Although at its heart Columbo is a show about the darkest of human acts, part of what has helped it retain a long-lasting appeal is the sense of fun embodied in many episodes.
Peter Falk’s own preference was for Columbo to be liberally sprinkled with comic moments, and I’m firmly with him on this one. That’s one reason why my go-to episodes tend to be humour-laced romps such as Publish or Perish and Double Shock over the hard-hitting likes of By Dawn’s Early Light or Forgotten Lady.
The series gifted us with countless laughs over its 35-year lifespan and here I attempt to distil those into 12 of the very funniest Columbo moments. Whether or not you fully agree with my choices, there’ll be plenty to enjoy for even the sternest of fans. Why, even Mrs Peck had a chortle at a couple of them, so what more encouragement do you need? Enjoy…
Darryl’s hairdryer treatment – Old Fashioned Murder
Columbo was in for a shock to the system when he paid an innocent visit to Darryl’s hair salon seeking information on murder victim Milton Schaeffer’s new haircut and manicure.
After being asked for an interview in the middle of a busy working day, the stylist is having none of it. When Columbo duly informs him that it’s a murder investigation, and if Darryl won’t be more helpful he’ll have to accompany the detective downtown, the crazed coiffeur goes into meltdown – and the only way the Lieutenant can de-escalate the situation is to agree to having a trim, leading to a hilarious (and short-lived) new look.
Even more fun follows when the watch shop assistant recognises Darryl’s handiwork, pouts suggestively at Columbo and compliments him on his new look! These are the only genuinely funny moments in the whole episode, and Darryl’s histrionics add much-needed energy to a plodding outing.
Making egg-cellent use of the murder weapon – A Stitch in Crime
CSI this ain’t, as a bedraggled and sleepy Columbo creates carnage at the crime scene following the slaying of nurse Sharon Martin. First, he thoughtlessly scatters the shell of a hard-boiled egg all over the place to satisfy his hunger pangs – much to the disgust of his fellow officers. He later compounds this action by cracking a second egg on the murder weapon itself (a car tyre iron) after asking a colleague to hold it still for him. While these are highly enjoyable moments for the viewer, one can only imagine what the Gil Grissoms and Horatio Caines of the world would make of such flagrant disregard for policing protocols…
Spirit of a dead dog – Playback
One can’t help but feel that Columbo writers hated the art scene of the 70s, with Playback following on from Suitable for Framing in making an absolute mockery of it all. This is never more apparent than when Columbo goes to the gallery to check up on Harold Van Wick’s alibi. Mistaken for a classless oik by prissy curator Francine, the Lieutenant is given a whistle-stop tour of the exhibit ‘highlights’ – all of which leave him absolutely unmoved.
The best moment? Francine’s straight-faced explanation of the sculpture entitled ‘Espirit d’un chien mort’ – or Spirit of a Dead Dog – is delightfully juxtaposed against Columbo’s bafflement that such tosh could be valued at $1200 – approximately 10% of his annual income. She is subsequently appalled when he mistakes an air vent for an artwork, and again when he compares Mrs Columbo’s penchant for painting by numbers to the expensive landscapes on display.
The scene’s not quite as damning of the vacuity of the art world encapsulated by Dale Kingston’s Champagne-infused love-in at the gallery in Suitable for Framing, but it’s extremely cutting all the same and Falk’s performance makes it a scene to cherish.
Riley’s rampage – Publish or Perish
Interspersed over many minutes of innovative split-screen editing, Riley Greenleaf’s faux drunken shenanigans as he aims to both incriminate and exonerate himself from the killing of Allen Mallory is some of the most enjoyable television ever recorded.
The heinous act of Mallory being slain by deranged hitman Eddie Kane is interspersed with Greenleaf’s rampage at a seedy bar in Encino. Lurching from shambling aggression and outright rudeness to wicked fun, this is Jack Cassidy doing what he does best as he verbally tussles with everyone he encounters before challenging police officers to a rumble when they find him illegally parked.
