Greatest Moments in Sitcom History — Part 4: The Hams

A couple years ago I asked some very funny writers about their favorite sitcom moments. Here’s Claudia LonowNell ScovellMerrill Markoeand Stephen Root on theirs.

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Claudia Lonow (Writer/Creator: Rude AwakeningAccidentally on Purpose): Of all of the brilliant I Love Lucy episodes — stomping grapes, the scary one when she has a vase stuck on her head, the one where she proves she can’t even handle working at a chocolate factory — “Lucy Gets In Pictures” stands out as my favorite.

Because finally, Lucy gets in pictures! She actually does, which is so satisfying after she’s tried so hard, for so long, with so many obstacles.

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In this episode, Lucy lands her dream gig: Not only is she playing a glamorous showgirl, but the script calls for a dramatic death scene after she is shot in the middle of a performance. All Lucy needs to do is walk down a staircase with a gigantic head dress on. But the head dress is absurdly tall and heavy, and she can’t even keep her head upright, let alone gracefully prance down a set of stairs.

Each take is worse than the one before. Finally, the director gives her part to another girl and puts Lucy in a smaller head dress. Lucy’s devastated – she still wants to be the one who gets shot. During the next take, even though she’s wearing the smaller head dress, even though the director has taken her part away, when the gun goes off, Lucy does a dramatic death scene down the staircase. When the director asks her why she reacted this way — she’s not the one who’s supposed to be shot — Lucy answers: “He missed.”

There’s one obstacle Lucy can’t do anything about: She doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’s not actually that talented, and she’s certainly not experienced. Lucille Ball was a brilliant performer, but Lucy Ricardo was just a charming, ambitious person who sings off key and can’t take direction. But she can’t see that, and she never gives up. Most real musicians will tell you the hardest thing to do is sing out of tune – and Lucy did it to perfection.

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Merrill Markoe (Writer, Co-Creator – Late Night with David Letterman): I had lost interest in sitcoms for a long time until the British version of The Office turned up. From episode one, I was completely bowled over by Mr. Gervais’ brilliant dead on vision of unctuous, jokey smarm in the person of David Brent. I was riveted by the way this show pulled off having an awful person as its central character.

I think it was the first utterly repellent/totally fascinating character I’d seen someone pull off in an ongoing series: all the winking, the nervous giggling, the hand gestures that belie the content of the words, the delusions about his role in the world and the way others see him.

In the very first episode, the way he shows a temp around what is designed to look like a truly boring soul-killing dreary workplace, stopping to point out every cartoon tacked up on the wall as proof of the hilarious ribald no holds barred atmosphere of non-stop fun that the staff is having is just brilliant. I’d never seen a sit com so accurately deliver the stench of failed jokes. Gervais’ demeanor and body language made my jaw drop.

Common network wisdom, as I had come to know it in my sitcom writing attempts, in OUR country, was that this could never be. I had always longed to write an awful person at the center of a show. It was never a possibility. Network guys all felt the center of a sitcom had to be lovable. So I was riveted, from episode one on, by everything about David Brent.

I have always admired and flat out envied the BBC’s system of only doing six episodes of a series per year. If only they would allow that to happen here, what a brighter TV world it would be.

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Nell Scovell (Creator/Writer: Sabrina, The Teenage WitchThe Simpsons): For overall brilliance, nothing beats “Absolutely Fabulous.” It has everything: brilliant characters, brilliant situations, brilliant sight gags, brilliant lines, Jennifer Saunders is an absolute genius. And if I had to pick ONE moment above all, I’d go with a scene where Edina greets Saffy on the morning of her wedding day. Edina tiptoes into the room and sweetly hugs her daughter…only to hold her down so Patsy can rush in with a wax strip and remove the facial hair from Saffy’s upper lip. It’s perfect. You really believe for a moment that Edina’s maternal instincts are kicking in, and then, in her own twisted way, they do. She waxes Saffy upper lip because she cares.

Stephen Root (Actor: King of the HillNews RadioOffice Space): The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended with a perfect ensemble moment from the perfect ensemble cast – people I admired then and now. They’re all hugging and crying in one big group. When Mary says she needs a tissue, the entire group hug shuffle-walks over to the desk to grab her one. It’s certainly not the funniest moment of the series, but it speaks to how much of a unit that exceptional group of actors was.

For me it resonated because it was the same type of farce I was doing on stage every night but in the original form, a Shakespeare comedy. The second paying gig I’d had as a “real” actor was with the National Shakespeare Company. We spent nine months of the year on the road playing at military bases and colleges all over the country. I must have watched the finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in some dumpy Motel 6 in anywhere USA.

As a character guy then, I remember wanting a chance to be an “Ed Asner” type. That kind of came true for me as Jimmy James on NewsRadio: I got to play some of the same varied emotions: explosive frustration, throw-away asides and the father’s joy of his “children”, his team, his friends. Encapsulated, I think, in one phrase, “I cherish you people.”

More to come…

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