Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! 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.
Season Four, the second consecutive year where Laverne & Shirley was Nielsen’s #1, is a fascinating collection that rounds out my “Long Golden Age,” the three-year period in which I find the series most capable of being the best version of itself on a regular basis, and with the least amount of harm from evident shortcomings. Like its two predecessors, Four is unique though, and that’s because some of these shortcomings are directly addressed, highlighting the increasing tension between conflicting elements but emerging with a surprising amount of reconciliation. I’m referring to the series’ long-gestating self-conscious quest to counteract criticism about its juvenility by pushing for a dramatic foundation that — because of its routinized broadness, feverish pursuit of slapstick, and shallow characterizations who always reiterate a one-dimensionality common to Garry Marshall — this series has simply never been able to supply as effective support for its aggrandized humor, let alone a meaningful alternative to it. For despite the obviousness of the series’ limitations, there is an organized crusade this year to fight through these handicaps and make dramatic earnestness — beyond just the central Laverne & Shirley relationship (which as we noted last week, is a sweet emotional center, but not adept at sparking story or earning serious moments) — a fundamental part of the show’s makeup. This mission, which we started to see last week, is most present here in segments like “A Visit To The Cemetery,” an outing that completely loses the genre’s comic objective and the show’s particular raison d’être by veering to a maudlin extreme that also makes even more glaring the equally gimmicky “big laugh” excursions on the other figurative side, which has heightened in tandem but also lacks dramatic justifications for its ostentatious ideas (such as “The Quiz Show”). They harken back to seasons past, but with a newfound polarized intensity. However, both sets of extremes are actually exceptions to the rule, for the show’s awareness of our expectations for its comedy keeps that always-crucial aspect of its identity vitally reinforced, with most entries (save only a few) striving for more dramatic sincerity while also delivering the excellent physical humor needed to allow Four to exist in this “Golden Age.”
That is, as Four tries to reconcile the show’s never-mitigated comic requirements with its new dramatic ambitions, the extremes are pushed to the side and the year manages to evolve the baseline — temporarily — to a less manic decibel, one that cherishes the weekly coexistence of slapstick and drama. Accordingly, there are more entries here that manage to pair the two with less tonal dissonance, as big comedic centerpieces validating an understanding of the series’ needs get situated within smaller, relationship-focused ideas that are far less heightened than those ginormous notions of years past, which created a pattern of silliness that all but squeezed out realism — both literal and aesthetic — and made it difficult for the characters to be realistic themselves or exist with even consistency. Oh, there are still some cases of thematic discordance and narrative unevenness, but, for the most part, Four’s efforts to have more earnest and believable plots, most of them lower-concept and about relationships — think: Shirley and Carmine date other people, Lenny develops a crush on Laverne, etc. — do render the characters more earnest and believable too, such that it’s now also possible for dramatic moments and/or stories to sit, more comfortably than before, next to the broad slapstick, which means, for the first time, there can be some sincerity amidst the hijinks… Now, while all of this may seem like a huge improvement, it’s important to keep perspective — it’s better “than before,” but the series’ foundational issues are unimpeachable: this is never not an idea-driven sitcom with thinly defined leads who are deferential to story, most of which is geared for the kind of broad comedy that remains the only thing this show does great, for even in Four, which cultivates a less extreme, more realistic style of storytelling that’s more hospitable to the characters, said characters don’t really get added definition or the opportunity to drive plot (partly because this trend proves so contained — stay tuned — and partly because it’s an intrinsically uphill battle). They remain vague and unhelpful, with story and slapstick too often not uniquely attached to their depictions. So, yes, the fact that plots now are deliberately less heightened, engaging more literal realism, does make this show’s ethos less restrictive for character, but, as always, story alone can’t compensate for what’s not in the situation, and this is never truly corrective.
