A Deliberate Throwback: A Look at The Garry Marshall Style (II of II)

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday, and the second half of my essay on Garry Marshall’s sitcom style, which we discussed two weeks ago in a piece so long I had to split it! If you haven’t read that entry, I urge you to do so now, for I’m coming into this final section with the assumption that you know why I judge every sitcom based on its use of character, and in the case of Happy Days — the most informative ambassador for Marshall’s ethos (particularly with Miller-Milkis) — why I think we’re dealing with an idea-driven series that boasts ’50s nostalgia as its conceptual hook. And also, why that provides an excuse for a “deliberate throwback” sensibility, where there are less intense standards of realism (both literal and aesthetic), compared to its hit contemporaries (from Norman Lear and MTM), and, consequently, less developed characters — traits we’ve tracked as being hallmarks of Marshall’s writing, mainly via his star-focused variety-esque understanding of how to craft comic leads. So, I want to go from where we ended last time and keep talking more about Happy Days specifically, for after my interpretation of the show from the previous post, there are a couple of assertions that I think need more explaining — one being about how I’ve positioned the series in relation to MTM and Lear’s efforts, and the other about how the show’s character work proves that its idea-driven goals are not well-supported. (Oh, and, for the record, I know both Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley had a lot of other creative forces around throughout their runs too — Bob Brunner, William Bickley, Ganz & Rothman, etc. But for the purposes of this essay, the flow of other writers doesn’t drastically change Happy Days’ weekly identity, as it’s most dependent on both Marshall’s foundation and the big decisions he himself okayed. As a result, all of Happy Days‘ key scribes inevitably exist as satellites of his style, and that’s why this post considers it fair to keep our sights on him.)

First, in positing the show oppositionally to Lear and MTM, there might be an objection to my implication that Happy Days isn’t ever as serious or interested in offering social commentary, for, as proponents would argue, its earliest single-cam years are quieter, more thoughtful, and open to dealing with issues — such as racial prejudice and the Cold War. Second, there might also be confusion as to how Happy Days’ nostalgia is its guiding construct, given that it becomes less present as the seasons progress, such that the final few years feel as much like the early ’80s as the mid ’60s. I raise both of these concerns together because they speak to the same point: my analysis is focused on results — determining what a show does well vs. what it doesn’t. So, while, yes, there are a few topical stories in the first two years (particularly Season One), and absolutely, the nostalgia is strongest early on as well, before it gradually diminishes, I’m framing my depiction of the series here based on my perspective of how this art form finds triumph. That is, I’m looking for Happy Days at its best as a sitcom… and frankly, it’s not at its best as a sitcom during the rare times it engages a socially relevant narrative, because, remember, Garry Marshall does not make a priority of realism (even internally rendered aesthetic realism), so even in these earlier seasons where the text seems more literally realistic against the show’s baseline, Marshall’s application of heavier themes can’t help but affirm his ethos, as any social commentary is crushed by the attitudinal falseness of the characters and their world. Take the first episode, where Richie dates a girl with a reputation for going “all the way.” That seems like a naughty story that allows the show to poke fun at the changing social mores of the ’50s as opposed to the ’70s, presumably with more directness than we would have seen pre-1971. But the script pulls its punches, opting for an idealistic sentimentality that blunts a real sense of conflict, and therefore comic tension, rendering the story not only less-than-funny, but somewhat of a tease — a flirtation with an American Graffiti-esque humanity that we’re then denied. And, needless to say, compared to the bold agitation of All In The Family, or the elemental sincerity of Mary Tyler Moore, it feels dishonest. The rose-colored glasses are too thick.

