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…