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.
For many years, the long-accepted narrative about Laverne & Shirley’s trajectory was that the show is good-to-great (depending on your mileage) in its initial Milwaukee seasons before suffering a steep decline upon Six’s move to California. Then, about ten years ago when the series was being released on DVD, updated appraisals tended to take a more nuanced approach, asserting that there is a drop already evident here in Five, when Laverne & Shirley went from being the #1 most watched show in the country to falling somewhere around 40th place (depending on your source), largely because it was moved away from Happy Days and tasked with anchoring another night’s lineup. Since then, I’ve started to see online discourse resettle back to the pre-DVD party line, with many fans lauding this season for its seemingly high number of classics, particularly by viewers who rightly recognize the series’ use of broad comedy — slapstick — as its raison d’être. But I note the evolving perception of this transitional season to point out that there’s truth in all of it. Well, except for any attempt to link creative quality with popular success — that is, if every dip in Nielsens has to represent an erosion of value, then a rise (like the one between Five and Six) would have to reflect the opposite, and that proves the argument to be false. However, I am open to the possibility that Season Five’s new slot and reduced Nielsens did affect the nature of the storytelling, which affected the show’s quality, as the series hoped to retain and then recapture viewers with gaudy hooks and flashy tricks, and I say this because, if Four made a push to go smaller with its episodic narratives, opting for low-concept ideas that put its leads in more believable relationship-based plots, then Five moves in the exact opposite direction, engaging gimmicks and higher concept trappings that project a shameless desire to maintain viewer interest. From a crossover premiere, to another dream sequence, to a November Sweeps wedding, to a halfhearted “girls in the military” reformatting (meant to be used “once a month”), to an unearned drama about the death of Laverne’s beau-of-the-week — Season Five is BIG.
What’s more, its BIGness not only highlights the series’ chronic shortcomings with its relatively vague and non-story-pushing characters, in most cases, it also abandons the usual settings for one-off location-specific plots that further divorce the show’s storytelling from the established givens of its “situation.” In other words, there’s less support than before from the series’ fixed identity in the cultivation of plot, and that’s fundamentally counterintuitive to the structural purpose of the sitcom as a genre. Accordingly, I say that if Laverne & Shirley‘s endemic limitations have heretofore rendered it an unideal sitcom — not the best, compared to the great ones we’ve examined — there was still stuff to enjoy, particularly on the series’ own terms, as it was capable of furnishing expert slapstick while doing its best to mitigate its weaknesses with character/situation. But at this point, these terms are no longer fully satisfied, for although, yes, perhaps the majority of the episodes here are still providing an amiable slapstick crescendo (especially in the latter half of Five), now the quality of the ideas needed to spark these slapstick crescendos are more ridiculous than ever, making more obvious the show’s long-term inability to lead with its characters. So, more than just not mitigating the series’ shortcomings — which the previous three years, from the “Long Golden Age,” were each able to do in their own way, via novelty, comedy, story, etc. — Five actually spotlights them. In fact, it goes without saying, but the “Long Golden Age” is over, with these shortcomings protruding throughout the year, and when Six is seen as a desperate (and failed) attempt at rejuvenation, I think the context provided by Five should render it clear that such a rejuvenation was warranted, not merely based on the Nielsens, but on the creative problems displayed in this laborious fifth season — problems exacerbated by ratings-seeking bigness, perhaps, but fundamental to the series’ identity. Now, again, you may look at this list below and see popular classics — thanks mostly to broad, slapstick comedy — but the stories and storytelling are all of a lower rank, both for Laverne & Shirley and the genre as a whole. Heck, even the series itself is wishing for happier days…
01) Episode 89: “Fat City Holiday” (Aired: 09/27/79)
Laverne and Shirley are harassed by an instructor at a weight loss resort.