The joy of these scenes is that Cassidy delivers the lines with a mischievous smile on his face throughout. He’s clearly having a blast, and that sense of fun is absolutely contagious.
Forbidden donut – Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case
Columbo scenes needn’t be technically ‘important’ to be great. This one is simply pure fun as Columbo has his doughnut confiscated by a surly waitress and gains a modicum of revenge by keeping her waiting while he decides what to order in its place.
Falk plays the scene perfectly, while a young Jamie Lee Curtis, in one of her first screen roles (and in one of Columbo’s most jaw-dropping cameos), is the absolute embodiment of sullen petulance. Fabulous stuff!
You call that a lining? – Agenda for Murder
In attempting to get to the bottom of the supposed suicide of Frank Staplin, Columbo uncovers the dead man’s final fax to his wife – two jokes; one Jewish, one Irish. Strange subject matter for a suicidal man to be contemplating in his final moments, no?
The Lieutenant duly recites the Jewish joke to stony-faced attorney Oscar Finch. Upon hearing the punchline, Finch’s remains a picture of pop-eyed scepticism for a full five seconds. However, just before it seems he’ll explode with rage, he emits a single bark of mirth which gives way to gales of laughter lasting almost 20 seconds. It’s remarkable stuff from McGoohan in a moment that could have been ghastly in the hands of a less able and charismatic actor. It’s surely the single funniest moment from Columbo’s comeback era.
I’ve had a haircut – Now You See Him
One of the series’ best visual gags accompanies Columbo’s introduction in Now You See Him – as his hated new coat makes its short-lived appearance.
Emerging from his car at the Cabaret of Magic, viewers can instantly tell something ain’t quite right with the Lieutenant’s appearance and it doesn’t take long for the realisation to sink in that he’s not wearing his ever-present mac. When a uniformed officer fails to recognise him, Columbo’s straight-faced explanation that “I’ve had a haircut,” is therefore 24-carat comedy gold.
Peter Falk’s ability to come across as being stiff and self-conscious in the coat perfectly leads into an episode’s worth of rib-tickling asides as Columbo does his best to rid himself of the offending garment – even urging Dog to look away if someone attempts to lift it from his car later in the episode. No wonder Falk rated the gag as one of his very favourite from the 70s’ series.
Eyes on the road, Lieutenant! – Negative Reaction
Columbo’s encounter with Larry Storch’s irritable driving instructor, Mr Weekly, never fails to delight. When we meet Weekly, he’s furious at the roadside after a driving test he was overseeing went horribly wrong, leaving the car in need of towing and Weekly in need of a lift back to his office. What he didn’t need was time in the car with Columbo – a man not known for his careful driving or the road worthiness of his vehicle.
Weekly predictably finds fault with every aspect of the process and when Columbo nearly collides with a car pulling out from a side street, his shattered nerves can take it no longer. “Pull over!” he insists, dabbing his sweaty forehead with a handkerchief and deciding to walk back to the office to avoid spending another second in Columbo’s shabby Peugeot.
Even though the scene does little to push the plot forward, it’s a wonderful and well-paced 5 minutes of screen time that gives both stars the chance to flex their considerable comedic muscles.
Playing catch-up – An Exercise in Fatality
Too many cigars and too much chilli take their toll on Columbo when a Q&A session with Milo Janus takes an unwelcome twist. Collaring Janus during his morning workout at the beach, Columbo is unwittingly drawn into a long and arduous jog across punishing sands while fully attired in his usual work outfit – raincoat and all.
The red-faced and sweaty Lieutenant that emerges at Janus’s home at the end of the jog is a spent force, reduced to secretly tipping a bootful of sand into the rose beds, while his foe symbolically remains bursting with energy. Luckily for Columbo, cracking the case is a marathon, not a sprint – and in the long run, we can be confident he’ll ultimately prevail.
