Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re finally starting our coverage on the best of Laverne & Shirley (1976-1983, ABC), which is currently available in full on DVD.
Laverne & Shirley stars PENNY MARSHALL as Laverne and CINDY WILLIAMS as Shirley. With MICHAEL McKEAN, DAVID LANDER, EDDIE MEKKA, and PHIL FOSTER.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve offered an extensive analysis of the “Garry Marshall style,” which became popular in the mid-’70s because of the three hit sitcoms he produced with Miller-Milkis: Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and Mork & Mindy, the last two of which spun off from the prior. Now, most of this recent analysis looked at what Happy Days, as the foundational text of all three, could tell us about Marshall’s ethos, but the figurative table for Laverne & Shirley was sufficiently dressed as well, for we discussed how this series also reinforces his anti-“modern” sensibility (in opposition to his contemporaries at MTM and Lear-Tandem). I urge you to revisit the big essay (1 and 2) before reading further, but I’ll provide a brief recap: not only is Laverne & Shirley set as a nostalgic ’50s/’60s piece, it also deliberately “throws back” to standards of both realism and comedy that suggest this earlier era, particularly with regard to the characters, who are conceived more rudimentarily — propped up by one-dimensional star personas rather than story-enabling flaws, objectives, and perspectives that could make for well-rounded (and story-pushing) characterizations. This is consistent throughout Marshall’s shows; none of his Big Three truly offer rich characters who are then able to encourage plots that validate the series’ premised identity; more often than not, the leading players are merely maneuvered and showcased in idea-first narratives that alone determine value — unattached to the givens of the “situation” (i.e., said characters). However, while Happy Days‘ core idea-led trapping is nostalgia, which it uses lovingly to evoke a sentiment that corroborates its title, Laverne & Shirley, despite being set in the same era, adopts the attitude that was overtaking Happy Days upon the spin-off’s genesis during that show’s third season (when the twosome first appeared in a November 1975 excursion that’s actually well-written), as it was downplaying its setting within story in deference to a more star-focused utilization of Fonzie. Accordingly, Laverne & Shirley does not boast nostalgia as its comedic engine, for unlike Happy Days, which always maintains an affiliation with its era even when it’s not as well-applied in weekly story, it instead lands on another, more specific, feel-good mechanism that can be evocative of an earlier time, flattering stars who don’t have much definition but are also going to flamboyantly stand in the spotlight: slapstick.
That is, Laverne & Shirley‘s central idea-led trapping is a style of comedy that had fallen out of fashion in the super-serious early ’70s, prioritized as an episodic goal and quickly asserted as the series’ strongest suit — the way scripts affirm the show’s identity. This, again, is Marshall’s modus operandi, for just as Happy Days conjures memories of the supposedly simple ’50s, thereby avoiding a lot of the recent harshness and cynicism in the genre and allowing for less fidelity to both literal or aesthetic realism and elevated standards of character that, frankly, he had never favored, Laverne & Shirley also resurrects broad comedy, often physical, as a vintage ideal that can turn back the medium’s proverbial clock. Unfortunately, this makes for another dreaded low-concept but idea-driven sitcom, as its success is dependent on having the right notions for this particular type of comedy, with leads who are aggrandized as stars, despite lacking the kind of characterizations that would motivate it within plot and render this a better example of a sitcom… And yet, if this isn’t smart — failing to dignify the form artistically, based on its definition — Marshall’s tastes proved a popular alternative to his contemporaries, and this eventually opened the door for fare that could be more character-rooted and realistic, while also comedically freer and sillier too, sometimes with slapstick. As such, Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley are important turning points in ’70s sitcommery — the former existing as the “foundational text” that tonally throws back, and the latter zeroing in on a specific type of humor that justifies doing so regardless of whether nostalgia could be an implicit excuse (as it remains here)… However, none of this is clear yet in Laverne & Shirley‘s first year, for in its initial 15-episode season, as it premiered in January 1976, it doesn’t yet know that big shtick is the best way to venerate its stars (especially Garry Marshall’s sister, Penny) and satisfy its “throwback” intentions. That’s a realization that will be cemented in Two, along with a more robust ensemble (starting with Lenny & Squiggy), which increases the opportunities for laughs (and theoretically, story) by creating a low-concept “hangout” template that, incidentally, I credit this series for helping to progress outside the school (creating a model for how adult singles can form a cast without being coworkers or family).
