Author Bonus: Heaven Sent (Doctor Who)

This is an author add-on, but I don’t feel like figuring out what number it would be. When I saw this episode, I knew I loved it, but it took me re-watching it to realize something important about it. I’ll get into that in a minute.

Quick Recap of the show:

The premise of the show is that there is a being called the Doctor that travels through time and space with various companions to fight evil. He’s an alien from a race called the Time Lords who lives and journeys in a 60s British Police Box called the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space). Sometimes he fights aliens, sometimes he eats hot dogs, sometimes he meets famous historical figures. Honestly, he just kind of travels, but the TARDIS tends to take him where he needs to be. Sometimes he changes history, sometimes he can’t, depending on the writing. At the time of this episode, there had been 12 doctors, and the current one was played by Peter Capaldi. His companion at the time was a woman named Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), who had been killed moments before this episode started, and he was forcibly teleported away.

Yes, he plays the guitar.


The episode begins with a wounded figure walking through a castle, as the Doctor’s voice-over talks about the fact that Death is always following. You run, it walks, but it’s always coming. Then, one day you sit still too long, and it catches you. The unidentified figure flips a switch, writes the word “Bird” in the dirt, expires, and disintegrates into a skull just as the Doctor is teleported into the same room.

The Doctor speaks, assuming that whoever brought him here can hear him, telling them that they should be very afraid right now, if they had any part in Clara’s death, and that he will never stop coming for them.


The Doctor finds himself inside of a castle in the middle of an ocean which constantly reforms and shifts around him. He determines from the teleporter that he can only be within 1 light-year of the Earth, so he knows that, when the sun sets, he can use the stars to tell his location. However, he also finds out that he is not alone. There is a monstrous figure of a veiled old woman, covered in flies, which slowly comes after him. The Doctor quickly realizes that the figure is from his childhood, from a funeral of an old woman he knew, where the heat was so great that the flies attacked her veiled corpse. Someone is using his oldest fear against him.


Trapped at the end of the hallway, the Doctor confesses that he is afraid to die, which causes the Veil to stop, allowing the Doctor to escape. He realizes that the figure will stop when he confesses a deep truth. It’s not trying to kill him, it’s interrogating him. The Veil shortly catches up to him again, but he escapes by jumping out of a window.

DoctorWhoTardisThen, the scene shifts to the Doctor inside of the TARDIS, talking to himself. It turns out that, due to the extremely advanced nature of his brain, whenever he has to make a quick decision, he goes into a mental version of the TARDIS where he can make calculations about the situation that would take hours outside in the span of seconds. Calculating the time of impact to the water, the Doctor avoids breaking his neck and the shock.


As he awakens under the water, he sees that the ocean is filled with skulls. Mountains of skulls. He makes his way back to shore and begins investigating the castle. For days, the Doctor explores the castle, avoiding the Veil. He discovers a message to him: “I AM IN 12.” The Doctor escapes the Veil again by confessing another fact: He ran away when he was younger because he was scared. He realizes that the Veil walks so slowly that, if he lures the Veil to one end of the castle, then runs to the other, he has 82 minutes before it catches up.


After more time passes while he works to find room 12 in 82 minute increments, the Doctor returns to the starting room, and sees the word “Bird” written in the dirt, as well as the skull of the figure from the beginning. A passage opens, leading upward. The Doctor stands on the roof of the castle, looking at the stars, and observes that, by their movement, he has traveled 7,000 years into the future. He then accidentally knocks the skull into the water, when avoiding the Veil again. The Doctor confesses one more fact to the Veil: He knows the identity of the greatest fear of the Time Lords – “The Hybrid.” He doesn’t disclose who the Hybrid is, however.


This confession finally reconfigures the castle so that the Doctor can access Room 12, where he finds the TARDIS behind a wall of crystal. This crystal is Azbantium, a substance 400 times harder than Diamond, and the wall is 20 feet thick. Then, the Doctor thinks back to the word “Bird” and finally remembers everything. More on that in a second.

The Doctor realizes that “Bird” is a reference to the fable “The Shepherd’s Boy” by the Brothers Grimm. And this breaks him, causing him to beg to be allowed to lose. To quit. Not to be the hero this time. However, a memory of Clara makes him press on.


So, with the veil approaching him, the Doctor starts punching the wall until the Veil catches him, and mortally wounds him. Dying, the Doctor crawls back up the stairs to the teleporter room, and uses the re-setting of the room to create another version of himself as he expires. The new Doctor then begins to recite the speech from the beginning of the episode.

doctorwhocapaldidying-e1521148401528.jpgWhat follows is a montage of doctors re-living the same sequence we just watched, over, and over, and over again. For FOUR AND A HALF BILLION YEARS, as he slowly punches through the wall, a punch or 3 each lifetime. Then, he is mortally wounded again, and has to agonizingly limp back to start the whole cycle over with his last breath. However, we watch as the Doctor slowly tells the Veil the story of the “Shepherd’s Boy,” in one of my favorite sequences in the show’s history.

“There’s this emperor and he asks this shepherd’s boy, “How many seconds in eternity?” And the shepherd’s boy says, “There’s this mountain of pure diamond. It takes an hour to climb it and an hour to go around it! Every hundred years, a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain. And when the entire mountain is chiseled away, the first second of eternity will have passed! You must think that’s a hell of a long time. Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.”

The Doctor finally breaks through the wall and escapes, revealing that he’s been inside of his confession dial, basically a Time Lord will and testament, the entire time. And he sees that he’s on Gallifrey, and that his own people, the Time Lords, were the ones that put him there. He tells a small boy “Tell them I’m back. Tell them I know what they did, and I’m on my way. And if they ask you who I am, tell them I came the long way around.”


This scene of eating soup is amazing. Really.

Okay, so, this paragraph will probably kill me: Peter Capaldi is the best actor to portray the Doctor thus far. I’m sorry, but I genuinely believe that. I love David Tennant, and I think he is the best Doctor, and he is definitely My Doctor, but Tennant is behind Capaldi in terms of actual acting ability. This episode proved it. Capaldi explores every aspect of the Doctor in this episode, and he does it with such a level of subtlety and skill that he manages to get you to forget how relatively little actually happens in this episode. Tennant may have loved the role enough to bring it life that no other Doctor has (sorry Pertwee, Eccleston, Smith, and the Bakers), but dammit, this episode is up there with Martin Sheen in The West Wing or Elisabeth Moss in the Handmaid’s Tale. This is the sh*t people get awards for, and it’s an episode of DOCTOR WHO, a usually lighthearted sci-fi show. It’s the same reason why I love Captain Picard the most, because Patrick Stewart could bring you in with his performances when he was the focus. Capaldi just… f*cking nailed it.

The Groundhog Day-esque loops at the end are amazing, and it really does serve to show exactly how slow the Doctor’s progress is as he punches his way to freedom. Watching him die over and over again really makes us feel uncomfortable, because this is our protagonist undergoing agony dozens of times before our eyes, and billions more offscreen.


Also, the final remembrance. That’s the part that I think sets this episode apart. See, he’s not just realizing what “Bird” means, he’s remembering all of the times he’s done this before. He’s realizing that he’s suffered this sequence thousands of times, and that he’s going to have to do it billions of times to get free. He wants to quit. He wants to give up. This is a torment that no mind should be able to bear, being chased, tortured, and killed for basically as long as the Earth has existed, but he just quickly resolves that he’ll do it, he’ll bear it, he’ll persevere and he’ll triumph, because that’s what he has to do. He even realizes that he could be free in an instant just by confessing who the Hybrid is: But he refuses to do it, because it’s an important secret that should be kept (it’s later revealed to be a friend of his). He’s willing to undergo hell to protect that secret. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield, as a better author said.

This episode is one of the best hours of Doctor Who, and it is just watching the Doctor through triumph, agony, failure, regret, and overcoming the odds, all in short order. It explores levels of the character that we rarely touch upon, and it rests largely upon Capaldi’s performance combined with some excellent writing and cinematography. Truly, this was wonderful.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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Reader Bonus: The Sad Tale of Henry (Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends)

Alright, so, this episode of a children’s show is fairly infamous and goes around the internet on occasion. Why? Because it’s basically an example of cruel and unusual punishment.

Quick background on the show:

Image result for thomas and friends sodor

Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends takes place on the Island of Sodor. It’s a fictional island in the Irish Sea that’s heavily industrialized with a massive railway system, and all of the trains, and many of the other vehicles, possess human faces, emotions, and a degree of autonomy. This becomes important in a minute.

ThomasAndFriendsHenry.pngThe most famous character is Thomas, a tank engine (meaning he carries his water for his steam on-board in a water tank), who is engine number 1, and has a very cheeky but upbeat personality. However, the focus of this episode is Henry, engine number 3. The episode is narrated by none other than Ringo freaking Starr.

ThomasAndFriendsHenry2When it starts to rain on the island, Henry, worried that the rain is going to ruin his nice new paint job, goes into a tunnel to hide, blocking off one of the two tunnels to get through those hills. Sir Topham Hatt, the fat controller of the rail system, tells the train guard to get a rope, and has all the workers on the rail line try to pull Henry out of the tunnel. Henry refuses to budge, stating that he doesn’t want to ruin his paint. The workers point out that it isn’t raining anymore, but Henry says that it will eventually, and then it’ll ruin his paint. Topham Hatt has the workers try to push Henry through, but Henry refuses to budge.

It’s worth noting that Topham Hatt does not actually try to pull or push with the people, instead citing that he has a note from his doctor not to do any actual work.

Finally, they send Thomas to try and push him through, but Henry still refuses to budge. Frustrated, Topham Hatt decides that they’re going to punish Henry. So, they brick him up inside of the tunnel.


Now, again, this is a train with emotions, who talks, feels, and thinks just like a human. He’s been inconveniencing the rail for about a day, if that. And their solution is to BRICK HIM INSIDE OF THE TUNNEL, rendering the tunnel he’s in useless anyway. They only do the bottom half, however, so that he can see out, and the other trains can mock him as they pass. But, Henry can’t really respond anymore; he has no steam left, because he’s TRAPPED IN A F*CKING TUNNEL. Since, apparently, he can’t die, they leave him in there just to be mocked at and stay there forever, with a sad look on his face.


