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. Plus LESLIE EASTERBROOK and ED MARINARO.
After a disappointing fifth season that saw both the ratings plummet because the series was taken out of its reliable post-Happy Days slot, and a creative decline as weekly stories became so divorced from the “situation” that macro issues with the characters had no place to hide, Laverne & Shirley went into Six in need of major change. While the ratings dilemma had been somewhat “solved” earlier that spring with a move back behind Happy Days, the storytelling demanded additional attention. The show’s solution? A change of scenery, as the entire cast — yes, entire — packed up and moved from early ’60s Milwaukee to 1965 Burbank. This reformatting came with two new peripheral players (a vain actress neighbor and a hunky stuntman love interest for Laverne), a new job for Laverne and Shirley as gift wrappers at a department store, and a new Honky-Tonk hangout joint run by Frank and Edna (where there were more opportunities for the leads to sing). Yet despite all this seeming structural newness, and to the contrary of the natural tendency to separate the series into two eras based on its locale (“Milwaukee years = good; Burbank years = bad”), the truth of the matter is… Laverne & Shirley doesn’t actually change that much. Its characters still don’t have much internal emotional realism or story-pushing objectives, and the newbies, in particular, are no better, providing little support, which means those macro issues regarding character have not gone anywhere. Oh, sure, I understand that this season feels more like a “hangout” comedy than any other, with a few quiet low-concept episodes about young singles, and more attempts at dramatic sincerity (à la Season Four), hoping to suggest matured depictions of the ladies. But such scripts lack the broad comedy necessary to make winning segments of this series, and what’s more, the character work remains shallow and one-dimensional, with swings in behavior that feel heavy-handed and false from leads who don’t have the consistency or support within story to make them believable. That’s right; these plots still traffic in externally charged idea-led notions that aren’t well attached to character. So, ultimately, this move has done nothing to better tie the “situation” — the characters — to the series’ weekly projection of its identity, and, specifically, the right ideas needed to deliver its brand of comedy, the only thing it does great.
Okay, the sheer act of moving and having a new setting means Six doesn’t want to travel every week like Five for the sake of plot. In that regard, it’s more stationary and literally fixed. But it’s no better for the characters’ well-being and looks no less desperate, for the need to move the entire series in the first place hangs over the year like a bad omen: a sign that it’s trying to escape something impossible to escape. Indeed, the main issue in Six — since nothing has really changed — is that it remains victim to the inevitable trajectory of all series television, but especially sitcoms that are idea-driven and don’t ever fully satisfy their characters, who should be able to prolong or mitigate this decline if better handled in design and story. That is, Laverne & Shirley’s ideas have become less and less novel every year — and thus less and less capable of sparking the kind of grand comic centerpieces we desire — and Six’s reformatting doesn’t, or can’t, provide the character support that might slow this trend: it doesn’t inspire fresh story, big comedy, or richer characterizations. It’s basically just a facelift. (And, frankly, I think the same would have been true had the show instead moved them to New York City, as first intended, for surface newness doesn’t address foundational concerns.) Accordingly, this move that so many fans have used to demarcate a shift in quality — associating Six with Seven and Eight, which both see outrageous drops — doesn’t offer a huge drop of its own, just the usual, gradual, continued winding down. If not for its new setting, Six wouldn’t be seen as a consequential pivot because, again, not much has changed… That said, don’t take my attempts to put Six more fairly in the context of the whole run as a defense of it. No, for although there are some strong physical bits (see: “The Bardwell Caper”) that make it impossible to write off Six entirely, this season doesn’t have as many of the great centerpieces defining the series’ best years — or even Five, which swung desperately for the fences just to be able to create iconic feats of slapstick (inside stories that couldn’t disguise the corresponding strain). And in mustering up fewer ideas that make it easy to display the show’s chief strength, this year just isn’t as enjoyable as those before. It’s the sad fate of all idea-led sitcoms, and things are only going to get worse, as all of this becomes rarer and Laverne & Shirley turns into “(Maybe) Laverne and/or Shirley”…
01) Episode 115: “Studio City” (Aired: 12/02/80)
Laverne and Shirley get parts as stuntwomen in a movie.