Nevertheless, if Season Two is the most exciting, due to the novelty of self-discovery, and Three has the highest highs, with a lot of great slapstick, then Four’s claim to relevance in this “Long Golden Age” is that it’s the best for the characters, putting them in more low-concept and realistic ideas that could portend their development. This should be enough to make it my pick for the peak of the Golden Age, right?… Well, it’s not so simple, for just as I was reluctant to single out Three as the best for its high highs because of the falseness around the margins, Four has other elements in conflict that are doing a little bit of harm. I’m referring to Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams, two divas who’ve always elevated their material but whose rivalry for supremacy starts to beget trouble onscreen this year. It begins in a laudable place though, with increased narrative time for Shirley, whose ascension is rewarding — one of the primary reasons this year is less heightened is that it does more with her, and she’s more grounded than the typically dominating Laverne. However, the season quickly finds an inevitable delineation between “Laverne shows” and “Shirley shows,” some of which barely include the other. And when they’re not working together — separated, or heaven forbid, absent from each other’s respective stories — it’s really unideal, as this show promises a buddy comedy, and segments without the twosome automatically reject one of the series’ only guarantees outside of its broad humor. This pattern of separating the women will accelerate over time until the infamous combustion in Eight, but that trouble is already beginning here in Four, yielding some implicitly subpar half-hours that keep the season and its character work from being consistently decent, even if, in relation to Two and Three, I think it does the best job for its regulars in story. So, I’m most comfortable labeling Season Four, with Two and Three, among the series’ best, as more episodes work, on the show’s terms, than don’t, and my criticisms, while big and obvious, are not as prevalent or detrimental as they’ll become in Five, which seems to do an about-face… But that’s for next week. In the meantime, my picks for Season Four’s finest…
01) Episode 65: “Playing The Roxy” (Aired: 09/19/78)
Shirley hits her head and thinks she’s a stripper named Roxy.
Written by Paul B. Price & Stephen Nathan | Directed by Joel Zwick
Although this gaudy storyline — about a character hitting her head and believing that she’s someone else — is straight out of the goofy, logistically strained pre-’70s era (think: Gilligan’s Island), and therefore doesn’t suggest the year’s aforementioned efforts to become more dramatically sincere and realistic (heck, it sits totally on the opposite aisle of Four’s most dramatically sincere and realistic segments), “Playing The Roxy” is actually a great sample of the season’s increased utilization of Cindy Williams’ Shirley, who not only anchors the funny and star-oriented plot, but also gets to lead the comic centerpiece. We’ll spot more of this below, but her amplified presence — as seen here — is something this year alone prioritizes.
02) Episode 67: “The Quiz Show” (Aired: 10/10/78)
Laverne and Shirley compete for prizes on a TV quiz show.
Written by Monica Johnson | Directed by Howard Storm
In opposition to the year’s ethos, with a gimmicky comic premise that has nothing to do with the characters, this beloved installment is not well-supported by the series’ situational givens. However, like the above, it is representative of the year’s extremely broad polarized comic outliers, which stand out against the year’s more earnest baseline, and while its inclusion may thus seem strange, the standards for this series’ success still look almost exclusively at its big block comedy, and as such, “The Quiz Show” makes no bones about its intentions, delivering laughs that maybe don’t use the characters very well, but don’t abuse them either. In that regard, this feels like it could be from Season Two or Three, when we noted that purposely not invoking character was the surest way to avoid highlighting their lack of ability to help. Also, it’s worth remembering that the game show trope is a Garry Marshall hallmark, and though this one doesn’t quite evoke the cleverness of The Odd Couple’s “Password,” I appreciate how this series tailors the clichéd competition structure to its own strengths: star-driven slapstick. A classic.
03) Episode 68: “Laverne And Shirley Go To Night School” (Aired: 10/17/78)
Shirley convinces Laverne to join her in night school.
Written by Marc Sotkin | Directed by Lowell Ganz
Hans Conried guest stars in this, the first entry from Four to successfully pair the kind of broad comedy necessary for a classic Laverne & Shirley — see: the skeleton bit — with emotional moments inside of a smaller and more truthful narrative that is, for maybe the first time, capable of making the characters seem that way as well. Now, as always, said characters aren’t totally able to support the story, but in addition to not squeezing out the laughs, said story is unlike past attempts at dramatic sincerity — namely the overly consequential “Look Before You Leap” and the issue-driven “The Slow Child,” which had gaudy narrative notions that chafed against the regular tonality and these characters’ handicaps — for this one is less deliberately aggressive and operates closer to literal reality, more in the realm of possibility — based on the situation — which then makes it easier for the leads to play their emotional beats, and in turn allows them to feel more truthful than when only in ridiculous shtick or outsized mush.
04) Episode 69: “A Date With Eraserhead” (Aired: 10/24/78)
Shirley goes out with another man to make Carmine jealous.
Written by Judy Pioli | Directed by Ray DeVally Jr.
