Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday (on a Wednesday)! This week, we’re continuing 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 L. LANDER, EDDIE MEKKA, BETTY GARRETT, and PHIL FOSTER.
Laverne & Shirley’s third season was the first of two consecutive years as the country’s most-watched show, a point of trivia that reveals just how popular Two’s fixation on easy-going slapstick had made the series, serving as a correctional tonic to the ’70s’ earlier, more serious efforts. Given this quick success, it’s no surprise that Three is largely a continuation of Two, only now the ensemble has shed Carole Ita White’s Rosie, who initially portended great story possibilities, only for them to never actually materialize (meaning she’s not as missed as you’d think), and the novelty of knowingness has lost some of its shine — not significantly or unsurprisingly, because this happens to every sitcom, particularly idea-driven ones that are reliant on the freshness of their episodic notions to spark a needed type of comedy, but enough for the fun of last year’s self-discovery to evolve into the fun of simply understanding the series and what it does best, evidenced by the fact that almost every installment here makes time for a big physical centerpiece where the leading ladies shine. (Indeed, the Lucy parallels this season are as strong as ever — we’ll point them out below!) Three is therefore the most reliable for the show’s ability to regularly offer what we want from Laverne & Shirley — specifically, the aforementioned broad, mostly physical comedy, which is now increasingly surrounded by occasionally sappy, but at this point, anticipated and identity-informing “heart,” sentiment that hopes to give a sweetness to the silliness and provide an elemental continuity to the central relationship that’s not imparted by the characterizations alone, for they remain, as before, relatively vague, unrealistic, and not utilized well within story. To wit, while most episodes clear space for a nice moment that reinforces Laverne and Shirley’s friendship as the series’ emotional core, which is thus narratively helpful as a dramatic center, they still can’t handle heavier, human stories that ask for a lot of emotional support, because this relationship, like their characters, is more of a generic construct than an individually and consistently crafted dynamic — meaning, when it, or they, are tasked with supplying dramatic heft as opposed to comedic froth, they usually fall short, for the series hasn’t built them well enough to do this, and definitely not in plot.
In other words, these characters — all of them, not only the two heroines — can handle a moment of sentiment, just as they can certainly handle, and actually thrive, on a moment of comedy, but when they’re asked to motivate it within plot, something that requires more stamina, there are problems. Take, for instance, two of this year’s more serious segments, “Laverne’s Arranged Marriage” and “The Slow Child” — one predicates itself on Laverne’s relationship with her dad, while the other is more issue-driven (in the Norman Lear vein), but they both nevertheless aim for the same dramatic sincerity that the series doesn’t have in reserve, because its situational givens (characters) can’t muster it. Accordingly, both entries feel forced and unearned, ultimately offering little to justify having gone against the series’ tonal baseline and forsaking the broad comedy to which the show has already committed as its strongest suit — the requirement for a fulfilling episode. Fortunately, there are only a few like this in Three — which, again, is otherwise the series’ most reliable — but it speaks, I think, to a self-conscious crusade to counteract mounting criticism about the show’s lack of substance, and we’ll continue to see more of this in the years ahead, with results that are both better and worse… That said, the fact that this trend already exists here in Three — more so than in Two, whose drama was even rarer — makes me hesitant to officially praise this season as the peak of the Long Golden Age, or a big improvement over its more novel predecessor, which has less of the show’s obvious shortcomings impeding its fun, even though there are clearly higher highs here. That is, Three has many of the run’s best physical comedy moments — which define whether or not a half-hour sample of Laverne & Shirley is tops — and I don’t have to merely highlight outings just for satisfying these basic terms. Instead, I can be choosier, looking beyond whether a funny idea yields slapstick to how/if it mitigates the series’ other dramatic handicaps, like a lack of narrative logic or especially contrived behavioral turns. I can be selective for once, in a way that I can’t be later. As a result, Three stands as one of the series’ best years — if not THE best — and, as usual, here are my picks for this season’s finest.
01) Episode 40: “Tag Team Wrestling” (Aired: 09/27/77)
Laverne and Shirley get involved in tag team wrestling for charity.
