1. Arrested Development, Season 1, Ep. 12 “The Marta Complex”—We’re just a couple of consenting adults getting a stew on.
The use of unlikely supporting players in Arrested Development sometimes made actual jokes unneeded. This show illustrated the fact that, given the right casting—say of Henry Winkler as a randy attorney—what is actually said is really beside the point. Take the above line about “stew”, which made an unlikely comedic genius of Carl Weathers. Mitch Herwig and his writing staff gloried in creating characters that are either terrible wastrels or obsessive misers, as if the existence of one somehow explains the other. Weathers’s character is the epitome of the miser impulse. He has an almost MacGyver-like talent for squeezing the most out of his immediate resources, usually by making “stew”. That he would not relax his miserdom when romancing a lady—in this case Lucille 2, a character that had another creative casting choice in Liza Minelli—effortlessly blends story with a hilarious stand-alone catch phrase.
2. Peepshow, Season 7, Ep. 4. “Nether Zone”—Look at him, the James Dyson of pissy pizza…
The conceit of Peepshow, that the main characters Jez and Mark would say one thing and think another, doesn’t even come close to adequately accounting for the show’s brilliance. The writers never rely for too long on the gimmick of showing “what people really think of each other”. Oftentimes the funniest lines are those spoken outwardly, the tamest the ones thought within. What is spoken is usually done so rashly, and what is thought inwardly is constructed via totally independent processes than the lines of causation that what would seem to determine action.
But perhaps best of all, the inward and outward are truly separate. Jez is a brilliant musician and incorrigible playboy in his mind, outside a total boob; outwardly, Mark is the picture of rationality, while inside often given to flights of unhinged emotion. Of course these dynamics are themselves often subject to comedic reversals, as when Jez makes the occasional brilliant observation, and when Mark occasionally allows his dark side to take over, as when he spontaneously decides to piss in the tomato sauce of one particularly annoying patron at the restaurant where he is working.
Actually, urine seems to be a running theme on Peepshow, as when Jez wets himself at Mark’s disastrous wedding, and as in the scene containing the delivery of an insane, insanely funny line. Jez and Mark are trapped in an apartment lobby, and being fed a pizza through a letter slot. Don’t ask why. Jez had only just recently urinated through it. Again, don’t ask why. But the bristles closing the gap in the slot are brushing off the pizza topping, so Jez inventively uses a nearby piece of mail as a sheath to protect the precious cargo, hence his being called by Mark the “James Dyson of pissy pizza”. Genius.
3. Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 3, Ep.10 “The Grand Opening” – Boy cock! Girl cock! E-I-E-I-O!
In Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David presides over L.A.‘s fantasy land as a wealthy malcontent only just able to bear the insufferability of the human race. Yet his world’s rotating cast of vapid entertainment industry types provide him with a minefield of comic opportunity, perhaps none so explosive as during the season 4 finalé. Larry had been in the process of opening a restaurant all season, hampered with every kind of road block, from bailing investors to bra-sniffing dogs. But on the restaurant’s grand opening, a new hitch is revealed: the chef has Tourette’s syndrome. Worse still, the foul-mouthed chef chooses the busiest part of the night to unleash a torrent of obscenity. The chef starts cursing violently in front of a packed house, giving way to one of those indispensible restaurant scenes, where the camera cuts between indignant patrons, all making shocked faces, all about to say something like, “The nerve!”
What will Larry do? Will he side with the indignant restaurant-goers and fire the chef on the spot? Anyone who knows the show at all, knows Larry’s attitude of accomodation to the oddballs of his world. So of course, Larry decides he’ll make the embarrassed chef feel better by himself letting fly a few choice words. He screams to no one, “Cock-sucking, motherfucking whore!” A moment lingers immediately after, when we don’t know just what will happen.
But Larry’s manager, Jeff, springs into action, spewing forth “Cock! Cock! Jism! Grandma! Cock!” Jeff’s gameness becomes the tipping point that sends the whole room flying into a never-ending stream of cuss words. As if Larry had unleashed a floodgate of existential angst, L.A.’s smart set are suddenly afflicted en masse with spontaneous potty mouth. One of the lines yelled out by a random diner in this scene—“Boy cock! Girl cock! E-I-E-I-O!”—just blows the doors off of all the others. What other possible situation could such a line have been said, make sense, and be so funny? Good thing Curb Your Enthusiasm is a cable show, or this moment never would have happened on American television.
4. The Office (US), Season 3 Ep. 4 “Grief Counseling” – I will have the Gabagool…
The Office’s Michael Scott has an amazing capacity for bluster, and for the speech patterns that follow after. The realistic documentary-style with which his character is captured on film gives him an almost infinite possibility to amp up the unreality of his stupidity. He does and says things no one in real life would say or do, but in those drab colors, under that impossibly white-bread haircut, we believe everything.
Possibly the only show that uses malapropism more effectively than Michael Scott on The Office is The Sopranos, which makes the one time Michael actually quotes The Sopranos a kind of malapropism to end all others. Dunder Mifflen’s resident idiot is here trying to assert himself during a business meeting in an Italian restaurant. His only reference to either Italian culture—or maybe asserting onself—is Tony Soprano, who is known to eat, along with a lot of other things, a kind of cured pork sandwich meat called “Capicola”. When this word is rendered in Tony’s Italian accent, it comes out sounding like, “gabagool”.
That Tony would eat this meat directly from his own refrigerator is normal to his particular cultural moment. But for Michael Scott to order it at an Italian restaurant is a bit like asking for a plain hamburger patty at McDonalds. And then for him to pronounce it like, “gabagool” with no other trace of an Italian accent… Well, there’s no appropriate simile for that. It’s just very, very stupid.
5. 30 Rock Season 1, Ep. 15, “Hard Ball”—I love this [insert item here] so much, I wanna take it behind a junior high school and get it pregnant!
30 Rock takes place in the world of the television, showing significantly that performers are only able to produce their entertainments as a way to stave off their own insanity. The controlled chaos we see on the TGS sketch comedy stage—the imagined television show for which Tina Fey’s character is the head writer—is only the tip of the iceberg. Performers’ need for attention is so all-consuming as to require an extremely careful assessment by their “handlers” of the line between what is appropriate and what is not. Characters like that Tracy Morgan, named “Tracy Jordan” for some reason, must garner reactions from their audience, which is everywhere at all times. But equally important is that they be hedged in by Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon, the sole “normal” in a broad-defined palette of crazy.
Tracy Jordan is the biggest celebrity on TGS, and thus has the most insanity to spare, the biggest need to be “handled”. He speaks so many crazy things, they can easily be missed. However, 30 Rock writers don’t let that happen with this line; it is spoken three times during the course of one episode. Saying it only once could be considered creepy—Pregnant? Middle School? But saying it multiple times highlights the deliberateness of it, the level of control applied to Morgan’s performative energy by Fey’s Liz Lemon on TGS, and by Fey herself on 30 Rock.