In table tennis (at least,) there’s a common technique where, when you return a volley, you snap the paddle laterally and introduce spin to the ball, which causes it to bounce erratically when it hits the table on your opponent’s side, hopefully causing them to miss the return. Topspin generally means the bounce will be very low and the ball even accelerates; usually, the only way to be ready for this is to recognize the paddle motion that causes it in the first place, to know how the ball will behave. This is about as sportsy as I get, and I’m sure others out there are bouncing around in their seats to correct me, whereupon I will simply delete their comments.

But all this is so you know what I mean when I say that today is Return with Topspin Day, when we either celebrate the best examples that we’ve seen, or try to produce one of our own. Of course, this can be figurative, referring only to an unexpected return volley for which there is no effective counter – we don’t have to be playing or even watching table tennis.

In that vein, I present a clip from, I dunno, forty-some years ago? From The Carol Burnett Show, a classic of sketch comedy with a fantastic cast, virtually always more entertaining than Saturday Night Live, not that this is a grand accomplishment. It is, however, one of the best moments of television.

A bit of setup. Tim Conway is the guy in the cap, recounting his experiences with elephants; Carol Burnett is the brunette to the right, a southern matriarch; Vicki Lawrence is the white-haired woman further right, Carol’s “mama” despite being the youngest of the cast (mid-twenties at this point, if I recall;) and Dick Van Dyke is at the far end of the couch. Tim, an inveterate ad-libber, had to finish his story before the skit could continue, which is exactly the kind of thing he preyed upon – no one knew what his story was going to be. Watch his impeccable timing.

I’ve heard two different stories regarding this clip. The first is that the director knew they were running long and urged them to keep things moving. The second was that Carol herself was adamant that people not break character or lose composure. We see how well both of these worked out.

I remember seeing this when it first aired (or at least a rerun within a couple of years,) and Vicki’s ultimate line was partially bleeped out, so it was decades before I knew she said, “Are you sure that little asshole’s through?” And as deadly as Tim’s story was, it was Vicki’s riposte that finished the game. I mean, no matter how much spin you put on a table tennis ball, you can only score one point, but Vicki’s return was fatal.

From what I’ve heard, that became a defining moment for this new character, enough so that a spinoff called Mama’s Family resulted a little later on; a short search will show you several clips where Vicki herself, a master of remaining straight-faced, defied her co-stars to remain in character.

Even though I have this clip saved on my harddrive, thanks to Miss Cellania for reminding me of it again.

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