53. "Ink and Incapability," Blackadder (1987)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 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.
Historical sitcoms have never done well in the United States (as opposed to nostalgic sitcoms, like M*A*S*H and The Wonder Years, that go back only a generation or two). The rare attempts include 1999's Thanks, about a 17th-century Puritan family in Massachusetts, which lasted but a month. I don't remember seeing it, but Sarah Vowell raves about it in her book The Wordy Shipmates, praising it for conveying "how miserable all the settlers were" and citing such gags as the head of the house welcoming springtime with "What a beautiful day it is. Everyone out and about airing out their clothes, lugging out the dead."
There was also 1998's infamous The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, which was set in the White House during the Civil War and depicted Abe Lincoln as a sex-crazed moron. (As this clip shows, the show was clearly trying to ape the third season, in particular, of Blackadder.) Pfeiffer aired only four times, done in by poor ratings and by civil rights groups protesting the very idea of a sitcom referencing slavery.
Prince George: (played by Hugh Laurie) Someone said I had the wit and intellect of a donkey!
Blackadder: Oh, an absurd suggestion sir. Unless it was a particularly stupid donkey.
"Ink and Incapability" (written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, and directed by Mandie Fletcher) comes in Blackadder's third season, set in the late 18th century. It features idiot servant Baldrick burning the only copy of Dr. Samuel Johnson's revolutionary Dictionary of the English Language. We don't feel too bad about it, since Johnson is a pompous jerk, easily gulled by Blackadder's list of words "left out" of the dictionary.
Johnson: Here it is, sir: the very cornerstone of English scholarship. This book, sir, contains every word in our beloved language.
Blackadder: Every single one, sir?
Johnson: Every single word, sir!
Blackadder: (to prince) Oh, well, in that case, sir, I hope you will not object if I also offer the doctor my most enthusiastic contrafribblarities.
Blackadder: Contrafribblarites, sir? It is a common word down our way.
Johnson: Damn! (scribbles in the book)
Blackadder: Oh, I'm sorry, sir. I'm anus-peptic, phrasmotic, even compunctious to have caused you such pericombobulation.
Johnson: What? What? WHAT?
"Ink and Incapability" also reveals that Jane Austen was the pen name of a "huge Yorkshireman with a beard like a rhodondenron bush" and that Lord Byron's favorite threat was "I shall kill everyone by giving them syphillis!" Historical references aside, the episode uses a classic sitcom plot: A valuable item is destroyed or lost, and the regular characters go to absurd lengths to cover things up. Here, Blackadder decides that his only option is to write the dictionary himself in a single night — he spends hours on "aardvark" — and one can imagine everyone from Lucy Ricardo to Frasier Crane getting caught in the same lunacy.
Still, the best thing about Blackadder is its demolishment of the idea that people were ever nobler than they are now. We could use more reminders — any chance the rumored reboot of The Office could send the remaining cast members back to the time of Bartleby, the Scrivener?
• Unfortunately, only the first half of the episode seems to be on YouTube, but the full program is streaming on Netflix and is available on Amazon.com.