Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Ten Perfect Classic TV Punch Lines


I’ve mentioned Entertainment Weekly magazine before in this blog, usually in disparaging terms. But inexplicably I’m still a subscriber, and recently I received their 30th anniversary issue, which included a collection of the best punch lines from TV comedies over the past 30 years. Not a bad idea.


The choices cited provide another opportunity to contrast how current TV differs from the classic shows of the past, and to choose some of my favorite punch lines from the Comfort TV era.


Let’s start with the most obvious distinction: half of the magazine’s picks could never have been uttered in the pre-cable era, because of their subject matter or the language used. And many of those that clear that hurdle would still have been unthinkable, because the humor emerged from a sentiment that would never be expressed.


Example: EW chose a rant by Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm about how he’d rather have thieves in his house than his neighbors:  “The thieves don’t impose! The neighbors want your time. The thieves want your things. I’d rather give them things than time.”


Putting aside whether a diatribe that long actually qualifies as a punch line, at least we’re dealing with a situation common to TV characters in any era: annoying neighbors. Ed Norton frequently strained Ralph Kramden’s nerves on The Honeymooners; on Bewitched, Samantha was frustrated by Mrs. Kravitz peeping through her windows; on The Donna Reed Show, even Donna had her patience tested by Mrs. Wilgus, a neighborhood busybody played by Kathleen Freeman.


But can you imagine any of those characters echoing Larry David’s preference for thieves?


Still, it wasn’t all sweetness and light back in the innocent Comfort TV era. Then as now, great punch lines often emerged from a well-crafted insult. I promised ten perfect classic TV punch lines – here’s the first one, from an episode of The Honeymooners entitled “The $99,000 Answer”. Ralph is going on a game show and is determined to hit the jackpot:


Alice : “For the last time, Ralph, I'll be very happy if you win the 600 bucks.”

Ralph : “$600? Peanuts, peanuts! What am I gonna do with peanuts?”

Alice : “Eat 'em, like any other elephant.”


And if characters aren’t attacking each other, they’re putting themselves down.  The magazine turned to The Larry Sanders Show for its selection; I’ll go instead to The Bob Newhart Show. In the classic episode “Over the River and Through the Woods,” before the epic drunk scene that closes the show, Elliot Carlin explains his plan for avoiding depression on Thanksgiving.


Carlin: “Stay awake between now and Thanksgiving, and then I’ll be so exhausted I’ll sleep right through it.


Bob: “Good plan.”


Carlin: “I think I may do that for all the holidays. The only one that worries me is Lent.”


As I read the EW list again, I realized that the crafting of a great laugh line is a higher priority now than it used to be. On Comfort TV sitcoms, humor emerged more from putting characters into challenging or uncomfortable situations and observing how they react to them. Today the writer’s voice is more prominent, when the story pauses so a character can deliver a clever and funny line of dialogue.


That contrast can be illustrated by the fact that some great Comfort TV era laugh lines won’t make sense by themselves out of the context of the scene in which they are heard. Take this one from Get Smart:


Max: “That’s funny…it doesn’t look it.”


Not amusing at all by itself. But In “A Tale of Two Tails” Max learns that the infamous Cone of Silence was invented by Professor Cohn, which prompts Max to look up at it and then say that line.


Okay, so there’s three great classic TV punch lines so far – I owe you seven more. Not saying these are the best ever, but they were the first ones I recalled, which at least says something about their impact.


The Dick Van Dyke Show: “Three Letters From One Wife”


Alan Brady: Mel, I'm thirsty.

Mel Cooley: Oh, you want a drink, Alan?

Alan Brady: No, a glass of dust.


While Buddy’s insults of Mel were always funny, Alan’s putdowns always had a little extra bite.


The Mary Tyler Moore Show: “Chuckles Bites the Dust”


There were more than ten great punch lines in just this episode. Let’s go with one from Ted Baxter’s on-air remembrance of Chuckles’ passing:


Ted: “Chuckles liked to make people laugh. You know what I'd like to think, I'd like to think that somewhere, up there tonight, in his honor, a choir of angels is sitting on whoopee cushions.”


Do we need one of Hawkeye’s putdowns of Frank Burns on this list? I think we do.


MASH: “The Bus”


Frank: “I can plug an ace of hearts at fifty feet.”

Hawkeye: “I’ll remember that if we’re ever attacked by a bridge club.”


Earlier this year I did not give a very favorable review to the DVD release of Our Miss Brooks. But that doesn’t mean the show couldn’t deliver a great punch line:


Daisy Enright: “When I was in my teens, there weren’t many stars on television.”

Connie Brooks: “When you were in your teens, there weren’t many stars on the flag.”


You Bet Your Life, the quiz show hosted by Groucho Marx, delivered more laughs than most situation comedies, especially when Groucho interviewed a character as memorable as Pedro Gonazlez-Gonzalez:


Groucho: “If we got together as an act, what would it be called?”

Pedro: “It would be Gonzales-Gonzales and Marx.”

Groucho: “Do you believe that? Two men in the act, and I get third billing!”


But this one is too legendary not to include:


Groucho: “Why do you have so many children?”

Female Contestant: “Well, I love my husband very much.”

Groucho: “Hey, I enjoy a good cigar, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while.”


Another of my favorite go-to series for great comedy is The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. I’ve quoted this exchange in the blog before but it’s good enough to deserve an encore:


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 more I write the more I realize how many more I want to include from shows like Taxi and Designing Women, and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Perhaps another time. I’ll close with a perfect punch line that needs no introduction, and that will likely be heard in many homes once again in another month or so:


“As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”


  1. What a great read, David--you had me laughing out loud here every couple of paragraphs! God bless Gracie Allen & the older I get, the more I love Carlin from Bob Newhart :) Not that this has anything to do with this, but I live in a large apt building with a big lobby where yu can always find 6-7 people sitting & chatting. I was down there today and an elderly woman walked in holding a giant sunflower and said "Who am I?" and we just shook our heads, and she said "Henry Gibson" and I swear to God I almost fell off my chair it made me laugh so hard. Ah well! Thanks again for the great post :)

    1. That woman is my kind of people! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. Mr. Hofstede, remember that one 0episode of the original "Charlie's Angels" TV series where Bosley repeatedly asked for two chicken breasts while either Audrey Landers or Judy Landers was standing near him? No offense, but such a scripted situation probably wouldn't go over too well in the post-Me Too era.

  3. Early in the run of Marcus Welby, M.D.:
    Dr. Kiley (Jim Brolin) is comforting a distressed young female intern:
    "Rule Number One for interns: No breast beating - and that goes double for you."
    This would have been 1969.
    "Long ago ... and oh so far away ..."