Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Sticking their noses in other people’s business: 16 TV Cyranos

Illustration: Karl Gustafson

You know Cyrano de Bergerac even if you don’t know Cyrano De Bergerac. The protagonist of Edmond Rostand’s century-old play—based loosely on the life of an actual French polymath—is a canonical figure, his romantic plight, panache, and prodigious proboscis immortalized in countless stagings, adaptations, and lit-class assignments. Skilled in the ways of wit and woo, Cyrano pines for the lovely Roxane (his cousin, a detail that Steve Martin opted to leave out in his modernized take on the text, Roxanne) but keeps his feelings a secret due to his self-perceived ugliness. Besides, Roxane loves another: Cyrano’s brother-in-arms, Christian, a handsome lummox for whom Cyrano ghostwrites love letters and, in the play’s best-known scene, relays sweet talk to Christian before physically taking his place in the shadows beneath Roxane’s balcony.

Since the advent of television, students studying Rostand’s tale of love and loyalty have had some handy crib notes: the many television series that have put their characters in Cyrano, Roxane, and Christian’s places. It’s a storytelling device so common that the French nobleman’s name long ago became shorthand for any act of surrogate courtship, no matter if it’s taking place in a Parisian courtyard, an army barracks, or on a Federation space station. Here are 16 TV takes on the hopeless romantic who spoke for himself while speaking as another—and all the hearts, limbs, and noses that got damaged along the way.

1. The Phil Silvers Show, “Cyrano De Bilko”

U.S. Army Master Sgt. Ernest G. Bilko (Phil Silvers) generally spent his time trying to talk the boys of Fort Baxter out of their money, but every once in a while, The Phil Silvers Show would expose his softer side. So it goes in “Cyrano De Bilko,” when a stammering serviceman and an errant phone receiver sends Bilko a-courtin’ by proxy, lending his silver tongue to a private who’s smitten with the exquisitely named Natalie Rumplemeyer. Complications pile up like the grunts who clump around Silvers in any given shot: Bilko spins his honeyed words unaware that there are two Natalie Rumplemeyers in town: one played by future Catwoman Lee Meriwether, the other her maiden aunt (Kay Medford). Bilko meets Aunt Natalie first, and in a takes-one-to-know-one situation, presumes she’s attempting to leech off of the trusting Pvt. Harold Westrom (Earl Rowe). But it’s Bilko who winds up in a relationship with her, dismayed to find that what charmed Rumplemeyer the younger over the phone and in writing has the same effect on Rumplemeyer the elder. In a sure sign of just how much quick wit Silvers and creator Nat Hilken could pack into a single Phil Silvers Show, Bilko gets himself out of the pickle the same way he got in, planting fake diary entries that spark another romance, this one between Aunt Natalie and her secret admirer. [Erik Adams]

2. The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis, “Greater Love Hath No Man”

Leave it to one of the most heartsick protagonists in TV history to pull a Cyrano within his first dozen episodes, but “Greater Love Hath No Man” picks an auspicious occasion for its literary tribute: the return of the medium’s first beatnik, Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver). The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis’ breakout character followed Denver into the Army after the actor was drafted, but having failed the physical, Denver was free to return to Central High, where his eternally pining best buddy, Dobie (Dwayne Hickman), immediately volunteers to feed Maynard the lines that will win the heart of the only person he’s ever loved more than an ice cream bar or a Thelonious Monk platter. Problem is, Pearl Arnold (Diane Jergens) is also the current apple of Dobie’s eye. It’s a predicament that precedes a dog pile of allusions, from the biblical verse in the episode’s title to Dobie’s parroting of Sydney Carton to the fantasy sequence that pins Cyrano’s schnoz on Dobie. At least Pearl picks up on Dobie’s sacrifices, though not in the way he or Maynard intend: Down at the malt shop, she ditches both for an anonymous dance partner, saying, “You fellas don’t need me, you’ve got each other.” And so they would, for another 100-plus episodes. [Erik Adams]

