Memorable TV moments

Ahead of the Emmy Awards, let’s take a short trip down television’s memory lane, reflecting on some of the scenes that have made a lasting impression.

September 15, 2011 05:47
'Welcome back, Kotter'

'Welcome back, Kotter'. (photo credit: Courtesy of

With the Emmy Awards show fast approaching on Sunday night, which honors excellence in television, it got me thinking about the scenarios and situations that stand out in my mind after all these years of watching TV. I grew up with television, so my arsenal of great TV moments is wide and varied, but each one is a little gem as far as I’m concerned.

TV has literally brought the world into our living rooms, putting us on the scene of global events. We’ve watched births, deaths, weddings and funerals. We’ve been on the spot for assassinations, inaugurations, wars, floods, hurricanes, rescues and terrorist attacks. We’ve even been to the moon and back, all thanks to the wonders of television, be it live coverage or file footage.

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In the early years of TV, iconic newscaster Walter Cronkite hosted a show called You Are There (1953-1957), where they would reenact a historic situation, such as the assassination of Julius Caesar, and present it as though it were happening before our eyes. The tagline was “Today is a day like any other day, but you are there.” Now, decades hence, we really are.

Momentous moments aside, TV offers a wealth of lighter fare, and it is that brand of broadcasting that I’d like to highlight and pay homage to.

One of my earliest memories as a child watching TV was the confusion I experienced when the host of a kid’s program or comedy show would say, “Hello out there in Television Land.” But I’m in my living room – they’re in Television Land, I’d think to myself. But after a while I got the picture, and it didn’t matter who was where; I was being entertained.

An early TV moment I will never forget occurred on Art Linkletter’s show House Party (1952-1969; won an Emmy). It was in the days of live, black-and-white TV, so whatever was said or done on air was irreversible. Linkletter went up into the audience to talk to some of the audience members. With his microphone in hand, he approached a Chinese couple and asked them to stand up.

“What is your name?” asked the genial host.

“Wong,” answered the woman.

Obviously without thinking it through, Linkletter quipped, “Two Wongs don’t make a white.”

The minute the words came out of his mouth, he realized what a faux pas he had made and immediately began to apologize profusely. The woman didn’t catch the racist innuendo and stood there smiling, but Linkletter, who was as PC as they come, was visibly mortified. It was black-and- white TV, but I could see the poor man turning red.

Still in the era of black-and-white TV, drama of the scripted kind came in the form of weekly half-hour dramatic series. Two of my favorites were Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962; won two Emmys) and The Twilight Zone (1959-1964; won three Emmys). One of the most unforgettable episodes on Alfred Hitchcock was entitled “Chilling.” In it, Joseph Cotten plays a man who was in a serious car accident and was completely paralyzed. Believed to be dead, he is taken to the morgue and will soon be buried. But he is alive, and for almost the full half hour, we hear his terrified, agonizing thoughts. He can move his little finger, but none of the attendants notice. Finally, as he is about to be enclosed in the locker, someone sees a tear trickling down his cheek, and he is saved. Chilling indeed.

Chilling in another way is a classic episode called “Lamb to the Slaughter” in which a woman gets away with murder. She kills her two-timing husband by hitting him over the head with a frozen leg of lamb. As the detectives search her house for the murder weapon, she cooks the lamb and serves it to them for dinner.

As for the original Twilight Zone series, one episode that has stayed with me all these years is the one called “Eye of the Beholder.” In it, a woman who was born terribly disfigured has undergone surgery to make her look normal. Surrounded by the shadowy figures of the medical staff, she holds her breath as they remove the bandages. But the operation was not a success, and we hear her scream as she looks at herself in the mirror. However, when the camera reveals her face, we see that she is a beautiful blonde (in our eyes), and the doctors and nurses, whom we finally see in full, are grotesque-looking creatures, which is the norm in their world .

IN A much lighter vein, one of my favorite lines was said in a hospital in an episode of the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter (1975-1979). In the series, Gabe Kaplan plays a man who returns to his old high school and gets a job as the homeroom teacher of a class of lovable delinquents called Sweathogs. In this episode, Kotter’s wife has just gone into the hospital to give birth to their first child, and the Sweathogs rush to the hospital to see her. When they arrive, they ask where she is. When they’re told that she’s in the Labor Room, Arnold Horshack says in shock, “They’re making her work at a time like this?!”