As for the use of more topical subject matter in story — which some might want to laud because, well, it’s not as totally mindless as the series would eventually become, seeming worthwhile in contrast — all of these efforts are attached, as per Marshall’s idea-led bent, to some narrative gimmick, instead of the show’s tangible givens, from whom we’d hope to find dramatic support for these issues. Let’s look at the first season finale, in which the family considers buying a bomb shelter; this idea engages an era-based premise and feels like a victory on the show’s terms. But Happy Days doesn’t have the kind of characters who can personalize such material — there is no Archie Bunker or Mary Richards, two figures who enable socially relevant stories (or themes) from their definitions, making it so they, and the polemically idea-led All In The Family in particular, can be an excellent example of the sitcom, even with its politics dictating character usage. Unfortunately, Happy Days has no one who can reliably encourage much story of any stripe, since the ensemble is centered around a fairly “typical” family, who are kept as bland and archetypal for, I guess, the supposed sake of relatability, but in actuality, end up without the kind of definition that would give them the gravitas necessary to motivate plot — comedic or dramatic. And thus, Happy Days‘ leads appear too one-dimensional and vague to make even topical era-connected story feel uniquely earned by the series, let alone dramatically potent. And with Marshall’s tone purposely mitigating any real sincerity, I can’t even pretend that these plots make for a better modus operandi, as the show just doesn’t have the “situation” to support them. Oh, now, I know what you’re thinking: what about Fonzie? He’s not bland. Well… you’re right. But he’s an outlier, and easily the most fascinating character of the first few years, principally because he’s NOT bland — he’s the series’ one un-sanitized element, reiterating some of its clichés while simultaneously hinting at ignored truths about the era (just like we see in both Grease and American Graffiti, which also stars Ron Howard).

In fact, it’s easy to understand why Fonzie would eventually find his usage elevated. Beyond just the oft-discussed machinations of Fred Silverman, the famed programming exec who moved from CBS to ABC in 1975 and wanted to combat a show he helped helm, Good Times, by creating for Happy Days another goofy catchphrase-maker with a teen appeal, there’s a creative impetus too: no other figure could be ascended so readily. Like J.J., Fonzie always had the most flavor — the most personality — especially in the most repeated story template of the first few years, in which Ron Howard’s Richie is a good kid who flirts with teenage rebellion (well, generic teenage rebellion, mind you — like going to a bachelor party or stealing the car; nothing really individualized), as he’s caught between his conservative family and his goading friends… most of whom are goofy-yet-tame (like Richie). Only one of his pals, Fonzie, is potentially dangerous. Indeed, contrasting Richie with Fonzie becomes the sole way that Richie himself has a characterization that can be maximized for humor, as Henry Winkler’s Fonz is the only persona scripts can put him up against to display any obvious difference — the trace of a comic perspective (through juxtaposition). Thus, the more he’s paired with Fonzie, the better it is for the show’s initial Richie-centric design, and for both characters. That’s another reason why, when I see praise for the early years on the grounds that Richie’s centricity is inherently more desirable in story, I cringe, because even though Richie is featured better early in the run and this seems to be the show’s dramatic preference, he needs Fonzie to be more prominent if he too is going to exist as an actual comedic presence — not totally deferential to lame, conventional narratives, like in these first two Fonzie-lite years. That’s right; Richie benefits when the Fonz moves in and becomes a proxy member of the family, as this allows for more personality-revealing comic interplay. (We saw the same thing when Hyde moved into the Forman house in That ’70s Show. I discussed the connection between these two nostalgic sitcoms here.)