Written by Roger Garrett | Directed by Joel Zwick
Count this installment as Exhibit A for everything discussed above, for while you may scroll by the screen capture and recognize it as one of the series’ funniest bits of physical comedy — which is the reason I’m highlighting the entry here — it comes inside a lame narrative that not only has little do with the regulars, it also purposely transports them to a situation-less setting-of-the-week, which enables a bevy of clichéd “fat farm” routines that are, at best, familiar, and at worst, tacky, proving why this year is such a comedown from its predecessors, for the ideas needed to get this series-requiring slapstick are actively worsening, emphasizing the show’s shortcomings in the process. Susan Kellermann and Rosemary Prinz guest.
02) Episode 92: “You’ve Pushed Me Too Far” (Aired: 10/25/79)
Lenny and Squiggy end their friendship when Squiggy pushes Lenny out of the window.
Written by Jeff Franklin | Directed by Joel Zwick
With an overly broad set piece in which Squiggy literally pushes Lenny out of their window, this episode of Laverne & Shirley satisfies the basic humor requirement incumbent on every segment of the series. What makes it most worthwhile to me, however, is that the story then becomes about the friendship between the two guys — a relationship-focused idea that harkens back to Season Four, which enjoyed smaller, more low-concept narratives than what’s already shaping up to form Five’s heightened baseline. Also, as far as Lenny and Squiggy offerings go, this one — unlike many ahead — keeps Laverne and Shirley involved in the action, which is essential.
03) Episode 97: “Take Two, They’re Small” (Aired: 11/22/79)
Laverne and Shirley double date with two little people.
Written by Paula A. Roth & Judy Pioli | Directed by Ray DeVally, Jr.
One of my takeaways from this installment is that the writers must have been aware of a similar story used a few years prior on Phyllis — perhaps that series’ funniest half hour — for they share the gimmick of using little people for both comedy and drama. Interestingly, my thoughts on such an idea have evolved since I first wrote about that Phyllis — and even since I wrote about The Golden Girls, which had an obviously affiliated entry — for I can see how, even though this dramatic arc always involves the morality tale of the leads having to deal with their own prejudices, which is noble and emotionally rich, the comic plot is hinged around the innate differences of these guests, simply based on how they look, and that’s lazy and a tad tacky. Sitcoms are most rewarding when laughs come from the regulars, and their behavior/choices specifically, not the guests’ or, even worse, their immutable physicalities. Fortunately, that Phyllis, along with The Golden Girls, does a good job of directing most of the yuks to the small-minded insensitivity of the stars and their reactions, which reframes the comic energy around them and aligns the humor with the dramatic arc, essentially making them the butt of the joke, not the little people. Now, Laverne & Shirley is not nearly as character-focused, so it remains, I think, more unideal, but it too finds a way to tailor the humor to its own sensibilities — like in a skating rink centerpiece that delivers the kind of physical comedy we anticipate from this series, pairing the guests and the stars together in an inclusive show-validating bit.
04) Episode 99: “Testing, Testing” (Aired: 12/13/79)
Laverne, Shirley, Lenny, and Squiggy are all subject to psychological evaluations at work.
Teleplay by Chris Thompson | Story by Kenny Rich | Directed by Joel Zwick
This atypical outing lacks the physical comedy underscoring the success of most on this list, but it still yields a heightened energy befitting the series, courtesy of the core foursome’s generally loud, broad personas, which are magnified in a gimmicky but nevertheless low-concept plot that, again, feels more like a throwback to last year’s narrative ethos than an accurate representation of the aggrandized location-jumping from Five. Naturally, I appreciate that this story forces its characters, at their established job, to drive the laughs, and one of the things I like best is the obvious delineation between Laverne and Shirley — a distinction that I’ve always maintained is the basis for this series’ character work. That said, I also think relying on the regulars to an uncommon degree reveals how limited they are, for on character-based terms, this show is never competitive. That’s why most scripts know to stick with their strength: slapstick. And, indeed, if there was a physical set piece here in the second act, I think it could be my MVE, especially if said set piece was also supported by the characters, as this would not only give us what the series does best, but it would also be doing so with attempted help from the “situation” — a rarity in Five. (Nonetheless, this was still an MVE contender.)