Written by Richard Rosenstock | Directed by John Tracy
Any time a show relocates to Hollywood or Hollywood-adjacent, the expectation is that there will be self-adoring stories about moviemaking, TV, and/or the entertainment industry, and most assuredly, gimmicky guest star appearances. To Laverne & Shirley’s credit, however, it doesn’t indulge this possibility as much in Six as I would have anticipated, and in fact, it sort of gets through the most familiar, clichéd version of this idea — novices bungling on a film set — immediately with this installment, an amiable half hour that I like in large part because it’s not allowed to become a narrative trend. It’s a one-off that can root its comedy both in the physical bits and in the truth that the girls are out of their element (the Army training movie from last year notwithstanding). So, all the silliness is somewhat justified here in a way it wouldn’t be if used again. And as for the guest star, well, it’s not totally era-specific, but it’ll do: Troy Donahue.
02) Episode 117: “Candy Is Dandy” (Aired: 12/16/80)
Laverne and Shirley get jobs wrapping boxes of rum-filled chocolates.
Written by Joanne Pagliaro | Directed by John Tracy
Laverne & Shirley never loses its association with Lucille Ball, and this episode, which actually continues the show’s reformatting by landing Laverne and Shirley jobs at a department store, allows Penny Marshall to perform a Lucy-esque intoxicated routine, while also working with boxes of chocolate — a prop inextricably linked to I Love Lucy. This is relevant because with such similar star-elevated broad comedy dominating the outing, “Candy Is Dandy” is a series-validating segment. But I also spotlight it here because the department store setting has the potential for a variety of plots (if the girls move around to different counters), and I think, as a location, it’s a smart choice. Sadly, these opportunities will prove to be largely squandered — through no fault of this promising entry. Norman Bartold debuts as their boss.
03) Episode 118: “The Dating Game” (Aired: 12/30/80)
Lenny and Squiggy appear on The Dating Game.
Written by Al Aidekman | Directed by Penny Marshall
There are two offerings in Six that are focused on Lenny and Squiggy to the exclusion of the series’ namesakes, and as we’ve previously discussed, they therefore represent unideal samples of Laverne & Shirley. However, while my favor for this series is not hinged around the guys, I recognize their value to the show, particularly in filling out the ensemble, and I wanted to highlight the more desirable of their two showcases — this one, which throws them into a game show, an unimaginative sitcom plot that is never earned by character but can sometimes deliver character-based comedy in the context of the applied structure. That’s exactly what happens here, and unlike the below-mentioned “Born Too Late,” which puts them in a sketch-like series of centerpieces with no explanation, this one is at least perched in the “reality” of the show’s situation, and even its new locale. Ilene Graff and Jim Lange guest; Penny Marshall directs.
04) Episode 123: “Malibu Mansion” (Aired: 02/10/81)
Laverne and Shirley house-sit in a fancy Malibu mansion.
Written by Tony DiMarco & David Ketchum | Directed by Frank Alesia
Although this outing has an unoriginal sitcom idea — the party in the house where there’s not supposed to be a party — I had room on this list to feature the excursion both because it’s an example of the “hangout” story, typical of young single characters (of whom there are more this season), and also because, if Laverne & Shirley were a more thematically thoughtful series with more narrative affiliation with its “situation,” it’s a plot that I could credit as being thesis-related. You see, as discussed before, I don’t think the show’s blue-collar bona fides are ever as pronounced as some viewers insist, but if they were, the move to California could have emphasized that notion in stories like this — juxtaposing the girls and their friends with the haughty classism unique to this big city (as opposed to Milwaukee). In this regard, the move could perhaps have been maximized for “richer” (pun intended) story, but alas… that was never a true focus for the series, and as such, this is a rare exhibit that proves how generous we are when pretending otherwise. Stubby Kaye and Richard Moll guest.
