It came out around the middle of the decade but would be a driving force behind the success of many other shows.
Perfect Strangers was a sitcom that aired from 1986 to 1992. It featured cousins Larry and Balki living and working in Chicago. It would be a ratings hit, become part of ABC’s TGIF lineup and lead to the spin-off of Family Matters.
Perfect Strangers was required viewing in my house. It was not a kids show, but could still be watched by younger people. It may have had ever so slightly inappropriate stuff – but was still accessible to everyone. It made for the perfect family viewing experience and never took itself too seriously.
Perfect Strangers had the ideal premise, a great duo, and an iconic 80s character in Balki Bartokomous. It also ran for longer than you may realize and helped set the stage for the TGIF Friday night lineup.
This blog will be a look back on why Perfect Strangers was the perfect 80s sitcom.
What Was The Premise Of Perfect Strangers?
Perfect Strangers can almost be considered Borat-Lite. It is the simple premise of “fish out of water” foreigner in a strange land with the character of Balki Bartokomous. It also combines elements of the Odd Couple while having the show based in an apartment.
Balki has left his Mediterranean country of Mypos and is moving to America. He has a distant cousin named Larry Appleton who is also making a move of his own from Wisconsin to Chicago. Larry is finally living on his own after growing up with a very large family. He is finally enjoying his own space when his distant cousin shows up at his apartment.
The early years of the show center around Balki being completely unfamiliar with American culture. He was but a simple sheep farmer in Mypos and trying to navigate his way in this strange new land. He does have his “dance of joy” which would be first debuted in the second episode of the first season.
“Now we are so happy, we do the dance of joy!”
The premise also involves the fact that Larry works as a photographer for the Chronicle, and is obviously apprehensive about Balki living with him. He decides that it’s best for Balki to stay and that he should take him under his wing to help him learn about the culture.
From there, things move into the classic “buddy sitcom” as Larry is just as incompetent as Balki and gets them stuck in many situations with Balki being the one to get them out of it.
The Cast Of Perfect Strangers
Larry Appleton would be played by Mark Linn-Baker. Linn-Baker did a lot of work on Broadway and also appeared on classic 80s shows like Full House, Family Matters, Step by Step, Miami Vice, and even Sesame Street.
Balki Bartakomous was played by Bronson Pinchot. Pinchot appeared in Risky Business, and Beverly Hills Cop, with the latter being the one that helped him get the role on Perfect Strangers. He’s done a ton of TV work and would end up getting the main part on Step By Step. When Bronson was first offered the role of Balki he turned it down as he was already committed to another show where he played a gay attorney. This show was called Sara, but lucky for us it was canceled quickly making him available for Perfect Strangers.
Another fun fact in all this regarding Pinchot is that Tom Cruise of all people didn’t want him to do a sitcom. This all came about when the two were filming Risky Business and Pinchot told US Magazine that Cruise even offered him money in order for him to avoid having to do television.
Here are some of the other main cast members of Perfect Strangers:
- Melanie Wilson played Jennifer Lyons – Larry’s girlfriend. She was also on Family Matters, Step By Step, and The A-Team
- Rebecca Arthur played Mary Ann Spencer, Bali’s girlfriend
- Belita Moreno played Edwina Twinkacetti – she’s been on the Golden Girls, Family Ties, Melrose Place, and played George Lopez’s mother on the George Lopez Show
- Ernie Sabella played Donald Twinkacetti – he was Leon Carosi on Saved by the Bell, but you probably know him as Pumbaa in the Lion King
- Lisa Cutter played Susan Campbell – she was on a lot of 80s classics like Matlock, MacGyver, 21 Jump Street, Jake and the Fatman, and Murder, She Wrote
- Sam Anderson played Sam Gorpley – also in a lot of classics like T.J. Hooker, Hill Street Blues, The Golden Girls, Growing Pains, and was in Forrest Gump and Airplane II
Putting Together Perfect Strangers
You’ll probably remember this name from the credits, but Perfect Strangers was produced by Miller-Boyett Productions along with Lorimar Television.
The concept of this whole thing seems to come about from the 1984 summer Olympics. Dale McRaven who helped create Mork & Mindy put this show together with Tom Miller and Robert Boyett. Miller claims that he noticed a real rise in patriotism after the summer Olympics of ‘84 which were held in Los Angeles.
