“Perfect Strangers” by Tom Connor
The words “formulaic,” “predictable,” and “hackneyed” were not in my vocabulary when I was five years old, so Perfect Strangers was one of my favorite TV shows. The sitcom was about an unlikely pair of cousins, one from the US, one from a Mediterranean island, trying to find love and success in 1980s Chicago. I liked Larry, the American protagonist, and his foreign cousin Balki was childlike and easy for a little boy to relate to. For five year old me, the show was a perfect storm of humor, black and white morals, and a guy with a funny accent. I was hooked.
My dad liked the show too, so it gave us something we could do together. That meant a lot – I idolized my dad, but because he was a carpenter and did physical work all day, he rarely came home with the energy to deal with a little kid. We didn’t spend a lot of time together, but Perfect Strangers was one of the few times during the week when he and I were guaranteed to hang out.
The show opened with a terminally 80s theme song: upbeat keyboard chords hopscotched over dramatic tom fills as a misplaced harmonica provided counterpoint. Then an expertly polished 4/4 verse, sung by a vocalist who took the song way too seriously, brought the viewer into the first exterior shot of the protagonists’ house. I always assumed that the theme of the show held hidden significance, and one Wednesday at 8 (7 central) it hit me as my dad and I were sitting on the couch.
“Dad, I know who does the theme song to our show!”
My dad was slumped comfortably in his normal spot. “Who.” He spoke flatly. We hadn’t been talking about the show, or about music. I had made a sudden little-kid gear change on him, and he was trying to roll with it.
“It’s Larry and Balki! Larry is the singer, and I think Balki is playing the piano thing in the beginning!” I had my theory all laid out. I felt confident.
My dad’s eyes were on the TV. He had an expression as if I told him I wanted to repave the driveway for fun. He couldn’t understand where I came up with the idea, or why.
“Who do you think is playing the drums?” I squinted at the screen, trying to imagine which of the supporting cast might be good at beating the hell out of a floor tom.
My dad’s eyes were still on the TV. “The characters aren’t the ones playing the song. They’re just actors.”
That made no sense to me. “Yeah but they do all kinds of crazy stuff on the show. They could be in a band too.”
My dad stopped and thought about that. “Were the guys in a band? Did they play that song in one of the episodes?” He was starting to question his stance, and I knew I had him.
“The song is in every episode, dad. They play it every time the show comes on!” Checkmate.
“No, that’s not-“ my dad trailed off as he rubbed his eyes, “that’s not what I meant. Did you ever see them actually playing instruments in the show?”
“Well who else would play it but them?” I thought Larry and Balki were pretty awesome, but I also had to admit that they were losers. It was the whole point of the show. I couldn’t imagine anyone else taking the time to write a song about them.
My dad shook his head. “Son, those guys are just actors, they’re not playing any song.”
I hadn’t counted on this type of resistance, but I was determined to overcome it. “I know they’re actors, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be in a band together!” I was getting worked up and I ran to the TV just as the opening synth bars of “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now,” the Perfect Strangers theme, came from the TV’s speakers.
I turned up the volume as the verse came in. “Listen to his voice! That sounds just like Larry! He can sing while Balki plays the piano thing!” I didn’t realize that where I was seeing two zany cousins who lived lives in which scoring their own theme song was entirely possible, my dad was seeing two actors constrained by their own talents.
“Turn the TV down and sit down.” My dad locked eyes with me as his brow sloped to a dangerous angle. The situation was deteriorating. We were both standing on principle.
“No!” I all but screamed. The chorus had just started. “Listen! That sounds exactly like Larry!”
My dad stood up. “I told you, the characters are not the ones playing the song, and I told you to sit the fuck down!” He took a step toward me.
At this point there are two things worth noting: one, when I was little I had a dangerous combination of stubbornness and volume, and two, my dad is the type of person to get in a shouting match with a five-year-old over a sitcom.
Behind us, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now” was coming to the end, and I pulled out my last piece of evidence – two female singers that briefly harmonized before the song’s outro. I yelled, “Listen! Those girl singers are Jennifer and Mary Anne! It has to be the characters from the show singing!” Since Larry and Balki had their own band, it only made sense for their girlfriends to be there as well.