That said, I’m with the many critics who find Fonzie’s encroachment troubling. Balance is needed, for while this show improves when it gets more Fonzie, that’s Fonzie for the sake of Richie — for the sake of his character and others’, NOT for the sake of Fonzie and Silverman’s Nielsen battle against CBS’ Good Times, where, as we’ve seen, there was no real way to reconcile J.J. against his show’s other narrative intentions. Accordingly, there’s a sweet spot during the first two-thirds of Season Three (1975-’76), where the series has upped its commitment to comedy by switching to the multi-cam live audience format (which, as you know, I prefer because it forces a sitcom to acknowledge the art form’s demand for laugh-out-loud material), and moved Fonzie into the Cunningham garage, so he can be more prominent. This is the best era of Happy Days — the fertile ground from which Laverne & Shirley sprung — but it’s brief, for by the end of the year, the “Cult of Fonzie” has already begun, and stories can’t help but show it. The “Cult of Fonzie” is what I call Silverman’s ordained creation of a Marshall-esque star persona, who quickly overtakes the cast and ensures that, if nobody was well-defined before, they’re going to get even less attention now, for everyone is subordinate to Fonzie (including Richie). And when nobody matters like Fonzie, then not even Fonzie matters, because he needs strong fixed situational elements (like Richie) in order to be maximized himself. Without commensurate help, he sadly remains one-dimensional, and regardless of how often the show tries to foist some melodramatic plot on him (e.g., “Fonzie cries when Richie almost dies”), it’s story without support from the situation, for his character isn’t emotionally authentic enough — nor is anyone’s — to make such drama feel motivated and not externally forced. (The same goes for the preachy After School Special stuff that develops around 1976-’77, the show’s fourth season and only one at #1, when Fonzie has apparently become such a role model that the show uses him to make moral pronouncements, à la Jim Anderson — Six’s “Smokin’ Ain’t Cool” is a memorable example.) And because everyone falls back, Fonzie grows to overtake more than the rest of the cast: he overtakes the show, and that includes another situational given — the era.

That is, just as I don’t think we can credit Happy Days for being more serious early on, because it doesn’t do that well, we also have to recognize that when the show does lose its command on nostalgia, it’s also not doing itself any favors, for that was the one element of its premise that suggested story, and with perennially stilted characters, missing that nostalgia as a motivator of ideas ends up turning Happy Days into the dreaded beast we discussed last time: a low-concept sitcom that should be driven by character, but remains idea-driven because, well, true to Marshall’s form, he hasn’t built a foundation where the situational elements can override the need for anything high-concept. Instead, he’s focusing on one single comic persona to the extent that everything else remains underdeveloped. In this regard, increasing Fonzie beyond Richie — beyond the show and everything in it — does accelerate the loss of nostalgia in weekly plot, sparking the show’s devolution into even more episodically idea-driven fare, unattached to both this important element of the setting (part of the situational givens), and to character, because no one’s well-defined — even Fonzie, whose personality is watered down the more he becomes a cartoonish teenage idol, losing all dereliction and potentially implied commentary that actually could tie his characterization directly to the era (its premise). Unsurprisingly, Happy Days becomes a lot like The Odd Couple, where the leads are put in easy constructs — with little originality in both generation and execution, and minimal citation of character or even the idea-driven nostalgia that Fonzie now only insinuates, but hardly in story that reinforces it. And, again, this lack of support in story by the “situation” is the basic reason why I don’t think Happy Days is a great sitcom. Of course, I don’t blame Fonzie alone for the minimization of nostalgia — yes, it worsens as he assumes a cult like presence on the show, but the novelty of all idea-led notions will wane as they shed their ability to excite and incite story, especially without leads who can prolong the descent and supply worthwhile material of their own making. In essence, it’s a design flaw of which Fonzie is more a symptom than a cause…

…And when we look at both this show’s occasional forays into topicality during its earliest seasons — and, even, to be generous, it’s more dramatic, quiet tone — along with its dwindling use of nostalgia in plot, we see that it comes up short in both cases because it lacks strong characterizations. And this is Happy Days’ great irony: in the early years where the premise’s nostalgia is best embodied in story, the character work is so limited, and the laughs are so light, that it’s hard to recommend. But then, when the idea-led construct falls away, that vacuum is filled by Marshall’s dominating star-led perception of character, which increases the laughs, but invites a regressive form of sitcommery that bodes even less well for the other situational givens in plot. This leaves only that brief period in Season Three to claim an acceptable calibration — an incredibly short window for a show that ran ten-and-a-half years! Speaking of which, I don’t have much to say about the rest of the run — as you might expect, losing Richie further unmoors the series from its tangible givens (its situation), as the years become a revolving door of unmemorable faces, but this descent had started long before with the “Cult of Fonzie,” a phenomenon that existed largely because the character work was always so incapable of carrying the series in the first place. As a result, Happy Days is difficult to endure for most of its tenure… And yet, I also think it’s the most classic of the big three Miller-Milkis hits, with the most “iconic” episodes to brag about in a study — the highest highs. And I’m tempted to credit this to this series’ low-concept simplicity, which provides more freedom to narratively explore. However, in not having its stories well-attached to its people, places, and things — and eventually, not even the nostalgia of the premise — said simplicity is never an advantage. So, I go back to thinking about what it offers that makes it special, and I land on two elements: its idea (nostalgia) and its star (Fonzie) — Marshall’s guideposts… As we said, Fonzie is special because he’s a unique, memorable figure — not as dimensional or rooted to story as Archie Bunker, but an icon of the ’70s because of his larger-than-life persona. In fact, his presence defines the show for the bulk of its run, spelling commercial success, if not creative merit.

