Thursday, October 10, 2013

Stuck on You: The Handcuffs Routine

The handcuffs routine has been a stock sitcom routine for the last 64 years.  It is the simplicity of the routine that has allowed it to flourish.  No real set-up is required.  All one needs to initiate the routine is two actors and a standard set of handcuffs.

Handcuffs often turned up in early Hollywood westerns.  Usually when a sheriff pulled out his handcuffs, it meant that he was about to take a criminal into custody and the film was over.  Filmmakers did not immediately recognize the possibilities of this simple prop.  It took writers and directors awhile to realize it was possible to draw out tension by keeping a pair of characters in handcuffs for an extended period of time.

The drama of a lawman and criminal bound together was exploited in Greed (1924).  After murdering his wife, John McTeague (Gibson Gowland) is pursued into Death Valley by former friend Marcus Schouler (Jean Hersholt).  McTeague overpowers Marcus and brutally beats him.  Marcus handcuffs himself to McTeague moments before he dies.  As the film ends, it is clear that no hope exists for McTeague, who is now left in the desert without a horse or water and is manacled to a dead man.

Handcuffs played a pivotal role in the 1915 Vitagraph comedy Mr. Jarr and the Lady Reformer.  Mr. Jarr is accompanying a friend's sister on a train trip.  A zealous suffragette misunderstands the relationship of the traveling companions, believing that the man is luring an innocent young woman away from her home.  The suffragette handcuffs Mr. Jarr to his berth and takes the young woman away with her.  In the morning, a porter mistakes the handcuffed passenger for a lunatic bound for an asylum.

The first element of the definitive handcuffs routine is the mismatched pair.  Comedy can often come from forcing together two people who lack the sense or humility to get along.  A disagreeable pair that is bound together by handcuffs and doesn't have a key to get loose is a dilemma made in comedy heaven. 

An early example of handcuffs humor can be found in a 1922 western comedy, Blaze Away.  Paul Parrott, a new sheriff, handcuffs himself to a desperado named Bad Bill and proceeds to get himself tossed around like a rag doll.  A small man being helplessly dragged along by a larger and more aggressive individual was the premise of most early handcuffs routines.  Let's go through a few of them.  In Live News (1927), meek reporter Johnny Arthur becomes handcuffed to underworld queen Anita Garvin.  Garvin makes a daring escape from a law officer and, in the words of a Motion Picture News critic, "[drags] Johnny after her as if he were a poodle."  Louise Fazenda and Clyde Cook accidentally become handcuffed together in A Sailor's Sweetheart (1927).  The actors, who respectively play an old maid teacher and an old sailor, are an unlikely pair, but it creates further disharmony when Fazenda consumes too much alcohol and loses her inhibitions.  Cook becomes desperate to cut himself loose from his increasingly unruly companion.

Clyde Cook and Louise Fazenda
The handcuff routine arrived into the sound era with Bert Lahr's comic turn as a cop in Faint Heart (1929).

The routine was expanded to a significantly greater length in Once a Hero (1931).  A bank clerk (Emerson Treacy) sneaks up behind a bank robber and knocks him unconscious.  The next day, Treacy is hurrying to his wedding when he gets into trouble with a police officer and gets tossed into a jail cell, where he just happens to become handcuffed to the bank robber he thwarted the day before.  The robber fails to recognize Treacy, but Treacy is fearful that the menacing criminal will eventually figure out who is.  The situation takes an even worse turn when the robber makes a bold escape, dragging Treacy along behind him.

A sad example of the handcuffs routine was performed by Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante in What! No Beer? (1933).

Keaton, who was in an alcoholic haze during the making of this film, contributes little to the scene.  That's sad because, at his prime, Keaton could have elevated the scene above the dull roughhouse antics that made it on screen.  Without a doubt, he could have composed an intricate sequence of moves that would have turned this routine into a work of art.  Keaton was, after all, one of cinema's most graceful clowns.  He could wrangle elegantly with an uncooperative partner, which is evidenced by the changing room scene in The Cameraman or the scene from Spite Marriage in which he lugs his drunken wife to bed.