ThomasAndFriendsMontressor.jpgEdgar Allan Poe once described a similar idea in a short story called “The Cask of Amontillado.” A man, Montressor, bricks up an enemy, Fortunato, leaving him to die behind a wall, over what is stated to be an “insult.” Fortunato doesn’t appear to have realized it was that big of a deal, or that he’d even offended Montressor. To justify his actions, Montressor merely states that it comes from his family motto: “No one attacks me with impunity.” It’s basically a massive, cruel overreaction to a small grievance. This children’s show just did the same thing, and made it even worse by having Ringo end the narration with: “Soot and dirt from the tunnel had spoiled his green paint with red stripes anyway. Henry wondered if he would ever be allowed to pull trains again. But I think he deserved his punishment, don’t you?”

Yes, Ringo, teach the children that minor inconveniences should be handled with horror-story punishments. Other kid steal your toy? Cut their heart out and bury it under the floor. Someone pushes you on the playground? Tie them to the ground and slowly lower a razor-sharp pendulum towards their stomach. This episode is basically made to create sociopaths.

Goes well with the “My First Hieronymus Bosch” coloring book.

Fortunately, if you watch the very next episode, Henry is actually let out of the tunnel after another of the trains is disabled, and Henry agrees to go back to pulling the train cars again. That episode ends with Henry learning that the best way to keep his paint nice is to ask his driver to “rub him down after a run.”

So, remember, kids: Over the top punishments are fine, but you can stop once you need that person to perform an essential task and you have literally no other options. That way, you’ve tortured them into complacency.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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1)  Chuckles Bites the Dust (The Mary Tyler Moore Show)

Well, we’re finally at the last episode. You guys have suffered through all of the suspense. This is it. This is the best episode of TV that I’ve ever seen. I’m not alone, either, since this is one of the highest episodes on most critics’ lists. When I was researching great television in order to figure out what shows to watch, this show, and this episode in particular, was consistently highly rated, almost regardless of the nature of the critic or the list. It’s just that universally beloved.

She increased hat throws by 1700%

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the result of changing times. Mary Richards (Moore) was a new kind of central figure on a sitcom: A single, working woman who didn’t really have a gimmick. She was just a normal person, who, as the result of a break-up, moved to Minneapolis to change careers. I realize that doesn’t sound particularly novel now, but this was 1970, that really hadn’t become a thing yet. Weirdly, the character was originally going to be a divorcee, but people thought that viewers might think that she had divorced Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke), Moore’s husband on the Dick Van Dyke Show, despite the different names, locations, and being completely distinct characters. But, either way, Mary Richards was a different kind of protagonist than TV had shown before, and Moore played her perfectly.

… Read it backwards

Mary originally works at WJM-TV, the lowest-rated TV station in Minneapolis, as an Associate Producer. She initially had only applied to be a secretary, but Lou Grant (Ed Asner), the station’s News Producer, liked her and gave her the better job. Later, when Grant got promoted to News Director, Mary took his job as News Producer, a job for which she was almost completely unqualified, but made work anyway.

MaryTylerMooreCastHer co-workers at WJM-TV made up most of the cast: Murray Slaughter (Gavin McLeod), the quippy head-writer for the news division; Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), the buffoonish, vain, but occasionally sweet news anchorman; Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White), host of the “Happy Homemaker Show” in the station; and Georgette Franklin (Georgia Engel), Ted’s girlfriend-later wife. Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman) and Rhoda Morganstern (Valerie Harper), Mary’s neighbors, had previously been regulars, but they both already had spin-offs by season 6, when this episode takes place.

One recurring, but mostly-off-screen, station member was Chuckles the Clown, the host of the “Chuckles the Clown Show” on the network. As many of you may have guessed from the title, this episode does not go well for him.


MaryTylerMooreMonkeyThe episode begins with Ted being asked to be the Grand Marshall of the Circus Parade, but Lou refuses to let Ted take the role, believing it will undermine Ted’s already-limited credibility as a newsman. Ted later comes over to Mary’s apartment to complain about Lou’s actions, telling her that he’s going to leave the station. Ted quickly forgets about this threat when Mary says that the Circus already picked a new Grand Marshall: Chuckles the Clown.

The next day, Ted is still angry, but then Lou stumbles into the newsroom with dire news. Chuckles the Clown is dead. Apparently, Chuckles decided to use one of his characters, Peter Peanut, to host the parade, and a rogue elephant found him and “shelled” him to death.

Lou goes to tell Ted the news so that he can report it mid-broadcast, and tells Ted to ad-lib something “short, simple, and warm” in tribute to the long-time children’s show host. Ted proceeds to deliver a completely inept farewell, including Chuckles’ famous poem, “The Credo of a Clown”:


A little song, a little dance
A little seltzer, down your pants.

Mourning the dead

The next day, the people at the station cannot stop making jokes about the way that Chuckles met his fate, all of them breaking down laughing after each witticism. Murray, in particular, keeps thinking up quips about it, which Lou flat-out explains as: “It’s a release, Murray. A kind of defense mechanism. It’s like whistling in a graveyard. You try to make light of something because it scares you. We laugh at death because we know death will have the last laugh on us.”

Mary, however, thinks that everyone at the station is just being callous and disrespectful towards Chuckles’ death. In particular, she actually rejects Lou’s assertion that it’s a necessary release. Despite her attempts to keep it solemn, the other characters can’t stop breaking into fits of laughter over trying to make a solemn tribute out of a CLOWN.

At the funeral, quips are still being made, because, come on, they’re at a clown’s funeral. Mary finally shames Murray and Lou into stopping, just in time for the priest to begin the eulogy. Unfortunately, just as the priest is delivering his speech, Mary suddenly realizes how hilarious everything about the circumstances is, and cannot stifle her own laughter. Even worse, the priest tries to delve into the “great meaning” behind some of Chuckles’ routines (and, by the way, nails it), which just makes Mary laugh harder, embarrassing the rest of the cast.


The Priest singles Mary out, and tells her that nothing would have made Chuckles happier than to have someone laugh. He lived to make people laugh. He hated sad occasions and crying, so nothing would be more appropriate than someone laughing through a funeral. Unfortunately, saying this makes Mary realize exactly the kind of man that left the world that day, and she breaks down in tears.


The episode ends with the cast discussing how they would want their funeral held, except for Ted, who thinks he’s going to live forever through cryogenics. Mary mocks this by asking him to keep some food from her fridge in with him.


MaryTylerMooreDavidLloydWhile credit should go to everyone involved in this episode, the biggest winner here is David Lloyd, the writer (who also worked on or created about 10 entries on this list). This episode only works because he was able to craft believable dialogue that could be simultaneously morbid and yet hilarious. Of course, it only worked because of great actors that could really put their all into making sure it was laughable. Honestly, everyone involved in this episode was working at 100%.

The #2 episode on this list, “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” was amazing because it managed to show something horrifying (having your dream fail through no fault of your own) and turn it into something hilarious. This episode takes it one step further: You’re laughing at death. It turns one of the most tragic events, the death of a good person, and makes it hilarious, and then JUSTIFIES IT COMPLETELY. When Lou Grant is talking to Murray, he’s really telling the audience why it’s okay to laugh at this episode: Because it removes some of the sting from the reality that you’re going to die.

Now, I’m going to get personal for a second, when I picked this episode, I was still pretty sure I was going to die within a few months. The tumor was shrinking at this point, but I was also still pretty sure I was going to die, because it was statistically likely. This episode made that easier to deal with. Because it’s so much easier to deal with death by laughing at it, and that’s exactly what this episode is about. You laugh in death’s face, because death is going to win in the end.

Sitcom Elephants are a menace

The death in this episode is also just so absurd that you have to laugh at it: It’s a clown in a peanut costume being shelled to death by an elephant. It’s something that’s so silly that it immediately makes you laugh a little at the inanity. There’s the added element of seeing Mary trying to take it so seriously while having to say things like the names of the characters that Chuckles used to play: “Mr. Fee-fi-fo,” “Billy Banana,” “Aunt Yoo-hoo,” and “Peter Peanut,” the character that killed him. Her insistence that it isn’t funny just makes it all the more obviously comical.

Then, we have the funeral. And that’s really the reason this episode won an Emmy for writing. After Mary has finally gotten everyone to take it seriously, the priest starts to give a somber, reflective oration on the many characters of a clown. Crazier still, it genuinely is meaningful:

There was always some deeper meaning to whatever Chuckles did. Remember Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo’s little catch phrase, remember how when his arch rival Senor Kaboom would hit him with the giant cucumber and knock him down? Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo would always pick himself up, dust himself off and say, “I hurt my foo-foo.” Life’s a lot like that. From time to time we all fall down and hurt our foo-foo’s. If only we could all deal with it as simple and bravely and honestly as Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo. And what did Chuckles ask in return? Not much–in his own words–“A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”

MaryTylerMooreChucklesThat’s actually a pretty great legacy: You showed people that you should just get yourself up and keep going when life gets you down. It’s not just that you were making them laugh, you were trying to make them better people. And that’s what breaks Mary down, in the end, because that’s a better legacy than she realized that he was leaving. It’s a better legacy than she is likely to leave, because it’s about the best one that anyone can. Chuckles the Clown spent his life trying to make people happy, trying to make everyone better, and trying to make the world a better place, one seltzer bottle at a time. Even though he’s a clown, one of my most hated enemies, you can’t help but think of him as Mr. Rogers in pancake make-up. That’s why it’s all the more fitting that his death will be laughed at forever, because nothing would have made him happier than giving people one more giggle. We should all be lucky enough to meet such a fate and to live such a life.

Afterwards, it’s even easier for the main characters to talk about their own demises, which includes Sue Ann’s desire to have her ashes scattered on Robert Redford, Mary’s desire just not to have a sad funeral organ playing, and Lou’s famous statement:

“When I go, I just wanna be stood outside in the garbage with my hat on.”