The nostalgia is just as special. As we noted, it isn’t why this show’s idea-driven, but it was an excuse for it to audiences in 1974 who wanted diversions from Lear/MTM. Marshall recognized this desire for more feel-good fare, if not to replace the other stuff, then to supplement it, and indeed, wrapping his show in nostalgia was the perfect way to deliver the kind of material he favored, while also satisfying the viewers. The setting was just a necessary selling point… even though, truthfully, I think it remains helpful throughout the run too — even after the era is no longer fruitful for episodic story — because the implied innocence of an earlier time acts as an unspoken reason as to why it won’t ever be like those other “modern” shows. Additionally, its thick rose-colored glasses are also intentional; Happy Days is not like Grease or American Graffiti, which both traffic in nostalgia but challenge our idealism about the late ’50s/early ’60s, in the same way that MTM and Lear’s efforts once disrupted the status quo. It may seem strange today, as Grease has become excessively cartoonish, but the initial iterations of that property balanced a post-Vietnam “aw, shucks” perception of poodle skirt naiveté with a crudeness that sought to link the two periods, as if saying, “the teens of the ’50s were just as horny and crass as the teens of today.” The central joke of Grease, then, was the contrast between what we think about the ’50s and what the ’50s was actually like, as the musical plays with both in its idea-driven, sketch-like premise. However, Happy Days is not interested in making the same kind of thesis. Even in its first few years — where there are standalone stories about the Cold War and race relations from which one could try to derive social criticism — the ’50s is depicted as a happier, gentler, more romantic time. And that’s reflected in the single-cam seasons’ humor, which is intentionally not bold — almost akin to a middling ’60s warmedy. Naturally, once the audience is added, the need for big laughs increases, so there’s a HUGE rise in rambunctiousness — along with the aforementioned elevation of Fonzie. But his initial sense of danger quickly subsides until he might as well be a lamb in a leather jacket, and never do we lose the rose-colored understanding that this show is called Happy Days because its scripters believe they are.

There’s little irony or satire in this attitude — very little comic tension undergirding the idea-driven use of nostalgia. This is curious, because nowadays, we expect comic period pieces to employ some level of parody, like Grease. And yet, outside of a few isolated plots (the bomb shelter, for one), Happy Days avoids using nostalgia to “dunk” on the past. It’s far more kind to its setting, and while said setting drives story and comedy at first, it always comes innocently, with the tongue not fully in the show’s proverbial cheek — at least, not like previously cited period pieces (such as Grease, or even That ’70s Show, which enjoys mocking its era). Ultimately, then, Happy Days is not challenging the idealistic representation of the ’50s from previous forms of media. It opts rather to uphold the false perception of the era that we could get from that era — from, say, optimistic, happy family shows like Father Knows Best or Leave It To Beaver (or, heck, even the early ’60s’ Andy Griffith, which is already evoked subliminally via Ron Howard). Oh, okay, they’re not exactly the same — the humor is certainly more of a paramount emphasis here, particularly from Season Three onwards, and the family component of the series is complemented and thus downplayed by the friends’ “hanging out” structure (evident only in a few prior teen comedies, like, for instance, Dobie Gillis), which carries equal weight and provides a whole different subcategory of clichéd stories for the show to indulge. Also, Happy Days’ scripts do make occasional era-specific references for easy jokes — that’s all it can do in later years when there are fewer era-specific stories. But the perspective about the world — the accompanying feel-good sensibility — is exactly the same, with little dramatic nuance or knowingness complicating that sentiment. Accordingly, when I say that nostalgia is the idea-driven purpose of Happy Days, that’s more precisely, the premised indication of what I think the show’s endeavor, beyond laughter, really is: to make us feel warm and safe, like those shows of the ’50s. And the more nostalgia there is in story, the better, for the more likely it is that this goal will be achieved. Thus, with the structure suggesting the series as something of a ’60s “warmedy,” it’s no surprise that any genre-validating laughs have to come outside of the situation.

