95. "Gracie Writes About Silky Thompson," The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1952)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
In my Typology of Stupid Sitcom Characters, I described Gracie Allen as the prototype for the naif, who "takes everything at face value and can't comprehend how anyone else can act with less than pure motives. Her (or, less often, his) anti-kryptonite is a surprisingly tough resolve that keeps her out of real harm and absolves us of any guilt at laughing at her stupidity." (Other examples include Rose on The Golden Girls, Woody on Cheers, and Andy on Parks and Recreation.)
In Gracie's case, the English language is both a shield and a weapon. Poet Lloyd Schwartz, who titled one of his collections Goodnight, Gracie, cites her as a muse: “I found her slippery use of words, taking them more literally than intended, hilarious and irresistable and mind bending.”
One example, used in both the radio and TV versions of Burns and Allen:
George: Grace, those are beautiful flowers. Where did they come from?
Gracie: Don't you remember, George? You said that if I went to visit Clara Bagley in the hospital I should be sure to take her flowers. So, when she wasn't looking, I did.
Silky: Lady, are you all there?
Gracie: Oh, a Southerner! Of course I'm here. Where'd you all think I was?
As usual, George spends much of the episode onstage talking directly to the audience. He marvels about Gracie: “She’s about as subtle as a gravy sandwich.” When he steps back into the action, he finds Silky waiting for him:
Silky (to George): One word out of you, weasel, and it's curtains!
Gracie: (soothingly, to George): Oh, sit down, weasel. You look tired.
All "meta" TV shows owe some debt to The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. Edward Copeland recounts one of the more inspired breakings of the fourth wall in his write-up on the series (and reminds us that reflexive humor has always been an acquired taste):
When Burns replaced [Fred] Clark with a fourth actor in the role of Harry Morton in the fall of 1953 — character actor Larry Keating, who would finish out the show’s run in the part — he introduced the “changing of the guard” in a particularly novel fashion for the time; according to legend, the set-up required for Harry to be hit on the head with a vase by wife Blanche, and at the moment Clark was about to be crowned Burns stopped the proceedings, announced to the audience that Keating would be taking over the role and introduced the actor to those watching and the cast, then continued on with Keating being beaned with the vase. The viewing audience must have watched all this with an interesting degree of jadedness, because Burns later remarked that he never received one single letter about how he handled the switch.
Not many of the hundreds of episodes of the show are available on DVD. Some early installments, including "Silky Thompson," are on YouTube: