“Perfect Strangers” (R.I.P. Dale McRaven)

This post serves double duty — a salute to National Immigrants Day, and a send-off to TV sitcom creator/producer Dale McRaven, who passed away on September 5 at age 83.

Perfect Strangers ran from 1986 through 1993, years when, for the first time in my life I was NOT watching several hours of television a day. But I recall watching Perfect Strangers from time to time, and instantly recognized it as a modern classic in the vein of The Odd Couple and Laverne and Shirley, by virtue of the two-hander nature of the show, and that the two performers were so strong. In fact the series might just as easily been called Perfect Casting. Each of the co-stars was associated with a specific movie role that paved the way for his character in Perfect Strangers. Mark Linn-Baker had starred in My Favorite Year (1982) basically as the straight man to a bunch of crazies, though the role also gave him opportunity for lots of slapstick. Bronson Pinchot had played a strange foreign sales clerk in Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and its sequels. On Perfect Strangers, Linn-Baker was cast as a midwestern Everyman who is suddenly saddled with hosting his out-of-control immigrant relative Balki (Pinchot), whose ignorance of American ways leads to misunderstandings and farcical situations. This comic set-up is quite similar to that of Mork and Mindy, also co-created by Dale McRaven, who was also among the creators of Angie and The Texas Wheelers.

As in Beverly Hills Cop, Balki’s national origin is vague, but here it is less vague — a fictional island in the Eastern Mediterranean, obviously some sort of Greek or Albanian culture. (Pinchot himself is of Russian heritage). Obviously not making the nationality specific allows more freedom for fun-making without offending particular ethnic groups. Still, I’m quite sure it wouldn’t happen today in the way that they did it. My wife’s Albanian — without consulting her, I’m sure she wouldn’t be happy with depictions of her relatives as ignorant, naive, donkey-riding peasants. As a descendant of ignorant, naive, mule tending hillbillies, I can easily relate. That’s not even “walking in another’s shoes”, that’s “we’ve got the same shoes”. Obviously, this kind of ethnic immigrant lampoon is fully within the vaudeville tradition, and it goes all the way back to Weber and Fields. But the traditional response (“lighten up!”) doesn’t play too well nowadays, at least not in the near-universal way that it used to. Some people seem perplexed by what has changed. The answer, as I see it, is easy. The internet has put us all in close proximity to one another, the same as if we were together in a room or in the street. Performance and informal intercourse are blurring. A slur in this environment is no longer the abstraction it once was, or claimed to be. Neither can the comedian claim he didn’t know what he was doing, nor can the audience experience an unflattering depiction as something that has nothing to do with real life (if they ever did). It’s all real life now, and it’s all the show. Go up to someone and make fun of them to their face in real life. I dare you.

It’s worth noting that Perfect Strangers ran during the ReaganBush I years. The idea was to create a show that had a skein of patriotism and sentimentality about the immigrant experience — also very vaudeville! A show like this stood a chance of appealing to both factions of an ever dividing country, and it obviously, as it ran for so many years. Assisted of course by the genius slapstick of two very gifted comic actors.

The most astounding thing to me is that the idea for the show preceded the casting! Isn’t that amazing? The producers were like, “Who should we get to play these two characters?” Because it sure feels much more like, “What kind of a vehicle can we create for Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pinchot”. That is real comic chemistry. You can’t buy it.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.