How 'When Harry Met Sally' Influenced the Modern Sitcom

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One of the most memorable sex scenes in movie history took place 25 years ago in a crowded New York City deli, with the participants fully clothed, sitting, and faking it like crazy, even by the standards of movie make-believe. Demonstrating impressive technique, Sally, a self-possessed single woman played by Meg Ryan in 1989’s culture-defining romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally, enacted a lusty – and utterly bogus — orgasm for her less-than-self-aware divorced pal, Harry, played by Billy Crystal. The Venus-to-Mars information she delivered — that men are not necessarily the satisfaction-guaranteed lovers the moans made by their lady bedmates suggest they are — was revelatory to Harry. No doubt it was also a relief for Sally to enlighten the guy, a man friend dedicated to the proposition that men and women can’t be Just Friends. Not without a sexual agenda.

A quarter of a century later, a movie lover can still get turned on just talking about that scene, and the naked truth transmitted about what men and women still don’t know about one another. Can women and men be Just Friends? What does Just Friends mean, anyway? What weight, for that matter, does sexual activity carry? That question has only become more inscrutable as younger, more sexually fluid generations join the conversation. Popular culture, romance advice columns, you and me and everyone we know have been discussing these conundrums ever since. But while the answers keep changing, When Harry Met Sally remains fresh.

“I’ll have what she’s having,” is the scene’s famous verbal punchline, delivered with unique oomph by bit actor Estelle Reiner, mother of the movie’s director, Rob Reiner. And with that zinger, Reiner and screenwriter Nora Ephron — on fire with the most astute script of her filmmaking career — hit three, maybe four targets at once: 1) Women DO want, for real, what Sally appeared to be having for show. 2) Women DO sometimes fake orgasm (among other states of being) for a complicated variety of reasons. Sally is right! 3) Heterosexual men DO sometimes (often?) lead with their gonads when interacting with women. Harry is right! 4) This gender dance is pretty hilarious when you come right down to it, don’t you think?

Of course, at heart, heterosexual romantic comedy has forever been built on the delightful, ridiculous, confounding foibles and impossibilities of communication between men and women. In ancient myths, in the Bible, in Shakespeare’s plays, in silent movies, in screwball comedies — name your era — the cha-cha between the sexes can be pretty funny. (At least it’s funny to watch, although maybe not so much if you’re the one in the middle of a furious, you-just-don’t-understand! squabble.) But When Harry Met Sally did nothing less than kick the conversation into a present from which there is no going back for any romcom prepared to approach honesty. Ephron coolly, brilliantly identified and named what previously had no definition: the high-maintenance woman; the salad-dressing-on-the-side woman; the “worst nightmare” female competition in the eyes of a fellow female (i.e., pretty, thin, big boobs); the male urge to leave a woman’s bed after sex and go home to his own place; the countless minuscule differences between adult boys and adult girls.  

Indeed, When Harry Met Sally was so influential that it completely changed…television.

Not movies. Because one fascinating, endearing, frustrating, inconveniently true thing about the difference between movies and television — or maybe I should say between feature-length rom coms and TV-length sitcoms in which romance plays a part — is that whether old-fashioned or edgy, Sundance-y or Drew Barrymore-ish, the big-screen romantic comedy seeks out a happy ending the way a green plant leans towards sunlight. Do audiences expect and desire it? Or do romcom-makers just assume that audiences want it? We can table the chicken-and-edge conversation, but there’s no escaping the evidence. (Here, by the way, is an obligatory, ridiculous SPOILER ALERT on a 25-year-old movie.) At the end of When Harry Met Sally, the adult boy realizes, duh, that he does love and desire (and did I mention, want to marry?) the adult girl who was there in front of him all along. And in a speech that has always sounded to me as if Nora Ephron gritted her teeth as she typed it, Harry lists for Sally all the reasons for that love. Yes, even including the fact that she fusses around with her salad dressing. 

This kind of Cute isn’t needed for a TV, cable, or Internet series to hook an audience. On the contrary, happily-ever-after feels square and dated on the small screen. So while even rom-coms as edgy as Juno or the impressively frank and raunchy current abortion rom-com Obvious Child offer Happy Romantic Endings as party favors, the nuanced, mutable, funny, sometimes sexual, sometimes not, sometimes up, sometimes down state of friendships between men and women thrived on Seinfeld. On 30 Rock. On The Mindy Project, The Big Bang Theory, The Office, Community, and Parks and Recreation, among so many other bright projects. In hour-long dramas, too — doctor shows, cop shows, The Good Wife — the dynamics between men and women as friends, lovers, haters, competitors, or couples married or divorced are propelled by a modern energy first generated by the 25-year-old spark of When Harry Met Sally. These shows all want what Sally had, before Harry got mushy.

And their female protagonists all want a little piece of Sally’s DNA, too — the kind of rom-com woman invented, embodied, and, for a while, copyrighted by Meg Ryan, in her breakout movie role. Playing Sally Albright, Ryan created a young woman who was radiant, sunny, and fallible. She had gumption, dirty thoughts, smart observations, and a rewarding career. Ryan, for her part, had impeccable comic timing. She could project vulnerability, but she was no wimp; she had a beaming smile and could rustle up a dynamite phony Big O. She could twinkle, but she was no pixie sprite. 

With the movie a grand success, Ryan continued to do variations on her Sally in a string of romantic comedies that relied on the actor’s bouncy blond ringlets as well as that sunny smile, that evocation of tough pluck and soft cheer. The persona defined the star — until Ryan herself, aging into her 40s and beyond, was itchy to break free from all that youthful pluck beginning to feel stuck.

Meanwhile, the spiritual sitcom sisters of Ryan’s Sally — deft talents like Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus — have learned from Ryan’s (and Sally’s) successes and stumbles. Both the stars and the characters they play have no desire to wrap stories up with neat endings, or to keep playing the kind of female characters they have played before. Until the clock struck New Year’s Eve at the end and the couple became kissing chess pieces rather than interesting, obstreperous characters, both Harry and Sally roamed their terrific movie with a freedom to make mistakes and the honesty (in Ephron’s superb screenplay) to admit to inconsistent desires that we knew from real life but hadn’t seen before on screen.

Now we look to the small screen to see ourselves reflected back in ways that make us laugh because we all know that all of life, romantic and otherwise, is a combination faking it and making it, just like Sally did.

By the way, isn’t Meg Ryan developing a TV sitcom?

Related: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About When Harry Met Sally…

Photo: Everett Collection