“Just throw my body in the trash” was a callback, kids.

The only one who doesn’t really address his own mortality is Ted, who is too stupid to really conceive of it, instead believing that he’ll be immortal due to cryogenics.


This episode also showcases one of the best features of Mary Richards as a protagonist: She’s usually covering up her self-perceived weaknesses with a disciplined exterior. In this episode, she is trying to force a level of somberness and sobriety upon something that everyone else recognizes is incredibly funny. She’s trying to stay above it all, because she thinks that’s what she’s supposed to do, but eventually, she just can’t fight it anymore, and it happens that she loses her composure at exactly the wrong time. The fact that this is Mary Richards, a woman who absolutely wouldn’t do this under any circumstances, only makes everything all the more impacting.

Within the Sitcom Industry, this episode was, and to a degree is, pretty much the gold standard. I told you earlier that an episode of the Dick Van Dyke show was used to teach screenwriting. Well, this episode was used to refine the craft of sitcom writing. It’s not that shows hadn’t killed off recurring characters before (people dying sometimes necessitated it), but this wasn’t done as a “very special episode,” it was just done as the set-up to a joke… and then, at last, turned into a pretty moving and meaningful sequence. A sequence, by the way, in which Moore never actually says a word.

Ultimately, the reason this episode won is that I don’t have another episode that makes death feel so much less scary without having to promise something fantastic, like a VR heaven or an actual divine guidance to the universe. This episode never addresses any of that. You die. It happens to everyone. Maybe there’s a God, maybe there’s an afterlife, or maybe there’s not. It doesn’t matter. You can laugh at it anyway, because all of life, including its end, is perfectly ridiculous. So, stop taking it so damned seriously, try to be the best person you can be, try to make everyone else’s lives happier by being in them, and enjoy it. Until we one day find out more about the nature of life and death, this episode has universal appeal. After all, somewhere out there is an Elephant with your name on it.

PREVIOUS – 2: I Love Lucy

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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2) Lucy Does a TV Commercial (I Love Lucy)

I got some messages during the course of this that I didn’t put enough Lucy on here, some of which were probably accurate. Hurt feelings compelled me to put a bonus one on here earlier, but I’m not really going to count it for the purposes of this review. Mostly because I wrote the rest of this before doing the new addition. But after writing this paragraph. Crazy.

ILoveLucyTitleThis is the second I Love Lucy episode on this list… and are any of you actually surprised? It’s I Love Lucy. The show has been re-run consistently for 50 years. People still love it. I wouldn’t have felt like I was making a huge mistake if I’d given it 20 spots on the list, I just realized that most of the episodes are pretty similar. I almost put on the episode with Lucy telling Ricky she’s pregnant, just because the look on his face singing “We’re Having a Baby, My Baby and Me” is priceless. If you ask me to watch a random episode of this show or watch basically any reality show, I’d say “Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do!” To those of you who want to point out that Ricky never actually said that: I DON’T CARE.

ILoveLucyCastQuick Recap: The show had a pretty general premise. Lucille “Lucy” Esmeralda McGillicuddy Ricardo and Enrique “Ricky” Alberto Fernando y de Acha Ricardo III (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz) are married and they live in an apartment in New York, where they frequently interact with their friends and landlords Fred and Ethel Mertz (William Frawley and Vivian Vance). Ricky is a popular bandleader and singer at a club. Lucy is a housewife who dreams of stardom, despite her complete lack of talent, leading her to do things that usually are described with “Hijinks Ensue.” Also, credit to her, Lucille Ball’s greatest talent is her incredible ability to play someone without any talent whatsoever.

ILoveLucyMyFavoriteHusband.jpgMost people don’t know, however, that the show was actually supposed to be an adaptation of the radio show My Favorite Husband, which Ball had been on for several years. Originally, they wanted her to switch to TV with her radio co-star Richard Denning, but she requested that her husband on the show be her real-life husband Desi Arnaz. When CBS said they didn’t think that people would buy her being married to a Cuban (despite the fact that she actually had been married to one for 10 years by this point), she and Arnaz made a vaudeville act that they toured around which became a hit. So, CBS decided to take a chance on Ball. At the same time, My Favorite Husband ended, so Ball managed to get the writers of that show to come to write for I Love Lucy. And greatness was born.

ILoveLucyFCCThis episode was done to get around the censors. Back in the 1950s, the FCC had pretty strict rules on what could go on TV compared to today. They could ban any scenes which contained either “obscene” material, like nudity, and, during the times children would be awake, “indecent” material, like showing a married couple sharing a bed. The show had already shown that the Ricardos had twin beds, and would later get around the ban on the word “Pregnant” by using other words, including “enceinte.” However, this episode had to get around something bigger: The ban on showing drunkenness on camera. And their solution was amazing.


ILoveLucyTV.pngThe episode starts with Lucy doing what she does best: Failing. Specifically, failing at darning socks to the point that she sewed the top up. Ricky receives a phone call saying that he has to pick a girl to do a commercial for one of the sponsors of his band’s upcoming television special. Lucy immediately tries to convince him to pick her, but he refuses and leaves for rehearsal. Fred comes over and agrees to help Lucy pitch a commercial to Ricky. When Ricky comes back, Lucy appears within the TV re-enacting one of the Phillip Morris ads that usually appeared on the show.* Lucy proceeds to try to go through the entire ad, but Ricky decides to plug in the TV, which causes a small explosion from the TV. Lucy leaves the TV, and upsets Ricky by revealing that she disassembled the TV so she could get in… despite the fact that the TV would have slid out of the frame easily.

The Next Day, Ricky asks Fred to wait for the call from the girl he picked so that he can tell her where to go to film the ad, but Lucy convinces Fred to let her answer the phone. Naturally, she tells the girl who calls that the show is cancelled and decides to go herself.

Okay, so, the next scene is how they got around the censors. The show cuts to the set of the commercial, where the commercial film crew is talking about the product, a health tonic named:


Truly the greatest title ever given to a product. Suck it, Pocket Fisherman.

Who needs the FDA?

While discussing the tonic, the script clerk begins to read off the ingredients as the director walks away. “It’s got everything in it. Meat, vegetables, minerals, vitamins,” then, after the director leaves, “alcohol 23%.” This makes Vitameatavegamin stronger than the US allows for fortified wines.

Lucy arrives, using her maiden name “Lucille McGillicuddy” to avoid anyone associating her with Ricky. The Script Clerk leaves without telling anyone about his discovery of the ingredients, and Lucy does a dry run of the commercial, which is fast-paced and contains a lot of alliteration, including taking a tablespoon of the tonic (which tastes awful, by her expression).


The director makes her go through several more takes, each time having Lucy take another spoonful of the tonic. Ricky then shows up and sees Lucy preparing for the commercial. The Director says it’s too late to find another woman, so Ricky agrees to let her appear in the commercial. After Ricky leaves, Lucy runs through several more takes, slowly getting more and more intoxicated (without anyone knowing what’s happening).

ILoveLucyDrunkGif.gifLucy then runs through the commercial over and over again, completely botching it as she unintentionally gets completely hammered. Since it’s Lucille Ball, she proceeds to go over-the-top crazy with the performance to the point that it’s basically every drunk person every screaming “I’m fine, I swear, I’m fine” trying to deliver a very complicated speech. And it is beautiful. It’s genuinely impressive that Ball can so believably say all of the spoonerized lines so quickly. Then, finally, she breaks all pretense of acting and just starts chugging the bottle until the director sends her to a dressing room to lie down.

Ricky returns to host the show, and starts to perform his opening musical number, when Lucy stumbles back onto the set of the commercial. She then sees Ricky performing and, as most women were in the 1950s, finds Ricky damned sexy when he’s singing in Spanish. Lucy, too drunk to remember that Ricky is on live TV, or at least too drunk to care, decides to join him and starts singing, badly, when he tries to carry on with the show. If you’ve ever played “Livin’ on a prayer” at a wedding, it’s like the people singing along with that. Finally, a plastered Lucy starts to deliver her commercial monologue, before Ricky desperately carries her off stage.



Alright, so, why is this episode so great?

Lucille. Désirée. Ball.

Look, no description is going to really do this episode justice. Lucille Ball was one of the best physical performers to ever grace the screen. She studied clowning to master the faces, only she didn’t wear the horrifying make-up or the stupid pants. Her timing is almost supernaturally good when she gets going, and it turns out that having to pretend to be a drunk was basically the best set-up you could give her.

Wouldn’t you buy from her?

When I first watched this, I compared it to the “$99,000 Answer” from The Honeymooners, but the message is actually more tragic and therefore more comical. In the “$99,000 Answer,” Ralph Kramden’s humiliation comes from the fact that he focused so hard on the end that he stumbled at the start. Here, Lucy’s dreams of stardom aren’t dashed due to her own failings. Sure, she had to act a little unethically to get the part, but, really, that was just to counter the fact that Ricky refused to ever give her a fair chance. When it came down to it, she was actually doing the commercial pretty much the way that it was supposed to be done. The Director even convinced Ricky she was doing a great job. She didn’t know, or have any reason to suspect, that there was a ton of alcohol in the tonic. She did everything right, it just happens that she was being sabotaged without her knowledge. More than that, she was being sabotaged without anyone’s knowledge. Her aspirations were destroyed by bad luck. Objectively, what you’re watching was a tragic occurrence.

ILoveLucyDrunkGif2The core of comedy is being able to subvert the sad and the tragic, and this is someone actually using the very thing that’s causing their downfall to create humor. And since most of it is derived from physical comedy and spoonerisms, it is basically universally funny. It’s the perfect clowning performance.

When this first aired, 68% of the television audience at the time watched it. Yeah, there were only four channels, but that was more than 15% higher than the lead-in, and more than 30% over the following show Life with Luigi, so you can’t just pretend that this was a normal occurrence. Vitameatavegamin basically became shorthand for the show. For example, to celebrate Lucille Ball’s 100th Birthday, Lucy look-a-likes gathered under a sign for the fake company. That’s how much this episode stood out, even among the other great episodes of the show.