Another Shirley-centric episode, this interesting entry treats the Shirley/Carmine relationship with a shocking degree of intellectual sincerity, as the plot has Laverne confronting Carmine about cheating on Shirley before learning that they have an open relationship (a surprising development — a rare example of a more realistic, genuinely ’70s notion invading the show’s storytelling). Naturally, Shirley then gets mad about Carmine seeing other girls and they go off to make each other jealous, but not only does this offering further the year’s plan to give Williams more to play, it also indicates the overall sway to a more relatable modus operandi, rooted in stories that are low-concept and focused more on relationships, making it possible for the characters to feel more believable. And despite lacking the big comic centerpiece that most classic Laverne & Shirleys boast, there are enough bits of heightened comedy — within a teleplay whose pacing and energy maintains the show’s rhythms — to validate the series’ identity, so this one may seem narratively rare, but it isn’t necessarily unmotivated or out-of-place. Oh, and the very funny Paul Willson (of Cheers) guests, as does Lynne Marie Stewart.
05) Episode 73: “Laverne And Shirley Move In” (Aired: 11/28/78)
Laverne and Shirley recall when they first became roommates.
Written by Paula A. Roth | Directed by Joel Zwick
More dramatic realism comes on display in this popular installment that sees the series resorting to a classic sitcom gimmick for its plot: the flashback — a device that’s fundamentally ostentatious, because it’s motivated by the writers’ storytelling interests and not by the characters’ individual actions. But it’s one that can at least be maneuvered into being beneficial for the characters, as filling in their backstories can bolster their definitions by making them feel more dimensional, and perhaps more real, which can make it easier to emotionally connect with them and further focus their utilizations — comedically and narratively. That’s what Carl Reiner did with flashbacks on The Dick Van Dyke Show, which used them better than any other sitcom up to that point — the gold standard for this narrative device. Of course, as you know, we’ve talked a lot about that series’ association with these later Garry Marshall efforts — given his involvement on Reiner’s masterpiece — and this outing is vindication, as it recalls how these central characters first moved in, granting us, like on Dick Van Dyke, an increased understanding of their history, which helps the leads appear realer and more capable of the dramatic moments offered throughout the year. Also, there’s enough big comedy too — see: the Lucy-esque wallpaper scene — to satisfy the series’ macro demands about what it takes to be a top-notch installment of Laverne & Shirley. So, this is a favorite of mine and a prime ambassador for both this season’s intentions and the series’ inspirations, and I’ve therefore selected it as my MVE (Most Valuable Episode) — the finest segment that can represent Season Four.
06) Episode 74: “Dinner For Four” (Aired: 12/05/78)
Laverne and Shirley prepare for a double date, only to learn they’re the help.
Written by Al Aidekman | Directed by Ray DeVally Jr.
One of my favorite entries this season, “Dinner For Four” boasts another low-concept believable premise — the girls are excited about going on a double date with a pair of “rich” fellas. This acquits the characters well, as does both the laugh-heavy teleplay that has time for moments of physical humor, like the bit with the foldaway bed, and the classic comic twist that elevates the entire half hour, when the ladies go to their dates’ place… only to discover that they’re not there to have dinner, they’re there to serve it. It’s a very funny notion, and while I don’t subscribe to the theory that class angst plays any major role in Laverne & Shirley‘s appeal, this is one of those stories (there’s maybe one or two per year) that has fun juxtaposing their blue-collar energy against others’ for both comedy and (mild) drama that’s not exactly character-specific, but less generic than usual. A definite MVE contender.
07) Episode 79: “Supermarket Sweep” (Aired: 02/06/79)
Laverne and Shirley get to participate in a supermarket shopping spree.
Written by Ron Leavitt | Directed by Joel Zwick
As with “The Quiz Show,” I consider this outing to be nothing more than a gaudy high-concept laugh-seeking notion that recognizes the series’ primary objective of delivering big, physical comedy for its two stars, but accordingly doesn’t try to engage any meaningful support from the characters or the series’ particulars, existing as something of a throwback to earlier seasons, prior to Four’s attempts at creating an environment where low-concept plots could be employed to make the show, and its characters, more believable and dramatically sound. Fortunately, a sizable comedic centerpiece is basically all any script needs to be successful, so I include this installment here to reiterate that truism, even though it’s not a personal favorite and it’s a comedically polarized excerpt from a season that’s otherwise more narratively nuanced. And, frankly, the stars themselves really do a lot to sell this one. (Also, I want to point out that Ron Leavitt is the author; he would go on to co-create Married… With Children, which would push a similar idea, but better, courtesy of more help from its “situation” — its characters.)