Here in Season One, the show is closer to 1976 Happy Days, trying to derive humor from the sheer act of “throwing back,” with a push for bigger laughs and the desire to create leads who can be as grand as Fonzie. Now, speaking of the leads, Laverne & Shirley may never have great character work, but, at minimum, we can expect its heroines to be mildly differentiated, for over the course of One and definitely by Two, it becomes clear that Penny Marshall’s Laverne is the wilder, more extraverted pal, and Cindy Williams’ Shirley is the comparatively conservative goody-goody. And, while, yes, this basic delineation is never as evident in story as I’d like — perhaps because of the legendary drama on set, where clashing egos created a revolving door of battered writers and feuding stars — it’s eventually able to give some context to these two and their relationship. That’s why, since Season One doesn’t always have that, it’s not totally competitive, as it’s less sure about Shirley, in particular — following her debut on Happy Days, where she’s no different from Laverne — and actively has to mellow her into more of a “rule-following” contrast. Also, this freshman year is unsure of itself comedically as well, for without the slapstick crescendos that will soon determine whether an episode of Laverne & Shirley is tops, there are flirtations with dramatic earnestness, including stories about romance and class disparity that I sometimes see fans cite in defense of the series’ writing, but I maintain, never really work because of a lack of specificity with the characterizations, who aren’t ever well-defined enough to make such ideas feel unique to them or this show. For these reasons, this is one of the series’ least funny, albeit most aesthetically realistic, years, not yet jeopardizing its leads for the sake of big laughs… because (a) it’s not built much that can be jeopardized, and (b) it doesn’t know yet how to get its biggest laughs. This essentially renders it a Fonzie-less Happy Days that’s aiming for bigger yuks without confidently knowing where to find them, giving it, nevertheless, a stronger debut than the sentimental early days of its progenitor, but on this series’ own terms, no classic identity-proving half hours. Next week, with Season Two, that’ll change, as Laverne & Shirley reveals how it was indeed able to help pivot the genre… But first, I have picked six episodes that I think exemplify this truncated first year’s finest.
01) Episode 1: “The Society Party” (Aired: 01/27/76)
The girls get invited to a fancy party at their boss’ house.
Written by Bob Brunner | Directed by Garry Marshall
As an extension of Happy Days’ aesthetic during its peak season, Laverne & Shirley opens with a lot more narrative swagger and comic concern than its parent did, thanks not only to the immediate application of the multi-camera format and the inherent benefits of having a live audience, but also to the text’s simultaneous downplaying of nostalgia while cultivating superseding star personas (à la Fonzie, who appears here), which don’t quite make for full, well-built characterizations, but at least open up the possibility for the leads’ better usage. Unfortunately, that possibility stays unrealized, for this power vacuum is assumed by a fixation on the easy idea-driven centerpieces required to deliver broad comedy, usually slapstick… meaning the fact that this isn’t yet evident in the premiere (the party is underwhelming), or Season One at large, is a Catch-22, because without the kind of big, truly satisfying set pieces by which we’ll eventually judge Laverne & Shirley, this — and all of One’s entries — can’t really be a great sample of the series… And yet, there’s also a more sincere sense of drama at first — a more faithful command on realism — along with an intentional establishment of a history for the two central characters, who still have ways to go over the course of the season in terms of delineation, but are already more distinct than they were on Happy Days (see: the “vo-dee-oh-doh-doh” exchange). Accordingly, this is a solid premiere that looks better than Happy Days, even though it’s not great by the standards that will be established when the series discovers its actual strengths. (In addition to Henry Winkler as Fonzie, Richard Stahl and Mary Treen guest.)
02) Episode 2: “The Bachelor Party” (Aired: 02/03/76)
Laverne lets Fonzie throw a bachelor party at the Pizza Bowl.
Written by Lowell Ganz & Mark Rothman | Directed by Jerry Paris
The series’ sophomore excursion feels even more like an episode of Happy Days than the previous, courtesy of another appearance by Winkler’s Fonzie and a playfully saucy narrative about a bachelor party, letting the show poke gentle fun at the contrasting conservatism of the ’50s in relation to the ’70s. However, what I really appreciate about this installment — penned by the series’ creators and early producers — are the further attempts at distinguishing Shirley from her pal Laverne, both in story and in personality. Again, the big centerpiece isn’t as big or as funny as this show will soon require, but it’s at a Happy Days level, and it’s not ridiculous, which means it’s formative and affable. Tim Thomerson and Paul Linke guest.
03) Episode 3: “Bowling For Razzberries” (Aired: 02/10/76)
A sick Laverne is determined to beat her snooty rival in a bowling tournament.
Written by Marty Nadler | Directed by Alan Myerson
This fun early outing prioritizes Penny Marshall’s Laverne as the more extreme comic persona of the two leads, creating the most common story template where she’s at the center of some kind of physical centerpiece. In this case, it’s a bowling match that takes all her strength while she’s fighting an illness. As usual this season, it’s not of the comedic caliber of the series’ finest, but it’s a narrative step in the right direction. Also, the use of a rival for Laverne and/or Shirley will set the stage for next year’s Rosie, who represents (with others) the expansion of the ensemble — a positive development that could prove valuable in the generation of plot.
04) Episode 6: “Dog Day Blind Dates” (Aired: 03/09/76)
The girls double date with a pair of bank robbers.
