77. "Corporal Punishment," Blackadder Goes Forth (1989)
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.
The Only Sane Man is a common sitcom character, typified by Eddie Albert on Green Acres and Bob Newhart on Newhart, as well as Jason Bateman on Arrested Development. He's surrounded by lunatics, and his growing frustration sets the pace for most episodes. We viewers know that he's right, but we also think he should calm down and enjoy living in such a fanciful world, as opposed to the boring, predictable one we're stuck with. So it's always fun when the Only Sane Man puts on an Afro wig and joins the party.
It's a bit different when the Only Sane Man is surrounded by lunatics who, given enough time, will kill him. Blackadder Goes Forth, the final season of Blackadder, strands the title character, an army captain, in a trench on the front lines of World War I. Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) has to take orders from a psychotic general (Stephen Fry), and his own men include a jingoistic airhead (Dr. Gregory House himself, Hugh Laurie) who can't wait to "give Fritz a taste of our British spunk."
In "Corporal Punishment," Blackadder is sentenced to death for the crime of trying to stay alive. Specifically, he shoots and eats a carrier pigeon that's delivered orders to launch a surely suicidal attack on the Germans. Betrayed by the stupidity of his own men, he gets a court martial and we get a deliriously silly court scene.
Captain Darling: As this is clearly an open-and-shut case, I beg leave to bring a private prosecution against the defense counsel for wasting the court's time.
General Melchett: Granted! The defense counsel is fined 50 pounds for turning up.
At the close of the trial ("Before we sentence the deceased, I mean defendant..."), Blackadder is sentenced to death by firing squad, who cheerfully introduce themselves. This leads to some banter in which Rowan Atkinson takes the Groucho Marx/Bob Hope/Bugs Bunny role:
Firing squad captain: You see, sir, we take pride in the terminatory service we supply. So is there any particular area you'd like us to go for? We can aim anywhere.
Blackadder: In that case, just above my head would be a good spot. (The firing squad bursts into laughter.)
Firing squad captain: You see, a laugh and a smile, and the job doesn't seem quite so bad, does it, sir?
By episode's end, Blackadder is rescued from the firing squad, but only to return to the front lines and wait for the inevitable order to head into battle. The idiots still have all the cards.
Dealing with Mr. Haney and Arnold the Pig doesn't seem so frustrating anymore, does it?
The website This Was Television discusses the foruth season of Blackadder in a roundtable forum:
Blackadder Goes Forth is pretty tonally different from its predecessors, even right off the bat. I don’t think a series has made its tone clearer from the outset than when this one has Baldrick (how lovely is it that Tony Robinson appears like a totally different person every series?) carving his name into a bullet so that the Germans don’t have it. Baldrick’s bullet is funny, desperate, and sad, and that’s how one can best sum up Blackadder Goes Forth.
Blackadder is on Netflix and "Corporal Punishment" is on YouTube (but Part II is badly out of sync). Also below is perhaps the most famous courtroom scene on a sitcom.