Another memorable line comes from 3rd Rock from the Sun (1996-2001; won eight Emmys). In this sitcom, four aliens come to Earth and take on human form to learn about the customs and the lifestyles of the planet. In this episode, Harry (played by French Stewart) is watching the Miss Universe contest on TV. After a while, in total frustration he says, “What kind of Miss Universe contest is this? All the contestants are from Earth!”

In another episode the aliens, who have taken on the family name of Solomon, explore the issue of ethnicity. After some research, they come to the conclusion that their name is Jewish. At the end of the episode, as they sit on the roof of their house and discuss the events of the day, Sally (Kristen Johnston) tells them that she met a man she’s crazy about, who is smart, handsome and charming. Dick, the leader of the group (John Lithgow), turns to her and says, in just the right intonation, “So, is he Jewish?

The show was brilliantly cast, and each of the four characters (rounded out by Tommy, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was superb. But more brilliant still was the casting of their supreme leader, called the Big Giant Head. They communicate with him telepathically, but it is not until Season 4 that he makes a physical appearance. I will never forget the scene where the four of them are at the airport, eagerly awaiting his arrival. I actually let out a shriek of delight when in strode William Shatner as their fearless leader. Literally no one on the planet could have been a better choice than Star Trek’s iconic Captain Kirk of the starship Enterprise.

Another brilliant, albeit much more subtle, bit of casting was on Gilmore Girls (2000-2007; one Emmy), which is so well written that every line is a gem. In two episodes, we encounter the principal of the local high school, called Principal Merton. For those with a good eye and a good memory, it is a hoot to see that the high school principal is played by Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, aka Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington, one of the Sweathogs on Welcome Back, Kotter. Welcome back, Washington!

When it comes to subtlety, one of my favorite lines comes from Seinfeld (1989- 1998; won 10 Emmys). The episode in question has to do with “re-gifting.” Jerry receives a label maker as a thank-you gift from their friend Tim Whatley, which Elaine recognizes as the present she had given Tim for Christmas. Incensed that he is a re-gifter, she goes into a tirade. Inured to her ranting, Jerry says, “If you get him a sweater for his birthday, I’m a medium.”

And then there is a scene from the drama series Mad Men (2007-present) that is so subtle, I can’t even explain why it resonates so deeply. Don Draper (John Hamm) is returning alone to his apartment. As he is unlocking the door, an elderly woman who lives across the hall comes trudging down the corridor carrying grocery bags. Her husband, standing in the doorway of their apartment, asks, “Did you get pears?” She doesn’t answer but keeps walking toward the apartment as Draper looks on. The husband asks again, “Did you get pears?” She still doesn’t answer but walks through the doorway and says, “We’ll discuss it inside.” The door closes, Draper opens the door to his apartment, and the episode ends. The series is nominated for 18 Emmys this year. Need I say more?

Some of my favorite lines were not scripted but were said during TV interviews. Johnny Carson once said, “Never make fun of a person who speaks with an accent; he obviously speaks one more language than you do.”

Ivana Trump once said, “A woman is like a tea bag – you don’t know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.”

When Elizabeth Taylor was on The Larry King Show in her latter years, King asked her if she thought they would ever make a movie of her life. “But who would play me?” responded the most beautiful woman in the world.

When Al Pacino was a guest on Inside the Actors Studio, he said of director Mike Nichols, “He’s so smart, he makes you feel smart.”

And when Brooke Shields was on The David Letterman Show many years ago, the inveterately arrogant Letterman said to bandleader Paul Schaffer before she came on, “Is it Brooke Shield or Brooke Shields?” When the actress took her seat beside the host’s desk, she looked him in the eye and said pointedly, “Is it Letterman or Lettermen?”

But I think my all-time favorite piece of dialogue was the following exchange that took place on the sitcom Taxi (1978-83; won 18 Emmys). Four of the taxi drivers, who have other jobs on the side, are having a discussion. Tony the boxer (Tony Danza) says, “When I’m in the ring with someone who’s a better boxer than me, I find that I fight better.”

“Yeah, it’s the same with me,” says Bobby the actor (Jeff Conaway). “When I do a scene with an actor who’s better than I am, my acting is better.”

“It’s the same with sex,” says Elaine, an attractive single mother (Marilu Henner). “That happened with the men I went out with.”

“You mean you got better?” says Alex (Judd Hirsch).

“No,” says Elaine, “they did.”

In closing, here’s one of my favorite words of wisdom, imparted by Al Franken many years ago on Saturday Night Live: It’s easier to put on slippers than to try to carpet the world.

That’s all for now, but as comedian Jimmy Durante used to say, I got a million of ‘em.

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