MGM was determined to force Keaton and Durante together.  In this deleted scene from What! No Beer?, the actors find themselves joined together after they get tangled up in the same overcoat.

A clever handcuffs routine was featured in the Wheeler and Woolsey comedy The Nitwits (1935).  Robert Woolsey is unwilling to go along peacefully when a police officer places him under arrest.  He ably slips out of his handcuffs and then, as he demonstrates his clever escape trick to the officer, he manages to trap the officer in his own handcuffs.  Abbott and Costello greatly expanded on this routine in Who Done It? (1942).

In The 39 Steps (1935), Alfred Hitchcock introduced a second element to the handcuffs routine: the mismatched pair finding a way to work together and even coming to develop affection for one another.

Handcuffs played a role in the climax of His Girl Friday (1940).  The arrest of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell is heartily endorsed by Mayor Fred (Clarence Kolb), who observes that these scheming journalists "look kind of natural" in handcuffs.

The ideal handcuffs routine, which was to serve as the prototype for future handcuffs routines, was created by Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madeline Davis for the radio show My Favorite Husband.  Lucille Ball and Richard Denning, who starred on the show as wackily married couple Liz and George Cooper, were always being put into absurd situations by Carroll and Davis.  The handcuffs episode, "Liz and George Handcuffed" (1949), starts out with Liz playing cops and robbers with a neighbor's boy, who fancies himself to be a budding Dick Tracy.  The boy snaps handcuffs on Liz and George, after which he reveals that he doesn't have a key.  It's too late to call a locksmith, which leaves the couple with no choice but to remain shackled together until they can phone a locksmith in the morning.  The highlight of the episode comes as the couple has to figure out a way to sleep together in their encumbered state.  The dialogue left it to the listeners to imagine the couple's physical struggles.

In the morning, George has no time to wait for the locksmith as his boss (Gale Gordon) has summoned him to a confidential meeting with an important client.  George and his boss come up with the idea to hide Liz behind a sofa during the meeting.

In 1952, Carroll and Davis made alterations to the "Liz and George Get Handcuffed" script to create a new script for I Love Lucy called "The Handcuffs."  The changes could not have worked out better.  To start, the handcuffs were no longer introduced by a mischievous boy.  Instead, Lucy and Ricky's cantankerous ex-vaudevillian landlord introduces the handcuffs as part of an old magic act.  This would have an important effect on the routine in the future.  Previously, a comedy character had to be implicated in a crime before a police officer could enter the scene and introduce a set of handcuffs.  But that limitation no longer existed.  Any character could introduce handcuffs if they were nothing more than a prop for a magic trick.  Without writers needing to cook up criminal complications, the routine could be transferred to a wide variety of characters and situations.

The bedroom scene remained the highlight of the script.  But, now that the routine had to be performed on television, it was necessary to work out the physical actions of a couple handcuffed together.  Carroll said, "Madeline and I tied our left and right hands together and we found out that once you have that you can't take your coat off.  It won't go past the sleeve.  We wouldn't have thought of that unless we had actually done it." 

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in the I Love Lucy episode "The Handcuffs."

Buster Keaton, who sometimes served as an adviser to Lucy on I Love Lucy, would have no doubt approved of the way that the routine was eventually worked out.

 The routine is similar in ways to a glue routine from a 1907 Georges Méliès film, La Colle universelle (released in the U.S. as Good Glue Sticks).

Carroll and Davis made further alterations to the My Favorite Husband script.  Tension is always valuable in a sitcom script, which is the reason that George's business meeting became vital to the story.  But, unlike George, Ricky was not a bank executive who had to conduct meetings with clients.  It was set up instead that Ricky, mambo musician extraordinaire, is due to appear on a television show to promote a new album.  He gets the idea to hide Lucy behind a curtain while he talks with the host and performs a musical number.  A reworking of the Commedia dell'Arte routine "Lazzo of Hands Behind the Back" comes into play during this scene.

