Gainesville Sun
August 19, 1987

Verbal slapstick is part of the
charm of 'Perfect Strangers'

By Anne Eaton, Newsday

When producers Tom Miller and Bob Boyett approached Bronson Pinchot to do a new sitcom called "The Greenhorn," Pinchot -- whose performance as the art-gallery clerk, Serge, in "Beverly Hills Cop" was 3 minutes of sheer comic viruosity -- wasn't interested.

"That sounds really stupid," he told his agent, "Let's forget all about it."

The stupid idea was that an immigrant just off the boat from an undeveloped country sets up housekeeping in Chicago with his distant cousin, an uptight Midwesterner.  Inspired by the spirit of the 1984 Olympics, the show was conceived as a sort of Valentine to America.

The producers figured that Pinchot didn't really mean it.  And they were right.  When Pinchot's series, "Sara," was canceled, the idea suddenly seemed a lot more clever.

Working closely with Pinchot, the producers changed the show's title to "Perfect Strangers" and the eponymous greenhorn became Balki Bartokomous, a sheepherder from the Mediterranean island of Mypos.

Mark Linn-Baker, who had co-starred as Peter O'Toole's babysitter in "My Favorite Year," was signed to play the other stranger, Balki's American cousin, Larry Appleton from Madison, Wis.

Much of the show's humor comes from those amusing things people come up with when they can't quite speak English.  And all things being equal, fake foreign accents seem to be funnier than real ones -- so much so that this type of verbal slapstick is an important part of American comic tradition.

Unlike the French, whose response to assaults on their language is to summon a gendarme, Americans seem to love it when strangers play fast and loose with our idioms.

A sitcom about the United Nations, for example, would be a real knee-slapper.  When Balki spouts skewed locutions such as "America or Burst" or "Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Heckle," it really breaks us up.  And by the time he wonders aloud, "What the matter with you is?" his fractured syntax has reduced us to tears.

The physical comedy in "Perfect Strangers" (ABC, Wednesday nights) is part of an even longer-standing theatrical tradition.  In every episode, Pinchot and Linn-Baker perform exquisitely choreographed pieces of business.

There is the Myposian Dance of Joy, which ends with Larry in Balki's arms.  There is the Myposian Kiss of Silence, in which Linn-Baker is forced to grovel so deeply that he is literally flat on his face.

Linn-Baker's facial pyrotechnics are an important part of the physical stuff.  His curling lip and flaring nostrils are natural wonders, and he's the owner of an almost prehensile nose.

Linn-Baker also is a master at doing embarrassment in all its hideous permutations.  "He means no harm," Larry apologizes for Balki, "He's from another country.  And he has a head injury."

The pair has been known to work through lunch hour to perfect a piece of business and get it in sync.  "To do it, I have to stay in pretty good shape," Linn-Baker says.  "My approach to acting is very physical to begin with, and so is Bronson's.  We spend a week rehearsing on these bits, and we go off on our own and hone them down until they work just right."

Although "Perfect Strangers" is strictly vintage Lorimar, its two leading players -- both graduates of Yale Drama School -- come from stage backgrounds dripping with heavy culture.

Balki's name comes from a Pinchot family joke.  Bronson's little sister decided that the word "balcony" needed to be shortened to "balki," and when she introduced the new nickname, one of her brothers screamed that he never wanted to hear it again.  A true sibling, she teased him with it for years.

"I do that sort of thing," Pinchot says.  "I put in a lot of little funny words we made up when I was a kid, especially when I speak Myposian.  The inspiration for that is when people speak languages around you and you literally can't figure out what they mean, but you sort of hear syllables."