3. The Andy Griffith Show, “Cyrano Andy”

The first season of beloved sitcom The Andy Griffith Show saw the introduction of Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn), the long-running romantic interest of Don Knotts’ Barney Fife. In “Cyrano Andy,” Mayberry’s sheriff gets roped into helping push the two together for the first time, though he doesn’t exactly play the traditional Cyrano role of whispering sweet nothings behind the scenes. Instead, after a disastrous double date in which Barney finds himself tongue-tied around the object of his affections, Andy goes over to Thelma Lou’s to try and convince her of the words Barney was unable to say. The plan backfires: Barney erupts with jealousy after hearing that Andy paid his lady a visit, and tries to get revenge by wooing Andy’s then-girlfriend, Ellie (Elinor Donahue). Andy and Ellie team up to fix the problem, literally steering the two awkward daters back into each others’ arms. And despite six seasons of tempestuousness (and Thelma Lou briefly marrying another man), the relationship works out in the end: Barney and Thelma Lou end up getting married in the 1986 reunion movie, Return To Mayberry. [Alex McLevy]

4. The Brady Bunch, “Cyrano De Brady”

As the kids got older on The Brady Bunch, plotlines turned from sibling squabbles to various crushes and dates. In season four’s “Cyrano De Brady,” middle brother Peter develops a crush on sister Jan’s new friend Keri (Kym Karath, who played Gretl in The Sound Of Music), and immediately becomes even more awkward than he usually is. Looking for ways to win her over, he goes for the advice of relatively suave, smooth-talking older brother Greg, and pulls the old Cyrano-in-the-bushes routine. Unfortunately, Keri sees Greg in the bushes and takes her copy of Cyrano De Bergerac rather literally, believing that Greg’s the one with a crush. Classic Brady hijinks ensue, with Greg then posing as a Casanova to deter Keri’s interest, Marcia in a wig filling in as the other woman, and the Brady parents and Alice watching the whole teen soap opera from the kitchen, eating popcorn. Peter somehow gets the girl in the end. Only the Bradys could make the twisted plot of Cyrano even more convoluted. [Gwen Ihnat]

5. Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies, “Beauty And The Schnoz”

Of all the tweaks Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies made to the Muppets canon—the characters all grew up together, they once regarded their two biggest detractors as uncles, Scooter used to have a twin sister—at least Baby Gonzo’s crush on Baby Piggy had some basis in The Muppet Show. Given Piggy’s superficiality (and her own unrequited feelings for Kermit), it was never going to work out, but that didn’t prevent Muppet Babies from teaching the future Miss Bogen County a “don’t judge a book by its cover” lesson during its fifth season. “Beauty And The Schnoz” runs the kids through a gantlet of literary reference points, chasing “The Ugly Duckling” and Beauty And The Beast with Cyrano De Bergerac, with whom Gonzo develops a natural affinity. “Us big noses have to stick together, you know,” the little blue guy tells the Frenchman, which leaves an opening for his ’80s big-screen counterpart, Roxanne’s C.D. Bales, to butt in. With Gonzo’s friends and an interjecting Bob Hope adding to the chorus of advice, the scene spirals into chaos—until Gonzo cuts through the noise in order to tell Piggy how he feels. Piggy learns to look beneath the surface, Gonzo learns to express himself, and thanks to all the archival footage in “Beauty And The Schnoz,” the audience learns why Muppet Babies will never be available to stream. [Erik Adams]

