Brooklyn's broken out in fights
There's a traffic jam in Harlem
That's backed up to Jackson Heights
There's a scout troop short a child
Khrushchev's due at Idlewild
Car 54, where are you?"
NYPD Officer Gunther Toody (Joe E. Ross) is a short, stocky, dim-witted, married cop who is assigned to Patrol Car 54 in the (fictional) 53rd precinct in the Bronx with the taller, thinner, smarter, unmarried Officer Francis Muldoon (Fred Gwynne). Episodes revolve around the comedic tension generated by Toody and Muldoon's opposite personalities, their unsuccessful attempts to "get tough" and carry out their police duties despite both being too warm-hearted to have the steel nerves they think they require, and Toody's lack of intelligence but abundance of enthusiasm and/or stubbornness proving either an asset or a liability depending on the situation.
"Trope 54, where are you?":
- Artistic License Religion: On the Bar Mitzvah episode, the kid "translated" any Hebrew prayers he said as "Today, I become a man." There is no prayer that translates to that.
- Big Applesauce: A comedy about urban patrol car policemen? New York is a natural setting for such a series.
- Catchphrase: Gunther Toody regularly says "Ooh! Ooh!" when he is excited or has just had an idea.
- Toody, who could go on and on about nonsense while Muldoon casually tuned him out. This became most apparent when a new recruit was added who Muldoon could actually talk to about intellectual/cultural subjects. Unfortunately, it backfires as Muldoon gets exhausted and demands to be put back with Toody, saying "Yes, but Toody talked nonsense."
- Recurring character Mrs. Bronson doesn't think there is anything odd about the fact that the apartment she has just moved into is on the fourteenth floor of a building that is still under construction and doesn't even have external walls or utilities yet. She later sets up a matchmaking agency and claims to be setting up her clients with Hollywood film stars, interpreting the letters that come back from said stars telling her to stop contacting them as an indication that they are playing hard to get. Her cloudcuckoolander nature is also infectious; she is so charming and sincere in believing her skewed worldview that within minutes of meeting her, even the most reasonable characters suddenly find themselves seeing the world her way (Muldoon starts believing that she can set him up with Kim Novak, while Captain Block starts believing that she can set him up with Ava Gardner).
- The Convenient Store Next Door: One episode is based around an eatery next to a bank. A single scene at the end of the episode replays the entire plot with the buildings' next owners, who are posing as stamp dealers.
- Couch Gag: Each opening credit sequence had Toody and Muldoon doing different things as they drive in the squad car such as: dropping an ice cream cone, playing checkers, Gunther opening his lunch box and finding everything BUT his lunch, Gunther dangling a rubber spider in front of Muldoon as he drives, revealing themselves to be handcuffed to each other, and so on.
- Crossover: An episode of the animated sitcom Wait Till Your Father Gets Home featured characters from Car 54, although only Joe E. Ross provided his own voice.
- Driving a Desk: Many of the scenes of Car 54 on the road are obviously shot via rear projection, with whichever of Toody or Muldoon is at the wheel turning it back and forth even when they are driving in a straight line.
- Fat and Skinny: As part of their odd couple dynamic, Toody is short and stocky while Muldoon is tall and skinny.
- The Film of the Series: Filmed in 1990 but not released until 1994, the film basically tried to turn Car 54 into a Police Academy type movie. Original cast members Al Lewis and Nipsey Russell appeared as their original characters.
- Glorious Mother Russia: In "Toody and Muldoon Meet the Russians", the duo are assigned guard detail for a group of visiting Soviet dignitaries, who decide that the overworked, underpaid NYPD officers are the perfect place to start fomenting Communist revolution in the United States. However, Commissar Malonov is converted into a capitalist New York Yankees fan by the oblivious Toody, while Muldoon persuades the female General Raskolnikovnote to get a makeover so as not to stand out in the eastern European districts she wants to visit in New York, and she likes the results so much that she ends up getting drunk and performing a burlesque act at a formal reception.
- The Inspector Is Coming: In "Toody and Muldoon Crack Down", a chief inspector tours the 53rd precinct and finds that Toody and Muldoon are letting over a hundred minor violations (obstructed fire escapes and sidewalks, unauthorised loudspeakers, etc.) go unpunished in their sector. However, his outrage dissipates when he discovers that overlooking minor violations is part of how Toody and Muldoon have ensured that no major crimes have taken place in their sector in the nine years they've been patrolling it, and that the duo are universally beloved by the local residents and business owners as friendly, helpful, and reliable.
- Momma's Boy: The unmarried Muldoon lives with his widowed mother and two younger sisters. His mother still calls him her "big baby boy", although she also repeatedly tells him he should meet a nice girl and get married.
- Sanity Slippage: In "Boom Boom Boom", comedian and TV presenter Jan Murray, appearing as himself, is a celebrity judge for a barbershop quartet competition. However, the rules of the competition require that all 162 quartets perform the same arrangement of "By the Light of the Silvery Moon". Murray is gradually driven insane by the endless "Boom, boom, boom" accompanying figure in the song, so that by the time the 53rd Precinct Whippoorwills (Muldoon, Toody, Schnauser, and Nelson) take the stage and begin singing, he screams and flees the room. He seems fine after a few days, but when the Whippoorwills rehearse in the room next to his rehearsal room, and then again on the street below his psychiatrist's office window, Murray begins uncontrollably repeating "boom boom boom" and eventually has to be taken away in a strait jacket.
- Smart Cop, Dumb Cop: Muldoon is a relatively intelligent officer, while his partner Toody is a Cloudcuckoolander.
- Spiritual Successor: Barney Miller from the 70s, with detectives instead of patrol cops. And like that show, Car 54 was often suggested by actual Police Officers to be the most realistic police show on television at the time.note
- Spotting the Thread: The plot of the episode "Here We Go Again" is started off with this. An old criminal discovers from one of the main characters that the only thing they had done wrong on a heist they pulled many years ago and served jail time for was that they had disguised as police wearing winter uniforms instead of summer uniforms. This set off a funny episode as the criminals pull together their now-aged gang to pull off the heist correctly this time. They pull it off, but are all too weak to pick up the gold bars. They then escape the bank wearing the correct summer police uniforms... from the 1920's, not the Present Day (at the time the episode aired) 1960's uniforms.
- Whole Plot Reference: The episode "What Happened to Thursday?" revolved around Toody and Muldoon trying to stop the Schnausers' weekly fight, which always happened on a Thursday. So, they do everything they can to convince her that it is Friday, leading her to accuse them of trying to "Gaslight" her.