A Rare Sitcom Visit from Bill Murray

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

Okay, so before we start, there are two things you should know about this particular edition of “From the Archives.” Firstly, I’m breaking one of my unwritten rules by highlighting a selection that is available outside of the Paley Archives, and has been released on DVD. However, it’s an episode of Square Pegs which Bill Murray guest starred in, which might not be on every comedy nerd’s radar.

The second thing you need to know about this article is that I’ve never seen an episode of Square Pegs except for this one, and there haven’t been a lot of scholarly works written about this show, so my scope is a bit limited. But who cares? This is Bill Murray on a sitcom in the 1980s! That’s crazy!

For those who don’t know, Square Pegs was created by Anne Beatts, who was one of the few female writers at the National Lampoon in the mid-seventies. It was here that she met her future boyfriend Michael O’Donoghue, who is known for his dark sensibility, and as one of the more formative influences on comedy during this time. The pair then moved from the Lampoon to a brand new show called Saturday Night Live. During the show’s first five years, Anne was one of only three female writers on the staff.

At this point in Bill Murray’s career, he was a pretty big get. His successful run on Saturday Night Live had just ended at the same time as Anne’s, two of the films that he’s probably most well known for, Caddyshack and Stripes, had been released, and he’d just finished filming his next big picture, Ghostbusters. So, the idea of Bill Murray doing a sitcom was probably pretty unexpected during this time. (And during our time, when it comes down to it. Just last week Splitsider ran an article about Community’s Dan Harmon wanting to cast Murray in a role on the show, but describes the idea of that actually happening as “a miracle.”)

After SNL, Anne grabbed a development deal at CBS, and her show, Square Pegs premiered in 1982 and aired for one season. Despite its short run, the show was rerun frequently on different channels over the years, and today is best remembered for launching the career of Sarah Jessica Parker. The episode we’ll be looking at today, “No Substitutions,” aired on Valentine’s Day of 1983, which was an appropriate date, given the subject matter.

In this episode, we are immediately presented with the conflict in the form of a class announcement: the regular teacher is gone, so we’re getting a substitute. Enter: Bill Murray. I could give the character’s name here (it’s Jack McNulty, if you must know), but it really doesn’t matter: it’s Bill Murray as a substitute teacher. He’s not playing a character here. It’s the same attitude and personality as the person who was a Ghostbuster and a Weekend Update anchor and the guy in Stripes. Bill comes in and he’s the classic cool teacher. He tells the kids to yell at him as soon as he enters. He rips up the lesson plan that was left for him. He shakes hands with a student while wearing a joy buzzer. Then, as a lesson in responsibility, he tells the students that this week they’ll “be involved in a mock marriage, which means you will be married… and I will mock you. You’ll have imaginary dollars and an imaginary budget. Whoever stays in their budget gets an A… like in real life.” The students are paired off and our protagonist, the unpopular Patty Greene (Sarah Jessica Parker), is married to Bill. Through him she learns that marriages aren’t always easy and she makes a genuine connection with her substitute that, despite the detached, too-cool tone of the show, is a bit touching.

The thing that struck me the most while watching this episode was how much fun Murray seemed to be having in this role. He quips and bounces around the school, and there are moments that genuinely feel improvised, such as when he asks a young Sarah Jessica Parker to meet him after school so he can show her “some of the weirder things married people do… laundry, taxes…” However, this raises another matter concerning this episode: the substitute teacher would immediately be fired for his inappropriate behavior. Part of this might just be the fun-loving Bill Murray doing his thing, but his character goes to a restaurant after school to hang out with his students where they all dance to Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself” (the eighties!), after saying to the (only) African-American student “Okay, chocolate lady. Do your thing to me.” Outside of TV Land, that sub would be so fired three words into that sentence.

As a huge Simpsons fan, I was struck by the similarities between “No Substitution” and the Simpsons episode “Lisa’s Substitute,” in which Lisa is brought out of her shell and bonds with Mr. Bergstrum, a Dustin Hoffman-voiced substitute teacher. But I think a better comparison was drawn by Paley Center curator David Bushman who connected this episode to the Bill Murray film Lost in Translation. Both stories feature Murray as a deadpan crazy person (himself) helping out a lost-in-the-world young woman to find herself and grow more comfortable in her skin.

But is it still funny? I can’t speak for the rest of the episodes of Square Pegs, but I would say that if you enjoy pre-sad Billy Murray-style antics, you’ll have a good time with this episode. It’s jam-packed with teenage actors who can be pretty hit or miss, and some really terrible dialogue (an actual line from the dénouement of this episode, as said by the jock character: “Mr. McNalty, it’s been one crazy week, and you taught me something, and that’s not easy…”), but ultimately, it was a fun experience. And if nothing else, the theme song performed by The Waitresses is burned into my brain forever. It is.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

A Rare Sitcom Visit from Bill Murray