s Father Time, Bob, it’s Old Man Death”
Bob: “No, it’s Old Man River”
Emily: “Are you sure?”
Bob: “Whoever he was, I felt icy fingers up and down my spine”
Emily: “That’s Old Black Magic”

Bob vows to never get on an elevator again, but as he counsels a patient on how to conquer fear, he finally takes his own advice. But the elevator still has a few more surprises in store.

Of course, the most famous empty elevator shaft scene belongs to L.A. Law, in an episode brilliantly titled “Good to the Last Drop.” But that aired in 1991, so it’s out of our jurisdiction.

The other series that made optimal use of elevators was Mission: Impossible.

From the staged elevator crash in “The Widow” to Rollin’s quick-change from an old man to his regular self during a 30-second elevator ride, the show found several ways to incorporate this everyday object into its arsenal of espionage tricks. The best example of this is “Doomsday,” in which Barney spends nearly the entire episode in elevator shafts, and in doing so helps to prevent World War III. 

Perhaps the most famous non-working elevator in the classic TV era is the one in the lobby of the Shady Rest Hotel on Petticoat Junction. It won’t transport guests to their rooms, but Uncle Joe likes it because “It gives the hotel class.”

There’s an elevator in the opening credits of Get Smart though we don’t actually see it. One assumes that’s what takes Max from a phone booth into CONTROL headquarters.  Here’s how naïve I can be – for years I figured they got that shot with a trap door, and only later found out it was achieved in a much simpler way, by Don Adams simply ducking out of frame. 

Another unseen but occasionally referenced elevator is the one that allows Alfred to dust the Batcave in Batman (you didn’t really think he used the Bat Poles?).

The elevator in Police Squad!'s station house was a go-to visual gag, as the doors would open to show a swimming pool or an opera house.

Across the pond, the Britcom Are You Being Served? used elevator floor announcements as the lyrics to its theme. And the elevators in Grace Brothers often became mini-stages, with the doors opening like a theater curtain to reveal cast members making entrances in strange costumes to match the theme of the episode. 

Both Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation proved there are still elevators in the future, and that even in the 24th century they still haven’t got the bugs out. 

And if you enjoyed this piece, you’re sure to love my riveting in-depth look at classic TV escalators, coming soon to a blog near you. 


  1. What the...? Where's "The Elevator Story" from All in the Family?

    1. Guilty as charged. As I wrote in a previous blog piece, the Norman Lear shows are not in my DVD collection, and I did not and do not watch them very often in reruns - just a personal preference. So that leaves a fairly big knowledge gap that results in situations like this. Glad to have the additional recommendation - in case anyone wants to have an "classic TV elevator" marathon.

  2. I've never seen that Bob Newhart episode, but I bet that's what Bob Newhart was referencing on his 90's show Bob when Larry, Darryl & Darryl showed up.

    Beavis & Butthead did a great one of these in it's 2012 revival.

  3. Fun look back! I love looking at how different shows work similar plot devices and what they do with them. Thanks for the (elevator) trip down memory lane... er, shaft?

  4. Me-TV reran WKRP's "Fire" last night. I'd never seen it before, but I did see the 2nd half of it. I thought it was ok but nothing great.