Rashomon: The World’s Most Unlikely Sitcom Trope
A Japanese psychological crime thriller seems like an unlikely springboard for comedy, but here’s Rashomon, the 1950 Kurosawa flick that launched a thousand sitcom plots. No, Friends never made an episode called The One When Joey Killed A Samurai in the Woods, but Rashomon is influential nonetheless.
It’s not the murder plot that comedy writers have been recycling but rather the movie’s storytelling gimmick: An event happens, then the audience sees it replayed through the eyes of different characters. It’s more than different viewpoints — characters often bring their own prejudices or even outright lies to the table. In other words, unreliable narrators are hilarious! Here are several examples of sitcoms from across the decades that use Rashomon-style storytelling to comic effect...
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia — ‘Who Got Dee Pregnant?’
Dee freaks out the gang when she announces she’s pregnant and one of the regulars is the daddy. She claims the conception took place at their last Halloween party, so everyone tries to piece together what happened that night. Here’s Mac giving his version of the party happenings — you can tell a narrator is unreliable when one of the characters is replaced by an ostrich.
All in the Family — ‘Everyone Tells the Truth’
When a repairman and his Black assistant (the droll Ron Glass before he went on to solve crimes with Barney Miller) show up to fix the Bunkers’ refrigerator, Archie and Meathead have wildly different memories of what goes down. Archie remembers the repairmen as knife-wielding crooks whom he treated like kings; Meathead remembers Archie abusing the peaceful, competent workers. We’re left to assume that Edith’s version, seen below, is most likely what actually happened.
Kenan & Kel — ‘I’m Gonna Get You, Kenan’
Rashomon sitcom plots often revolve around some kind of crime or mystery. In this Nick classic, a crook called the Jackhammer robs Rigby’s. When the police take the eyewitness accounts, everyone has a different recollection of how the Jackhammer gets apprehended: Chris says he bravely fought the criminal (he didn’t), while Kenan confides that he took down the baddie with breadsticks, earning him a kiss from a supermodel (didn’t happen). Oblivious Kel finally sets the record straight, revealing Kenan accidentally knocked out the thief with the door. Unsurprisingly, orange soda is involved.
Happy Days — ‘Fonzie Gets Shot’
Another crime scene, this one involving a bullet straight to the Fonz’s ass! Was Potsie the one holding the smoking gun? And if so, could anyone blame him? Potsie pulls the trigger in at least one of the versions told to the small-town sheriff investigating the buttocks ballistics. Fonzie and Chachi have their own iterations of the tale, but it’s late-series addition Roger, played by notorious sitcom killer Ted McGinley, who seems to have the real story.
How I Met Your Mother — ‘The Ashtray’
There’s always the potential for a Rashomon play on HIMYM, considering Ted isn’t always the most reliable narrator to begin with. But this episode is a classic version of the trope, with characters delivering wildly different versions of their encounter with the Captain (Kyle MacLachlan). Ted says the Captain is still mad at Ted for getting romantic with his ex, threatening him with a harpoon gun. Robin says the Captain came on to her the whole night. Barney wasn’t there but keeps trying to insert himself into all renditions of the story. In the true (?) version according to Lily, both Ted and Robin are loaded out of their gourds, with Robin coming on to the Captain all night long.
The Dick Van Dyke Show — ‘The Night the Roof Fell In’
The first sitcom to use the Rashomon device may have been The Dick Van Dyke Show in an episode where the normally blissful Rob and Laura have a fight, one so terrible that Rob has to leave the house in a furious huff. As Laura retells the story to Millie, she is a saint who had to deal with a roaring tiger. In Rob’s version to Buddy and Sally, his behavior was “as charming as a regular Fred Astaire.” Weirdly, it’s the Petries’ gurgling goldfish who give us the straight version, which is one way to resolve a story. A terrible way, but a way nonetheless.
Diff’rent Strokes — ‘Rashomon II’
You can’t accuse Diff’rent Strokes of neglecting its references — the title tells you exactly what this one’s up to. It’s yet another crime scene, this time with a gun-toting thug threatening our Park Avenue heroes. Just like Kenan and Kel, Mr. Drummond, Willis and Arnold each give disparate accounts to the cops about how the hooligan was captured. Unsurprisingly, each teller is the hero of his own story. Leave it to Pearl, that degenerate, Mrs. Garrett-wannabe, to give the real dope to Kimberly — the burglar had an allergic reaction and knocked himself out during a sneezing fit. We liked Arnold’s version better.
30 Rock — ‘The Rural Juror’
When Jenna stars in a new movie, The Rural Juror, she and Liz have differing memories of Liz’s reaction. In Liz’s version, her offhand compliments are treasured by the insecure Jenna. In Jenna’s version, Liz’s remarks about the movie are passive-aggressive and condescending. Besides this episode’s Rashomon POVs, its funniest bit will always be everyone trying to decipher what the hell Jenna is saying when she slurs her way through “Rural Juror.” It’s almost as difficult as figuring out who was responsible for the Irma Luhrman-Merman murder.