Best episode of probably the most famous show of all time. I guess that’s really the TL;DR here.

PREVIOUS – 3: The West Wing

NEXT – 1: The Mary Tyler Moore Show

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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*This is a moment for a brief aside: Phillip Morris Cigarettes, while they are mass-killing monsters who spent billions of dollars trying to get children addicted to nicotine, were also the only sponsors of I Love Lucy for the first few seasons. They also were probably one of the only sponsors who would have agreed to allow the show to be recorded on film (in exchange for $1000/week out of Lucy and Desi’s pay), which is the reason why the show was able to be re-run at full quality, which basically re-shaped television forever. Doesn’t make up for all the cancer, but history is complicated, I guess.

3) Two Cathedrals (The West Wing)

Well, the impact of this one has certainly changed a bit since it aired. And, honestly, I think it might be even more relevant. The show hasn’t changed, of course, but the reality in which I watch it has been shifting for the last few years. The portrayal of the White House during what is essentially the Clinton Era Pre-Scandal is so starkly different to the subsequent portrayals that have colored most of my lifetime that it seems impossible to me that it’s the most accurate one, but, with limited exception, this seems to be how the White House has worked since WWII. Sometimes it’s ridiculous, because politics is run by people and people are ridiculous. Sometimes it’s overwhelmingly serious, because holding political office is dealing with situations and situations are serious. The balance shifts depending on the world, not the administration. The administration merely follows the world. The West Wing managed to portray all of that coherently.


The show takes place in the West Wing of the White House during the Presidency of Democrat Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin “You know damned well who I am” Sheen), and covers the day-to-day work and life of Bartlett and his staff: Leo McGarry (John Spencer), the White House Chief of Staff; C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), the White House Press Secretary; Josh Lyman (Bradley “Stop thinking of me from Billy Madison” Whitford), the Deputy Chief of Staff; Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), the White House Communications Director; Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), White House Deputy Communications Director; Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), Josh’s assistant; and Charlie Young (Dulé “Doughnut Holschtein” Hill).

While all of the characters in the show are amazing, and each could merit an entire entry’s worth of discussion, the focus of this episode is going to be on President Bartlet, because anything less would be spitting on a profound performance. The President actually wasn’t even supposed to be a character on the show. Aaron Sorkin originally planned to show him only in passing and only in a few episodes, but Sheen’s performance was so powerful that he quickly became the lead. Bartlet is a Democrat, a devout Catholic, a polymath so learned that it pretty much only can exist in fiction, a patriot of the highest order, a gifted speaker, and a caring man who balances his love of the country with accepting how much he has to deceive and bargain with both the people and other politicians in order to be allowed to do what he knows is the right thing.

A man who can quote the Gospel and the Constitution and knows they shouldn’t interact

In the first season, it is revealed that the President has a relapsing-remitting form of Multiple Sclerosis that he has concealed since before he ran for office. In this episode, he discloses it to the world, while the Democratic Party basically tells him that they would not endorse him to run another term because of it. The condition doesn’t impact him more than once every few years, and usually not too severely, but it is a neurological degenerative disorder, and it could potentially make him unfit in the future.


Her usual expression

Right before this episode starts, the President’s executive secretary, Dolores Landingham (Kathryn Joosten and Kirsten Nelson in flashback), one of the most lovable characters ever on television, is killed by a drunk driver. She had just bought a new car, and the president had asked her to come show it to him. Flashbacks of his adolescence with her as the secretary at the school his father ran occur throughout the episode. A large part of the episode is set at her funeral. Afterwards, the President asks to be alone in the National Cathedral. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever been in the National Cathedral, but it is a breathtaking building, regardless of your faith or lack thereof. And this episode is the last time that anyone has been allowed to film in it, which makes it only the more fitting that Martin Sheen delivers one of the best monologues on film to the figure of Christ.


Bartlet is vocally a Christian, and he is not a hypocrite about it, which is basically inconceivable for any modern politician. He has the Bible memorized, and has read more commentary on it than most people would even guess existed. He quotes verses throughout the series, but still understands that it is the responsibility of his faith to shape him, not his policies, which are shaped by being an American first. That’s why it’s all the more stunning when he starts it by telling God “You’re a son of a bitch, you know that?”

WestWingBartletArmsBartlet then proceeds to unload on God for the unfairness of life, in a way that should be all too real for anyone who has ever had faith. He talks about how he sinned by lying about his disease, but that it’s not fair that such a thing would outweigh everything else he’s done. He’s been faithful, he’s done good works, moreso than almost any President at the time. And yet, the sweetest person in his life, one of the most sincerely good people he’s ever known, was killed the day she bought her first new car by a drunk driver. As Bartlet puts it. “Bailed out Mexico, increased foreign trade, 30 million new acres of land for conservation, put Mendoza on the bench, we’re not fighting a war, I’ve raised three children… That’s not enough to buy me out of the doghouse?”

WestWingBartletHalo.jpgHe ends with the lines “Haec credam a deo pio? A deo iusto? A deo scito? Cruciatus in crucem! Tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui; officium perfeci. Cruciatus in crucem. Eas in crucem. [roughly translated, because I haven’t taken Latin in a decade: Should I believe these things are from a pious God? A just God? A knowing God? Damn your punishments! I was your servant on Earth, I was your messenger; I did my duty. Damn your punishments. Damn You.] He then smokes a cigarette, the thing that his father had admonished him against during his youth, puts it out on the floor of the cathedral (which is why they banned filming there), and says “You get Hoynes,” the less morally-sound Vice-President who is presumed to be the next presidential candidate for the Democratic Party.

This is why no one can film here anymore

The staff are then told that the President will not seek re-election. The only ones who appear to believe that he might change his mind are Toby and Leo, the two people who convinced him to run in the first place.

WestWingYoungLandinghamThe President then flashes back to his childhood where his father hits him for writing an article opposing book-banning, and derides his intelligence by saying that Jed is only at the school because his father is headmaster. In the present, he sees a vision of Mrs. Landingham who tells him to consider all of the people who have it worse than him, but, unlike most people when saying this, she means that he needs to think about how many people need his help. He recites the problems that he wants to fix, problems that have remained relevant, sadly, since this episode aired. She then says to him the same thing she told him when he was a boy:

“You know, if you don’t want to run again, I respect that. But if you don’t run ’cause you think it’s gonna be too hard or you think you’re gonna lose… well, God, Jed, I don’t even want to know you.”

WestWingLightningThe President then walks outside and stands in the presence of the strongest storm to hit DC in May in history, before going in front of the White House Press Corps. Bartlet chooses to avoid the softball question that the team had prepared for him, instead choosing another reporter who asks him directly if he’ll be seeking a second term. Bartlet puts his hands in his pockets, looks away, and smiles, something that Mrs. Landingham said is his way of saying “I’ve made up my mind to do it.”


One of the things that most amazed me was that the show doesn’t say what the Two Cathedrals are, and, within the episode, it could be interpreted several ways. They could be the Cathedral shown at Jed’s School in the flashbacks, where he first put out a cigarette and met Mrs. Landingham, and the National Cathedral where he puts out another one and says goodbye to her. But, I think the two Cathedrals are the National Cathedral and the Oval Office, and I’ll tell you why (because it’s my list and you can deal with it).

westwingbartletmontage2.jpgAt the National Cathedral, Josiah Bartlet renounces his faith. He renounces his faith in God, obviously, but along than that, he renounces his faith in himself and America. He doesn’t believe he can hold the office anymore, and he doesn’t believe that America wants him anymore. He thinks he isn’t enough, as a Catholic, as a son, as a President, as an American, and he is resentful that he could have worked this hard and done this much and still feel like he is a failure and that he’s being punished for it. He ends it by telling God to go to Hell, in so many words, and condemns America to a lesser president. He’s done with America, he’s done with God, he’s done believing in things.

And yet, a few hours later, at the Oval Office, he finds it all again from a vision of Mrs. Landingham. She clearly is just a manifestation of his own subconscious, because she says to him all the things that he already knows: His father was a prick, God doesn’t send drunk drivers to kill people, and that there is more work to be done. Bartlet’s greatest strength as a president is that he cares about all of the people behind the numbers. He recites the statistics of children born into poverty, the collapsing schools, the uninsured citizenry, the drug crisis, the high rate of incarceration, but it’s clear that he doesn’t care that these things are holding America back, he’s upset because it means people are suffering that he wants to help be better. Regardless of party or philosophy or anything else, this is what should first define a presidential candidate. The fact that it doesn’t is the greatest flaw in a Democracy.

WestWingBartletWetThat’s what this episode reminds us: That our leaders need to be the people who are doing it for everyone else, not for themselves or their friends. Unfortunately, the episode also reminds us exactly why it’s so difficult for us to get those people: Because caring breaks people, and having to care about everyone breaks all but the toughest. Therefore, the people who make it further in politics are either the strongest, or the ones who don’t actually care. The problem is, the strongest won’t make it without stumbling. They will fail. They will lose faith. They will become angry that the world is not fair or just or merciful. They may give up. But they will come back. They will climb back out of that hole and they will conquer. Sadly, people will assume these moments of stumbling are a sign of weakness, which gives the advantage to the uncaring, something the show has pointed out on multiple occasions. The judgment of the masses feeds sociopathy, not courage.

Bartlet gets back up, and he baptizes himself in the rain as a sign of his renewed faith, not only in God, but in America. It’s a powerful scene that perfectly complements his anger within the church. It’s made even more lasting by having Bartlet and the rest of the staff come together to go to the press conference to the song “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits, signifying that Bartlet knows one other key to being a great President: To inspire great people to follow you.

All of the President’s staff, from the chief to the secretaries to the cooks, feel as if they are on the battlefield with him. They’re all part of the same team, and they trust that everyone on the team, even if they don’t agree how, is working for the benefit of the American public. One of my favorite lines on the show is that when one of the staff outlines the goals for the day, Bartlet corrects them and says:

“The first priority is always: How can we be making life better for American citizens?”