And the top 3…
3. The trying nun – Negative Reaction
The funniest Columbo episode of them all delivers another scene of comedy gold as the scruffy Lieutenant is mistaken for a hobo by a saintly nun at St Matthew’s Mission. Seeking information from alcoholic down-and-out Thomas Dolan, Columbo instead runs into the Sister of Mercy, who tuts at his appearance – especially the state of his treasured raincoat, which she makes her mission to replace, stat.
A bowl of stew is foisted upon the bemused detective before his protests can be heard, and he adopts an ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ approach as he gulps it down. Finally encountering the now-sober Dolan, Columbo is again interrupted by the nun, who tries to push a new coat onto him before staring wide-eyed in amazement when he reveals he’s a police officer, and lavishing praise on his appearance, which she believes is an undercover disguise.
Boosted no end by sublime performances from Joyce Van Patten and the ever-watchable Vito Scotti, this scene is pure sunshine from start to finish. Critics could argue that the scene has no real pay-off because Dolan can’t help Columbo with his enquiries, but when TV is as entertaining as this it really doesn’t matter.
2. Cooking up a storm – Double Shock
The legendary live cookery scene is a masterclass in natural, comedic acting. Called up on stage to be a reluctant assistant to Dexter Paris, Columbo is initially abashed and stunned, and barely able to string a coherent sentence together – much to the delight of the live studio audience. Yet he warms to the task, making a few wisecracks and milking the audience applause as his confidence grows.
Falk, in particular, absolutely nails this largely improvised scene. He’s as warm and charming as we ever see him – just look at his face light up as he and Landau revel in playing off one another. This is Columbo at his most adorable.
1. The quickest way down – The Greenhouse Jungle
Peter Falk showed he’s an ace at physical comedy in Greenhouse Jungle’s legendary hill fall scene. Directed towards the ‘quickest way down’ to the crash site by the eager Sergeant Wilson, Columbo’s perplexed look at the steep slope is hilarious in its own right, but it can’t compare to the mad capering that follows as the Lieutenant careers down the hill and ends up in a near neck-breaking heap at the bottom. “I’ll tell ya – it was the quickest way down,” he concedes as Wilson helps him to his feet.
With multiple different camera angles in play, we’re clearly shown that Peter Falk did his own stunts – and it’s a helluva performance in which he appears to have risked genuine physical harm. An iconic and extremely funny scene, then, and one that is universally cherished by fans. I can’t imagine ever watching this and not feeling a little bit brighter afterwards.
Peter Falk showed he’s an ace at physical comedy in Greenhouse Jungle’s legendary hill fall scene.
There are strong arguments for many scenes not included in this list (the high cost of chilli at Chasen’s, Dale Kingston at the art show, Columbo’s visit to Vito Scotti’s uppity tailor, Ken Franklin’s sailor outfit etc etc), so please consider the above selections a means of stimulate debate. What other moments split your sides? And am I wilfully ignoring any other golden moments from the Lieutenant’s ABC years? Justin’s impression of the Lieutenant in Columbo Goes to College is pretty tasty, after all… Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
All this comedy gold reminds me a joke I was once told about the good Lieutenant: –
A suspect in a homicide case walks into a police station. “I’m looking for a detective with a glass eye named Columbo,” he tells the receptionist at the front desk. “Hmmmm,” the young lady replies, looking puzzled. “What’s the name of his other eye?“
Hit play on the sound file below for the genuine audience reaction to that rib-tickling witticism. With that, farewell until next time…
Definitely the Greenhouse Jungle “Fastest way down.” I laughed my tail off when I first saw the episode, and I’ve laughed every time since. Unexpected, yet completely in character. Love that!
at the end of No Time to Die, a police officer somersaults through a window in an absurdly hilarious manner. shortly after, to end the entire episode, Columbo asks what time and the screen types out the day and time. absolutely hilarious
The humour is one of the essential elements of Columbo that make it so enjoyable and watchable time and time again. Great list here and I also enjoy all the moments with Dog in, they provide great humour. My own personal favourite though is how Dale walks in on Columbo in his flat where he supposedly fell asleep, that amuses me every time.
I agree with you about Columbo napping in Dale’s place … and all the Dog scenes. 😁
Speaking of dogs, I love Columbo’s interaction with Mrs. Chadwick’s tiny terror from Lady In Waiting. He tries to be friendly, even giving the pup a treat to no avail. Poor Columbo can’t win them all!
As for the scene with Mr Weekly, I can not enjoy it at all. I get that others might find it amusing, but I have had an instructor myself who was approximately like that. I almost had a breakdown. His attitude is bound to make the driver more nervous, and thus more likely to make an error.
In “The Most Crucial Game”, the wonderful Val Avery, (who had parts in four Columbo episodes between ’71 and ’75), plays Ralph Dobbs. He’s a P.I. who’s trying to get the Lieutenant to release his confiscated license and $600 worth surveillance equipment. Columbo toys with Dobbs like a cat with a mouse, until Dobbs gives up the information Columbo wants. It’s a short scene. But one of my favorite Columbo moments with humor.
You didn’t list in your article a single scene of Columbo being badgered and brow-beaten by Mrs Peck!
Somer other scenes that always crack me up:
1) Candidate for Crime – When Columbo has to pull over at the police checkpoint and gets cited for a million fix-it tickets! lol
2) Forgotten Lady – When Columbo visits her home and goes out onto the bedroom balcony to climb down the tree to prove someone could have climbed out to escape. Dog barking at him feom below as he is hanging is hilarious!
3) By Dawn’s Early Light – When he is invited to dinner in the mess hall. Dinner gets cut short, but Columbo still being hungry and knowing he is going to wanna eat later on, sneakily goes back to the table and grabs some extra dinner rolls and ashoves them in his coat pockets! So subtle, but very funny!
4) Dead Weight – When the General takes Columbo out on the yacht for a test run and proceeds to intentionally get him sea sick!!! Probably one of the best funny scenes to me.
5) Short Fuse – Columbo’s first ride on the Palm Springs aerial tram. He is so scared from the heights, he gets super quiet and just wants off that thing as quickly as possible. By the time the ride is over, he can barely walk off, trembling in fear and exhausted from the whole ordeal.
6) Double Exposure – When Columbo shows up at the very end on the golf course to talk to Culp’s character Dr Kepple. The way he annoys him on the golf cart and intentionally getting under his skin and almost toying with his patience is so fun to watch. Great chemistry and timing.
Checkout ‘Tim Vine Televisual’ on youtube, he recreates scenes from Columbo.
Brett’s Short Fuse comment reminded me of another fear-of-heights scene … in Swan Song when he said (about air travel) “My ears pop in an elevator. As a matter of fact I don’t even like being this tall.” 😄
I always laugh when I watch the scene from Negative Reaction where Columbo is at Galesko’s house looking for an ashtray and eventually knocks them off in his coat pocket!
YES! Your #1 pick is spot on! In fact, I came to the list to see if that was on here. Haircut and Larry Storch also in top 5, but Trying Nun needs to be #2. She was terrific. In fact, she was actually a comedian before hitting the serious stuff like she did in Old Fashioned Murder, which, btw, you did not include the scenes from Old Fashioned Murder about the fainting sister esp. when Columbo interrupts her fainting spell by stepping on her gown which he also did in A Case of Immunity.
Humor aside from the Lt. would be found in A Stitch in Crime when Dr. Spock mishandles an opportunity with the nurse roommate, and when the maitre d’ and waiter sip wine after the ruined dinner in Any Old Port and when Suzanne Pleashette’s mom in Dead Weight is asked if she would like her stern tied up or something like that. “I beg your pardon!” Several moments from Dagger of the Mind were humorous even though the episode itself was lacking.
I think the cooking scene from Double Shock might be my favourite Columbo scene of all 😍😍😍
Stephen Caffrey’s Columbo impersonation in “Columbo…College” is by far the funniest moment, as opposed to a two or three minute scene, in the whole series.
I think there was another really funny moment (for me at least) when Columbo shows up at a crime scene with his beat-up old car sputtering.
One of the cops says something like “That’s your car?” And Columbo says to him, with a straight face: “Yeah, she’s a beauty. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.”
(I am paraphrasing). It’s little things like this I love.
And I also loved in “Sex and the Married Detective” when one of Dr. Allenby’s male colleagues says to Columbo- who is just trying to investigate a murder- “Sex has just become so popular and trivial these days.”
Columbo, dumbfounded, replies: “Yea, right,….popular sex. That’s somethin’…. we certainly gotta watch out for ‘dat.”
Yes two good ones, especially that second one, that’s hilarious!
Also amusing for me was when Columbo was waiting for that computer print-out in the Govt office (after queueing) and he manner of the woman behind the counter. Her real identity was discussed here several blogs ago as she wasn’t listed in the credits.
“Now You See Him” has a bunch of amusing scenes that are very funny, among them:
Santini busting Columbo about some shady goings-on at headquarters during his magic show.
and, the best scene in the episode:
Sgt, Wilson dazzling Columbo with the beauty and wonder of the modern type writer.
And last but not least, the one and only Mike Lally as himself.
I can’t think of many Columbo moments that made me laugh out loud. I do appreciate the humorous scenes, but usually with more of a mild chuckle – perhaps that’s why I tend to prefer the more serious episodes. I think the thing that made me laugh most is also my favourite Columbo moment overall, which is the famous ‘gloved hands’ reveal at the end of ‘Suitable for Framing’.
I love that moment, too.
I am getting funny looks from nearby diners at a cafe in North London as I chuckle away to myself over these. As I scrolled through I was worried that my favourite funny moment wouldn’t make it, but lo! There it is at number one. SNAP!
Lovely to hear Jenny; the readership is well dispersed around the globe.
No “Liquid Filth!”?
I advise you not to pay the check. Come, Karen.
CP, great listing! Here are a few honorable mentions of the 70s era that always crack me up:
Suzanne Pleshette mangling her clay masterpiece
Lady In Waiting
Columbo and Leslie’s tasty burgers
Dagger Of The Mind
The whole episode
Mmm, squirrel chili!
Fade Into Murder
Columbo rocking The Shat’s hat
I agree with all honorable mentions and would like to add 1 from Caution: MCBHTYH when Columbo is at the groomers picking up Dog and he tells Dog that the other dogs aren’t as cute as he is as he holds up that not so attractive paw(pedicure didn’t help)
Sue, I love all of Columbo and Dog’s scenes! Being an animal lover myself, it always warms my heart any time I see affection for pets. Columbo loving animals, be it dogs, birds or chimps, just makes me admire him even more!
My favorite bit of humor is Columbo looking for his cigar he dropped in the commissioner’s car in A Friend in Deed. With an entrance like that, it is easy to see how someone could underestimate the good detective. Just notice the smiles and smirks on the faces of the police officers as Columbo frantically searches for his cigar and then says that he grabbed it by the lit end. It’s a quick, quiet bit of humor that always brings a smile to my face in an episode fairly devoid of humor.
One scene that was missed is in Publish or Perish. Columbo goes to pay for the chili and is shocked at the cost, so mentions there must be a mistake. The waiter agrees, and mentioned he forgot to add the cost of the iced tea. Always brings a smile to me.
That almost made the list, a very funny scene.
I adore the cookery scene from Double Shock. It’s very funny to me because Columbo is totally unexpecting it. We’re used to him springing unexpected traps on his suspects and seeing how they deal with it (often poorly) and this is exactly what Dexter Paris does to him here. I don’t think it’s goofy or out of character, he’s just outside of his comfort zone and it takes him a while to overcome his nerves.
My top three would include the two scenes from NEGATIVE REACTION, both because of the guest stars. Sure, it’s alarming that a police officer is a bad driver, but Larry Storch does such a great job as the horrified Mr Weekly that I laugh every time I see the scene. And Joyce Van Patten’s nun is an absolute masterpiece. The serious, even solemn tone of the episode overall, especially Dick Van Dyke’s unrelentingly bleak characterization of the murderer, give special vigor to these moments of comic relief.
