YouTube Hall of Fame: When Sitcoms Got Dark

In this week’s very special episode of YouTube Hall of Fame, Grantland remembers the very special, tonally incongruous episodes of classic TV sitcoms in which lessons were learned, awful things happened, and the studio audience laughed anyway.

Diff’rent Strokes: Dudley nearly gets molested
Bill Simmons: When I was growing up in the late 1970s, the three major networks spent an inordinate amount of time trying to scare the living shit out of young kids who watched a ton of television. This doesn’t happen anymore because of PSAs, parent groups, and a better general awareness of things like, “If I do a ton of cocaine, there will be probably repercussions” and “Maybe I shouldn’t let this creepy 55-year-old single neighbor babysit my kids.” Back in the 1970s, we didn’t know these things. That’s why we relied on Hollywood. Their two most effective ways ended up being After-School Specials and “Very Special Episodes,” but nothing ever quite surpassed Gordon Jump’s guest-starring role as a lecherous bicycle-shop owner on Diff’rent Strokes.

Put it this way: In December of 2004, my ESPN The Magazine column about the Artest Melee started like this …

    “Someone needs to build a Hall of Fame for Jaw-Dropping TV Nights. My original induction class would include O.J.’s Bronco Chase — the Babe Ruth of this idea — the second Tyson-Holyfield fight, Lady Di’s accident, and the night Gordon Jump tried to molest Dudley and Arnold on Diff’rent Strokes. Those were always the Big Four, at least for me.”

… and that was NOT hyperbole. I never imagined I would see that two-part episode again. Then again, I never imagined a world with YouTube that would include videos like Diff’rent Strokes — Best of the Bicycleman” or even the unedited, gripping, and emotionally scarring conclusion, when Bicycleman drugged a shirtless Dudley and was about to have his way before Mr. Drummond, Arnold and former BC coach Al Skinner arrived to save the day. Remember, Diff’rent Strokes was a sitcom. You watched it to laugh at Arnold and wait for him to say “Whatcha talkin’ about Willis?” And also, nobody knew anything about child predators back then. Was this the most important sitcom episode ever? How many real-life child molesters did it thwart? I can’t imagine any sitcom ever went to a darker place. And no, I have never forgiven Gordon Jump for what he did to Dudley.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: “Will Got Shot”
Rembert Browne: When you’re young, you have two emotional speeds: happy and sad. There is no overlap, either something great happens and you’re all smiles (there’s Sunny D in the fridge), or the world is seemingly ending and you’re pouting until further notice (there’s no more Sunny D in the fridge). When “Will Got Shot” (as it is commonly referred to in the Fresh Prince Message Board World) aired, 8-year-old me hadn’t the first clue on how to react, because for every intense/sad moment (Carlton knocking over Will’s food), there’s one moment where you shouldn’t be laughing, but you can’t hold it in (Will saying “I was gonna eat that, man”). I wasn’t prepared for such an emotional roller-coaster at such a young age, and to be perfectly honest, I’m still not. I eagerly await the day that I can openly discuss my feelings on “Will Got Shot,” but that time is not now. It’s still too much.

Punky Brewster: Cherie gets stuck in a fridge
Katie Baker: Say what you will about the ridiculousness of “dark” or “very special” episodes, there’s no doubt that they work. I watched Punky Brewster all the time as a kid, but the only episode I remember anything about is the one in which the girl gets trapped inside the discarded fridge.* This episode worked because it contained multiple lessons: pay attention in class, lest you basically end up murdering your friend; learn CPR; and don’t hide in appliances during games of Hide and Seek. I can safely say that in applying these lessons to my own life, two out of three ain’t bad.

*Well, I also kinda remember the one in which everyone dies in some haunted cave, but that was too hokey and wannabe Goonies to properly frighten me. The refrigerator, though … that was real.