It’s corny, but it’s also exactly the kind of message that you need to focus on. We’re not lowering taxes, we’re not lowering unemployment, we’re not improving education. We may do all of those things, but they’re incidental to the goal of making life better for Americans.

It’s also worth noting that this episode does not portray Bartlet as being a self-made man. Far from it, it suggests that, while he had all the talent in the world, his ethics and success are the product of two women: His mother, who gave him his faith, and Mrs. Landingham, who taught him to use his powerful mind and will for the benefit of others. It’s an interesting window into the character.

This episode is the highest dramatic performance on the list. The only two remaining are comedies, and that’s a little bit because this one required watching the show up to this point to truly appreciate, whereas someone who knows nothing of the show could watch the last two. However, there is no doubt in my mind that this could easily be listed as the greatest episode of television by critics. Please, when you find an hour, watch it.

PREVIOUS – 4: WKRP in Cincinnati

NEXT – 2: I Love Lucy

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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4) Turkeys Away (WKRP in Cincinnati)

It’s difficult for me to describe exactly why I love this episode so much. Lie to yourself all you want, if you’ve watched this episode, you get what I mean. I’ve watched it at least once a year since I was little, and it’s entertained me in completely different ways throughout that time period. But, ultimately, the fact that I’ve watched it more than 20 times and can still dependably turn it on and laugh at it, even knowing all the jokes, the lines, the set-up, and the payoff, is a sign of how brilliant it is. The worst part is that, on some level, you know you’ve done exactly what is done in this episode: You’ve formulated some great idea… only to find out that it was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of something. It’s like when a kid says “Why don’t we give everyone one trillion dollars? Then everyone will be rich.” It sounds fun on paper, but the reality is… well, just ask Zimbabwe how that works out.

Ratings gold, Kotter

WKRP in Cincinnati probably is mainly remembered because of this episode. I don’t mean that the rest of the show wasn’t good, it absolutely was, but this episode was so iconic, so memorable, so original, and so bizarre, that it is definitely part of what saved the show. See, when WKRP first came out, it didn’t do well competing against Welcome Back, Kotter and Little House on the Prairie. In fact, CBS pulled the show off the air after just 8 episodes. However, the fan response to the show was so positive, owing in no small part to the fact that this episode had aired just before it was pulled, that the show was brought back and ran for 3 more seasons. When the show was brought back for Syndication, it was one of the most successful syndicated shows in the 80s and early 90s… until it had to be pulled again because the licensing on all of the music ran out. IP rights can be really dumb sometimes. But, the point is, this show wouldn’t have been able to do any of that if it wasn’t for this episode making enough of a splash to save the show the first time around.


The premise of the show is that WKRP is a struggling radio station in a city, the name of which you should be able to guess by now. Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) is brought in as the new Program Director at the beginning of the series to change the station from Easy Listening over to Rock ‘n’ Roll. The rest of the cast is the staff of the radio station: Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump), the incompetent manager who only has his job because his mom owns the station; Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard “Yes, I would lie in exchange for weed” Hesseman), a DJ who has been fired from most of the good radio stations for misconduct; Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson), the gorgeous station secretary who is both the highest-paid and the most intelligent person on staff; Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), the soulful night and evening DJ; Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers), the young woman in charge of billing and station traffic, and later a reporter; Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner), the account executive who manages to sell ad space for ridiculous products; and Les Nessman (Richard Sanders), the uptight reporter who is so incompetent that he rarely gets the names of celebrities right, let alone the headlines, but has somehow won five “silver sow” awards for reporting on hog shows.


She’s the highest-paid for a reason

The episode begins with Jennifer doing her job in the best way possible: By not allowing any real decisions to be made by Mr. Carlson. Unfortunately, she makes it a little too obvious that she’s doing all the real work this time, resulting in him taking notice. Then, when Mr. Carlson asks Herb how sales are going, Herb accidentally implies that Mr. Carlson was screwing up constantly until Andy showed up.

Mr. Carlson decides to go around and re-assert his authority, but it fails spectacularly: Johnny feigns being asleep, the advice he gives to Bailey is woefully uninformed, and Venus barely registers his presence. Carlson goes back to his office and plays with his office supplies until Andy checks in on him. Andy tells him that everything is going well with the station, but Carlson asks to be more involved. Andy tells him he’ll do what he can.

A day or two later, the staff are all coming to Andy begging for him to tell Carlson to go back to the old system of… not actually doing anything. Carlson’s attempts to get involved in the workings of the station have just been sabotaging everyone… and offending Venus Flytrap, who has apparently been getting offers of watermelon from Carlson. Venus is Black, in case you didn’t already guess that this was a joke that could only be made on network TV in the 70s. Now, you’d probably have to do cable news to find that level of casual racism.

You can trust him

Carlson announces that he has a secret promotion and requests help from Les and Herb, who, as the suit-wearing older men in the station, Carlson considers to be part of the “old guard.” They’re told that they need complete secrecy and 20 live turkeys.

The next day, the staff are still in the dark about Carlson’s plan. Carlson asks Jennifer to type up a press release, however, Jennifer’s contract says she doesn’t take dictation. He then says he’ll type it himself, and asks her to grab coffee. Her contract likewise says she doesn’t have to make or fetch coffee. This is the 1970s, so… I’m gonna say feminism win? Or is it a loss because, despite being the most intelligent person in the office and the one who actually keeps the station running, she’s still technically a secretary… who is paid more than the rest of the station? Whatever, Jennifer Marlowe is awesome. Detour over.


The staff reminisces about the past promotions which Carlson has tried, including “The Great Wig Giveaway,” which failed so spectacularly that Carlson had to donate the leftover wigs to the Red Cross after the 1976 earthquake in Guatemala. Johnny then goes live to Les Nessman, who is ready to broadcast the details of the mystery turkey giveaway from the Pinedale shopping center. As Les starts, he is accosted by the owner of the supermarket from whose lot he is broadcasting. Les moves into the open, but he still isn’t sure what is going to happen.

Alright, so, few things are funnier than the following sequence. I’ve seen it 30 times, and I have never stopped laughing. If you’re watching on the full-episode link, it’s at about 18:30. Or, here you go:

The key is that the camera only shows Les and the listening station crew, and never what is actually happening. The fact that it’s only reactions makes everything all the more real, because it’s as if we’re hearing the live broadcast ourselves.


Les sees a helicopter coming in with a banner attached saying “Happy Thanksgiving from WKRP.” Then, he sees a dark object drop out of it. Then another. Then another. They’re turkeys, crashing from 2000 feet onto a crowded parking lot. Les describes it as a tragedy not equaled since the Hindenburg, as the turkeys fall to the ground. Then, Les cuts out, and Johnny announces that the Pinedale Shopping mall has just been “bombed” by live turkeys.

In the next scene, Jennifer is talking to the Humane society, and uses the great line “A lot of turkeys don’t make it through Thanksgiving” to justify it. Venus demands that Andy stop Carlson from ever doing a promotion again, and Andy stops him, saying that Carlson has been here a long time, and just wants to be part of things, and that’s not the worst thing.


Then, Carlson and Herb return, suits shredded and covered in turkey feathers. Carlson says that he’s fine, and heads to his office. Jennifer offers to get him coffee (the only time ever). Andy tries to convince Carlson that it was at least a unique promotion. Carlson, frustrated, says that he thought it would work. He says that he’d planned the whole thing, down to the last detail.

Les then makes his way into the office, in shock, talking about how some of the surviving turkeys and the victims attacked him.

Carlson then comes back out and says one of the best lines in TV History:



For the record, this episode is based on the WQXI Turkey Giveaway, where the station manager took an 18-wheeler filled with live turkeys and threw hundreds of them at people in an Atlanta Shopping Center. Somehow, the fact that this is based on reality makes it all the more unbelievable.


Okay, so, why is this episode so good? Really, it’s the last line, because the last line somehow brings a wonderful clarity to this chaos. It tells you exactly why Carlson could put so much effort into the promotion and still screw it up so spectacularly: Because it turns out you can’t throw a live turkey out of a helicopter. Then, after that fails, he landed the helicopter and tried to just turn them loose… at which point, in Les’s words, they organized a counterattack.

It’s a fundamental mistake of fact. Something that we assume is correct because we’ve believed it for so long that we never thought to question it. It could be something as simple as “I have the right to one phone call after an arrest,” to something as complicated as “Columbus was the first person to believe the Earth was round.” At some point in everyone’s life, you will find that one of these is wrong… and hopefully it won’t be right after you spent a ton of time formulating a plan based around it.

This episode contains a hilarious failure, which is the subject of many comedies on this list, but this one is made all the better because not only is it caused by a single fundamental error, but it’s one that a ton of people would probably also make (and, by the way, wild turkeys can fly to a degree). The fact that we don’t ever see the incident, but only hear about it and see the fallout and the reactions makes it all the more spectacular in our minds. Really, it’s an amazing amount of comedy crammed into 24 minutes, and, even watching it again for this review, I love it just as much as I ever have.

PREVIOUS – 5: I, Claudius

NEXT – 3: The West Wing

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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5) Queen of Heaven (I, Claudius)

I, Claudius is a miniseries, but, much like with some of the earlier shows, I could not care less about technicalities. A pox on all pedants (including, usually, me). It’s 12 episodes long, and all of them are amazing, but this one goes beyond.

IClaudiusBookI, Claudius is an adaptation of Robert Graves’ novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God. It is a fictionalized account of the early Roman empire, going from Augustus to, you guessed it, Claudius, and supposedly told by Claudius himself (he narrates it from the end of his reign). Claudius did, in fact, write an 8 volume autobiography of his family, but, since it didn’t survive, we only know the gist of it, and that the historian Suetonius thought it was “tasteless.” Given the nature of some of his predecessors, as shown within this show with a decent amount of accuracy, it would be impossible to write a “tasteful” history of the Julio-Claudians (the family of Augustus).