And as it happens, my #1 funniest Columbo moment is from one of the most serious episodes of all, A FRIEND IN DEED. There’s nothing more hilarious to me than Artie Jessup’s bewildered exclamation “I don’t even live here!” Columbo’s final coup turns the entire story of his investigation into one long joke, with a punchline at the villain’s expense.
Storch totally embodied every DMV driver instructor ever.
Maybe it’s me. I find the cooking scene in “Double Shock” very difficult to watch. To me, it’s more goofy than funny, and I’m not a fan of Columbo as a goofball. In the 70’s run, I can’t think of another scene as goofy. Certain moments in “How to Dial a Murder” come close: Columbo playing with killer dogs, evidently oblivious to the fact that moments before, they ripped someone’s throat out; with apparent seriousness, extolling Dog’s virtues as a watchdog. But the cooking scene is such prolonged goofiness, it becomes almost unbearable. I can’t even find a strategic justification for Columbo acting with such buffoonery. Is it supposed to be stage fight? But Columbo is constantly in challenging situations, and never loses his bearings elsewhere. And we know from “Murder by the Book” that eggs are his specialty.
To me, the scene on Dexter Paris’ fictional cooking show feels like a segment from an actual daytime TV show that might have been on a local station in LA in the 1970s. In that context, it would have been OK, as Peter Falk’s appearance in character as Columbo on a Dean Martin roast was OK. But inserted into an episode of Columbo, it is a jarring change of tone that takes you out of the story.
I recall enjoying the DS cooking scene in my first viewing. It’s some weird but captivating back n forth with the murderer. Falk is having a good time, yes, but you also don’t know exactly where it’s going, perhaps a humorous ride to an important clue.
BUT, with each repeat viewing, I find it exponentially more grating, like Rich. Falk doesn’t seem particularly good at comedy improv here (Casavettes school be damned), and Landau works up a flop sweat trying to make chicken salad out of chicken … feed.
Ironically, I find Double Shock to be one of the funniest episodes on the whole. Every other scene sprinkles in just the perfect amount of humor to keep the proceedings lively and cannily distract from plot holes. Landau is a Top 5 guest villain. Yet when push comes to shove, I’m not sure any one scene from the ep merits placement on this list.
I like the scene in “Agenda For Murder” where Peter Falk and Patrick McGooghan burst out laughing at the joke.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen this episode. I can’t remember what the joke was.
A video of the joke is in this article!
Where? I don’t see it.
The sixth item in the list, heading ‘You call that a lining?’
I saw it.
Thank you for your help, COLUMBOPHILE.
I wonder what the Irish joke was. Ha, ha! We’ll never know.
Lots of great moments here! For me, I’d want to include the following somewhere:
1) The wonderful scene with Vito Scotti in Candidate For Crime, when Columbo is ‘going to an affair’ whilst really trying to find out when the jacket was ordered.
2) Bernard Fox’s deadpan ‘We must put another penny on the guv’nor’ when Columbo comments on Big Ben being only a minute wrong in Dagger of the Mind.
3) And, in Troubled Waters, the moment when Patrick MacNee wakes Columbo up after the murder, and the latter thinks it’s about his wife, because ‘she likes to have a good time.’ (Honourable mention in this episode to the recurring ship/boat joke).
I had forgotten that great line of Bernard Fox’s! “We must put another penny on the guv’nor’ ” (about Big Ben). Thank you … cracks me up every time. 😄
Bernard Fox had several moments. Loved him in Andy Griffith and Bewitched as well.
I too thought he was terrific in his two (I think) Andy Griffith episodes. I watch them again every time they reappear on ME TV.
He was in 2 episodes of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” also.
Oh my gosh! Totally forgot that! (In fact, it was three roles, which I did not know until I looked it up on Wikipedia.)
(He was also in James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic as Colonel Archibald Gracie IV, AND in the 1958 movie A Night to Remember, in an uncredited role as Frederick Fleet. Two Titanic movies!)
