Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! In honor of my upcoming birthday — I’ll be two decades old on Sunday — today’s post is highlighting some of my favorite sitcom installments revolving around birthdays. There were many shows and episodes from which to choose, but I’ve selected just a few. (Got to save some for next year’s birthday post!) Subscribe and comment below with some of your favorites that I may have missed!
I LOVE LUCY (1951-1957, CBS)
Episode 106: “Ethel’s Birthday” (Aired: 11/29/54)
Fred asks Lucy to pick out a birthday gift for Ethel on his behalf. When Ethel opens the present early and detests it, Lucy and Ethel enter into their biggest feud yet.
I featured this classic episode on my list of the best I Love Lucy episodes of Season Four, and later stated that it would get my choice as the MVE of the season. This is no small praise — Season Four is the best of the series and houses over a dozen truly stellar installments. Here’s what I wrote in that initial post: “A fan favorite, this classic episode features sharp dialogue and one of my favorite scenes ever — when Ethel opens Fred’s present and sees the atrocious hostess pants that Lucy has secretly picked out. This is a great introduction to the series because it showcases the amazing chemistry of Ball and Vance.” (Fans of the series may also remember another famous birthday episode from Season Two, in which Ricky serenades Lucy with a special song.)
THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (1961-1966, CBS)
Episode 60: “A Surprise Surprise Is A Surprise” (Aired: 04/24/63)
Laura despairs when Rob learns of her elaborate plans to throw a surprise party for him. Now it’s a battle of wits: who can outsmart whom?
I also included this episode on a previous list of season highlights. Here’s what I wrote then: “Surprise parties happen more on television than they do in real life. This episode addresses that in an indirect way — it’s difficult in real life to keep a surprise party a surprise! So this episode has Rob finding out about the surprise party, in a script with many hilarious twists and turns that pays off with Laura actually surprising Rob. The office scenes are brilliant, as usual. One of my favorites.” Truly, this is the surprise party sitcom episode to end ALL surprise party sitcom episodes — the smartest and classiest of the genre. It’s another perfect introduction for newcomers to the series, as each member of the ensemble gets moments to shine.
HE & SHE (1967-1968, CBS)
Episode 18: “A Rock By Any Other Name” (Aired: 01/10/68)
The Hollisters exchange birthday gifts: she gets an expensive fur coat and he gets a rock, which he then proceeds to lose.
My coverage of the best of He & She (a brilliant single season sitcom that I’ve mentioned once before on a past Wildcard Wednesday post) will be coming up in a few months, but I’ll give you a little taste and share that this particular episode may very well earn the MVE award. It’s the perfect example of the series at its smartest. Dick makes a fuss about he and Paula buying each other cheap gifts for their upcoming mutual birthdays. Dick forgets and buys Paula an expensive fur coat, only to learn that Paula has gifted him with a rock. (A very special rock, mind you, with a sweet and clever backstory.) Of course, sitcom hijinks necessitate that Dick then lose the rock. With sharp dialogue, an outstandingly premise, and nice slapstick thrown in, this is great situation comedy.
THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (1970-1977, CBS)
Episode 87: “Happy Birthday, Lou!” (Aired: 12/22/73)
Worried that Mr Grant will be alone on his first birthday separated from his wife, Mary throws together a surprise party for him. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t turn out too well.
A running gag over the course of The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s seven years was Mary’s inability to throw enjoyable parties. This became magnified in Season Four when several episodes involved disastrous occurrences. In one, Lou and Edie had a major off-camera fight (and we also met Sue Ann for the first time, who’d been fooling around with Phyllis’ husband). In another, Mary enlisted Sue Ann’s help to throw a party for a congresswoman, but only with a limited number of guests. In this episode, Mary plans a surprise party for Lou, but is disheartened by his last-minute news: he hates surprise parties. This smart writing, with genuine character moments, never forgets its primary aim: to make us laugh. This episode certainly delivers.
THE GOLDEN GIRLS (1985-1992, NBC)
Episode 50: “A Piece Of Cake” (Aired: 05/09/87)
While planning a surprise party of their own, the girls reminisce about several of their most infamous past birthday celebrations.
The Golden Girls was fond of doing scripts that I like to call “anthology episodes,” taking specific themes — like Mother’s Day or, in this case, birthday celebrations — and creating NEW flashbacks in which the girls would tell individual stories that related to the topic du jour. For the most part, these episodes worked, and “A Piece Of Cake,” produced during the series’ best season, is no exception. Betty White gives a surprisingly heartfelt monologue in her story, while Estelle Getty gets to take off her old lady getup and play Sophia in the ’50s. But the best bit is the first one, in which Rose throws Dorothy’s party at “Mr. Haha’s Hot Dog Hacienda,” is HYSTERICAL. Arthur is magnificent in her rage, producing one of the best scenes of the entire series.
FRIENDS (1994-2004, NBC)
Episode 46: “The One With Two Parties” (Aired: 05/02/96)
The gang plans a surprise party for Rachel, but the real surprise is when both of her estranged parents show up for the same party.
This excellent installment — again, coming from (arguably) the series’ greatest season — works for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it concentrates the majority of the action on limited sets: the girls’ apartment, the guys’ apartment, and the connecting hallway. Additionally, we get a couple of great guest stars in Rachel’s parents, played by the crotchety Ron Liebman in his Friends debut, and flighty Marlo Thomas (whom you’ll be seeing on this blog fairly regularly in a few weeks) in a return appearance. The story, hosting separate parties for separate parents, is very farcical, and even warrants a self-aware Three’s Company joke. (Always welcome!) Phoebe’s guest smuggling is the comedic highlight of the episode, and Rachel and Chandler’s bonding is the sweetest.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard Wednesday post! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!
I just came across this post almost 5 years after you wrote it. The MTM episode (which BTW originally aired 12/22/1973 instead of 11/22/1973) is a classic that received a flashback inside the series in the S7 episode where Jack Carson appeared in the dark. I thought Murray, Ted & Rhoda all had great lines in it too.
Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Good catch; I have amended the above post!
(Although, I think you mean *Johnny* Carson when referencing “Mary’s Big Party.”)