6. Boy Meets World, “Cyrano”

A TGIF sitcom with one foot in the classroom, Boy Meets World had a tendency to announce any given episode’s subject matter as part of the week’s lesson plan. “Cyrano” begins with Cory Matthews (Ben Savage), Shawn Hunter (Rider Strong), and the other male students of Mr. Turner’s seventh-grade English class declaring Cyrano de Bergerac a dip for not declaring his love for Roxane—before Cory and Shawn are pressed into Cyrano-hood themselves. Their Christian: hallway goon Frankie Stecchino (Ethan Suplee), who’d later reveal the poetic soul girding his monosyllabic utterances. Here, he requires a nudge from two of his favorite targets, one who’s gifted at talking his way out of a corner, the other who’s the ladies’ man of John Adams High. The twist of “Cyrano”—the one that doesn’t involve John Adams’ remarkably roomy lockers, that is—is not that Frankie’s two-headed woo assistant (one head of which responds “what?” whenever another character says “woo”) is in love with the object of Frankie’s affection, Gloria (Mathea Webb). It’s that Gloria is the steady girl of the only person more threatening to the show’s titular Boy and his best friend: seemingly 35-year-old hood Harley Keiner (Danny McNulty). Cyrano might’ve had it bad, but he never had to contend with a bully who could randomly disappear, get replaced by Adam Scott for a few episodes, and then come back in a completely different body. [Erik Adams]

7. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, “Looking For Par’Mach In All The Wrong Places

One of Star Trek’s great narrative tricks is to take a timeworn premise and ask, “What if aliens?” This isn’t as superficial as it seems, given how fully fleshed out these alien cultures can be. In “Looking For Par’Mach In All The Wrong Places”—the second-longest title in series history, it turns out—Deep Space Nine plants the de Bergerac storyline in Klingon culture, with series stalwart Worf pining here for Grilka, the ex-wife of Ferengi barkeep Quark. Instead of making good on his attraction, though, the disgraced Klingon Worf is enlisted to help Quark win her back over, only instead of writing the words for him, he takes over Quark’s body using a thinly explained technology that lets him fight her bodyguards for her. (The joke being that, for Klingons, battle is romance.) Penned by Ronald D. Moore, Battlestar Galactica showrunner and author of many of The Next Generation’s most acclaimed Klingon episodes, it’s one of the lighter episodes in the frequently grim Deep Space Nine saga. And it leads Worf into the arms of Jadzia Dax, forming one of the series’ most enduring romances. The resulting hookups—between Dax and Worf, and between Grilka and Quark—land all involved parties in the infirmary. [Clayton Purdom]

8. Seinfeld, “The Soul Mate

“With your looks and my words, we’ll have built the perfect beast,” Newman (Wayne Knight) says to Kramer (Michael Richards) in this episode, in which a lovelorn Kramer attempts to woo away Jerry’s girlfriend Pam (Kim Myers) using Newman’s gift for grandiloquence. It’s a ruse undertaken only after honesty fails—Kramer confessing his feelings to Jerry just makes the latter more interested in her—and because, Newman says, he too knows the pain of unrequited love. But also, it’s a good chance for Newman to show off, with the duo “bumping” into Pam at the bookstore where she works and Newman feeding Kramer florid lines from the “unknown 20th-century poet Newman.” Even with Newman momentarily getting distracted by a rant about the mail, it works: Pam decides she has feelings for Kramer as well, setting up a love triangle that, fortunately, doesn’t last nearly long enough for Kramer to have to conjure more poetic musings on Pantene. [Sean O’Neal]

9. The Simpsons, “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase

As it does for a dozen other TV tropes, “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase” mocks the hammy ubiquity of the “Cyrano”-episode with its segment “The Love-matic Grandpa,” making the tired setup emblematic in its spoof of broadly stupid sitcoms. In it, Grampa Simpson’s ghost possesses the Love Tester game in Moe’s bar, where he’s condemned to spend eternity helping the crabby bartender find a woman. After Moe almost immediately lands one with Grampa’s assistance, he naturally takes the Grampa machine along to the date, stashing him in the bathroom so he can feed Moe romantic lines about the prettiness of sunshine and the stupidity of flowers. Unfortunately, after taking a licking from Kearney, Dolph, and Jimbo, Grampa malfunctions, and he begins pitching nonsensical lines like “Tell her her rump’s as big as the queen’s and twice as fragrant.” Still, it all works out in the end, as Moe’s date is surprised and flattered that he’d stage such a contrived, unnecessarily elaborate literary homage in such a broadly stupid context. [Sean O’Neal]