Thanks. My memory is not really excellent. I just watch a lot of “The Dick Van Dyke Show”.
It’s interesting about Bernard Fox being in 2 Titanic movies.
A nice sampling of fun moments, particularly the top three. Despite appreciating her, I have never embraced the Jamie-Lee Curtis donut scene, as I always thought it clanked. That said, kudos for not including Holmes or Elizondo having their hems stepped upon and ripped.
How funny, I wondered in my reply why he didn’t mention them. The irony about Elizondo’s hem was it was actually 6 inches off the ground.
Thank you. I laughed from start to finish. You got all my favorites.
I’m particularly fond of Columbo’s trip to the soup kitchen with Joyce Van Patton and Vito Scotti in Negative Reaction. The three actors are obviously enjoying each other’s performances. And it plays to one of the central aspects of the Columbo persona: he’s comfortable and sympathetic with down-and-outers, he fits right in, while almost always the criminals he’s pursuing are from wealthy or entitled classes, where he’s a fish out of water. The Van Patton’s nun thinks he’s a homeless person, for heaven’s sake!
All my faves were included, and I too particularly love the whole soup kitchen scene. 😄
It’s a particularly well-tempered comic scene because it highlights Columbo’s humaneness. Columbo treats the wino played by Vito with complete dignity. He doesn’t condescend. He doesn’t judge him. He treats him like any other good faith witness he questions, with humanity.
That’s a tribute to the writers and the actors. It would have been easy to make Vito’s wino the butt of the joke. Instead, we aren’t laughing at him. We’re laughing with him. He’s portrayed as self-aware of his down-and-out condition. When Columbo identifies himself as a police office, Vito rolls his eyes and say, “Shall I consult my barrister?”
Indeed, the laugh is on Columbo. He likes the dish provided by Van Patton’s nun and asks if it’s beef stew. Vito deadpans: “That’s the prevailing theory.” As if to say, even though he’s a skid row bum, he has better taste in cuisine than Columbo.
It’s so well done.
Great point, about the treatment of Scotti’s wino … and of how unfailingly wonderful Scotti was in every role.
The battle of limericks in the Conspirators is fantastic. Peter and Clive go back and forth.
The Dale Kingston champagne Art Show reception scene in Suitable Case for Framing remains my absolute favourite. Not just in Columbo, but possibly any film.
By the way, I recently noticed that the scene in the artist’s studio (with posing model) – is very similar to a scene from the Sinatra/ Tony Rome 1968 film “Lady in Cement”.
Such fun! One of my laugh out loud Columbo moments is in “Last Salute to the Commodore”: the scene on the boat between Falk & Robert Vaughn when Columbo sits RIGHT NEXT to Charlie Clay, almost on top of him. How did he & Vaughn get thru that scene? Specifically Vaughn keeping his irritated expression on point. Was it written that way or 2 friends having a blast working together? Good stuff!
Comedy is subjective. That’s why we’ll see a wide range of comments about what is and isn’t funny in “Columbo”. From Benny Hill to Noel Coward, fart jokes to clever wordplay, the range of cultural humor runs wide and deep. For what it’s worth, here’s my own Guide to Columbo Humor.
First, let’s get “Last Salute to the Commadore” out of the way. Nothing in that is remotely funny, try mightily with a heavy hand as they did. The comic stylings of director Patrick McGoohan – well, Judd Apatow he ain’t. There’s actually a McGoohan “Prisoner” episode that veers a bit toward comedy (“The Girl Who Was Death”) and it’s quite terrible.
The best humor comes from Columbo’s foibles, not faults. IMHO the worst “character trait” that came to be associated with Columbo over the years was his bad driving. Incompetence is not particularly funny, so the opening to “Make Me A Perfect Murder” makes me especially cringe, and Larry Storch’s comic reactions aside, I diverge from CP here in thinking that Columbo at the wheel in “Negative Reaction” is more feeble than funny. You can own a beat-up 1960 Peugeot and still be a good driver.