This got him thinking about an immigrant who would arrive in America and try to embrace the patriotism and the culture. So the concept seems pretty decent but it would be turned down by pretty much everyone including ABC, CBS, and NBC. In the 80s, those networks were everything, so you were pretty screwed if they weren’t getting on board with you. What were you going to do? Go to Netflix? Sorry, you were about 30 years too early.
Miller and Boyett didn’t care as they knew they had a good idea on their hands – especially now that Bronson Pinchot was available. Once they got him on board they had to scramble to put together a pilot. I never knew this but Mark Linn-Baker was never the first choice to play Larry; they had gone with Louie Anderson.
ABC somehow was now on board. They would start with just 6 episodes and they would be released midseason. This would help it avoid getting lost with all the other new shows premiering earlier in the year. The other crazy thing was due to this unorthodox release, they had to get the shows out in record time. Just three weeks after shooting their first scene, Perfect Strangers would be on TV. They then had to have shows done in as little as a week to get them out on time.
With the rushed pilot done they realized Anderson wasn’t cutting it as the cousin. Not only was ABC on board, but they were also offering them a crazy good time slot on Tuesday nights between mammoth shows Who’s The Boss, and Moonlighting.
I’m not sure what made them change their mind on this whole thing, but now the show had to really spring into action. They decided on the name Perfect Strangers and scrambled to find a new actor to play cousin Larry. They had seen Linn-Baker on Moonlighting and his instant chemistry with Pinchot sealed the deal.
Their show was ready.
Releasing Perfect Strangers To The World
I’m not sure how old you are but you may remember Perfect Strangers being an immediate viewing experience – because it was. It came out to great ratings immediately and it was an easy show to get into – which was necessary for sitcoms in the 80s. They needed a low barrier to entry, instantly identifiable characters, and a laugh track didn’t hurt either.
Perfect Strangers first debuted on March 25, 1986. This was a tough time to make a dent in the ratings but Perfect Strangers was able to do so. It started with just 6 episodes and 5 of them made it into the top 10 highest-rated shows. The time slot definitely helped, and I think the big appeal for this whole thing was the character of Balki. He was a classic comedic outcast which always resonates with audiences – especially families and kids.
SO the first season was pretty basic. Larry and Balki are working in a discount store that is beneath their apartment. Their boss is also their landlord and they have an upstairs neighbor named Susan.
In season 2, they now had 22 episodes and a new time slot. Due to the success of those first 6 episodes, Perfect Strangers was now on at 8 pm on Wednesday nights right before Head of the Class. This season sees Susan being phased out and a love interest for Larry brought in – Jennifer. Balki also begins to date Mary Anne spencer.
The Evolution Of Perfect Strangers
Going into the third season, Larry and Balki have now moved to a new apartment with Balki getting his own room instead of sleeping on a pull-out. Larry is now a reporter for the Chicago Chronicle, and Balki works in the mailroom.
The third and fourth season is notable as we get introduced to a new character, Harriet Winslow who is an elevator operator in the building. She has a husband Carl and the two of them move into the same apartment in the fourth season – and we’ll get to more of this in a bit.
The third season also saw ANOTHER time slot change. This time – halfway through the season in March 1988 – they moved Perfect Strangers from Wednesday to Friday. This was interesting because it was already a hit on Wednesday night, but ABC had some good foresight into lumping a bunch of very similar, and popular shows altogether.
Perfect Strangers would go on Friday night at 8 pm ahead of Full House. This one-hour comedy block would help to create the iconic TGIF which would become must-see viewing. It started with the one hour block and then moved into a night of marathon viewing.
By its 7th season, Perfect Strangers would be moved to Saturday nights. The idea here was to try and spread the youth audience out over two consecutive days. Saturday nights seem to be the kiss of death for a show, but it was a big night for adult-based sitcoms and it was thought that moving Perfect Strangers there would help.
It was called ” I Love Saturday Night” and was the companion to TGIF. Perfect Strangers would air with shows like Growing Pains, and Who’s The Boss – but it killed their ratings. They would actually move Perfect Strangers back to Friday nights for the 8th and final season which would only be 6 episodes.
Trying To Go After The Youth Market In Seasons 5 & 6
I honestly didn’t remember that Perfect Strangers would last for 8 seasons, but they made some bigger changes going into the 5th and 6th season. Like the Brady Bunch would do with cousin Oliver, Perfect Strangers would add a kid at the start of the 6th season.
A new kid named Tess Holland (played by Alisan Porter – she was in Parenthood and was also Curly Sue) would become their new upstairs neighbor.
The idea behind this was to attract a younger audience with the audition of a new young character. ABC knew how important the emerging youth/pre-teen demographic was becoming and the hope was this could attract the same viewers that were watching shows like Full House.
