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When Too Close for Comfort Reached Peak Sitcom
In my mind, Too Close for Comfort was the sitcomyest sitcom of all time for several reasons: The characters are all classic sitcom tropes, the episodes artfully employ many of the standard tropes and gags of the time, and then there’s the intro, where everyone smiles at the camera as if they suddenly realized it was there and Ted Knight trips and falls over the couch like Dick Van Dyke. It’s a sitcom’s sitcom. It’s the sitcom to end all sitcoms. And that’s why I love it so much.
One episode that stands out as the peak of sitcomness is season one’s “A Friend in Need.” This episode uses the popular 80s trope of the “sexual surrogate,” who was supposedly a psychiatric professional who would have sex with you to help alleviate sexual performance issues or anxieties. I don’t know if this was a real thing in the 80s, but TV shows certainly seemed to think it was. I can remember this trope being used in Barney Miller, Night Court, and Columbo to name a few. Of course, this type of thing is prime fodder for comedic gags and awkward encounters, so sitcom writers ate it up, and the TCfC writers were no different.
In “A Friend in Need,” Monroe (Jim J. Bullock) is depressed, and he reveals to the Rush family that he feels ashamed because he’s a virgin (which is a trope in itself). Sara (Lydia Cornell) suggests he try a sexual surrogate, and she agrees to let him use the apartment she shares with her sister, Jackie (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), for his appointment. She lets Jackie know about Monroe’s appointment, but she doesn’t inform their parents, Henry (Ted Knight), and Muriel (Nancy Dussault).
It’s important to note here that the premise of the show is that the two young daughters share an apartment in the same house as their parents. The girls live downstairs, the parents live upstairs, and the four of them are always popping in on each other. Also, Jackie and Sara’s apartment used to belong to someone named Mr. Rafkin, who passed away in the pilot episode and left behind a closet full of designer dresses.
Earlier in the episode we discover that Mr. Rafkin’s sister, Mildred (Selma Diamond), accidentally picked up one of Jackie’s dresses while she was collecting her brother’s things, and Jackie tells her she can come by any time to drop it off. So of course, Mildred shows up to return the dress at the same time as Monroe’s appointment with the surrogate. No one’s home to let her in, but she’s so small that she’s able to squeeze through the crack in the door created by the chain lock.
This leads to a domino effect of misunderstandings that make this the ultimate sitcom episode. Misunderstandings are the essence of sitcom comedy. One or more characters get the wrong end of the stick and act accordingly, others who are in the know react accordingly, and the more time that passes before everyone learns what’s really going on, the funnier it is. In “A Friend in Need,” Monroe’s appointment with the sexual surrogate triggers a cascade of misunderstandings the likes of which have never been seen in sitcom history.
Before we attempt to measure the magnitude of the massive mountain of misunderstandings that’s about to manifest, let’s recap the situation thus far:
Monroe is meeting a sexual surrogate in Jackie and Sara’s apartment.
Henry and Muriel, who live upstairs and have a tendency to stop by without notice, don’t know about Monroe’s appointment.
Mildred Rafkin has broken into the apartment to return a dress.
And now, ladies and gentleman, I give you MISUNDERSTANDING MANIA…
Misunderstanding #1 — Monroe thinks Mildred is the sexual surrogate.
Monroe is puttering around Jackie and Sara’s supposedly empty apartment, getting ready for his appointment with the sexual surrogate, when he runs into Mildred Rafkin, who was in the closet hanging up Jackie’s dress. Monroe assumes Mildred must be the surrogate and nervously tells her he’s the guy she’s “supposed to make love with.”
Misunderstanding #2 — Mildred thinks Monroe is a prostitute.
Mildred, who hasn’t been with a man since 1945 (“VJ Day — we had a ball!”), just goes along with it. Monroe suggests they “settle the money part” before they get started, but Mildred refuses, saying, “If I don’t like it, I’m not paying.” Monroe tells her he plans to pay her, and she’s touched by his offer, saying, “Tell ya what. We’ll go Dutch.”
Misunderstanding #3 — Henry thinks Monroe is trying to molest Mildred.
As Monroe is kissing Mildred up and down her arms like Gomez Addams, Henry comes in and is appalled by what he sees. He apologizes to Mildred, apparently thinking Monroe is so desperate to lose his virginity that he has jumped on Mildred without her consent.
Misunderstanding #4 — Henry thinks Mildred and Monroe are having a tryst.
Mildred tells Henry he should be sorry for interrupting like he did, and Monroe is too flustered to explain what’s going on. Henry can only assume that Mildred and Monroe are engaged in some kind of covert relationship and were having a secret tryst in Jackie and Sara’s apartment.
Misunderstanding #5 — The surrogate thinks Henry is her client.
After Monroe runs away and Mildred storms out, the real surrogate walks in and finds Henry by himself. Henry, who has no knowledge of Monroe’s appointment with the surrogate, questions who she is and what she’s doing there. The surrogate assumes he’s just nervous about having sex for the first time and tries to ease his fears. Despite Henry’s protests and attempts to get away, the surrogate throws him down on the couch, exclaiming, “The doctor said nothing about you being kinky!”
Misunderstanding #6 — Muriel thinks Henry is messing around with the surrogate.
While Henry is wrestling with the surrogate, Muriel, who doesn’t know about anything that’s happened up to this point, walks into the apartment, then quickly runs away when she sees what’s going on, apparently assuming Henry is having an affair. The episode ends with Henry chasing after her, trying to explain.
And thus concludes the most sitcomy sitcom episode ever made. No other episode has or ever will reach peak sitcom quite like this one. To the writers of TCfC, well done.