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
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."