Written by Marc Sotkin | Directed by Alan Rafkin
Everything in this episode is just an excuse to get Laverne and Shirley in the wrestling ring for a boffo slapstick climax, but frankly, with such a simple, straightforward mission, the script (by Marc Sotkin, one of the show’s funniest scribes in this era) avoids the series’ dramatic handicaps noted above, asserting that, because of its inherent limitations with character, perhaps the most assured way to get the desired humor without highlighting said limitations is by not even trying to invoke the leads as support — it’s easier to just setup the story (which, thankfully, is goofy, but not ridiculous) and skip pretending that anything else matters but the resulting laughs. Also, with Laverne’s latest enemy thrown in as an ante-upping twist, there’s enough semi-personal consistency — internal logic — to render this an above average example of an entry otherwise shameless in its centerpiece-driven gimmickry. (Lynne Marie Stewart and Tracy Reiner appear.)
02) Episode 46: “Laverne And Shirley Meet Fabian” (Aired: 11/22/77)
Laverne and Shirley sneak into Fabian’s hotel room.
Written by Paula A. Roth | Directed by Alan Rafkin
One of the few stories in the entire series that pushes forth its nostalgic era explicitly, this narratively atypical installment is also a rare segment built around a guest, with Fabian playing himself — a star whom the girls are desperate to meet and get in a picture, à la Lucy Ricardo during her stint in Hollywood. But if the plot itself is uncommon for Laverne & Shirley, it’s exactly in the show’s tonal wheelhouse, as it’s all very reminiscent of a Lucy, both in its use of a celebrity to spark the ladies’ guiding objective, and also in the big comedic centerpiece, with them posing as maids and sneaking into his hotel room before getting trapped out on the ledge. In fact, that gag is one of several obvious Lucy parallels here in Season Three, making a seemingly intentional connection between her physical comedy and theirs, which in turn informs the way I have viewed and discussed this series. But this entry is a lot of fun — with an energetic momentum that keeps the laughs coming, particularly in that ledge sequence, which could maybe be the best slapstick routine ever featuring the two stars together. So, this is a great sample of the series — the story may not be reflective of a “typical” offering, but this is the best for its type of humor, and since its type of humor is the show’s overarching idea-driven raison d’être, that’s what matters most. Also, with some additional support from Carole Ita White’s Rosie, who helps put a personal, individual charge into the ladies’ narrative engine (in her only appearance this season), this is an attempt at using the show’s special particulars — its situation — to deliver its comic idea. That makes it of this season, but better than its baseline. For that reason, this is my selection for the year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE).
03) Episode 48: “Shirley’s Operation” (Aired: 12/06/77)
The gang goes to the hospital when Shirley falls ill.
Written by David W. Duclon | Directed by Alan Rafkin
After a seminal jaunt to the hospital for last year’s “Angels Of Mercy,” Laverne & Shirley returns to that fertile ground in this installment, which brings the entire ensemble into the proceedings for an effortlessly amusing half hour where Shirley suffers from a bout of appendicitis that the script never allows to really be too serious (thank goodness). It’s just a pretext for a lot of expected setting-led yuks, while the teleplay is (again) well-paced and all the moments land, goosed considerably by the fact that everyone is dressed as a character from Alice In Wonderland — a sustaining sight gag that is something of a cheap gimmick, but par for the series’ course and, in this case, additive but not subtractive. One of the year’s funniest and best-loved.
04) Episode 50: “New Year’s Eve 1960” (Aired: 12/27/77)
The girls have bad luck on the last day of the 1950s.
Written by Marc Sotkin | Directed by Alan Rafkin
This is probably the only offering I’m highlighting on this list that lacks the big physical comedy I’ve deemed a requirement for every classic Laverne & Shirley, as it instead opts for a wistful — nostalgic even — narrative about New Year’s Eve, and specifically, the change over from 1959 to 1960: another RARE example of the show making its time period an important part of the story and deriving an entry’s worth from it. And yet, despite missing the kind of comedy that’s usually necessary for a successful showing, this outing is a showcase for the ensemble and the series’ above-mentioned sentimental side… without being overbearing about it (such as in “Laverne’s Arranged Marriage” and “The Slow Child”), sticking a good portion of this on its premised era, the inherent ennui attached to the holiday, and the script’s chosen plot plots, so that the characters themselves aren’t tasked with suppling an emotional depth they don’t have. It all comes circumstantially, letting this be the best display in Three of the series’ increasing sweetness, recognizing the centricity of the core friendship without trying to insist that they are capable, independent from narrative, of driving the heavy comedic/dramatic value, and thus avoiding the likely magnification of a shortcoming. So, no harm, no foul.
