A Sitcom Joke Explained

I have DVDs of the first three seasons of The Bob Newhart Show at home. It was a great, great show, and I laugh as much today as I did when I first watched it in the 1970s. No commercials, and—hallelujah and hooray!—no political commercials.

I noticed something interesting in Episode 14 of Season 2 ("T. S. Elliot"). And I thought I'd share:

The setup is that one of Bob's patients, the acerbic neurotic Elliott Carlin, has fallen for Bob's receptionist, Carol, and proposes marriage. The flustered Carol refuses to come to work and calls in a replacement. The replacement is an older woman, entirely ditzy. The introductory dialog goes like this (and thanks to the miracle of Hulu, you can view it yourself, about 16 minutes into the episode here):

BOB (exiting elevator, walking to office, oblivious): Good morning, Carol.

RECEPTIONIST: Oh! Good morning. Can I help you?

BOB (double-takes, looking at receptionist, then looking at office door to make sure he's on the right floor, then back at receptionist): Yeah, I'm, ah, I'm Dr. Hartley, a-and this is my office, and (looks at receptionist's desk) these are my messages, but you're not my secretary.

RECEPTIONIST: Oh! I'm your Friedman Fill-in Girl! (taps self to indicate who she's talking about) Debbie!

Big laugh!

There's more and it's funny, but … What's so funny about "Debbie!"?

I think it's this (and yes, I'm going to wreck the joke by explaining it):

  1. The episode is from 1973.

  2. Debbie appears to be at least 60-something.

  3. Meaning she was born well before 1920.

  4. If your browser has an appropriate Java plugin, you can view the historical frequency of girls named "Deborah/Debra/Debbie" here.

  5. The "Deb(ora|ra|bie)" name was a semi-craze that peaked in the 1950s; "Deborah" was the fifth-most-popular name for girls in that decade. But in the 1910s-1920s, it was almost unheard of as a baby name.

  6. So circa-1973, Debbie was a young woman's name; the laughter stems from the incongruity between the receptionist's name and her age.

Nowadays, the joke doesn't play as well: Debbies born in the 1940s/1950s really are getting as old as Debbie in the show. The age/name conflict is absent; result: more puzzlement than laughter.

Soon enough, the joke will seem odd for a different reason: the name's popularity fell off drastically after the 1950s. So in (say) 35 more years, there won't be that many Debbies left; to anyone watching the show in 2043, it will be as if she said "Doris". And they will be totally mystified at the laughter from the probably-all-deceased studio audience.

As long as I'm blogging about Debbie: she was played by the actress Shirley O'Hara, who, as her IMDB page indicates, had a long successful career, mainly doing bit parts in TV shows and occasional movies; she reprised the role of Debbie in a couple episodes in 1974 and 1976. She was actually only 49 in 1973; but she "played old" very convincingly.

Ms. O'Hara appeared in seven different roles in the private eye show Mannix. (As far as I know, Joe Mannix never noticed that the same aging dame kept showing up with different names in his cases—some detective!)

Finally: the consensus seems to be that the episode's title, "T. S. Elliot", is playing off the name of the poet, and that "T. S." stands for "Tough Shit", referring to Carlin's ill-fated one-episode romance with Carol. That's pretty edgy for a 1973 network TV show, you might think. But, lemme tell you youngsters, it was a time for pushing the envelope that way.

Elliot Carlin was the most frequent non-starring character on the show. IMDB claims that he appeared in 29 of the show's 88 episodes.

Last Modified 2008-09-27 9:57 AM EDT

Bumper Sticker du Jour

Unfortunately fictional, but one I'd like to see:

Much Respect

(Click for full size.)

Last Modified 2012-10-10 3:40 PM EDT