Monday, November 8, 2010

The Best Lines on Television

As a father, part of my job is to introduce my children to the high points of the surrounding culture. You would be surprised at how hard this can be, sometimes, finding high points in a surrounding culture that considers American Idol to be a legitimate form of entertainment (and for the record, the girls just adore American Idol, for reasons that escape me completely). This only makes it imperative that when actual high points come along, I seize the opportunity to introduce them to my children before some other bit of nonsense comes along and muscles them aside.

Thus we found ourselves watching the Thanksgiving episode of WKRP in Cincinnati tonight.

There was no finer show on television than WKRP, and yes I am fully aware of just how slightingly that praise can be taken if that’s how you want to go. But really – just because a lot of what is on television is a waste of electrons doesn’t mean all of what is on television is a waste of electrons. There’s actually a fair amount of good stuff out there, hiding among the nonsense.

I am an inveterate list-maker. The internet is a medium that rewards lists as category – they’re fun to write and more fun to argue about. And so my list of the four best lines in television history, dating back as far as I can remember, which is about the mid1970s or so.

Yes, the WKRP Thanksgiving episode is on that list. You can stop wondering now.

Here they are, to the best of my recollection:

Number four is a line from the show St. Elsewhere. In this episode, it is winter. One of the doctors – a bumbling soul – has a friend visiting from California, and in the way of these shows he ends up at the house of the head doctor, an uptight, no-nonsense, rather intimidating figure. Apparently there is to be a wedding at the head doctor’s house, and the friend is part of the wedding party for some reason. About halfway through the episode, the friend says to the head doctor that he has to relieve himself. “Down the hall, to the right,” the head doctor tells him. “No, man,” the friend replies, “I’m a natural man! Where’s your back yard?” The head doctor looks at him, shrugs, and points to the back door.

Nothing more is said about this until the very end, the last scene before the credits roll. It’s a tight close-up on the head doctor as he reads his paper, with the wedding obviously over and everyone else gone home. From offstage you hear his wife.

“Dear,” she says, “Come here. You have to see this.”
“What?” he replies.
“He wrote his name in the snow.”
The doctor puts down his newspaper. “Script or print?”
“This I have to see.”

Number three is from a show called Scrubs, which I have only ever seen once. I’m not sure why I haven’t gone back to see it again, as it was very funny, but there you go. It’s a medical show, set in a hospital, and this particular line was a throwaway – a single element of what was clearly a much longer conversation that we will be left forever to wonder about, which is part of the humor.

As the camera pans across the conversation, all you hear is, “No, no! It’s pronounced ‘analgesic.’ You put it in your mouth!”

Number two is the WKRP episode. It’s coming up on Thanksgiving and Mr. Carlson, the station manager, has an idea for a promotion that will amaze everyone. He won’t tell anyone what it is. The whole show builds up to the very last bit, where most of the characters are in the DJ booth of the radio station, listening to the live feed from the newsman on the spot, Les Nessman – you never actually see the promotion other than through his descriptions. Les, out at the Pinedale Shopping Mall, reports the arrival of a helicopter on the scene, followed by a series of small objects falling out of the helicopter. You hear him slowly trying to figure out what’s going on, and then - “Oh my God, they’re turkeys!” he cries, as panic takes over the shopping center. If you know what you’re listening to, Les’ narration of events is an almost word-for-word repeat of the radio reports from the Hindenberg disaster, which he name-checks.

At the end, a disheveled and humbled Mr. Carlson returns to the station and goes into his office. And then, right as the credits roll, he comes back out, looks at his employees, and says, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

And finally, my candidate for the best line in television history comes from Northern Exposure. One of the characters, Holling, insists that his family lives to be 150 years old or so, which makes him at 75 a middle-aged man. So naturally he is dating a teenager. In this episode, an old flame comes by and the two of them end up sitting around a table reminiscing, while his current girlfriend throws in the occasional question. And thus you get the following dialogue:

Remember Harold?
Oh, yes. Wasn’t that sad about Harold?
Yes, it was.
That was really sad.
Why? What happened to Harold?
Well, Harold worked down at the cannery, and one day he fell into one of the machines and he died.
Oh, that was sad.
Yes it was.
Remember the funeral? All those little cans…

There are probably a lot of good lines that I’ve forgotten, but those are my favorites.


Eric said...

One line that tickled me inordinately was from one of the last two seasons of Buffy: "Dawn's in trouble? It must be Tuesday." This being, of course, a meta reference to the show's schedule at the time.

Les' narration and Carlson's follow-up line are, of course, utter classics.

There's probably some other classic line I'm forgetting now.

Kathleen said...

Love love love the WKRP Thanksgiving turkeys. Thanks for bringing me back...