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, CAROLE ITA WHITE, BETTY GARRETT, and PHIL FOSTER.
Season Two is the start of Laverne & Shirley’s Long Golden Age, the three-year period where the show is at its most reliable and rewarding, regularly offering what it does best — star-forward, broad, usually physical, humor — while being propelled by easy ideas that satisfy these goals without too often highlighting inherent and/or mounting shortcomings, thereby inflicting the least amount of harm. Now, each of these three seasons has its own strengths, but this collection is the most exciting, for it enjoys the forward strides of active self-discovery, with the novelty of its knowingness fueling the fun. Not only is this the year that takes what was developing in One and formally comes to realize that the series’ supreme modus vivendi requires showcasing the leading ladies, and Penny Marshall specifically, in heightened physical centerpieces, it also embraces a unique structural aspect of the low-concept premise: its existence as an adult “hangout” comedy, with two sets of young singles. Accordingly, Two delights in expanding its ensemble — increasing its utilization of the very funny (and almost equally iconic) Lenny and Squiggy, the literally unrealistic but comedically dependable pair who moved into their counterparts’ building at the end of last season, thus further integrating them into the show’s world, while also expanding beyond its other one-note side players (Carmine and Frank) to provide additional support in the form of landlady Edna, portrayed by All In The Family‘s Betty Garrett, and Carole Ita White’s Rosie, Laverne’s snooty rival. Both ladies, and especially Rosie, match the show’s comic energy and give the central twosome more against which they can play, honoring the star-focused perception of character by concocting scenarios where the leads’ already cartoonish personas can be aggrandized… Speaking of personas, after a formative freshman year, this is also the first to really make plain a distinction between the two women, with Shirley officially existing as more sensitive and restrained compared to the wilder, impulsive Laverne. Okay, this delineation is never as prevalent in story as I’d like, nor is it comedically maximized to suggest a character-forward usage, but it represents a basic understanding that helps posit this sophomore season as a big improvement over One.
That’s not to say everything is hunky dory though. There are a couple of attempts here to counteract the broad, single dimensionality of the series’ comedy by shoehorning in emotional moments that presumably intend to grant depth to the characters and give weight to the silly hijinks. But as we noted in the opening Garry Marshall essay, it’s difficult to do with story what’s lacking in situation. In other words, most shows can’t use episodic plots to dimensionalize characters if “the situation” — the way they’re designed to exist week-to-week in maintenance of their “given” status quo — fights it. This means, an entry like “Look Before You Leap” — which appears to be popular with Laverne & Shirley devotees for its efforts to humanize the leads and strengthen relationships when they’re confronted with a serious dilemma (Laverne’s pregnancy scare) — sounds dissonant against the series’ baseline in this era, for beyond just the simple fact that a drama with such heavy consequences seems out of place on a show more comfortable dealing with haunted houses and jungle gyms, these characters don’t feel realistic enough to handle a true problem with sincerity. This goes back to our realism discussion. Remember, literal realism is not ideal when it stands in the way of the genre’s comic objective, but shows that are more literally realistic do tend to have more believable characters, which makes it easier for them to anchor stories that require a lot of humanity. Obviously, Laverne & Shirley, like all of Garry Marshall’s shows, eschews that style in favor of a sensibility that then becomes dependent on aesthetic realism, or self-established internal standards, which don’t have to be true-to-life, but at least consistent in order to sustain our faith. And, sadly, with characters who are still largely vague and drawn fairly cartoonishly, prone to swings in emotion based on the needs of a comic story, aesthetic realism is undermined too, as this is a show where the funny slapstick centerpiece takes precedence over a character beat. As a result, rare episodic attempts to rely more on the characters fall flat — this show, and these leads, don’t have much leeway. And what’s more, it’s not what the series does best. Again, star-focused physical comedy is the engine of its merit here in Two, and that’s why this kind of humor, along with the smarter use of the ensemble, most informs my picks for this exciting season’s finest.
01) Episode 17: “Angels Of Mercy” (Aired: 10/05/76)
Laverne and Shirley volunteer at the hospital.
Written by Michael Warren & William Bickley | Directed by Howard Storm
Garry Marshall later cited this underrated excursion as the moment he realized broad physical comedy spotlighting the two leads, and especially his sister Penny, should be this series’ raison d’être, and while it tends not to get the same reverence among the fandom, the ladies’ great work, particularly in the bed sequence, is indeed some of the best slapstick of the entire run, making evident Marshall’s claims, along with my comparisons to The Lucy Show, as this installment not only evokes that famous redhead’s humor subliminally, it also feels directly reminiscent of “Lucy Plays Florence Nightingale.” As for Laverne & Shirley, the success of this episode ensures that it won’t be the last time the duo will run amok in a hospital…
02) Episode 20: “Bridal Shower” (Aired: 11/09/76)
Laverne and Shirley make trouble at a friend’s bridal shower.
