You Do You: The Man-child Metamorphosis
When the Mild Mannered Man-child isn't so mild mannered.
Last year, I told you about the Mild Mannered Man-child, the sitcom character trope of the sweet, sensitive, stupid guy everyone loves. But what happens when the man-child suddenly isn’t so mild mannered anymore? This is a common episode trope I call the Man-child Metamorphosis.
It goes like this: The MMM is tired of being treated like a child and taken advantage of, so he decides to make a transformation. He takes a class, goes to therapy, or does something so out of character that it completely changes his personality. The result is always negative. The sweet, shy, loveable lug is suddenly an overbearing creep, and no matter how annoying or weird he was before, everyone agrees they miss the old MMM, so he somehow changes back to his old, loveable self again. The status quo is restored, and all is right in TV land.
This trope is a lesson in being true to yourself and not trying to change to fit some idea of what other people think you should be. Here are a few examples from some of my favorite sitcoms...
The Bob Newhart Show: Howard Decides to Decrease His Dependence
On The Bob Newhart Show, Howard Borden (Bill Daily) is so dependent on his neighbors, Bob and Emily Hartley (Bob Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette), that he’s basically their child. They feed him, loan him whatever he needs, and help him with all his problems. So of course, when the Hartleys decide to take a vacation in season five, episode four, “Still Crazy After All These Years,” Howard is worried he won’t be able to get by without them. To help him become less dependent, Bob introduces Howard to Dr. Podbillion (Leonard Stone), a slick, avant-garde psychologist with a radical new therapy technique and an annoying habit of constantly saying “fine and dandy.”
When the Hartleys return from vacation, they find that Howard has not only returned all the things he borrowed from them over the years, but he’s even returned all the gifts they’ve given them. Howard shows up at their apartment dressed in a three-piece suit, acting very formal and polite, and talking a lot like Dr. Podbillion, even repeating “fine and dandy.” He explains that he doesn’t accept gifts anymore because “it’s a sign of dependency.” When Emily tells him he’s “not himself,” he replies, “Thanks to Dr. Podbillion, I’m not myself. I’m me.”
To restore Howard’s personality, Bob and Emily cook his favorite dinner and invite him over, hoping the food will entice him to revert back to his old, dependent self. At first, Howard sticks to his guns while his friends try to convince him to borrow their stuff and eat their food, but eventually he admits that he’s not happy the way he is now, takes back his gifts, and asks for “asparagus tips instead of broccoli” for dinner. Emily asks Bob how it feels “to have the old Howard back,” and Bob replies, “Fine and dandy.”
Too Close for Comfort: Monroe Gets Much Too Macho
While the Hartleys have to put up with Howard Borden, on Too Close for Comfort, the Rushes are cursed with Monroe Ficus, the dimwitted and exasperating but oddly endearing goofball played by Jim J. Bullock. In season two, episode eight, “The Remaking of Monroe,” Sara (Lydia Cornell) gets mad at Monroe for not standing up to some inconsiderate assholes who stole their seats at a concert. To help him grow a pair, she sends Monroe to an assertiveness training class.
After the class, Monroe shows up at the Rush home during breakfast, strutting around in cowboy boots and gripping up Sara and Jackie (Deborah Van Valkenburgh). He sits down at the table, complains that the eggs are runny, and then tells off Henry (Ted Knight) for interrupting him. Henry is of course pissed and tells Monroe to get out, prompting Monroe to ask, “I take it you’re dissatisfied with my growth?” to which Henry replies, “You’re gonna have another growth on the top of your head if you don’t leave right now!”
Later, Monroe starts acting like a total perv, hitting on Sara and chasing her around her and Jackie’s apartment. Henry kicks Monroe out again, and this time he tells him to never come back.
Monroe is so shocked and hurt by Henry’s banning him from the Rush home that he can’t sleep, so he comes back in the middle of the night to apologize. Henry has a heart-to-heart with him and explains the difference between being assertive and being a jerk. Monroe agrees to go back to being his old self, and as he backs out of the apartment, he knocks over a vase and smashes it. Muriel (Nancy Dussault) calls out from the bedroom, “What was that?” and Henry replies, “Monroe’s back.”
Newsradio: Matthew’s Manliness Messes with His Mind
On Newsradio, Andy Dick plays Matthew Brock, the self-proclaimed “office weird guy.” He’s dangerously clumsy, painfully shy, and a complete dolt, but he gets away with it by being sweet and humble, sort of like Gilligan.
In season three, episode 13, “Led Zeppelin Boxed Set” (a lot of the episodes are named after Led Zeppelin albums, but I feel like the writers got lazy on this one), Matthew invites Bill (Phil Hartman) to join his book club, and in true Bill fashion, Bill implies he’ll attend when hell freezes over. While Matthew usually brushes off Bill’s belligerent bullying, this time he gets upset and runs off in tears. Lisa (Maura Tierney) convinces Bill to apologize to Matthew, while Dave (David Foley) encourages Matthew to stand up for himself. This results in a confrontation between the two during which Matthew punches Bill in the face.
After cold-cocking bill, Matthew gets cocky and thinks he’s cock of the walk. He barks orders at everyone, hits on all the women in the office, reads Playboy during a staff meeting, and antagonizes Joe (Joe Rogan) to the point where Dave has to hold him back from killing Matthew. In an unusual move, Bill stands up during the meeting and makes a speech defending Matthew, but while gesturing wildly, he accidentally (on purpose?) hits Matthew in the face. This, of course, reverses Matthew’s transformation, and he goes back to being his old self again.
Taxi: Vic Ferrari is a Lot Less Likeable than Latka
On Taxi, controversial comedian/performance artist/whatever Andy Kaufman plays Latka Gravas, a shy immigrant from an unnamed country who speaks broken English in a humorous high-pitched voice. Although his sweet, non-threatening personality ingratiates Latka to the ladies, he routinely gets shot down. He feels that this is because women see him as a “cute little guy” instead of a real man.
In the season three finale, “Latka the Playboy,” Latka gets fed up with being rejected and decides to do something about it. He reinvents himself by studying a pile of Playboy magazines and creates an alter ego named Vic Ferrari. Vic is confident and laid back, and he does well with the ladies, but he’s a massive douche with questionable taste in clothes and a loose understanding of how chairs work.
The gang at the garage are put off by Vic, and they try to convince Latka to change back, but he refuses. Alex (Judd Hirsch), the leader of the gang and designated nice guy, says, “I liked the old Latka; I don’t like you,” which momentarily seems to crack Vic’s façade before he swaggers off.
Later, Vic shows up at Alex’s apartment and begs him for help. He wants to go back to his old self, but he can’t remember what he was like. Alex helps him remember by describing Latka’s personality and imitating his voice. Eventually, Latka comes back, but unfortunately, that’s not the last we see of Vic Ferrari, as he re-appears in a few more episodes where Latka struggles with having multiple personalities. This was likely due to Andy Kaufman’s dissatisfaction with the character and the producers’ tendency to let him do whatever the fuck he wanted. He sure had those guys kissing his ass, god bless him.