The best change by the writers was to omit a scene from the radio script in which George was forced to accompany Liz to the beauty parlor.  George's discomfort with hair rollers and nail polish is not particularly funny.

It has been decades since Ball and Arnaz performed this handcuff business and no one has come along to top them.  They established the perfect three-act handcuffs plot.

Act One.  Get a disagreeable duo locked together in handcuffs.

Act Two.  Put the bound duo into a tricky situation where they need to coordinate their movements. 

Act Three.  Have the duo find a way to hide their embarrassing predicament at an important event.

The originators of the three-act handcuffs plot never let go of this precious formula.  Desilu, the producers of I Love Lucy, returned to the routine for a episode of December Bride ("Handcuffs," 1956).  Ball, herself, would later return to the routine in a highly rated episode of Here's Lucy ("Lucy Meets the Burtons," 1970).

How is it that so many sitcom writers thought they had the right to make use of this plot?  A sitcom writer will feel justified to steal a premise from another writer on the condition that they can come up with a good twist.  Lowell Ganz explained this principle in discussing the time that he reworked the Honeymooners IRS episode ("The Worry Wart," 1956) into an episode for The Odd Couple ("The Ides of April," 1973).

Comedy folk are more possessive of their material today, as is evidenced by Roseanne Barr's recent Twitter attack on Three and a Half Men for using one of her old jokes.,103904/

The Three Stooges were shameless in using other comedian's material, but the fact remains that the Stooges were often able to take a gag or routine and make it their own.  In Blunder Boys (1955), the Stooges attempted to one-up Ball and Arnaz by having three people handcuffed together instead of two.  The Stooges' larger-than-life version of the routine, which includes ankle-biting, axe-impaling, vase-breaking, fast-motion photography and exaggerated sound effects, remains to this day unlike any other version of the routine.  I am sure that Mr. "Three-Camera-Shoot" Arnaz was sorry that he didn't think to incorporate a rubber leg into his own handcuffs routine.

The handcuffs routine merged with the berth routine in The Honeymooners episode "Unconventional Behavior" (1956).  On a train ride to the Raccoon convention, Ralph (Jackie Gleason) and Norton (Art Carney) decide to have fun with joke items that Norton has brought along.  The duo soon lock themselves together in trick handcuffs, which forces them to sleep together in a berth.


This example of the old berth routine comes from Laurel and Hardy's Berth Marks (1929).

Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis remained handcuffed together for most of The Defiant Ones (1958).  Even though The Defiant Ones is clearly a dramatic film, it is at its core the handcuffs routine.  Two opposing individuals are shackled together and must learn to cooperate with one another.  The fact that one man is white and the other is black meant that the film had to provide a profound moral lesson in the end.  Poitier and Curtis, who were presented as a microcosm of society, were meant to persuade viewers that the racial tensions of America need to end to allow the dawning of a new universal brotherhood.  Unfortunately, the handcuffs routine was not powerful enough to accomplish something as epic as that.

In 1961, a little boy again set the routine into motion in the Dennis the Menace episode "The School Play."  Mr. Wilson gets handcuffed playing a cowboy game with Dennis.

Again, the show must go on.  This time, the show is a school play.  Hilarity ensues as Mr. Wilson gets down on his knees to pretend he is one of the pint-sized cast.


The handcuffs routine was perfectly suited to British comedian Eric Sykes, who performed expert handcuffs silliness in a 1962 episode of Sykes and. . . called "Sykes and a Haunting."  Eric finds handcuffs in a trunk that once belonged to his uncle, who once made his living as an escape artist.  It isn't long before Eric ends up handcuffed to his sister Hattie.

The couple later have trouble when they try to ride the bus.  Hattie steps on board the bus first and, before Eric has the chance to follow her, the bus drives off.  Eric runs wildly alongside the bus to keep up.