Dear Penthouse Forum Romanum: I never thought it would happen to me…

The show is narrated by Claudius (Derek Jacobi) at the end of his life, with the entire series happening in flashback. Here’s the story so far, for those of you who don’t know slightly fictionalized histories of the early Roman Empire (warning, this show is dense as hell, this’ll take a few minutes. If you want to skip, go down a bit): Augustus (Brian Blessed) was the first emperor of Rome. Much of the first part of the story concerns the events that surround him seeking an heir. Augustus’s wife, Livia (Siân Phillips), wants her son, Tiberius (George Baker), to be the next emperor, and she will do almost anything to get it.

If looks could kill, she’d… well, she kills everyone anyway.

Livia is the best character on the show, and among the best characters of all time. She is the epitome of someone working behind the scenes. She murders anyone that gets in her way, usually with her own batch of poison, always keeping herself removed from actually having to do anything direct. She poisons Marcellus (Christopher Guard), the first heir of Augustus. She implicitly has Marcus Agrippa (John Paul), the second heir, murdered so that his wife, Julia (Frances White), Augustus’s daughter, will be free to marry Tiberius.

Pictured: Tiberius. Not Pictured: Dignity

She coerces Augustus into forcing Tiberius to leave his wife Vipsania Aggrippina (Sheila Rushkin), whom Tiberius loves, and marrying Julia, who he does not (he hates her to the point that he beats her and is banished from Rome). When Livia’s other son, Drusus (Ian Ogilvy), begins to encourage Augustus to return Rome to a Republic, Livia sends her own personal physician to oversee him after he has a small injury. Unsurprisingly, he dies shortly after. When Augustus announces his intention to perhaps give power to his grandsons, they die in “accidents” over the next few years. Livia uses agents to reveal that Julia has been engaging in “deviant behavior” which contrasts with Augustus’s strong moral code, resulting in her banishment, and the end of Tiberius’s. Tiberius is then named co-heir with Postumus Agrippa (John Castle).

Young Claudius

Now, Claudius, son of Drusus, actually enters the story. Claudius has both a limp and a pronounced stutter, and, despite the fact that he reads constantly, is thought to be a fool because of those disabilities. In fact, the historian Pollio (Donald Eccles), tells him he needs to exaggerate those faults, because otherwise he’ll be thought of as a threat, and probably killed by Livia. When Augustus determines that Postumus alone should succeed him, Livia frames Postumus for rape and has him banished. Postumus, having seen the depths of Livia’s drive to make Tiberius emperor, tells Claudius all that has happened because of her, and reiterates “Play the fool, Claudius.” When Augustus is told of Postumus’s innocence, Livia poisons Augustus. When he fails to die and takes the precaution of only eating food he picks himself, Livia paints his fig vines with poison. In case anyone doubts the succession, she has Sejanus (Patrick Stewart) kill Postumus. Tiberius is finally Emperor.

Patrick Stewart as Sejanus. Yes, it’s a wig.

Unfortunately, it turns out that Tiberius is a terrible, terrible person (who knew having a mother that kills people all the time might affect your development?). The only thing that stops total tyranny is Germanicus (David Robb), Claudius’s older brother, who, naturally, dies. It turns out, however, that this one wasn’t Livia. Germanicus was actually killed by his son, Caligula (John Hurt), but Livia manages to convince Plancina (Irene Hamilton), the wife of Piso (Stratford Johns), the governor of Syria, to murder her husband and place the blame on him to spare Caligula.

Claudius, Caligula, Tiberius: Three Emperors



IClaudiusSejanus2.jpgFor those of you who have been keeping count, Livia has murdered basically everyone. She’s killed her husband, her son, her grandchildren, his grandchildren, friends, enemies, you name it. All to get her son to be Emperor. The story then jumps ahead to later in Tiberius’s reign. Tiberius pretty much just holds orgies and forces women into prostitution, supported by young Caligula. Sejanus actually runs the empire, and he uses it mostly to seize property and imprison his enemies. Everything sucks, is what I’m getting at. When she confronts him in the street, Livia even says that Drusus (her other son, who she KILLED) should have been emperor instead of Tiberius.

IClaudiusDinnerClaudius is called to a dinner with Livia. Livia, now old, reveals that she has been hiding a secret from almost everyone. She has found that there is a Sibylline prophecy which says that both Caligula and Claudius shall become emperors. Livia, finally having accepted that Tiberius is a waste of a man, exacts a promise from Caligula and Claudius to have her become a goddess after her death. Caligula dismissively agrees and leaves. Claudius, however, finally reveals his true self to her, surmising that Caligula will be the next emperor because Tiberius would want someone even worse to follow him, so that he will be remembered well by comparison. As he is talking, Livia notes that Claudius has lost his stutter, and no longer pretends the fool. Because of this, she begs him again to make her a goddess when he’s emperor. Claudius laughs at the thought of being emperor, and agrees, thinking nothing of it.

Caligula cruelly mocks Livia

The scene then jumps to Livia’s deathbed 6 years later. She calls for Caligula and Claudius. Caligula arrives first, and, when Livia asks if he remembers his promise, tells her that he will be the god, and that she will burn in hell, tormenting her as she lies helpless with the knowledge that he will destroy everything in the name of his deification. Claudius arrives soon after Caligula leaves, and Livia asks him if he will uphold his promise. Claudius then sits down and asks about every bad thing that she’s done. All the people she’s killed. She admits to everything, freely, and admits that it was all wrong. She thought she was doing it for all the right reasons, her son, but she now understands that she never should have done any of it. Claudius, seeing not a monster, but a woman who has lived long enough to realize that she has done horrible things that can never be undone, tells her that he will make her the “Queen of Heaven.” She passes peacefully in bed.



Okay, first, almost no performance has ever matched Siân Phillips as Livia. It was a role she was clearly born to play. She is loving to her children, a monster in practice, and, in the last scenes, just a sad old woman looking on a world that she ruined in the name of blind love. Now, she knows that she is facing not just death, but true damnation, and she requests just one thing: deification. This isn’t in the name of preserving her legacy, however. It’s just the only thing that might actually allow her to be forgiven for what she’s done.

IClaudiusDieAHero.jpgIn The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent famously says “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Appropriately, he was addressing the concept of the dictator at the time, specifically Julius Caesar, the precursor to the Julio-Claudians. This is the opposite of that. This is the villain living long enough to see what happens when she wins. And, make no mistake, this is her having won. She achieved the goal of the massive machinations she’s been working for decades. She made an emperor out of her beloved son. The problem is, she didn’t ever think to help make him a good emperor. Or even a good person. She just gave him power that he didn’t ask for or deserve.

IClaudiusCrimeAndPunishmentIn Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky addresses a similar theme to Livia on her deathbed. Even when you’ve gotten away with a crime, even if you believe that the crime was justified by some “higher order,” in the end, you will never escape your guilty conscience. That’s supposed to be the purpose of societal values, to make sure that, even when you go free, you are still a prisoner in your own mind. You may pretend to not see the walls, but, when you are old, you will look around and see every brick you have laid around your soul, and you will know that your existence has amounted to nothing but pain. If you have any belief in the natural goodness of people, then part of making a better world is to remind people that breaking their own ethics will one day bring them the pain that they have inflicted upon others. This episode is the culmination of that. It ends not with a monstrous empress sitting behind the son that she has brought to power, but with a grandmother telling the only person she has left that her life was a mistake. And perhaps, too, we should learn from Claudius, who sees the agony that she has brought upon herself as being a torment that won’t end, and promises her forgiveness. It’s not that she deserves it, it’s that it’s the right thing to do.

PREVIOUS – 6: The Sopranos

NEXT – 4: WKRP In Cincinnati

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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Reader Bonus: Heart of Evil (Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated)

ScoobyDooGangOldSchool.pngScooby-Doo doesn’t die. That Great Dane has appeared on television or in film all but 11 years since it was created in 1969. You can mock the laugh track or the premise or the fact that Shaggy is obviously high all the time, but the fact is, people love the characters, that’s why they keep coming back. Sure, they’ve changed over time: Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, The New Scooby-Doo Movies, The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, Be Cool, Scooby-Doo!, etc. They’ve added characters, then removed them, then added them back. They’ve changed premises. They’ve had the cast as kids. They’ve done it all.

But, in Scooby-Doo Mystery Incorporated, as opposed to they writers asking “what if we set it in space” or “what if it takes place in the future,” apparently they asked a different question: WHAT IF WE MADE THE SHOW AWESOME? And they did.

This is the IMDB for every Scooby Doo show. This series is the solid green blocks.

This series isn’t corny. It isn’t hackneyed. It isn’t pointlessly goofy. The villains in this one become willing to flat-out kill the main characters (at the beginning it’s with complicated death-traps, but by the end, it’s just pulling out a gun and opening fire). The series even has a fairly high body-count for recurring characters, and none of the deaths are taken lightly. It’s a well-written mystery-horror-comedy that manages to be inventive while still being a perfect tribute to the original show.

Unlike almost all of the other series, it’s not episodic: It’s a serial. It’s all part of one large plot-line that builds slowly until it’s revealed to be so much bigger in scope than anyone could have imagined. The ending literally explains all of the other Scooby-Doo series, including why Scooby can talk and why people in their universe like dressing up in monster costumes to commit crimes. It has the entire original team, too: Fred, Velma, Daphne, Shaggy, and Scooby-Doo (Frank Welker, Mindy Cohn, Grey DeLisle, Matthew Lillard, and Welker again).


What’s even better is that they worked thematic episodes into the overarching plot. There were episodes that paid tribute to the classic Hanna-Barbera Saturday Morning Cartoons, to the film The Wild One, even to Saw (yes, in Scooby-Doo, they had an episode about a serial murder who builds elaborate death traps, and it was awesome). And then, there was this episode.

Some of you have probably heard of this guy called “Batman.” He was kind of a big deal for a while. In fact, he appeared multiple times with Scooby-Doo during the 70s, when Batman was goofy and played by Adam West. What you might also remember is that one of the biggest comics Batman ever appeared in was the famously dark “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.” This episode is that comic. Except with a twist.