10. Futurama, “Why Must I Be A Crustacean In Love?

Futurama was loaded with Star Trek references throughout its run(s), and “Why Must I Be A Crustacean In Love?” scuttles between a parody of one of the most memorable episodes from The Original Series and nods to the old French poet. When Dr. Zoidberg goes from being merely annoying to aggressive—his claws destroy gym equipment and Amy’s clothing—he realizes he’s in the throes of mating season. The Planet Express team, which is definitely not ready for all this “male jelly,” escorts Zoidberg to his home planet, where his “inferior genes” and insufficiently pungent stench fail to attract any mates. Fry has to give his co-worker a crash course in flirting and dating, going so far as to hide in a shell and feed him lines—though, in typical Zoidberg fashion, “Tell her she looks thin” becomes “You seem malnourished, are you suffering from internal parasites?” But Fry’s caveman-like observations have a surprising success rate, and when affections end up misplaced, Zoidberg and Fry have to settle their differences in ritualistic combat, à la “Time Amok.” Fry loses an arm, but Zoidberg’s fellow Decapodians lose so much more. [Danette Chavez]

11. Will & Grace, “Love Plus One”

In “Love Plus One,” Will & Grace took its usual tack of splitting up its characters into two separate plots. The first one involved Grace getting invited to have a threesome with her ex and his girlfriend (played by Jeremy Piven and Maria Pitillo)—obviously, we know that’s never going to happen. The second plot was much better, introducing Patrick Dempsey as Jack’s Banana Republic customer crush and Will’s eventual beau Matthew. As Matthew is a sophisticated guy who uses words like “particular” and “delicatessen,” Jack has Will feed him some flirty banter through his Banana Republic headset. It’s a broad, slapstick take on the Cyrano story, as Will keeps calling out accidental asides that Jack then screams at Matthew, like “Get out of here, you silly woman!” But Matthew soon savvily figures out whom he’s really interested in, and then hangs around for a few more episodes until Will’s poor romance track record claims yet another victim. [Gwen Ihnat]

12. South Park, “Erection Day”

As on The Simpsons, South Park’s brief dabbling with a Cyrano episode is aware that it’s a trope. “They do this all the time in movies and TV shows. You go on the date and wear an earpiece, and I’ll be nearby, secretly telling you all the right things to say,” Cartman tells Jimmy, after the latter asks Cartman to help him have sex before his big comedy performance so he’ll stop getting unwanted erections. Cartman, whom Jimmy dubs “a white Hitch,” knows all the right things to say: that a woman is pretty, that what she’s talking about is interesting, that they’re going to eat Italian food, etc. But despite Cartman’s careful instructions, Jimmy can’t help deviating from the script and telling his date how much he’d like to “stick my penis in your vagina,” throwing the whole date awry. Still, it all works out in the end, thanks to the advice of another quasi-Cyrano, Officer Barbrady, who whispers in Jimmy’s ear that there are prostitutes down in Colfax Point. [Sean O’Neal]

13. How I Met Your Mother, “The Best Man

In “The Best Man,” the season-seven opener of How I Met Your Mother, the most loquacious of the MacLaren’s gang, Ted (Josh Radnor) and Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), are having trouble expressing themselves. Written by HIMYM creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, the episode flashes forward to Barney’s wedding to some unknown (when the season first aired) woman, then back to the present for Punchy’s nuptials. Ted is nervous about giving a toast—not because he doesn’t love to pontificate, but because he’s worried he’ll dissolve into tears. Barney, meanwhile, struggles to hit it off with any of the female wedding guests, which leads Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Robin (Cobie Smulders) to believe he’s self-sabotaging because he really wants to be with Robin. But despite their elaborate Deee-Lite dance number, Barney actually wants Robin’s help in wooing Nora, the one that got away (but not too far away). True to form, Robin sets aside her feelings and sucks it up to talk Barney through his phone call, but she sneaks in a reference to her own feelings when she feeds her ex the line “Is there any part of you that wants to try again?” [Danette Chavez]