05) Episode 51: “The Mortician” (Aired: 01/10/78)
Laverne tries to get closer to a mortician by having Shirley pretend to be dying.
Written by Laura Levine | Directed by Alan Rafkin
With Norman Lear helping to kick the figurative door down regarding acceptable topics for scripted comedy, almost every ’70s sitcom took advantage of the new opportunity to joke about death — the most famous being Mary Tyler Moore‘s “Chuckles Bites The Dust” (in 1975). This is Laverne & Shirley‘s bite at that apple, with an amusing plot that doesn’t necessarily yield a slapstick climax up there with this season’s best, but at least operates with the same kind of loud, over-the-top farcicality that also reiterates the show’s comic identity by some memorably hilarious narrative idea. Okay, truthfully, I do wish there was a bigger, bolder payoff, but I appreciate the mere use of this notion and the application of Laverne’s ever-reliable (if generic) objective of snookering a fella (John Fink). It does what it needs to do, with little muss or fuss.
06) Episode 55: “The Dentist” (Aired: 02/07/78)
Laverne is nervous about an appointment with Shirley’s student dentist cousin.
Written by Babaloo Mandel | Directed by Alan Rafkin
A personal favorite of both this season and therefore the series, “The Dentist” gives Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams a great physical centerpiece that’s Lucy-esque — something we could have easily seen the Redhead perform with Vivian Vance on one of her shows, even though it’s not actually a bit she had done (unlike, one could argue, the ledge routine of the Fabian entry). Additionally, the ability to use laughing gas as an excuse for the ladies’ typically silly behavior isn’t exactly necessary, but the show certainly benefits from having internal justifications when they’re solid, especially if we’re seeking to compare this funny half hour directly to other series’. So, this is a laugh-filled offering that doesn’t feel like an insult to anyone’s intelligence or require as much of an intrinsically outrageous suspension of disbelief, relative to other ’70s sitcoms. Naturally, this renders it a winner and a candidate for MVE. (Also, this is a good place to note that the season’s resident director is Alan Rafkin, a Dick Van Dyke vet who’s competent at staging big block comedy scenes.)
07) Episode 57: “The Driving Test” (Aired: 02/21/78)
The girls try to help Squiggy pass his driving test.
Written by Chris Thompson | Directed by Alan Rafkin
Although I find Lenny and Squiggy to be comedically helpful figures who elevate the show’s iconic status — doubling Laverne & Shirley‘s number of shallow but bold star personas, making the series even more memorable — I’m not among the cadre of devotees who hinge their enjoyment of the show around their involvement, for while I think they’re important, nay, even seminal, their inclusion is always secondary to the satisfaction of their distaff counterparts’, whose usage in broadly comic stories (with room for them to flex their comic muscles) is more vital in generating a strong weekly product. I note all this here because this beloved installment doesn’t truly grant the leading ladies a major moment, instead focusing on the guys — primarily Squiggy, who’s at the center of this plot — and though this isn’t my preference, it’s easily among the series’ best outings in this subcategory, so it’s a fitting inclusion for this Long Golden Age list, and proof of just how well the ensemble is being used at this point in the show’s life.
08) Episode 58: “The Obstacle Course” (Aired: 02/28/78)
Shirley attempts to prove herself in a police obstacle course.
Written by Arthur Silver | Directed by Alan Rafkin
As with “Tag Team Wrestling” above, this excursion has a basic, no-frills story that’s merely a hook on which to hang the big physical comedy scenes, which involve the eponymous obstacle course through which Shirley is determined to triumph. But this simplicity of narrative allows the segment to avoid emphasizing any distracting shortcomings via the characters, and with Laverne’s interest in a fella (Bo Kaprall’s Norman, the recurring cop) providing a familiar start, this is an affable and easily enjoyable sample of the series — also, the year’s best for Cindy Williams as an individual performer. Now, some today might try to credit this offering for smart ’70s feminism, but I see that as an overzealous attempt to ascribe meat to generally bare bones — akin to the series’ attempts to increase its heart because it’s self-conscious about physical humor being its comic focus and only strong suit, even though there’s nothing wrong with slapstick on a sitcom (unless it’s not well-attached to the characters). Mickey Deems also guests.