Written by Dale McRaven | Directed by James Burrows
My choice for this abbreviated season’s Most Valuable Episode, “Dog Day Blind Dates,” you may notice immediately, hails from an esteemed pedigree that looks both to the genre’s past and future, with a script credited to Dale McRaven, a former Dick Van Dyke contributor who therefore signals Garry Marshall’s connection to that classic series and what we were able to deduce from it about his idea-led style, along with direction by the great James Burrows, who would soon be on staff at Taxi, where he’ll reconcile the more serious-minded, realistic, and very human qualities of MTM with the bigger, broader, idea-based comedy ushered in by these popular mid-decade Miller-Milkis hits. As a result, I can use this installment as proof for everything we’ve been discussing these last few weeks regarding Marshall’s ethos and how it changed the sitcom… As for the episode itself, it’s easily the year’s funniest, featuring guest appearances by Fred Willard and Guich Koock as a pair of bank robbers who go out with Laverne & Shirley and then hold them, plus Lenny & Squiggy, at gunpoint in the Pizza Bowl. Now, the narrative, obviously, is not driven by the leads — it’s a formulaic sitcom notion that does not stem at all from the particulars of this series’ situation and is instead propelled by the idea alone. However, if it’s not conceptually laudable, it’s an accurate representation of Laverne & Shirley‘s storytelling, so in seeking a legitimate reflection of the series, this is a fair sample. What’s more, this entry comes closest to previewing what we can expect in the weeks ahead, offering some great physical comedy bits, while also allowing the core four to be utilized as a unit for the first time, thereby substantiating both the benefit of an ensemble (even two cartoony, thinly defined twosomes), and the series’ cultivated style of broad slapstick comedy — two elements crucial to its identity. So, there really was no other choice — this is the year’s best outing, most adhering to the show’s sense of self and in a package that echoes our macro understanding of where Marshall’s work sits in the genre. (Note: Bo Kaprall guests.)
05) Episode 11: “Fakeout At The Stakeout” (Aired: 04/13/76)
Laverne goes undercover to catch a thief and snag a cop.
Written by Deborah Leschin & David W. Duclon | Directed by Alan Myerson
Reportedly one of Penny Marshall’s favorites, this Laverne-centric show traffics in a basic idea-driven sitcom cliché that could be done on any series — the stakeout when trying to catch a mugger — but I am heartened that the script gives Laverne a romantic objective (snagging a date with the handsome cop — Bo Kaprall, again) to help motivate its action. As we’ve noted, it’s the kind of circumstantial goal that itself isn’t very personalized or unique, but even in Season One, it’s already clear that the show is probably never going to be able to yield otherwise, so this has to be appreciated merely for being better than the objective-less alternatives, making it even easier to enjoy the brief physical comedy climax and recognize this entry as worthwhile.
06) Episode 12: “Hi Neighbor” (Aired: 04/27/76)
Lenny and Squiggy move into the girls’ building.
Written by Michael McKean & David L. Lander & Harry Shearer | Directed by Alan Myerson
One trend that interests me most about Laverne & Shirley is its development of the “hangout” sitcom for an ensemble of adult characters outside of school, for even with an infantile sensibility both consciously in the depiction of these leads and perhaps unconsciously in the application of story, this design creates an exciting, interesting subcategory that theoretically favors a low-concept construct where characterizations matter a lot. And, okay, Laverne & Shirley never fully seizes these opportunities, but it does benefit from the increased utilization of Laverne & Shirley’s single male counterparts: Lenny & Squiggy, two heightened comic figures who won’t win the series any awards for believability but exist as memorable, iconic sitcom characters for their sheer boldness, capable of elevating any half hour. To wit, “Hi Neighbor,” which the two actors themselves co-penned, is the guys’ best installment here in Season One, moving them into the building and setting the stage for a more cohesive use of the cast next year, the start of the Long Golden Age… (Also, Helen Page Camp appears.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “How Do You Say ‘Are You Dead’ In German?,” which has a few bits of fun physical comedy in the first half of its labored plot, and “Mother Knows Worst,” which guest stars Pat Carroll as Shirley’s mom, who helps flesh out Shirley a bit, but with too many clichés in the writing and some unearned sentiment that, frankly, these characters and this show just can’t support. Meanwhile, I’ll also cite: “A Nun’s Story,” which is a comedic dud with an unideal plot, but smartly uses the flashback device (like Dick Van Dyke) to further develop Laverne and Shirley’s history, “Once Upon A Rumor,” the first Lenny/Squiggy-focused outing of the series (prior to their true integration in the entry highlighted above), and “Dating Slump,” which has an enjoyable centerpiece in a pool hall where the girls escape a fight (and future recurring cast member Carole Ita White).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Laverne & Shirley goes to…
“Dog Day Blind Dates”
Come back next week for Season Two! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!