Family Ties: Drunk Uncle Ned and Handsy Uncle Arthur
David Jacoby: Laugh tracks and sexual abuse don’t mix. Also, laughs tracks and alcoholism don’t mix. One day in a meeting, the producers of Family Ties walked into the writers’ room and said, “Guys, research says that we need to take on more serious subject matter. But at the same time, we have to keep the laughs coming. Throw something together quickly, because we shoot tomorrow.” The result was alcoholic Uncle Ned and handsy Uncle Arthur. In the four-minute scene with alcoholic Uncle Ned (sup, young skinny Tom Hanks) there are 13 laughs. And in the three-minute scene in which Mallory confides to Alex that Uncle Arthur was a little extra affectionate during a hug, there are 11 laughs. When Family Ties lost control and swerved into the “After-School Special” lane, it not only taught us that uncles are evil people not to be trusted, but also that sex abuse and alcoholism are hilarious. [laugh track]

Valerie: “Condom”
Andy Greenwald: This episode of Valerie originally aired in 1987, but in terms of values and relevance it’s positively Elizabethan. Could there really have been a time when we looked to sitcoms to educate and inform, not just as a source of cheap, ethnic jokes and homages to 30-year-old art films? I remember watching “Bad Timing” live, the opening pleas to parents to “view tonight’s episode with their children” the most titillating thing imaginable to a tender, 10-year-old mind. (My parents had better things to do than watch Valerie with me, thank god. Like watching 227.) Revisiting the episode all these years later, I’m actually struck by how reasonable everything seems. A visiting family friend wants to have sex — sorry, 1987 parents and Woody Allen characters! — er, “make love” with a fresh-faced (but no less delightful) Jason Bateman. A wooly, moralistic attempt to please absolutely everyone in the world ensues, including what is purportedly the first ever utterance of the word “condom” on national television. (How far we’ve come!) This isn’t funny, per se, but nor is it “funny.” Everyone acts maturely, and nothing is particularly resolved. It’s a surprisingly sane snapshot from a time before we had to put quotes around everything.

Wings: Near plane crash
Michael Weinreb: Years ago, I worked as a summer intern at a prominent Dallas newspaper. The assignments were peculiar (hydroplane racing, junior-league tennis), the city was noxious and sweltering, and my bosses were frequently inscrutable. As a way of wallowing in my discontent, I watched a great deal of television, including the several hundred daily USA Network reruns of Wings, an uneven sitcom about a gang of misfits who labor in a Nantucket airport terminal and didn’t seem to like each other very much.

Wings was created by several writers who emerged from the set of Cheers and would go on to write for Frasier, but any attempt to liken Wings to Cheers and Frasier is a Ringo-esque exercise in disingenuousness. It was an inferior show, with lazier jokes and less-funny supporting players, and it served largely as laugh-track addled comfort food. (Sample plot from Season 1: Joe and Brian compete to see who loves Carol more. Sample plot, from Season 8: Casey suggests that Brian use his insurance check to open a martini bar. ) These were the kinds of shows we filled the time with back in the ’90s, back when Seinfeld was an embryo and television was still on the cusp of becoming all highfalutin and, like, good.

Most of the time, Wings had as much to do with the aviation industry as Friends did with Greenwich Village; and yet, at the end of the third season, the writers chose to end the season with a stark cliffhanger: The entire cast is on a private plane, jetting through a storm to Boston following a series of stock sitcom contrivances. Lightning takes out the second engine. The wind howls. The screen fades to black. Roll credits, and tinkly piano music. For an entire summer, we were left to wonder if Wings would have the cojones to kill off its entire cast.

They didn’t, of course. Everyone lived, even the fat John Waters-looking dude who played the heavy. Sitcom characters, like cockroaches, have a tendency to do that. The airport went on as it had for five more seasons, and now Wings is nothing more than a footnote in the annals of Must See TV, just another way to recall the last throes of the era of the predictable sitcom.

Saved by the Bell: Jessie takes caffeine pills
Sarah Larimer: Look, I understand Jessie Spano. I was Jessie Spano … minus the cool hair, awesome spandex outfits, and five (5!) high school friends. Jessie was an overachiever. She wanted to be the best, she wanted to have it all. She was going to ace the big test, get accepted into Stanford, and sing in Hot Sundae with Kelly Kapowski and Lisa Turtle. Who wouldn’t want that? But it was too much. She couldn’t keep up. So Jessie Spano started popping caffeine pills. She ignored Slater’s advice. (He only wanted what was best for you, Jessie!) We all knew where this was headed. Before you could say Buddy Bands, there was a drug-addicted Jessie Spano, losing her shit on Zack Morris.

