Ken Tucker offers lessons for ''Seinfeld,'' ''Murphy Brown,'' and more based on the success of ''The Odd Couple''

By Bruce Fretts
August 23, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Can new hits like ”Friends” stack up to ”The Odd Couple”?

This summer’s real Must See TV isn’t on NBC. It’s Nick at Nite’s blocks of the Odd Couple, the 1970-75 ABC sitcom that starred Jack Klugman as slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison and Tony Randall as anal-retentive photographer Felix Unger, the original Single Guys in the City. The show hasn’t just held up well: It actually plays better than it did 25 years ago. And it was damn good then.

How can this be? By looking at the reasons why the show has aged more like one of Felix’s fine wines than like one of Oscar’s submarine sandwiches, we can answer this question — and predict how we think a handful of current sitcoms will play 25 years from now.

1. ”The Odd Couple” was consistent. Never has this been more evident than in Nick at Nite’s ”block party” lineup. Watching six episodes back-to-back, you’d expect to find a bad Couple in the bunch, but they’re as rare as good jokes on Coach. (I defy anyone, on the other hand, to sit through all six Munsters Nick airs on Mondays.) Even compared to such a durable and groundbreaking show as Seinfeld, The Odd Couple‘s track record is unsurpassed. God help you, however, should you stumble across a Seinfeld from the Great Slump of 1995. Sure, the show has since bounced back creatively, but it’s still capable of turning out clinkers (witness last season’s ghastly finale).

2. ”The Odd Couple” wasn’t topical. Aside from atrocious fashions and occasional Me Decade guest stars (e.g., Bobby Riggs), you’d never know The Odd Couple was made in the ’70s. Its humor is timeless — which is more than can be said for Murphy Brown. Those Dan Quayle jokes haven’t aged well, and unlike Candice Bergen’s marital misfit, Felix and Oscar never had to lecture anyone on ”family values.”

3. ”The Odd Couple” had a conflict. The opening puts it succinctly: ”Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?” The tension between the beer-swilling Oscar and the Bordeaux-sipping Felix provided an inexhaustible wellspring of comedy. Similarly, Frasier sets up a snob-versus-slob battle, as Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) and his even fussier brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce), butt heads with their blue-collar dad (John Mahoney). If Cheers is Frasier‘s sitcom father, The Odd Couple is a not-too-distant cousin. Grammer and Pierce’s impeccable diction and Mahoney’s guttural grunts contain unmistakable echoes of Randall and Klugman.

4. ”The Odd Couple”’s cast was free of dead wood. Randall and Klugman were the only regulars the show required; they came to embody Felix and Oscar (an amazing feat, since they had already been embodied by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau). When other characters were needed — say, Murray the cop (a pre-Happy Days Al Molinaro) or Oscar’s secretary, Myrna (a pre-Laverne & Shirley Penny Marshall) — they were brought in. But the writers didn’t have to include these characters every week. Friends, however, has to dole out its gags among six regulars, some (Matthew Perry, Jennifer Aniston) more gifted than others (Matt LeBlanc, Courteney Cox). And The Odd Couple‘s guest stars were never as gratuitous — or as unamusing — as Tom Selleck or Jean-Claude Van Damme.

5. ”The Odd Couple” never tried to deliver anything but laughs. Years before Seinfeld adopted the credo ”No Hugging, No Learning,” Couple lived it. There were no Very Special Episodes, no cliff-hangers, no will-they-or-won’t-they sexual tension (except for the homoerotic subtext underlying Felix and Oscar’s relationship — just how ”odd” was this couple?). When Nick at Nite’s 2021 lineup contains ’90s-nostalgia faves like Seinfeld and Frasier, chances are The Odd Couple will stand alongside them — and still be just as funny. Predicted grades in 2021: The Odd Couple: A+ Seinfeld: A- Murphy Brown: C- Frasier: A Friends: B-