Written by Paula A. Roth & Judy Skelton | Directed by Alan Myerson
Carole Ita White makes her debut in this offering as Rosie Greenbaum, the girls’ — specifically, Laverne’s — old high school rival, who’s now a snobby married lady lording her lifestyle over her single frenemies. The chemistry between the three is fun, providing the core duo with both a sense of history that helps give texture to their dynamic, along with a recurring antagonist who’s beneficial for story, creating a personalized relationship that can hopefully lend justification to otherwise disconnected idea-led plots. Unfortunately, Rosie’s never utilized well, but her presence alone is a victory, indicating this year’s more robust ensemble. A smart one.
03) Episode 23: “Good Time Girls” (Aired: 11/30/76)
Laverne and Shirley try to erase their phone number from a men’s bathroom wall.
Written by Laura Levine | Directed by James Burrows
This comic idea — of Laverne and Shirley disguising themselves as men to sneak into a pool hall bathroom where their phone number has been written on the wall by a vindictive wannabe beau — is enough to sustain this entry’s value. However, I was compelled to highlight it here because of the chance to make the rhetorical point that this is a series where a pair of women can put on hats and pretend to be guys because other people won’t recognize the ruse — a form of suspension of disbelief that’s literally unrealistic and renders emotional identification difficult, dependent on an aesthetic realism that demands strong, consistent characters (which, of course, the show proves not to prioritize either). That said, the energy remains infectiously high throughout, perhaps because of the buoyant direction by the soon-to-be-esteemed James Burrows (two years before Taxi), who helms a quarter of this year’s output. Guests include writers Greg Antonacci and Stephen Nathan, along with Bruce Kimmel, and Fred Willard.
04) Episode 28: “Playing Hooky” (Aired: 01/11/77)
Laverne and Shirley play hooky from work and get mistaken for hookers.
Written by Barry Rubinowitz | Directed by John Thomas Lenox
Laverne and Shirley being mistaken for hookers is another easy comic idea, but the story beats never quite earn the big laughs its premise suggests. Rather, I think this well-regarded installment is laudable for the mostly gratuitous set pieces in the first half, as Laverne and Shirley play hooky from work and go to the park, where they have fun on the jungle gym and several playground devices (like the seesaw). It’s a chance for the twosome — including Cindy Williams, who does some of her best early work here — to spotlight their pronounced physical comedy chops, which, again, is what they and this series do best: the reason an episode is tops.
05) Episode 29: “Guinea Pigs” (Aired: 01/18/77)
Laverne and Shirley sign up to be guinea pigs in a series of lab experiments.
Written by Jack Winter | Directed by James Burrows
Jack Winter penned this blatant remake of his own 1967 contribution to Hey, Landlord! — Garry Marshall’s first co-created series. It not only uses the same premise as the original, but most of the same comic ideas (one pal becomes tired by the experiments while the other is hungry). The difference? This one boasts Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall, two stars with better defined personas and a much more obvious ability to enliven broad physical comedy, both in the string of idea-driven moments — held together by the flimsy, sketch-like “guinea pig” plot — and especially in the rewarding centerpiece, where Marshall’s Laverne gets to do a terrific drowsy routine, which earns big laughs and satisfies the series’ primary ambition. So, despite not being totally fresh, this is nevertheless a decided improvement over its first iteration, due largely to the two leading ladies, and the heightened comedy they encourage in the writing and bring out in the performance. For that reason, it’s a great sample of the series — not to mention the season, which has discovered its purpose — directly proving, more than any other here, how much Laverne & Shirley relies on its star personas to elevate its comic notions, and indicating, through the contrast with Hey, Landlord!, how a merely funny idea can be rendered hysterical just because of the series’ leads. This affirms my belief that the only thing better than funny ideas is funny personified tangibles who can support them — and although Laverne and Shirley may not be well fleshed out or actually capable of motivating this plot, compared to the guys on Hey, Landlord!, this half hour — which also guests Harry Shearer — reveals that they do bring so much. Thus, it should come as no surprise that I’ve selected “Guinea Pigs” as my choice for this year’s MVE (Most Valuable Episode), for there’s no other in Two that displays their value quite as well. (Also, I said weeks ago that I was thinking of revisiting Hey, Landlord!, which I discussed briefly in an old Wildcard. Well, this is the update: I decided I’m not interested in dedicating a whole post to the series again, so I’m sharing some thoughts in this footnote here, and you can screen Winter’s initial take on this story, “Testing… One, Two,” here.)
06) Episode 30: “Call Me A Taxi” (Aired: 02/01/77)
Laverne and Shirley take jobs at a dance hall.
Written by Deborah Leschin & Paula A. Roth | Directed by Alan Myerson
This affable outing yields ample physical beats for the two leads (along with Lenny and Squiggy) via a memorable plot in which the girls become taxi dancers — a situation-starved “job of the week” in the Lucy Show vein that, on the other hand, is not uncommon or objectionable given this series’ baseline, especially because the basic comic objective is satisfied, and with its preferred type of humor. However, I also enjoy featuring this installment because it’s evidence of how the show purposely avoids the harshness of the early ’70s in favor of a naïveté that may flirt with adult themes — like the seediness of the “dance hall” (and its denizens, particularly the amusing Julie Payne) — but with a comedic broadness that takes out any sting, validating Marshall’s syrupy optimism in the end. Larry Hankin also appears.