14. Childrens Hospital, “Just Like Cyrano De Bergerac

Childrens Hospital never met a storytelling convention it couldn’t twist into a pretzel of absurdist parody for 11 joke-saturated minutes. “Just Like Cyrano De Bergerac” not only outright declares its intentions to lampoon Edmond Rostand—“You know what this is like?” asks clown doctor Blake Downs (Rob Corddry), a rhetorical question that’s then directly answered by Blake, his colleague Dr. Glenn Ritchie (Ken Marino), and seemingly every supporting character in the episode—but doubles, triples, and quadruples down on the premise as Glenn daisy-chains his romantic favor through the deepest ranks of the Childrens Hospital bench. It’s a game of telephone that eventually calls upon the talents of Nick Offerman, Jordan Peele, Henry Winkler, David Wain, Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel, and James Adomian, their characters feeding each other lines to then feed to Blake, who’s rendered speechless by a patient’s mother named, naturally, Roxanne. Their epic act of outsourcing is predicated on a simple reverse of the Cyrano situation: handsome ladykiller Glenn lending a hand to face-painted cretin Blake, without putting much care, thought, or artistry into the effort. A text message of “Would u like 2 go 2 dinner?” being praised as poetry is Childrens Hospital deadpan in a nutshell. [Erik Adams]

15. Another Period, “Commodore Returns”

The Gilded Age aristocrats of Comedy Central’s Downton Abbey/Keeping Up With The Kardashians mashup Another Period could’ve been among the first people to see a production of Cyrano De Bergerac. Not that a supposedly dying, disease-ridden Commodore Bellacourt (David Koechner) can be bothered to remember the name of the play he was once dragged to by his estranged wife, Dorothea “Dodo” Bellacourt (Paget Brewster). Nevertheless, he still wants to steal its most memorable passage in an effort to win her back. Unfortunately, he’s relying on the Bellacourts’ faithful butler/Dodo’s occasional lover, Peepers (Michael Ian Black), who has cause to sabotage the effort, but remains faithful to the text, down to the rhyming couplets. (To the Commodore’s objections: “No one talks like that, unless they’re a poet who’s never had sex.”) After going so far as to provide the accompaniment to the commodore’s courtyard violin serenade, Peepers accepts his defeat gracefully, his sorrow receiving its own accompaniment in the sound of the Bellacourts’ vigorous lovemaking. [Erik Adams]

16. Bob’s Burgers, “Sleeping With The Frenemy

Tina Belcher often finds herself working against her own desires in the name of helping others on Bob’s Burgers, and that selfless (well, some might say pushover) spirit gets a serious workout in the form of the spoiled and selfish Tammy (Jenny Slate). In season eight’s “Sleeping With The Frenemy,” Tina offers to let her bratty classmate spend the week of spring break with the Belchers as a means of securing her Thunder Girls’ “Something Thunderful” merit badge. During the arduous vacation, Tina ends up playing Cyrano for Tammy when a boy named Brett shows up at the diner and the two express interest. After taking over the job of texting Brett when Tammy makes a mess of it, Tina spends all night talking with him, leading Tammy to insist the eldest Belcher daughter feed her lines during the next day’s date. Of course, Tina eventually wants Brett for herself, and despite sabotaging Tammy with some truly bad romantic banter, the self-absorbed houseguest ends up bequeathing her date to Tina—she was getting bored, anyway—and Tina manages to score herself a kiss to go with that Thunder Girls badge. [Alex McLevy]