The problem — and I’ll keep coming back to it — is that the characters suffer as a result of this dynamic, as Marshall is not able to sacrifice the literal realism exemplified in his “modern” contemporaries and replace it with an aesthetic truth that can aid the situational givens in plot. We talked about this last time, when we noted that this was indicative of his style, deciding that we couldn’t hang all of these issues on the nostalgia itself. His other works prove why. For instance, Mork & Mindy is set in the present day, but it shares these qualities. (It just uses its high-concept supernaturalism as an idea-led cover for the lackluster character work.) Also, Laverne & Shirley operates similarly… and, while, sure, it’s also nostalgic (set in the late ’50s through the mid ’60s), it’s seldom as narratively explicit about it as Happy Days. That is, Laverne & Shirley — which I’ll set up here and then go more into next week during its own coverage — starts where Happy Days is in Season Three, when it’s becoming a rowdier, goofier star vehicle, and that movement already matters more than the initial conceptual hook of the setting. So, although the nostalgia may be implicitly functioning as a justification for its realism-undermining, anti-“modern” silliness, it’s not as crucial to the spin-off’s identity, for scripts aren’t using it as much within story to validate a Happy Days title and make the audience feel the same. No, instead it’s fixating on its star personas and what they are able to do best to make us laugh: huge, broad comedy, and, specifically, slapstick. As we’ll see, a top-shelf episode of Laverne & Shirley is simple — it’s one that displays the stars well by affording them a big centerpiece, often physical, to earn big yuks. It’s feel-good like Happy Days, but that feeling is more directly predicated on a type of humor than anything actually premised. In this regard, it’s funnier, but just as fundamentally idea-driven — the success of the show is reliant on having certain comedic notions — and even less situationally supported. Accordingly, despite Laverne & Shirley often being compared to Lucy & Ethel, who are frequently cited as an influence, a better frame of reference is the later version of this pair: Lucy & Viv.

I’ve written a lot about this recently (see here), but, briefly, you may think I Love Lucy is led by the physical shtick its writers took pains to conceive. Yet the series is intensely character-driven, for it believes its physical shtick has to be earned by Lucy, or it can’t exist. Therefore, giving Lucy Ricardo a clear objective from which other episodic goals could then be extrapolated was genius, because if the purpose of I Love Lucy was to showcase Ball’s comic persona (developed on radio), then providing her with a “want” — something to pursue in plot — not only pushed her into a more dimensional character, it also linked her character precisely to story (the series’ projection of identity), so she could deliver the big idea-led shtick satisfying the genre’s comic demands, in turn vindicating both the series and Lucy as a model sitcom and sitcom-maker. Unfortunately, the same praise can’t be heaped upon Lucy Carmichael of The Lucy Show, for she’s without an objective, and unlike The Dick Van Dyke Show, which provides its leads with no sustaining macro-objectives but instead delivers more relatable, episodic goals, The Lucy Show is not as detail-oriented or emotionally realistic enough to grant Lucy the same story-inspiring characterization. Thus, while Dick Van Dyke is a lower concept simplification of the character strides of I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show is an idea-driven dilution of them, as her shapeless “Lucy is a menace” persona — which had existed since radio — allows for some comic plot, but it becomes too loose, less tied to specifics, and gradually moves her away from other personified tangibles — people, places, and things — effectively taking away her situational support. Now, as we saw, Garry Marshall wrote for The Lucy Show, so his understanding of Lucy’s comedy naturally resides closer to Carmichael than Ricardo, and Laverne & Shirley is Exhibit A: these ladies also have basic comic personas… but no overarching objective and/or the detail-oriented emotional continuity that could let them push individual story. Ah, you might try pointing to a class-based yearning, or some vague romantic pursuit (common for people their age), but — like Lucy Carmichael’s need for cash — those avoid personalization. They’re generic story constructs that don’t require characters; just, if big shtick is involved (and it is), stars.

