56. "A Night In," Porridge (1974)
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.
For a few months in fall 1975, Barney Miller was followed by On the Rocks, a multi-camera sitcom that took place in a prison, leading ABC to promote the pair as "funny cops and funny robbers." To me, a cellblock is a natural setting for a sitcom, since one thing the genre excels at is showing how people adjust, or fail to adjust, to living with each other. The Sartre play No Exit, in many ways a prototype for the sitcom, is about a prison-like version of Hell, so why shouldn't there be a successful comedy about an actual prison?
But On the Rocks was a flop, and the only successful American series about a prison* has been HBO's Oz, a Grand Guignol tale of guards and inmates getting raped, shot, stabbed, blinded, lit on fire, and poisoned with ground-up glass. The violence on Oz ensured it a loyal but limited audience, but I suspect that Americans would get even more queasy about a realistic "stir-com," since it would necessarily have sympathetic characters and we don't like to contemplate how many redeemable people we send to jail. (Just try to make a sitcom out of this.)
*A commenter points to Prison Break, which I should have also mentioned, though much of it takes on the outside.
The British, perhaps because they don't send as many people to the Big House, have been more successful in utilizing the prison setting, and Porridge was one of the more popular sitcoms there in the 1970s. "A Night In," its third installment, is a "bottle" episode that takes place over one night as two new cellmates get to know each other. Norman Fletcher ("Fletch") is a career criminal who reluctantly teaches a newer inmate, Lennie Godber, how to cope with life in the inside.
Fletch: We could ring up and meet [a pair of girls] at an Italian restaurant. Out west? Lovely. And we could go on from there, somewhere. Nightclubs, you know what I mean? And dance till dawn. Then back to their luxurious flat and wallop! (pause) Trouble is, I done all that last night, and I'm a bit knackered. Anyhow, we'd have to get all ponced up. You'd have to darn the holes in me socks, wouldn't ya? No, why don't we just have a quiet night in, eh? All right?
Lennie: If you say so, Fletch.
Fletch: It's what you got to tell yourself. Just having a quiet night in.
Lennie: Trouble is, I got 698 quiet nights in to go.
Fletch: Less than some...
This still being a traditional sitcom, there are also gags about Fletch stepping on Lennie's knitting needles and lowbrow jokes about sex (both in and out of prison). Like most enduring sitcom characters, Fletch and Lennie, whose criminal activities are presumably nonviolent, have hopes and achievements we can all identify with. (Though some have a twist. Fletch is proud that he provided his son with proper attire for his prep school — by robbing a clothing store.) Their weaknesses are also universal:
Fletch: Carnal thoughts — give them the big easy, the big elbow. The less you think about women, the better. (opens the Sun to Page Three) Cor, blimey! Look at her!
Porridge, in contast to the titillation of Oz, is really just a stripped-down version of the many sitcoms about the accidental families we form out of co-workers, roommates, and the like.
Lennie: When that door is locked, I am depressed and I am afraid. Well, you just ... make it more tolerable, like.
Mary Richards couldn't have said it any better.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.