05) Episode 100: “Not Quite South Of The Border” (Aired: 01/07/80)
Laverne and Shirley take a disastrous vacation “near Mexico.”
Written by Deborah Leschin & Susan Seeger | Directed by Joel Zwick
Evident of the year’s episodic setting-specific storytelling — where the characters jump to different places, with each plot dependent on the unique circumstances of its locale (instead of the characters or the regular trappings with which their sitcom is associated) — this entry is enjoyable mostly because of a big climax where the ladies are at a resort “near Mexico” that gets pummeled by a storm, which plays out in an extended showcase that grants the stars a chance to assert their genius — these women vs. an extreme force of nature. It’s worth the figurative price of admission and a good example of the thin, non-situation-based state of the series in Five.
06) Episode 101: “You Oughta Be In Pictures” (Aired: 01/14/80)
Laverne and Shirley appear in a film for the Army.
Written by Jeff Franklin | Directed by Joel Zwick
Using the recently established idea of the girls randomly joining the military — a notion that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t make a lot of sense, feeling like a desperate move to find new story, even though, outside of the initial two-parter, it only arises a handful of times thereafter (on the main series, anyway; the concept did inspire a rotten animated show that ran in 1981, literally called Laverne & Shirley In The Army) — this surprisingly enjoyable excursion looks like vintage Laverne & Shirley, with the twosome auditioning for an Army film where they’re unknowingly cast as a pair of nasty hookers leading some uniformed men astray. This sparks a memorable centerpiece where the women discover the truth as the cameras are rolling: a gag that delivers the type of humor we expect from this series, and with only a slight suspension of disbelief that’s nevertheless in-keeping with the series’ silly but not totally absurd modus operandi. So, with a story that fits the series’ Golden Age but simultaneously uses a unique element of Season Five to its unexpected benefit, this outing is both an ambassador for this year specifically and the series as a whole. (Oh, and this is also a good place to recognize both the year’s resident director — Joel Zwick, who seems very capable of handling big block comedy scenes — and one of the series’ new staffers, Jeff Franklin, the eventual creator of Full House.)
07) Episode 103: “The Right To Light” (Aired: 01/28/80)
Laverne and Shirley chain themselves inside a gas and electric company.
Written by Kenny Rich | Directed by Joel Zwick
This story, with the ladies going down to their gas and electric company after they lose power, seems like a relatively small and realistic narrative for a pair of single women without a lot of money, but it’s made terribly large — per this season’s norm — when they chain themselves, together, to the office in protest… at the exact same time, coincidentally, that a bomb has been left in the building. That creates a jeopardy that ups the stakes and the comic mania, but completely destroys all sense of believability, injecting an over-the-top gimmick that doesn’t serve the characters whatsoever, since it feels so forced and random, unconnected to the leads or their choices. However, the girls being chained together gives Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall the opportunity to play some great physical comedy, and to wit, this is among their best work on the series — the reason I highlight it here. Richard Stahl appears.
08) Episode 106: “Murder On The Moosejaw Express (I)” (Aired: 02/26/80)
Laverne and Shirley stumble into a murder mystery on a train ride.
Written by Richard Rosenstock & Jack Lukes | Directed by Joel Zwick
An apparently beloved two-parter, this extended train-set murder mystery is a straightforward example of how narratively disconnected this season is from both its characters and any other fixed element of its situation, taking an already heightened story — or, in this case, type of story — and setting it far away from the regular sets and with only a handful of the regular players, who might as well be guests because they’re almost totally deferential to the mechanics of the plot and, again, in this case, the murder mystery genre that’s being spoofed. If you like this kind of silly satire, this installment is easy to overrate. I don’t, but I feature it because of some fine broad comedy that honors the year’s promise to the audience. (Note: this was Five’s first new show broadcast back in the series’ post-Happy Days slot.)
09) Episode 107: “Murder On The Moosejaw Express (II)” (Aired: 03/04/80)
Laverne and Shirley try to find the murderer on their train ride.