05) Episode 124: “To Tell The Truth” (Aired: 02/17/81)
Laverne, Shirley, and their friends play a game of truth-telling.
Written by Al Aidekman | Directed by Jack Winter
This installment misses the kind of big comic centerpiece that’s pretty much been the base requirement for inclusion on these lists (with few, notable exceptions), and you can take its presence here as a statement about the show’s ongoing diminishment. The reason I feature it though is because it’s the year’s best look at something referenced above — how the addition of two new single characters makes Laverne & Shirley even more of a “hangout” comedy, subject to more low-concept stories like this bottle episode’s, which I laud for trying to define the characters, via their flaws, as a means of sparking corresponding conflict… even though it’s very ham-fisted and unartful, with turns in behavior that seem convenient for the story and not legitimately motivated. Of course, that’s always going to be a problem with leads who aren’t accustomed to pushing plot, and are generally vague and insubstantial as a result, but that’s the point: this is a telling sample of the season, if not a great one. (Also, this is the last appearance of Ed Marinaro as Laverne’s cardboard love interest Sonny. Fans of trivia like to note that he had played her cousin once at the end of Season Five.)
06) Episode 125: “I Do, I Do” (Aired: 02/24/81)
Laverne and Shirley agree to marry a pair of British rock stars.
Written by Cindy Begel & Lesa Kite | Directed by Phil Perez
Perhaps the most famous — or infamous — offering in Six, this ostentatious outing with guests Peter Noone and Eric Idle as a pair of British rockers eager to get American citizenship was pulled from syndication for the longest time, due to its story of Laverne and Shirley agreeing to wed the pair after they get high on marijuana-laced brownies at a drug-fueled party — with cocaine! — where even Lenny and Squiggy end up stoned. If that sounds more like 1981 than 1965, that’s because the show has always been inconsistent about the application of its nostalgic era, especially in story — and that’s true even here, which looks like it wants to acknowledge the music trend of the mid-’60s, but then breaks that aesthetic realism with more modern cultural allusions. Indeed, using marijuana to replace alcohol as the intoxicant of choice is a very late ’70s sitcom notion, and it chafes against the series’ thematic innocence… Nevertheless, it’s played goofily and it works, for this gaudy idea-led yarn delivers the kind of broad comedy on which the show thrives — another chance for Penny Marshall to play inebriated, this time with Cindy Williams joining — and it’s a lot of fun. One of the few from the unpopular “Burbank years” that you won’t forget. (Benny Baker also guests.)
07) Episode 128: “The Bardwell Caper (II)” (Aired: 03/17/81)
Laverne and Shirley try to retrieve a nasty note from their boss’ office.
Written by Tony DiMarco & David Ketchum | Directed by Tom Trbovich
My choice for the year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), this is the second half of a two-parter that really puts all of its comedic weight here in its caboose, as the opening segment has to deal with the exposition of a clichéd sitcom notion — trying to retrieve a nasty letter before it’s read by its intended recipient — that’s too generic to feel well-earned by the characters or unique to any series. And then it also stretches itself out with a version of Part II’s centerpiece that aims to yield a contrast, when Laverne explains the “correct” way that their caper is supposed to go — a Mission: Impossible-esque stunt that, we can imagine, is going to go awry when this clumsy gang (the two twosomes plus Carmine) tries it out. And that’s exactly what happens in the second half, which fulfills the promise of Part I and validates expectations that we would have had regardless of the alternate scenario that now seems unnecessary. So, if you’re wondering how come I’m only highlighting Part II, that’s why — Part I’s set piece is both extraneously idea-led and inherently unfunny in comparison to Part II’s more situation-based iteration. But if Part I pales, that’s also because Part II is great — it’s essentially 23 minutes of physical comedy, with little story (since that’s already been set up). This allows the entry to not be saddled by any limitations, and instead maximize the things it can boast as excellent. Accordingly, this is the best and most exciting half hour of the season. Norman Bartold appears again.