Columbo as clumsy fool is also off-putting. Stumbling around the Detective Lucerne set, like his bad driving, is simply embarrassing. We can quibble if such behavior is a conscious attempt on Columbo’s part to appear an idiot, but he has so many other ways to convince the villain to underestimate him that mocking is not required. But physical humor can be OK – the “Greenhouse Jungle” mishap, his out-of-shape encounters with Milo Janus – if its done with a light touch. [Aside: this is where the 90s episodes fail miserably. The attempts at comedy in the revival were overlong, ham-fisted, overacted, and have goofy “sad trombone”-type music cues attached to them.]
Columbo’s appearance and quirks, and the reactions of those around him, produce the sharpest observational humor. The homeless shelter is the gold standard here. Columbo himself does nothing remarkably funny, but it’s the Sister of Mercy’s reactions to him – and how she makes assumptions about someone poorly dressed – that elevate the encounter. Lawyer Cunnell’s reaction to Columbo’s curiosity about his shoes, Goldie’s nonchalance contrasted with Columbo’s bashfulness in “Blueprint for Murder”, the oblivious snobbery of Mrs. Chadwick ordering about the lieutenant in “Lady in Waiting”, Vito Scotti’s fitting Columbo for a suit in “Candidate for Crime” – these are excellent comedy scenes because of the behaviors of others, responding to the Columbo that we are already quite familiar with. Even his interactions with Dog play off the (nonplussed) reaction of a partner.
A lot of great comedy comes from the presence of a “straight man”. We may not think of Peter Falk that way, but that’s when I look to “Columbo” to be at its funniest.
Great stuff here, Glenn. But I have a different take on the Larry Storch scene in “Negative Reaction.” It doesn’t portray Columbo as an incompetent driver, in my view. Rather, it underscores the difficulty most experienced drivers would have with the miniscule requirements of a driving road test. Having taught two teenagers how to drive, I can well recall having to emphasize to them little details I never do myself — like signaling when initially pulling away from the curb, and never relying only on your side mirror when checking for oncoming traffic.
Rich, I definitely see your side of that scene in an isolated context, but it’s unfortunately very consistent with how Columbo’s driving is portrayed in too many other episodes, particularly the 90s. Larry Storch is great (shout out to “F Troop”), but it leans into the clownish a bit too much for me.
The back & forth driveway parking scene in “Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health” is pretty funny…
Great list. Not exactly highbrow humor, but I always laugh when Columbo gets too close to an extremely serious Hector Elizondo in A Case of Immunity. Hector is wearing full Arabic garb, including a floor length robe. As he moves away from Columbo, you hear a prolonged ripping noise, meaning the lieutenant was standing on his robe. So funny they did it twice.
The only question is, did Columbo do that on purpose? I’d vote yes. He loves to get under people’s skin.
Wonderful, worthy, witty compilation! Seeing the Commissioner’s face fall when he broke into the rundown digs “belonging” to Columbo was another moment of great hilarity & total redemption!!
Perhaps checking Milton Schaeffeur’s watch which had the correct date but Columbo’s was wrong. When this was pointed out, he said, “What can you expect from a 20 dollar watch!”
thank you Columbophile,
However, I did like the “you should be a critic” (or something like that) in “Forgotten Lady”.
I’m not sure which is more devilish, Jack Cassidy’s wicked smile (Publish or Parrish) when he hears the bomb go off in Eddy Kanye’s garage or his (Murder By The Book) yawn on the pier while people are talking about the lake drowning, or me for loving them all.
Brilliant. I also love the scene with Scotti as funeral director.
Yes, Vito as the funeral directors badgering Lt. Columbo trying to make a sale was gold. Also Vito as the tailor in Candidate for Crime was also superb. The 10 listed here are also really good. One that i found funny was Columbo trying to have another officer take the firing range test for him because “I can’t hit the darn target”.
Yep Number 1 is right. That was hilarious and the way Falk acted it you’d think it was unintentional and improvised lol.