Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: In honor of Netflix’s Special Correspondents, we’re honoring our favorite military-themed comedies.
Sanford And Son, “Sergeant Gork” (season five, episode 23; originally aired 3/12/76)
Don’t be fooled by Fred Sanford’s modest surroundings and trash-packed closets. To let him tell it, he’s a rich man, at least if true wealth is measured by the life experiences you’ve collected. Intrepid junkman Fred (Redd Foxx) tells many fascinating stories through Sanford And Son’s six seasons, but he’s the ultimate unreliable narrator. Usually he’s weaving a thrilling story to portray his worldliness when he’s trying to unload an item of dubious value or run one of his many get-rich-quick schemes. But he spun his tallest tale for a kid too enraptured to know the difference.
In “Sergeant Gork,” Fred is left in charge of Roger (Edward Crawford), who will soon become his grandson once Fred’s son Lamont (Demond Wilson) marries Roger’s mother. Roger is already beginning to take after his future grandfather, using his sweet face to snooker patrons into paying too much for worthless items. But Roger mistakenly undervalues a collection of war medals, prompting Fred to regale him with a totally fabricated story about the World War II exploits that allegedly earned him a Purple Heart. The episode goes into full flashback mode, and suddenly it’s as if Sanford And Son showed up to a Halloween party dressed as Hogan’s Heroes.
Foxx conceived the story along with writer Ted Bergmann, who penned the script, and went on to produce Three’s Company and its spinoffs. Bergmann was more than qualified to write a WWII-themed episode, having served in the Army and covered stories on the ground for NBC’s radio news magazine Army Hour. As part of his Army Hour duties, Bergmann was present at the schoolhouse in Reims, France where the Germans surrendered to the Allies in 1945, making him one of few live witnesses to the historic event. Bergmann became a television writer and producer upon his return to the U.S., and was game to funnel his deadly serious experience in the battlefield into a goofy sitcom episode.
In Fred’s war fantasy, he becomes Major Fred G. Sanford, a less-than-subtle nod to George S. Patton, and had Roger been old enough to have seen it, he would have recognized Fred’s story as a nearly beat-for-beat retelling of the 1970 film about Patton’s life. For an episode that departs so dramatically from Sanford’s usual routine, “Sergeant Gork” feels surprisingly like a standard episode. As is often the case with classic sitcom parodies, Sanford’s regular characters step into era-appropriate roles that allow their familiar foibles to shine through. There’s even an appearance from Fred’s sister-in-law and sworn enemy Aunt Esther (LaWanda Page), who makes sure the episode includes the merciless insult comedy Sanford fans came to expect. Before Fred gets too deep into his story of uncommon valor, Lamont interrupts and chides his father for lying to his future grandson. But a day spent with Fred the fabulist winds up paying off for Roger. When another customer shows up to inquire about war medals, he jacks up the price now that he knows what they mean, and how much they’re truly worth.
Availability: “Sergeant Gork,” along with the rest of Sanford And Son, is available on DVD.