Written by Charlotte M. Dobbs & Jeff Franklin | Directed by Joel Zwick
If this season was stronger, I would have opted to only spotlight the second half of this memorable two-parter, as the tension mounts, ratcheting up the dramatic hysteria and therefore increasing both the plot-sparked suspense and the grand, star-worthy comedy. But this year is such that I can’t separate the two parts and pretend like anything else below is better, for, as often with idea-driven shows such as this one, episodic success is predicated on the success of its idea, and if an idea works for one half hour, it’s likely to work in the other one too, meaning, the sheer fact that this notion is comedic and proffers decent material for star performers makes both halves a triumph on the series’ terms. Guests in this two-parter include Roger C. Carmel, Scatman Crothers, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Conrad Janis, and Charlene Tilton.
10) Episode 111: “The Diner” (Aired: 05/06/80)
Laverne and Shirley take over Lenny’s late uncle’s diner.
Written by Bob Perlow | Directed by Linda McMurray
My choice for this year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “The Diner” gets this honor, first and foremost, for being the funniest sample from Season Five, with a jokey teleplay that also goes into overdrive with its ability to supply the leads, and primarily Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams, with the broad, larger-than-life comedy that both informs the show’s identity and flatters their individual strengths as performers — not just in the physical bits we crave, but also in the generally heightened hijinks that are attached to the chosen plot of the ladies running a diner. Now, this is certainly a quintessential idea-led narrative — a “job-of-the-week” in the Lucy Show vein, where the stars are briefly put in a scenario (like most of the segments above, including “You Oughta Be In Pictures”) that isn’t really motivated by or has any bearing on how they’re defined as characters, not to mention the particulars informing the show’s weekly status quo. However, this is what Laverne & Shirley is typically like, especially in Season Five, where, as we’ve seen, scripts are going for bigger ideas that are even more divorced from the so-called “situation.” And although this excursion is largely set at a place that no other offering will revisit, at least it feels closer to the blue-collar world in which the regulars regularly inhabit, as opposed to, say, the near-Mexico resort or the murder mystery train. Additionally, the text finds a smidgen of support for its story via the characters — namely Lenny, whose uncle dies and leaves him the restaurant, creating a slightly personal impetus for the girls’ otherwise convenient decision to run it. This helps make the show feel a bit more entrenched in Laverne & Shirley’s regular universe than many here, and thanks to funnier-than-usual writing (“Dead Lazlo’s Place” always cracks me up), this entry stands out as both indicative of and better than Season Five.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “We’re In The Army, Now (I),” the first half of a two-parter that introduces the military arc, which is essentially a bust outside of the debut of Sgt. Plout, played with comedic verve by Vicki Lawrence, who’s hilarious, especially in her opening scene (the only good part of a terrible hour-long entry), along with “Separate Tables,” a rare low-concept show that has some humanity for Penny Marshall’s Laverne but not enough of the series’ desired humor, “The Beatnik Show,” one of the few offerings to use the nostalgic era for story (while forcing contortions in character behavior that just don’t work), “Bad Girls,” which puts Lenny & Squiggy in drag and gives more context to Laverne & Shirley’s history, and “Survival Test,” which sees Plout’s return inside a big narrative that at least pairs the two leads together for a long scene. Of lesser quality but equal note are: “The Duke Of Squiggman,” which is a decent segment for fans of Lenny & Squiggy, but features way too little of Laverne & Shirley to be a fair sample of the series, “One Heckuva Note,” which attempts to explore the central relationships through a reveal of Laverne and Carmine’s romantic past — a gimmick that doesn’t land because it isn’t buyable, and “The Wedding,” a mediocre event show where Frank and Edna wed, but with not enough humanity and certainly not enough laughs. (And, no, I’m not dignifying the awful dream sequence show with a mention — it doesn’t even use its stars well — or the crossover premiere, a shameless stunt that sets the season off on the wrong figurative foot.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Laverne & Shirley goes to…
Come back next week for Season Six! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!