Perfect Strangers was a great family show, but the other idea of adding a kid is that it would help it to seamlessly merge into the new TGIF lineup. The thing was that this never caught on. Porter was supposed to be on full time but only appeared in a few episodes. They then dropped her out of nowhere and without any explanation why.
Kind of like Judy Winslow on Family Matters – which leads us perfectly into this next section.
How Perfect Strangers Helped Launch ‘Family Matters’
Another big change in the 5th and 6th season was Harriet Winslow leaving for the spin-off called Family Matters. She had been on the show for two seasons at this point and she and her husband Carl were well established.
Family Matters would be another monster hit for ABC and would ultimately become the cornerstone of the TGIF lineup. By the time Steve Urkel joined the show, Family Matters became a pop culture phenomenon and would last for more seasons that Perfect Strangers did.
We would never see Harriet on Perfect Strangers again but there would be some crossover between the two shows: In one of the first episodes of Family Matters, Harriet explains how she had been fired from her job as an elevator operator but then became chief of security at the Chicago Chronicle.
I bet you didn’t know there was an ABC universe not unlike the MCU…There’s even crossovers between Full House/Family Matters, Family Matters/Step by Step, Step by Step/Full House, and Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper/Full House,
So with all of the amazing things associated with Perfect Strangers, let’s look at a few more reasons why it was the perfect 80s sitcom:
It Had The Perfect Theme Song
“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now” was a standout theme song amongst many amazing theme songs of the 80s. It’s my personal favorite and I always thought it has a very uplifting feel. It fits in perfectly with this era of 80s sitcoms because it was written by the same people who gave us the themes for Full House, Step By Step and Family Matters.
The writers were Jesse Frendrick and Bennett Salvay and was performed by David Pomeranz. Pomeranz used to open for acts like Rod Stewert, Billy Joel, and even the Doors. He also wrote songs for John Denver and wrote “It’s In Every One Of Us” which is from my favorite Christmas special ever, The Muppet Family Christmas.
The theme song also plays into the changing opening credits over the course of the series. The first two seasons feature the full 90-second version of “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now” and the intro had shots of Larry leaving his family, and Balki leaving Mypos on a horse cart. It also has the classic shot of the two main characters images sliding together to meet in the middle of the screen.
For seasons three to eight, the theme song was cut down to 72 seconds and we have the intro you probably remember best. It starts with Larry and Balki on the back of a tour boat on the Chicago River. We now see them around Chicago including in front of Wrigley Field and other notable Chicago landmarks.
It Had The Perfect Casting & Characters
We’ve mentioned how great the chemistry was between Linn-Baker and Pinchot, and you can definitely tell that on screen. It used that classic odd-couple, “buddy-sitcom” that we’ve seen in so many other classic TV shows. A good nod to this is when Larry and Balki come up from the subway in the opening credits to see “The Odd Couple” playing at the Chicago theatre.
Where a lot of other shows in the 80s were all “issue” focused, Perfect Strangers was all about the characters, the humor, and the situations – making it a true situational comedy. These characters also felt relatable, and many felt like Balki was their own cousin.
They were the perfect yin and yang with Balki being happy-go-lucky, matched against the neuroticism of Larry. It also made it easy for the series to function as you got to rely on a duo and not just one person to drive the show forward. It’s been noted as having the same dynamic of Ed Norton and Ralph Kramden from The Honeymooners, and they were even called “the Ed and Ralph of the 80s.”
It also captured some of that character-driven humor made famous on I love Lucy, and a lot of the appeal of the show would be the physical comedy. This is the same factor that would make a character like Kramer so beloved.
Lucille Ball herself was noted as being a fan of Perfect Strangers. She had been watching since early on and said in the Schenectady Gazette on August 5, 1986, that “she loved those two guys.” You can’t get higher praise than that. This same article makes note that part of the success of the show was that Pinchot and Linn-Baker were allowed to develop their characters and not be restricted by the writing.
Wrapping It Up
So that’s why perfect Strangers was the perfect 80s sitcom. It combined a lot of classic elements from beloved TV shows, had perfect casting, and was accessible to a wide audience. It didn’t try to take itself too seriously and instead relied on the characters, physical humor, and the act of getting yourself out of a sticky situation.
It was always light-hearted, inoffensive, and still had charm. It helped lead the way to another beloved sitcom and ultimately helped lead the way for some of the biggest shows of the 80s and 90s.