09) Episode 59: “The Debutante Ball” (Aired: 05/09/78)
Laverne accompanies Lenny to a fancy royal ball.
Written by Paula A. Roth & Judy Pioli | Directed by Alan Rafkin
Another favorite of all-time, “The Debutante Ball” is a laugh-a-minute and satisfies the series’ purpose by showcasing its stars well in broad comedy. While Laverne and Lenny anchor the A-story, when they attend an elite ball after it’s discovered that he is 89th in line for the Polish throne, Shirley, Squiggy, and Frank provide peripheral yuks as they get locked in the storage room — a clichéd plot point, but one that’s moved through quickly ahead of a major slapstick centerpiece with Laverne on the ramp, which is another one of the funniest physical bits of the entire series (enough to make this my MVE runner-up). Meanwhile, I also have to praise this entry for having some moderately successful dramatic weight — not because of the class-based agita with which some fans like to over-credit the show (I find this theme to be very circumstantial, confined to episodic stories, and typically playing with a self-righteousness that’s not earned by the characters), but because of the Laverne and Shirley one-on-one where the latter picks up her friend in an exchange that’s both amusing and largely believable — a taste of what the show will try to be like more often next year; stay tuned…
10) Episode 60: “2001: A Comedy Odyssey” (Aired: 05/16/78)
Laverne dreams about what life will be like for them in 2001.
Written by Chris Thompson & Marc Sotkin | Directed by Ray DeVally Jr.
Regular readers of this blog know that I have mixed feelings about dream sequences on the sitcom — they’re a fundamental gimmick that allows series to escape the rules of their own world for comedy that’s often idea-specific and not always tethered to the characters or the givens of the situation. However, sometimes they can be revealing for the characters and worthwhile as a unique exploration of them. Sadly, this is not so much true with Laverne & Shirley, but with the flash-forward old-age bit deployed (complete with a fat suit now of dubious taste), the dream sequence does end up creating a fun showcase for the ensemble, including the stars, with big laughs that come inside a memorable episode-long centerpiece. In other words, it’s a perfect representation of Laverne & Shirley, where such fare does not break the rules but acknowledges their flimsy half-existence. And, again, with a certain type of humor being the show’s strength, this effortlessly effective installment has it in abundance.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Airport ’59,” a popular installment with a celebrated physical climax that simply breaks with too much logic — a handicap that actively makes it harder to enjoy the slapstick, and since I can be choosier for this list, I’ve opted to bump it down here in illustration of that larger point, along with “The Stakeout,” which similarly has a lot of would-be hilarious moments that are burdened by the plot’s insistence that its leads presume one of their own is a criminal — an emotional stretch that isn’t earned (another common weakness of the series). Meanwhile, I also enjoy: “The Second Almost Annual Shotz Talent Show,” another of those rote “variety show” segments that I generally loathe because they eschew situation comedy for a musical revue, but this one’s got more humor than any other in that pile, and “The Dance Studio,” which is among the best Carmine shows of the entire run, allowing him the seemingly rare chance to actually be funny and provide some narrative support. And, lastly, others I never considered highlighting but want to cite are: “Robot Lawsuit” and “The Cruise (I),” two disappointing outings that nevertheless have one great slapstick centerpiece each, “Take My Plants, Please” and “The Horse Show,” two so-so offerings that are so obviously inspired by Lucy, and “Breaking Up And Making Up,” which I sort of put in the “Laverne’s Arranged Marriage” category for its unearned emotional moments between father and daughter, but then elevate slightly because it’s situated around Phil Foster and Betty Garrett, who are better than their material.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Laverne & Shirley goes to…
“Laverne And Shirley Meet Fabian”
Come back next week for Season Four and a new Wildcard Wednesday!