08) Episode 80: “Lenny’s Crush” (Aired: 02/13/79)
Lenny decides that he’s in love with Laverne.
Written by Judy Pioli | Directed by Carl Gottlieb
Although I’m not a fan of romantic entanglements (for regulars) that only last a single episode — it’s a story-driven behavioral turn that’s difficult to motivate, even with leads who are believable and well-defined — the childlike nature of Lenny and Squiggy can have one of them buyably develop a temporary crush on Laverne. After all, the leap we take in accepting their extremeness accounts for emotional mercurialness too. That said, this script doesn’t play the idea for its big laughs (like, say, Three’s Company’s “Larry Loves Janet”), but instead hopes to give Lenny personal feelings as a way of making him seem more real, more human. Now, such desired humanity, as expected, bumps against the heightened tenor of this series and his playing, proving why this isn’t a great sitcom, as its character work always comes up short — there’s a lack of aesthetic truth when it’s needed. However, I appreciate the effort, and I think because Four’s goal, as a whole, is to push the show’s storytelling, and its leads, into a more realistic direction, this entry both furthers that aim and benefits from the strides made in other, better calibrated scripts. For that reason, I think it’s more successful than not. (Also, I love the song!)
09) Episode 82: “Squiggy In Love” (Aired: 02/27/79)
Shirley helps Squiggy realize a girl is just using him.
Written by Barry Rubinowitz | Directed by Penny Marshall
If the above outing was pitched to emotionally develop Lenny so that he could be seen as less ridiculous and a little more human, then this installment seeks to do the same with Squiggy — only this time, these noble ambitions are couched a little better within the series’ broader, “big laugh” comedy, which both better satisfies the overarching demands placed upon every half hour segment of Laverne & Shirley and also avoids spotlighting just how genuinely difficult it is for drama to exist on a series with such cartoon-like characters. Additionally, while the above paired Lenny with Laverne, Squiggy’s offering gives him a lot of one-on-one time with Shirley, whose increased involvement is another trend we’re examining this season, boding well for the series in entries like this, when her presence brings hahas but helps keep the proceedings more low-concept and believable. (Also, this is Penny Marshall’s first directorial credit!)
10) Episode 84: “The Tenants Are Revolting” (Aired: 03/13/79)
Edna is mad when Laverne and Shirley contact a building inspector.
Written by Rob Harris | Directed by Joel Zwick
The main appeal of this excursion is the rooftop bit with Laverne and Shirley together — one of their best joint physical comedy centerpieces of the season, a routine that’s directly reminiscent of Lucy and Viv’s work on The Lucy Show, and most particularly in an episode that Garry Marshall actually co-wrote (“Lucy Gets The Bird”). Also, I appreciate that there’s an attempt to give support to this evergreen routine by using the show’s particulars, primarily Betty Garrett’s Edna, the landlady who gets inadvertently put in a bad position by the girls. This spurs the duo into action and grants some relationship-based weight to the proceedings — placing the year’s desired realistic sentiment alongside its amiable slapstick. Richard Libertini guests.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The Robbery,” which was the closest to my list, thanks to the script’s increased use of Shirley and the comedic way it delineates her from Laverne, along with a great moment of physical comedy where the two are hanging on coat hooks, bumped down here only because of the forced jeopardy of the narrative, which never plays well on a series so fundamentally light and happy-go-lucky, as well as “O, Come All Ye Bums,” which has a couple of funny beats inside an otherwise treacly holiday outing that’s not above this series but also isn’t what it does best, especially here in Season Four, which combines such aesthetic interests more nimbly, and “Who’s Papa?,” which tries to pair a more serious personal story for Shirley — as she hopes to find out if her dad is really her biological father — with a broad teleplay that engages some costume trunk lunacy (in the hospital), thereby yielding an entry that sort of represents both the season and the series, but not as artfully as those above. Of lesser but still relevant note are: “Fire Show,” which has a decent low-concept idea, “The Feminine Mistake,” which guest stars Jay Leno and understands this series’ need for big comedy but stations too much of it in characters who can’t handle it, and “There’s A Spy In My Beer,” which has one memorable comedic centerpiece. And, lastly, I don’t like these offerings but want to mention “The Festival (I),” not for its unfunny on-location gimmickry, but for the chance to meet Laverne’s grandmother, and “The Third Annual Shotz Talent Show,” which earned the series its only Emmy nomination.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Laverne & Shirley goes to…
“Laverne And Shirley Move In”
Come back next week for Season Five! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!