Another routine follows once Eric gets on board the bus.

The episode comes to a clever conclusion.  Eric unknowingly triggers a secret release catch on the handcuffs, but he fails to realize at first that his sister and he are free.  He walks into the kitchen for a glass of water and is startled when he leaves the kitchen and discovers his sister standing on her own in the living room.  Sykes produced a remake of this episode in 1973.


Writers believe they can get away with an overused plot if they can find the slightest way to make the plot seem different.  This was the idea of Dobie Gillis writers when they replaced the handcuffs with a "gypsy love link" (nothing more than a Chinese finger trap) in a 1962 episode called "The Beast with Twenty Fingers."  Maynard and Mr. Gillis become locked together no differently than their handcuffs forbearers.

Mr. Gillis is panicked because he is scheduled to receive the Grocer of the Year Award at the grocer's convention.  In the end, Maynard dresses in drag so that he can pretend to be Mr. Gillis' wife at the convention.  To my knowledge, this was the only version of the handcuffs routine that turned midway into a drag routine. 

The routine was never more popular than it was in the 1960s.

"Andy's Vacation" (The Andy Griffith Show, 1964)

A 1962 McHale's Navy episode, "Dear Diary," simply used the handcuffs as an excuse for a series of goofy slapstick falls.  Don't get me wrong, I like goofy slapstick falls.

Green Acres "The Deputy" (1966)

Jealousy became an element of the routine in a 1966 episode of The Hero called "If You Loved Me, You'd Hate Me."  Mariette Hartley is upset that her actor boyfriend (Richard Mulligan) will have an old girlfriend (Charlene Holt) as his love interest in the latest episode of his western television series.  It makes matters worse when the co-stars become handcuffed together and they are unable to get themselves apart.

Here is a publicity photo of Charlene Holt.  This is a person to whom I would love to be handcuffed.

This clip from the 1967 F Troop episode "The Day They Shot Agarn" is yet another sleeping-in-handcuffs scene.

The way that Berry resolves the sleeping dilemma with a nimble body flip is something that I could imagine Keaton doing.

It is not surprising to me that Keaton was a fan of F Troop and enjoyed Berry's physical comedy.

The routine went on hiatus for a few years, but you can't keep a good routine down for long.  It was back in full force in the Sanford and Son episode "Chinese Torture" (1977).  Fred (Redd Foxx) and Esther (LaWanda Page) are attached together by trick handcuffs.

Fred has a date coming to the house and, rather than call off the date, he convinces Esther to hide behind the couch under a blanket.  This recalls the business meeting scene from My Favorite Husband.

"It's a Dog's Life" (Laverne and Shirley, 1978)
The steps of the I Love Lucy routine are followed in the Three's Company episode "Handcuffed" (1980), but the characteristics of the situations vary a bit.

Jack doesn't need to appear on a variety show to promote a mambo album or appear as a cowboy in a school play.  He has to put on a show of charm and seduction for a hot date known as "Brenda the Blender."  Jack shows up at a restaurant for the date and has Chrissy sit behind him at the next table.

The "Hands Behind the Back" routine is played out in a kitchen scene.

The Once a Hero plot came up again in a 1981 episode of Laverne and Shirley called "The Defiant One."  Shirley (Cindy Williams), just like Emerson Treacy fifty years earlier, gets handcuffed to a fugitive bank robber (Richard Moll).
Let's look at some handcuffs comedy from the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"3, 2, 1" (The Facts of Life, 1985)

"Born to Be Mild" (Family Matters, 1991)

Although the poster for Midnight Run (1988) promised handcuff comedy, Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin are only momentarily handcuffed together in the film.

That same year, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) featured a memorable handcuff routine.

The routine was adopted by children's programs starting with an episode of Hey, Dude ("Ted and Brad Get Handcuffed," 1989).  The routine was soon making the rounds on other children's series.

