Not the Sport of Kings, but a Very Good Sport as Well: Memorable Bowling Moments in TV History

You want to know how far bowling as come on TV shows since the early days of TV? These days you can do a funny bowling scene on a sitcom without a bowling alley set, a bowling ball or even a fancy computer genius creating those things with CGI. All you need to mine all the inherent humor in the sport of bowling is a Nintendo Wii and some goofy looking Mii avatars. Well, that’s progress, I guess. The good news is that old sport of tossing balls down waxy floors to knock over pins has never lost its ability to make us laugh.

Family Matters

You may not necessarily want to hear this, but the single most important bowling scene in TV history may well have taken place on “Family Matters.” The central narrative drive of the episode is straight out of the 1950’s: guys v. girls and the girls are winning. That’s not what makes this memorable moment in bowling on TV such a game changer. “Bowl Me Over” was the next to last episode of the first season of “Family Matters.” Few could have imagined at the time what a turning point in the history of TV this little episode would be. As I said, it was centered around a battle of the sexes plot and the males were depending on something of a ringer. A strange looking little fella named Steve Urkel. If you want to pinpoint the moment when Steve Urkel started on his way toward becoming a household name, watch “Bowl Me Over” and wait for his reaction after being kissed by Laura.

The Andy Griffith Show

Bowling has been considered much more an urban blue collar pursuit in TV history. To their credit, those involved with the bowling episode that takes place in Mayberry seemed to realize that the sport seems just a little out of place among its more rural sports. The episode centers on and is even titled after the regular character who seems himself most out of place in Mayberry. “Howard the Bowler” is all about things being out of sort, in fact. The members of the Mayberry bowling team are out of sorts because they have just lost one of their members. This is further complicated when they find themselves with little choice but accept beginning bowler Howard Sprague for the big match with the neighboring town. Even Howard’s warm-up ritual seems completely alien to all the regular bowlers. Finally, the most out of sorts thing about the episode is that all the build-up about how big the game was turns out to be for naught: Mayberry’s win is in the bag long before the last ball is rolled. Even so, it is that last roll of the ball to which the episode really builds. Because strange, weird, out of place beginning bowler Howard Sprague is just one roll away from a perfect game. When the lights go out!

Cheers

What it is about bowling that pits men versus women? I mean it’s not as if bowling is really all that much of a test of strength. You could be the strongest man in the world and never bowl a strike in your entire life. “Cheers” has an episode that seems to pit the gang of Cheers against the team from rival bar Gary’s Old Town Tavern. But, somewhat how “The Andy Griffith Show” handles bowling, the apparent Big Game is really just a cover for the ongoing battle of the sexes between Sam and Diane. Diane, you see, is the Howard in this case.

The Big Bang Theory

“The Big Bang Theory” first introduces viewers to the team made up of the four nerdy scientists well outside the blue collar environs with which we are familiar. The guys high-tech it up by playing a bowling video game on the Nintendo Wii inside Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment. The funniest thing about this memorable bowling episode is looking at the surprisingly on-target Nintendo Mii avatars of the characters. Later in the series, an actual bowling alley becomes the apparent site of a showdown between rivals Sheldon and Star Trek actor Wil Wheaton. Just like on “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Cheers” the real big game being tracked in the episode isn’t a rivalry on the lanes, but a rivalry of love. The bowling alley unexpected becomes the site of a major romantic turning point in the series. More memorable from the bowling perspective is humorous debate over inflection and meaning in the name “Wesley Crushers ” for the bowling team.

The King of Queens

The episode “Sparing Carrie” inserts an interesting domestic twist into the concept of the bowling-theme TV show. What if it is the wife of the star player who is dragging down the team and keeping them from becoming competitive? Okay, that’s almost certainly been done. Now add the twist that if the team doesn’t become competitive–immediately–they will lose their sponsorship. Doug Heffernan has a choice. Not exactly Sophie’s Choice, though he does make that comparison in his typical blue-collar future-Trumpist bubble of ignorance about any movie without explosions, car chases or a monkey. Does he remain loyal to the wife or to the team? And, in reality, is the one choice really a show of loyalty to the team or to his desire to have a restaurant as his sponsor?

The Simpsons

Bowling makes several prominent appearances in plots of episodes of “The Simpsons.” Some may prefer the idea of Homer Simpson bowling a perfect game as the ultimate bowling moment in Springfield, but I much prefer the flashback episode that shows Homer Simpson achieving temporary perfection in life by getting his dream job working at the bowling alley. Among the memorable bowling moments somehow packed into the 22 minutes of “…And Maggie Makes Three” are a parody of Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat into the air in the opening credits of her self-titled sitcom, Homer polishing his bald head in the Shine-O Ball-O and, ultimately, the single greatest line of dialogue about bowling ever expressed on a TV show. “If horseracing is the sport of kings, then surely bowling is a…very good sport as well.”