ScoobyDooDynomuttandBlueFalcon.jpgIn the 1970s, Hanna-Barbera had a cartoon called Dynomutt, Dog Wonder. Dynomutt was a goofy robot dog who was the sidekick to a Batman-esque superhero called “The Blue Falcon.” They frequently interacted with Scooby-Doo, but got cancelled relatively quickly. However, apparently, they made enough of an impact for the writers of this episode to go “Hey, what if we took the same goofy Dynomutt, but paired him with the super-intense and violent Batman from ‘The Dark Knight Returns’?” My only hope is that after that sentence was first uttered, the clouds parted and pure golden light shone down upon the crew.

The episode starts years before, at the laboratory of Dr. Benton Quest of Johnny Quest fame. A robotic dragon attacks the building, injuring Security Guard Radley Crowne’s dog Reggie. Quest vows to save the dog’s life.

ScoobyDooDragonCut to the present. Fred, having recently had to turn on his evil parents, is living in a van down by the river (AND YES, THEY REFERENCE THE FARLEY SNL ROUTINE).  Velma summons the rest of the gang to city hall, where they discover an attack on the archives by the dragon robot.

ScoobyDooBlueFalcon1The Blue Falcon and Dynomutt intervene, making multiple references to both their goofy show, and also to the gritty Dark Knight Returns. It’s a work of art to see these two styles juxtaposed and interacting. It’d be like watching the 1989 Batman pull out a can of Bat Shark Repellant. Or, if you have watched the Lego Batman movie, it’s like that: Pure, concentrated, awesome.

Blue Falcon explains that they’ve been tracking the robot for years, but Velma points out that Crystal Cove (the show’s setting) is the turf of Mystery, Inc., so they’re tagging along. Falcon agrees, and delivers one of my favorite lines:

“Very well, but you should know that if I need to sacrifice any of you to get my prey, I’ll gladly do it.”

To which Dynomutt, cheerfully responds, giggling: “Oh, B.F. (to Mystery, Inc., deadly serious) He’s not kidding.”

ScoobyDooBlueFalcon2.jpgThe teams work together to track down the dragon robot. They break into the headquarters of the evil corporation “Destroido,” where Blue Falcon brutally dispatches the guards… with intermixed cartoon sound effects and music. Again, the juxtaposition just makes it amazing.

They confront the company’s head, recurring Scooby-Doo villain Mr. E (Lewis F*cking Black), who refuses to talk. However, the dragon attacks the facility at that moment. They discover the dragon is downloading files from the corporate mainframe, when a voice comes out of the dragon, belonging to none other than Dr. Zin, the Villain from Johnny Quest, who has been searching for Quest’s amazing power source, which apparently is in Dynomutt. Unfortunately, Zin tells the dragon to take the dog and Blue Falcon, which leads the dragon to take Scooby-Doo by mistake.

scoobydoozin.jpgThe gang, along with Dynomutt, travel to a volcano lair to rescue Blue Falcon and Scooby. Zin tries to shoot them down, but they’re saved by Shaggy accidentally crashing the plane they were in. The gang and Blue Falcon take down Zin’s henchmen (because the Gang have all been learning to fight over this series, it actually seems reasonable). They find Zin crying over his dragon, revealed to contain his daughter, who has been trapped in the suit since the night that it first attacked Quest Industries. The suit won’t release her without an external power source, which Dynomutt provides from his battery.

Zin, getting his daughter back, remarks that his quest for power has blinded him to the beauty of a simple act of selfless kindness… before setting the volcano layer to self-destruct and abandoning them. The group escapes in the nick of time.

One of the best parts of this episode is that it mashes up all of the different styles that have come out since Scooby-Doo first began. Batman, SNL, E.T., Johnny Quest, James Bond, all of them are referenced throughout the episode, and they all work. It’s a postmodernist episode of Scooby-Doo, which is my new favorite sentence.

Zin himself is a perfect enemy in this episode, because he was both a Hanna-Barbera enemy, a Bond-esque Supervillain, and, in this episode, is mildly tweaked to resemble Ra’s Al Ghul from Batman, all at the same time.

It’s just a great half-hour of television within a great TV Show. I’ve always loved Scooby-Doo, so I know I’m biased, but Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated really was the first time that the characters were really used to their full potential. I recommend watching it, whether you loved the cartoon or not. It really just was that good of a show.

I’m also looking forward to the Supernatural/Scooby-Doo crossover coming soon.

Link to the Archives.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (, follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

6) College (The Sopranos)

This is the second episode of the Sopranos on this list, so hopefully all of you who follow this checked the show out already. Tell me in the comments if you did. Here’s the gist, for the rest of you:

SopranosCompositeTony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is a capo, and eventually the boss, of the DiMeo crime family. At the beginning of the series, he suffers an anxiety attack. He then starts therapy with Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Throughout the series, they maintain a professional, and sometimes closer, relationship, despite the fact that while Dr. Melfi is humane and dedicated to rationality, Tony tends to have people killed, and his emotions vary wildly throughout different sessions for reasons that sometimes confuse even the audience. Their sessions usually focus on how Tony balances his relationships with his family and his relationships with “the family.”

TV’s Worst Mother

While the first episode was focused more on Tony Soprano’s professional life, this one is more about the personal, and Tony himself. Tony’s immediate family, including his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), and kids, Anthony Jr. and Meadow (Robert Iler and Jamie-Lynn Sigler), often form the emotional conflicts in the show that usually mirror something in the A-plot. He is portrayed often as a loving father, though his inability to be open about his criminal activities often drives a wedge between him and his children. Like most mobsters, he cheats on his wife frequently, which, combined with his profession and her Catholicism, is a constant strain on their marriage. Probably his most interesting relationship is with his mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), who is a monster on par with her namesake from I, Claudius. Sadly, she’s not in this episode, but suffice it to say that it’s completely believable that she’s the source of most of the psychological problems of a murderous gangster.


SopranosCarTony takes Meadow to tour colleges. On the way, she directly asks him if he’s in the Mafia. He denies it at first, but then slowly admits more and more, even if he never actually says “I kill people and have people killed.” Later, in response to his honestly, Meadow admits that she and her friends had been on Amphetamines for several weeks so that she could deal with the stress of getting into college. Tony gets angry over this, but later relents. He admits that he’s proud of his daughter for going to college.

SopranosFabianWhile stopped at a gas station, Tony spots a former Mob Rat in Witness Protection named Fabian Petrulio (Tony Ray Rossi). Despite Meadow being with him, Tony follows Fabian to his hometown. Tony, however, doesn’t realize that Fabian also apparently spotted him. Tony tries to find someone to come kill Fabian, but no one is available. Fearing Fabian’s flight, Tony resolves to kill Fabian the next day by himself while Meadow is touring a college. Meanwhile, Fabian tracks Tony back to his hotel and attempts to kill him, but is stopped by the presence of an elderly couple.

SopranosCarmelaandFatherPhil.pngMeanwhile, Carmela, who stayed behind for the tours due to the flu, is visited by her priest, Father Phil (Paul Schulze). Phil comes over for some of Carmela’s home cooking, which then becomes wine and old movies. Carmela and Phil show signs of a strong mutual attraction, and, later, Carmela confesses to Phil about the problems with her marriage after she discovers that Tony had lied to her by saying Dr. Melfi was a man. Phil then gives her a late-night communion… which is only not made into a euphemism because Phil becomes physically ill right before they kiss. He ends up passing out and nothing happens.

The next day, Tony drops Meadow off and then goes to Fabian’s business. Fabian, wary, comes out with a gun, but Tony ambushes him and garrotes him. Fabian begs for his life, telling Tony that he didn’t shoot him in front of his daughter the previous night, but Tony pulls tighter, the cords he’s using to choke Fabian digging deeper and deeper into his hands. Finally, Fabian dies.


Tony picks Meadow up. However, when she notices his hands are bleeding, Tony concocts an obviously fake story, which upsets Meadow, who thought they had reached a new level of honesty. After taking her to Bowdoin college, he reads a quote by Bowdoin Alumnus Nathaniel Hawthorne, which reads:

“No man can wear one face to himself an another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.”

SopranosTonyQuote.jpgFull credit to James Gandolfini for the shot of Tony contemplating the message, ending with him looking down in what appears to be weariness. It’s only about 10 seconds long, but he manages to weigh it all wordlessly. Tony returns home with Meadow, only to find that his wife spent a night with the Priest. While Carmela, truth-ish-ly, says that nothing happened, Tony starts to accuse her, only for Carmela to tell him that she now knows that Tony lied about Dr. Melfi’s gender. Tony tries to explain himself, but the episode ends with him on the defensive for his lies.


Like many of the episodes on this list, this episode embodies the whole of the show. Hell, it pulls a quote from Hawthorne just to summarize Tony’s entire plight. When Tony and Meadow are honest earlier in the story, while Tony gets angry at Meadow, ultimately, both of them are visibly relieved after their confessions. This is mirrored by the Catholic confession which Carmela undergoes, which appears to heal her to the point that she forgets she had the flu at the beginning. However, all of them hide themselves back behind their masks of obfuscation by the end of the episode. Tony is lying again, Meadow is concealing her actions, and Carmela isn’t telling the whole truth about her feelings towards Tony or Father Phil.

All of these characters, like most people, have a persona which they present to the public that isn’t a complete representation of their feelings and thoughts. Some even have multiple public personas based on the audience. At the end of the day, there is always a conflict between these public personas and a person’s true self.  In Tony, the huge divide between all of his personas and himself creates the stress attacks that necessitate his self-discovery which forms the basis of the show.

Bob gets it.

The shot of Tony reading the quote is the ultimate revelation: He no longer knows who he is. His personas have so overtaken the different aspects of his life that he is unable to tell if he really is the mobster who strangles a man to death in cold blood, the father who wants to make sure that his children get everything he never had, the husband who cares for his wife’s well-being, or the guy who cheats on her frequently. It seems that he wants to be all of them, but that’s just not possible for him. Each demands something that another requires sacrificing. While Dr. Melfi would point out many times that trying to just ignore this fact is what really is harming Tony, this episode makes a point of having Tony face it directly, and shows the audience that even he knows it’s breaking him, but he doesn’t know what to do about it.