"Doug's Magic Act" (Doug, 1993)


"Cuffed" (Rugrats, 1993)

An old Nickelodeon fan complained on an Internet forum that the routine originated with Hey, Dude and the other series copied it.  Little did he know the truth.

The routine was brought back to the adult world with a 2000 Frasier episode called "To Thine Old Self Be True," in which Fraiser becomes handcuffed to a stripper.

This was tame compared to a 2002 episode of Coupling ("The Freckle, The Key and the Couple Who Weren't") in which a man and woman play around with handcuffs during a kinky sex session.

A new twist to the routine was introduced by a 2001 episode of Lizzie McGuire called "Sibling Bonds."  A mother hides the handcuffs key because she believes that having her children locked together will force them to engage in conflict resolution.

This strategy of conflict resolution was carried over to episodes of other children's series, including Even Stevens, Hannah Montana and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.  

"Raiders of the Lost Sausage" (Even Stevens, 2002)

"Cuffs Will Keep Us Together" (Hannah Montana, 2007)

"The Defiant Ones" (The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, 2010)

Science fiction shows discarded the handcuffs for more quirky devices.  A strange electronic gizmo is implanted in Picard and Crusher to bind them together in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Attached" (1993).  The Kor mak bracelets, an invention of an alien race known as the Goa'uld, work to a similar end in the Stargate SG-1 episode "The Ties That Bind" (2005).

Kor mak bracelets

A 2008 Eureka episode, "From Fear to Eternity," involves ex-lovers accidentally locked together at the ankle by an odd glue-spewing device.

The Thing with Two Heads (1972) was crafted as The Defiant Ones with a blaxploitation twist.

By replacing handcuffs with a binding spell, the routine could even be adapted to the fantasy comedy genre. 

"Five Easy Pieces of Libby" (Sabrina the Teenage Witch, 1998)

The Three Stooges' version of the handcuff routine was recreated in The Hangover (2009).

A 2011 episode of Psychoville, "Hancock," proves that the threat of death can add to the tension of the routine.  Mr. Jelly performs at a retirement home and accidentally handcuffs himself to one of the elderly residents, leaving the pair stuck together while on the run from a killer.

Modern feature films still make use of the premise.

Two feuding rock stars get handcuffed together for 24 hours at a music festival in Tonight You're Mine (2011).


A hapless pair is locked together while on the run from gangsters in The Briefcase (2011).

Strangest of all, old comedy tropes are now making their way from sitcoms. . .

. . . to reality shows.

"Si-amese Twins" (Duck Dynasty, 2013)

Our tale does not end today.  I am proud to announce that this is my blog's first two-part article.  I invite you to return tomorrow for the second part.

Additional note 

Buster Keaton's Chief Rotten Eagle from Pajama Party (1964) would have fit in well with F Troop's Hekawi tribe.  Also, it must have amused Keaton to hear the origin of the tribe's name.  Chief Wild Eagle explained, "Tribe travel west, over country and mountains and wild streams, then come big day. . . tribe fall over cliff, that when Hekawi get name.  Medicine man say to my ancestor, 'I think we lost.  Where the heck are we?'"  This is similar to a fan-favorite joke from Keaton's The Boat (1921).  Keaton and his family sail off in a houseboat that Keaton has christened The Damifino.

The boat's name pays off at the close  of the film when Keaton and his family wash up on a deserted beach in the dark of night.  "Where are we?" asks the wife.  Keaton replies, "Damn if I know."

This article was originally posted on October 13, 2013 and later updated on April 25, 2015.


  1. Here is an interesting fact about the I love Lucy episode.
    In the living room scene, Lucy and Ricky are wearing Pinkerton handcuffs.
    When they try to go to sleep in the bedroom, they are now wearing Marlin handcuffs.
    The Marlins are more rounded and comfortable to wear so I imagine that while shooting the scenes, the cuffs got uncomfortable so they switched to a pair which did not hurt as much.