Fortune-tellers are a time-honored device for forwarding narrative throughout the long history of fiction. My grandmother was a fortune-teller. Seriously, she was a palmist and I’m half Romnichal Gypsy. You know that fortune-teller in “The Wolf Man” who pretty much starts Larry Talbot on the road to being the whiniest character in horror movie history? Her reality was only about a generation removed from my grandmother’s reality. But since you could not possibly care any less about my life story, that’s all I have to say on the matter. Instead, let’s take a look at some appearances by fortune-tellers throughout history that set the template for what an iconic fortune-teller on TV should be.
It’s not actually an episode of “The Honeymooners” but rather a segment of “The Honeymooners” on “The Jackie Gleason Show” in which a rather creative little story arc about fortune-telling and human psychology intersect. And that segment is titled “Fortune Teller.” The plot is nothing original per se, but the execution runs so smoothly over the course of about the length of a your standard sitcom episode these days plus the ten minutes cut to make room for more commercials that many big name movie talent could learn a few things. What we have in this extended Honeymooners segment is really nothing less than the kind of psychological terror that lies at the heart of everything from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” to Stephen King’s Bachman novel “Thinner” to the 1940s classic suspense thriller “Gaslight.” Ralph Kramden arrives at a party being held inside his own tiny two-room apartment in which the star attraction is Madame Zelda. He is convinced she’s a fraud until Madame Zelda gives him an ambiguously frightening portent of things to come. Much wiser in the ways of psychological manipulation of human fears than in clairvoyance, Madame Zelda easily manipulates Ralph Kramden into becoming a believer as he proceeds to give in to Zelda’s full psychological hold on him by demanding that the ambiguity of his frightening future be removed. The revelation that he is fated to kill someone only ramps up the humor.
“Lisa’s Wedding” is one of the classic Simpsons episodes of all time as well as one of the frequent episodes that present a possible future timeline for Our Favorite Family. When Lisa goes chasing after that rarest of all horses–one with the head of a rabbit and the body of a rabbit that has escaped from the Renaissance Faire–and stumbles across a Gypsy fortune teller (there was no indication that Madame Zelda was a Gypsy, but it is easily enough to imagine this is true as we look at the pattern developing here) who proceeds to lay out a surprisingly detailed portrait of a future that includes Jim Carrey making a sixth “Ace Ventura” movie and a college love affair for Lisa that ends wisely but not well for her.
I Dream of Jeannie
For some reason Maj. Tony Nelson does not believe that Madame Zolta is a fake. It is inconceivably important for anyone not familiar with “I Dream of Jeannie” to keep in mind that Maj. Nelson has a genie who lives inside a bottle inside his home. Despite that bottled genie, Maj. Nelson is absolutely dedicated to proving to his best friend Maj. Roger Healey that the fortune teller is a fake. A seance is arranged in order for Madame Zolta to prove her veracity at the same time that Maj. Nelson is convinced he will convince his friend of her phony baloney quality when it comes to foretelling the future. “Bigger than a Breadbox and Better than a Genie” is the unlikely title of this episode which is memorable for offering up the idea that a fortune teller would use a seance. Such a premise would by necessity be based upon the concept that the dead can see into the future. Frankly, I think it’s a bit dodgy, but the fortune-telling seance of the type exhibited as a plot device on “I Dream of Jeannie” is one that shows up fairly frequently.
The Andy Griffith Show
In the episode titled “Three Wishes for Opie” even Deputy Barney Fife temporarily becomes a fortune teller. And, hey, guess what? He uses the spirit of a long dead Count to peer into the future. So maybe the premise of “I Dream of Jeannie” is not so dodgy, after all. The purchase of a fortune-telling kit at a police auction is all that is required to allow Barney to contact the spirit of Count Istvan Teleky. Never mind that Teleky has been dead for lo these 200 years. Count Istvan Teleky’s spirit helps Barney to foretell the future through the use of cards that seem endowed with the spirit of predicting events in the almost immediately future. I love the spooky music that accompanies the card reading in the dark held by Barney, Goober and Floyd the Barber.