SopranosTheScarletLetterWhile the quote from Hawthorne is pretty self-contained in its application towards Tony, though the original quote has “for any considerable period” in it, it’s important to realize where the quote comes from: “The Minister in the Maze” from The Scarlet Letter.

The chapter is about the Reverend Dimmesdale resolving to finally end the conflict between his public persona as a man of the cloth and his private persona as the father of Hester Prynne’s child who escaped the punishment that was leveled upon Hester. It’s characterized as giving the Reverend, who previously had been wearied and beaten by the internal conflict, a new surge of energy. Unlike the Reverend, though, Tony doesn’t pick a side, and he remains weary. He tries to be honest with his daughter, and he realizes how much it relieves him to do so, but he builds the walls back up between his lives at the end of the episode by lying again to Meadow about killing Fabian. Would it have been better to tell his daughter that he’s a murderer? Well, probably not, it would likely have ended their relationship. Would it have been better to let Fabian go when he begged for his life? Well, that would likely have resulted in him looking weak to the Mafia and being killed. Tony’s desire to be both a father and a capo put him in a no-win scenario, and he’s not sure which one he really is anymore. So, he puts on a smiling face for his daughter and a grim scowl for his associates and enemies.

Other reviews of this episode call it a “Stand-alone” episode, much like “Pine Barrens,” the other Sopranos entry on my list, but I would disagree. Tony’s entire character for the rest of the series is defined by this episode. It’s impossible to explain what happens past this episode without referring back to it, in terms of Tony’s character arc. This episode crystallizes the conflict within Tony, and also shows why it must continue. Moreover, by referencing The Scarlet Letter, it points out that Tony’s internal conflict is found within almost everyone, and always has been. His is only to a greater extent than most. It makes Tony Soprano both relatable and also outlandish within the same episode and the same actions. Hawthorne would probably be impressed.

PREVIOUS – 7: The Honeymooners

NEXT – 5: I, Claudius

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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7) The $99,000 Answer (The Honeymooners)

Some episodes on this list are here because they touch the soul, or address deeper concepts than even most books would dare. Gonna be upfront: this isn’t one of those. Some are on here because they expanded the medium of film in new, inventive ways. Again, not really this episode.

This episode is on here because it is just one single joke. It just happens to be one of the best jokes that humanity has ever written, and it’s one that we perpetually keep coming back to. I don’t know if it was the first show to do it, but I know it’s the first one that did it this well.

Not the robot joke… though also funny.

While I usually don’t provide much in the way of Spoiler Warnings, especially for shows that are 50 years old, I’m going to say the following:

This episode is highly dependent on being built up to one of the best moments in TV history. If you can take the time to watch it, I encourage that and you can find it on CBS’s services. If not, then, here we go.

The Honeymooners was already on this list, but here’s the summary again: Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) is a Brooklyn bus driver who always dreams big, but generally doesn’t want to work hard to achieve it. He also has a tendency to get very nervous when he actually has an opportunity to get somewhere, usually leading him to messing it up in a comical way. Ralph’s wife, and verbal sparring partner, is Alice (Audrey Meadows), who Ralph usually fights with, and loses to, until he utters a variation of his famous phrase, “one of these days, Alice, bang, zoom, straight to the moon,” to which she almost invariably replied “Ahhh, shaddup.” Some people will be upset that joking about beating your wife was still acceptable in the 50s, but, to be fair, Ralph never laid a hand on his wife, nor did she believe that he would. That was just their dynamic, for better or for worse. She was sassy and sensible, he was emotional and kind of stupid. It carried over pretty directly into the Flintstones.

Rounding out the cast is Ralph’s best friend and neighbor, Ed Norton (Art Carney), who usually gets dragged into Ralph’s schemes because he’s friendly, loyal, and, while he has a number of talents, is only moderately smarter than Ralph, if at all. Ed’s wife, Trixie (Joyce Randolph), is Alice’s best friend, and is a sweeter, friendlier, happier version of Alice, much like her husband is to Ralph.

Unrelated: Doctors prescribed a lot of amphetamines in the 1950s.


In this episode, Ralph gets invited onto “the $99,000 Answer,” a game show modeled after “the $64,000 Question,” which was popular at the time. Now, it’s important to note that this episode took place in 1956. Quiz shows had only been deemed legal by the US Supreme Court in 1954, because previously they had been thought to constitute a violation of Federal gambling laws. So, this was about as fresh of a concept as anyone was going to get. In the real world, the show had just become the focus of national news, because Joyce Brothers, who later became an advice columnist, had just become the first woman to win $64,000, by picking “boxing” as her category. (AND DOMINATING IT).


The premise of the game show is that you can select a category, and then you will answer a series of questions with the money increasing every time (first $100, then $600, then some amount, then the fourth question is worth $6187.50, then each question doubles until you get to $99,000). The general rule, repeated throughout the episode, is that the first two questions are going to be easy. After the fourth question, you return every week to answer only one question until you get to the end, but you are always given the option to stop and keep the money you have, because you might lose it all if you try and miss.


As the show starts, we are shown a man who is on the show at the $49,500 level, answering the question “How many times does 1 appear on the Dollar bill, either in numerical or verbal form?” He answers “25,” which is apparently what they want (it’s not correct in real life now, and wasn’t in 1956).

Homina homina homina…

Then Ralph is brought on, and he is clearly very nervous. He stammers frequently, he can’t answer biographical questions, and the host is openly working on trying to calm him down. Finally, he picks his category from the list, “popular music.” However, before he can start, the announcer tells the host that they’re out of time, so Ralph will have to come back next week.

If this looks familiar, find therapy.

Ralph then tells Alice at home that he’s going to win the $99,000. Alice, predictably, tells him that after the first two questions, they get pretty tough, so she’d be happy with the $600. She and Ralph battle back and forth over Ralph’s intelligence and ability to handle the pressure of being in front of a large crowd while on the spot. Ralph insists that he’s going to spend every waking minute of the next week studying popular music. He’s going to exhaust their savings on records, books, and sheet music, and he’s going to have Ed come over and play every song he knows on the piano, so that Ralph will absolutely be prepared to win the $99,000. Alice, of course, tells him that it’s foolish to spend all their savings on such a wager, but Ralph is determined.


True to his word, however, Ralph does spend the entire week studying. He takes advice from local experts, he listens to records non-stop, and he has piles of sheet music and notes throughout the apartment. When Ed shows up, he quizzes Ralph, who answers absolutely everything about the songs, the composer, the year, the studio, the performer, the b-side, where it was first performed, what movie it’s been in, etc. Then, Ed starts to play older music on the piano, so that Ralph can memorize the songs. However, Ed has a strange habit before he can play any song. He always plays a few notes, the same notes every time, because that’s the only way he feels “warmed up.” However, no matter what Ed plays, Ralph names everything that he comes up with.

Ralph comes back on the show, and, much more confident, is eager to begin. The host explains the game, but Ralph, confidently, says that he’s going to go straight for the $99,000. He won’t even consider stopping after the first two questions, like his wife told him to.


Then the game begins.

The first question is “Who is the composer of Swanee River?” The first few notes are played so that Ralph knows the song.

Not Pictured: A Winner

Okay, so, if you have watched the episode, you probably recognized something earlier. The “little ditty” that Ed plays every time before he begins playing the piano, is the first few notes to Swanee River, one of the most recognized songs in the United States.

With only a few seconds left, Ralph, recognizing the song, but panicking, says “Ed Norton?” (The answer is Stephen Foster, but don’t feel bad if you missed it. If this was the 1950s, it’d be like asking “Who sang Ice Ice Baby?” in the 90s. If you didn’t get that, then feel bad).



Ralph, broken, starts to spout off all the music knowledge he’d acquired over the last week, until he’s dragged off the show.



Like I said, it’s built up to one joke. In this episode, by the end of the week, Ralph knows everything there is to know about the music of the time, except for one thing. It just happens that the easiest, most gimme question there is, is the one thing he didn’t review. He fails, we laugh, roll on snare drum.

So, why is this one joke up here so high on the list? Because it’s a joke that we have all been the butt of at some point or another. It’s a piece of information that seems so basic, but you somehow don’t know it. Like Ralph, it might even be in a subject in which you have a huge amount of knowledge, but you just missed that one ancillary detail. I once heard a Civil War lecturer who could describe every General and every battle that took place in Virginia, but who completely blanked when asked what the “E” in Robert E. Lee stood for (it’s Edward, literally the most obvious answer). I’m sure he had said it a thousand times, but he just blanked. It happens to everyone, at least once. This episode just happens to show the average person’s nightmare scenario: when it happens in front of a huge number of people, while you’re the focus, and when you feel confident right before the question. Comedy is born from tragedy, and this episode is a tragedy that everyone relates to, so the laugh is only that much bigger.


That’s not the only thing that we have in this episode. There’s actually a few decent lessons woven into this narrative, and, as a good story does, makes them ring true. In an earlier review, I pointed out that one of Ralph’s biggest problems is that he doesn’t work hard enough to ever really succeed. Well, in this episode, it’s hard to believe that Ralph could have worked much harder to win this game show. He spent all of his money, he dedicated his entire week to this, and there’s no arguing that he hasn’t benefited from it. So, what really sinks him? Like many people, it’s not listening to his spouse. Alice is the levelheaded one for a reason. She points out that Ralph should just focus on winning the $600, so that they can get something, but Ralph is so focused on the big prize, the really tough questions, that he doesn’t even think to prepare for the easy ones. He takes them for granted, and it bites him in the backside. Again, this is something that almost everyone suffers from, looking so far ahead when we have a dream that we stumble on the first step.

Like I said, it’s a single joke. But it’s a damned good joke.

PREVIOUS – 8: Firefly

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