My dad looked at the TV in bewilderment. He may have been wondering if I was right, but at that point he was mad, and the thought of his kindergartener proving him wrong didn’t help. He lost his temper. As he turned to face me, his left hand, which moved so quickly I didn’t have time to react, caught me in the side of the head. I stumbled backwards and lost balance as another hand made contact with one of my shoulders, spinning me around. I managed to get my hands up to break my fall, but as soon as I hit the ground my dad grabbed a handful of my shirt and hoisted me to my feet. Leading me from behind, he marched me down the hall, shoved me in my room, and slammed the door. I stood there sniffling as I heard the first scene of Perfect Strangers starting in the living room right as my dad changed the channel.
A week passed uneventfully. My dad’s long hours and short fuse meant I was used to being smacked around, so that bothered me less than the fact we missed our show. I became determined to do better and keep quiet for the next episode, and when the next Wednesday at 8 (7 central) rolled around, I ran to get my dad, who was working in the garage.
“Dad, our show is coming on!”
He had his back to me, examining something laid across two sawhorses. He didn’t look up. “I’m busy right now. You can watch it if you want.”
“But dad, the TV said it’s a new episode tonight!”
“Ok.” His voice was disinterested. “I don’t think I want to watch that show anymore. You can put it on if you want.”
I was quiet. “What do you mean?”
“I just don’t want to watch that show.”
I tried to understand what I was hearing. “But dad, we always watch this show together.”
“You can still watch it. Look I have to work, go inside.” I waited until I was sure he was serious, then walked back into the house. I closed the door to our garage and stared at the TV. It was turned off. My mom asked if she should find Perfect Strangers for me, but I just said no and walked down the hall to my room. The scenario repeated itself next week, and the week after, and I finally just gave up.
My dad and I never watched Perfect Strangers again. Either our fight about the theme song had ruined the show for him (the thought of which made me feel bad), or he was never into it at all and decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble anymore (which made me feel worse). Either way, the one real, consistent chance I had to spent time with him evaporated, and so formed the first clouds of a volatile, arms-length-at-best relationship that would last until I was in my 20s. We had reached a new normal.
Still, it just felt like a standard part of a blue-collar upbringing. Dad worked hard and came home exhausted, but so did all of my friends’ dads. I usually had to stay out of his way, but all of my friends had that problem with their dads too. Wasn’t that just what a father-son relationship looked like? I didn’t think to miss him any more than I missed the elaborate vacations that no one in my neighborhood ever took. I didn’t pine for steak over my Hamburger Helper and I didn’t think about the Louvre on weekend fishing trips, because I had what everyone else had. It was all part of a middle-income patchwork that blanketed everyone in our little suburb.
That changed when I left for college and met a whole new group of kids. I realized that most moms never had to work night shifts. I found out most dads weren’t asleep on the couch moments after coming home caked with sawdust, and most kids never bragged about how good they were at dodging incoming blows. I learned that some things I had taught myself to find funny made others really uncomfortable, and many of the experiences I took for normal were, in the words of a girl I dated, “unbelievably fucked up.” My experiences were so markedly different and negative that I feld like I had grown up in another country. I spent some time feeling angry and cheated, but over time I just decided to move on. Being happy helped me fit in with my new friends, and forgiveness is the best way to break a cycle.
A few weeks ago Perfect Strangers came up in conversation, and later that night I found myself on YouTube reminiscing about the show. I watched part of the episode where Balki and Larry marry their girlfriends and was severely disappointed to read that Bronson Pinchot had faked Balki’s accent. Before long I found the opening sequence and watched it several times. I remembered almost all of the words, and after my second or third viewing I felt a familiar hunch. Wikipedia and IMDB both told me I was wrong, but I don’t care.
I picked up the phone and called my dad. We talked briefly about the houses he was working on, and then I abruptly changed the subject.
“Hey, do you remember that show Perfect Strangers we used to watch when I was little?”
“Was that the one with Bill Cosby?”
“No, that was called The Cosby Show, and I don’t think we ever watched it.”
“Are you sure that’s the one he was on?”
“Why else would they have called it The Cosby Show? Perfect Strangers was the one with the American and his cousin from somewhere in Greece living together.”
My dad was quiet as he thought. “Oh yeah, I guess I kind of recall that. Why?”
“Well I just wanted you to know that you were wrong, and Larry is definitely the one singing the theme song.”
“What?” Confusion reigned on the other end of the line.
“Well, gotta go, talk to you later, dad!” I hung up before he could say another word.
Tom Connor’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Black & Gold Review, Ars Technica, and Where Y’at, among other places. He lives in San Francisco, and his dog wants to be friends with your dog. Tom tweets as @_TC_, tumbls at ilovefreude.com, and gives live readings all over San Francisco.