As such, with nostalgia growing even less explicit in story — as the slapstick assumes a more important focus, bumping character and becoming the determinant of episodic success — like the diluted The Lucy Show, all that matters on Laverne & Shirley is that their easily understood personas are venerated with bits that showcase them well. Oh, over the course of our coverage, we will try to find what we can by way of character — and, in fact, the show does self-consciously try to counteract criticism about its silliness by giving them emotional moments. They just seldom land because, I reiterate: sitcoms can’t do with story what they lack in situation — if this show and these leads aren’t built for such moments, they’ll feel false…. But we’ll talk more about its trajectory in the weeks ahead. As is obvious, I think the show does do star-centered broad comedy best, and that’s going to inform our study, for it’s what the company appears to decide in Season Two is its prime asset, and therefore the key to its supreme existence… just like Happy Days’ supreme existence involves using nostalgia to evoke the feel goodness of Marshall’s pre-’70s innocence. Unfortunately, there’s not enough character support on either — in the beginning of Happy Days, the depictions of its leads are gentle and clichéd, and they’re not contrasted well enough to actually bring laughs or lead the projection of the series’ identity in story. They merely exist within predetermined plots. Then Fonzie overtakes the show, sidelining all the characters, and the nostalgia, so that by the time Richie leaves, Happy Days has lost all pretenses of caring about a “situation,” throwing a bunch of new cast members at the figurative wall, hoping some will stick, while none of them ever can, because, sadly, no one has sturdy definition. (That includes Howard and Marion, who are delightful only because of their performers, and Joanie and Chachi, who give rise to an ignominious spin-off.) To that point, Richie’s leave does do a number on the show… making it more idea-led, less specific to its givens. However, the “Cult of Fonzie” was just as detrimental, and even before that, there wasn’t much of a foundation that could have kept the series from this unideal course. Happy Days only ever has two things: Fonzie and/or nostalgia — its star and its idea. True to Garry Marshall.

As for Laverne & Shirley, its conceptual engine runs on finding the slapstick centerpieces that best honor the star performers, validating Marshall’s priorities in the same way that Happy Days does, but with the “deliberate throwback” idea not resting so much within the setting’s premised nostalgia, but more so on its sanctioned resurrection of broad, physical comedy — a style of humor that had fallen out of fashion amidst the early ’70s’ “modernity” and elevated notions of literal realism. Laverne & Shirley, as with Happy Days, gave its creative producer another chance to steer the genre’s values back to where they were at a time when he felt more comfortable — when he did his best work. This accelerated the trend away from the “modern” and more high-brow efforts of MTM and Lear — which lost steam as a result — and to these more familiar, nostalgic, and “just plain fun” reminders of happier days. What’s more, Laverne & Shirley, even more than the series off from with it spun, has a legitimate claim of making the “hangout” sitcom its own subcategory, a viable format for adult characters too (instead of merely high school teens), while also re-popularizing slapstick — performed so artfully by Cindy Williams and, most especially, Penny Marshall — as a draw that ABC could quickly funnel into several of its other late ’70s efforts (like Three’s Company). Thus, if Happy Days is the foundational text that best reveals Marshall’s tenets, then Laverne & Shirley is the series that officially turns them into a trend — the reaction, as we discussed last week, to MTM and Lear. So, they’re both valuable additions to our study of the genre, and now that I’ve gotten all my preliminary thoughts out of the way, we can start seasonal coverage of Laverne & Shirley… next week. In the meantime, I’m sharing a no-frills list of favorite episodes for Happy Days — the entries I’d most likely single out in a weekly analysis. I hope these lists, along with this two-part essay, will help give you a solid idea of where I stand on Marshall’s work — you’ll need it for our look at Laverne & Shirley



Come back next week for Laverne & Shirley! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!