True facts: I still use the expression “I’m so excited! I’m so excited! I’m so … scared!” But I do not use caffeine pills! Because if I’m going to freak out on Mark-Paul Gosselaar, I want to have a better reason than a dose of 5-hour Energy that I took.

South Park: Stan’s parents split up
Daniel Silver: After his 10th birthday, Stan Marsh begins to see the world differently. Everything he once loved and enjoyed now looked like, sounded like, and tasted like shit (literal shit). A once-hopeful boy turned into a full-blown cynic. At episode’s end, Stan’s parents give in to their own cynicism and break up. What makes the split of Randy and Sharon Marsh so jarring is its extremely traditional execution — a montage set to Stevie Nick’s “Landslide” of customary and heavy-handed predivorce images mixed with moments clearly showing change in Stan’s life (Cartman and Kyle now friends). It’s an incredibly effective and affecting scene, and one Trey and Matt could have chosen to handle in the typical fashion. But because it was so un-South Park, this moment will always be looked back on as one of the defining moments of the series.

Saved by the Bell: Zack learns about his Native American heritage
Amos Barshad: This is from the episode in which the SBTB gang has to give class presentations on their family trees and Zack botches his by not taking his Native American heritage seriously, whipping together an ugly caricature. He gets a failing grade, which means he can’t be compete in the big track meet against Valley, which is too bad because this year, for once, Bayside has a chance to win. His teacher gives Zack a second chance, and he eventually goes into town to meet Chief Henry, who gives him the name Running Zack and schools him on the history of the Native Americans, including his great great great grandfather, Whispering Wind.

Actual dialogue:

    Zack: “This is such a big country. Why couldn’t the white man and the Indians get along?”

    Chief Henry: “Why can’t the lion get along with the zebras? Why can’t the Ay-rab [PRONUNCIATION CHOICE NOT OURS] get along with the Israelis? And why can’t I get along with my ex-wife? [HUGE LAUGHS]

On his second try, Zack nails the presentation and regains eligibility, but then Chief Henry dies and Zack doesn’t feel up to running in the track meet after all — until the ghost of Chief Henry visits him in his sleep, convincing him it’s the right thing to do.

ALF: ALF scares Uncle Albert to death
Lane Brown: If only the Keatons from Family Ties had adopted an extraterrestrial to help them with their plague of boozy, child-molesting uncles. On one memorable episode of ALF, the Tanners’ (sober, non-touchy) Uncle Albert came for a visit, requiring ALF to hide in a tent in the backyard so as not to scare him. But Uncle Albert accidentally found him anyway, then immediately died from a heart attack (watch the whole somber episode here). Cats might disagree, but I’m pretty sure this was the darkest ALF ever got.

Heil Honey I’m Home!
Molly Lambert: When people talk about British shows being weirder than American ones, they are not just whistling “Greensleeves.” Now try to process this clip from Heil Honey I’m Home!, the short-lived 1990 domestic sitcom about Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun canceled after one episode. It was axed not due to its edgy/questionably tasteful subject matter but for being an insufferably broad unfunny parody of American family sitcoms from the ’50s and ’60s. This scene of a dinner party gone to hell, featuring Neville Chamberlain and the fictional Hitlers’ nosy Jewish neighbors The Goldensteins, is an Operation Barbarossa-level comedic failure.

Previously: YouTube Hall of Fame: Tom Hanks on Late Night, Pandas on a Slide, and Helen Hunt on Crank
YouTube Hall of Fame: Howard Cosell, R.E.M., and Two Men Hit With Footballs
YouTube Hall of Fame: Stevie Nicks Combs Her Hair, a Comedy Film From Nigeria, and the Least Sexy Video on the Internet

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