08) Episode 130: “Fifth Anniversary” (Aired: 04/14/81)
Frank and Edna argue on their fifth anniversary.
Written by Winifred Hervey & Cheryl Alu | Directed by Tom Trbovich
It’s disappointing that there aren’t a lot of good Frank/Edna segments on Laverne & Shirley, but that’s because, despite the strength of both Phil Foster and Betty Garrett, who are just as capable of elevating material as anyone else in this cast, the show too often tasks them with supplying sentiment or grounding humanity that no character here has in abundance. Also, their shows tend to lack the series’ desired physical comedy. That’s why this offering, which is one of Garrett’s last, is so special, for it claims a memorable routine with the sliding trailer that satisfies the fundamental laugh requirement while also allowing them to take focus in a story where they can prove themselves to be additive. (To that point, Garrett’s loss in Seven will be noticeable, even if she never was around much in plot.) Mitchell Laurance and Merie Earle appear.
09) Episode 131: “Out, Out Damned Plout” (Aired: 05/05/81)
Laverne and Shirley help Sgt. Plout when she goes AWOL.
Written by Paula A. Roth | Directed by Marlene Laird
Vicki Lawrence returns in this installment as Sgt. Alvinia Plout, a lingering reminder on the series of Season Five’s misbegotten military arc (which then went off to inspire a wretched animated show that ran in the fall of 1981). If you’ll recall, I wasn’t a fan of those episodes, for they lacked aesthetic logic, existing as some warped sketch-like scenario that wasn’t driven by — or even worthwhile for — the leads. But Lawrence’s Plout was a highlight, and here, removed from the trappings of the Army, she proves it, with the comedy stemming from the conscious turnaround of her behavior — we don’t expect this tough drill sergeant to morph into a sexy lounge singer, so it’s funny. And while I don’t like how much this script relies on its musical numbers to drive up interest, I appreciate that the story and the laughs are predicated on what we know of Plout, who, again, is played wonderfully by the hilarious Lawrence.
10) Episode 132: “Laverne’s Broken Leg” (Aired: 05/12/81)
Laverne breaks her leg and dreams about what life would be like without her.
Written by Tony DiMarco & David Ketchum | Directed by Ray DeVally Jr.
After some initial fun in the beginning with Penny Marshall’s Laverne breaking her leg and having to reside in a wheelchair, which affords her the chance to do some decent prop comedy as she cares for herself alone, this entry turns into a hacky It’s A Wonderful Life dream sequence, where Laverne imagines what everyone else’s life would be like if she had never been born. It’s the kind of sketch-like stunt I hate, for it’s not motivated by the characters or even connected to the series’ situation (or its comedy). However, beggars can’t be choosers in Six, and with enough laughs in the centerpiece that at least make sense based on our understanding of these (otherwise limited) characters and their relationships, I can say that the show does a better job than usual of tailoring this gimmick to its specific elements. Jeffrey Kramer guests.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: the two opening shows that establish the reformatting, “Not Quite New York,” which at least introduces the idea with more truthfulness than, say, The Lucy Show’s California move at the top of its fourth season, and “Welcome To Burbank,” which is burdened with introducing characters who will prove unhelpful but then also boasts a memorable earthquake routine, along with “The Other Woman,” a well-remembered outing in which Cindy Williams plays Shirley’s boyfriend’s estranged wife (but in a teleplay that craves more laughs), and “Born Too Late,” the other aforementioned Lenny/Squiggy offering, which puts them in a bunch of silent film centerpieces that yield funny slapstick… but not as much connection to the “situation” as “The Dating Game” featured above. I’ll also note here “Sing, Sing, Sing,” one of the segments purely designed for the leads to croon, but with an affable focus on Laverne’s bad singing voice — something that plays well for hahas, but poorly for pathos, and “The Bardwell Caper (I),” the lesser first half of the strong entry selected above as my MVE.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Laverne & Shirley goes to…
“The Bardwell Caper (II)”
Come back next week for Season Seven! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!