07) Episode 31: “Steppin’ Out” (Aired: 02/08/77)
Laverne and Shirley prepare for a night out.
Written by Deborah Leschin | Directed by Dennis Klein
With a low-concept yarn about the girls preparing for a date that confines its action to the apartment and keeps the big idea-led trappings off-screen (a fire “across the street”), this episode is a decidedly atypical example of Laverne & Shirley in this era, as it usually enjoys indulging a bigger narrative that can then encourage a grand comic centerpiece. But it’s the kind of segment I typically enjoy on low-concept series, for this forces the characters to do the heavy-lifting, with their interactions determining comedic value. Now, in this case, Laverne & Shirley isn’t able to pull off a classic using this design — like, say, “hangout” sitcom Friends’ “The One Where No One’s Ready” — but that’s mostly because the script just doesn’t provide the opportunities for clowning, which is a requisite in this series’ finest offerings. In terms of character though, it actually is a cut above this series’ norm, with the leading ladies playing in form — the slight variations that this season has distinguished are clear — but more believably than ever, thanks to their low-concept goals and the removal of story machinations that force harmful behavioral swings. To wit, if there was a bigger set piece in the second act, this would likely be my MVE: a guide for how this series could best function.
08) Episode 33: “Honeymoon Hotel” (Aired: 02/22/77)
Laverne helps keep up the ruse when Shirley wins a vacation meant for newlyweds.
Written by Monica Johnson & Eric Cohen | Directed by Gary Shimokawa
As with the aforementioned “Good Time Girls,” this entry’s comic premise requires a suspension of disbelief that firmly positions the show as existing in a place where literal realism is irrelevant, and aesthetic realism, despite not being in great supply either, must assume more importance, for the whole idea of Laverne being able to pretend that she’s Shirley’s husband — based on a classic sitcom setup, in which Shirley feigns marriage in order to enjoy a free vacation — stretches real-world truth. But it’s par for the course on Laverne & Shirley, and more importantly, it’s very funny too — a fine showcase for Penny Marshall. Geoffrey Lewis guests.
09) Episode 34: “Hi Neighbor Book II” (Aired: 03/01/77)
Laverne and Shirley go out on a dinner date with Lenny and Squiggy.
Written by Michael McKean & David L. Lander | Directed by Ray DeVally, Jr.
Called a sequel to the previous season’s “Hi Neighbor,” which did a great job integrating Lenny and Squiggy into the series as they moved into the building, thereby strengthening their bond with Laverne and Shirley, this hilarious outing similarly confirms the two guys as the most important characters on the show beyond the two leads, solidifying their relationships even further, and with big laughs that aid our understanding of the boys, who are even less nuanced and dimensional than their distaff counterparts — with shoehorned emotional moments that feel childlike at best, inauthentic at worst — but probably more consistent, given that their utilization is almost squarely reserved for material of this stripe. And they easily achieve their goals here, primarily in the restaurant centerpiece that stands as a highlight of the season, making this my MVE runner-up. Lynne Marie Stewart and Gino Conforti appear.
10) Episode 36: “Haunted House” (Aired: 03/22/77)
Laverne and Shirley are trapped in a spooky house.
Written by Andrew Johnson | Directed by Alan Myerson
Admittedly, I’m not a fan of the “haunted house” gimmick frequently employed by sitcoms — even on The Dick Van Dyke Show! — as it’s often little more than a sketch-like parade of clichéd gags to which the characters respond instead of inspiring. However, that’s generally the formula for every Laverne & Shirley, and raising objection here would be unfair. Accordingly, I can enjoy this entry for the “sketch-like parade of clichéd gags to which the characters respond,” because it affords the stars many anticipated opportunities to clown, and to be fair, the script revels in its gimmicky simplicity in a way that doesn’t feel insulting to the audience or the show. So, it’s not a favorite, but I can see why it’s popular and why it works for this series.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Drive! She Said,” which opens the season with the right comic energy but no set piece on par with those above, “Excuse Me, May I Cut In?,” which features Richie and Potsie from Happy Days and essentially exists as a variation of the girls’ original appearance on that show (it’s actually better for the boys, who are defined in contrast to Laverne & Shirley and thus have funnier personalities than they usually do on their own series), “Frank’s Fling,” which is a solid ensemble show (close to the above list) that nevertheless doesn’t give the women a boffo moment of their own, and “Lonely At The Middle,” which was also close to my list, courtesy of a funny Lucy-esque conveyer belt routine, marred only by the forced ego trip by Shirley — it’s common for story to lead character on this series, but it’s especially false here. Of lesser quality but equal note are “Dear Future Model,” which does the right things but just pales in comparison to the year’s competition, “Two Of Our Weirdos Are Missing,” which is a decent segment for Lenny & Squiggy but not as much a showcase for our leading ladies, “Guilty Until Proven Not Innocent,” which foolishly separates the girls but has one A+ scene for Laverne, and “Buddy, Can You Spare A Father?,” which, like “Look Before You Leap,” pushes for a dramatic sincerity the text can’t uphold, but this time, with a slapstick climax that satisfies the audience’s expectations.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Laverne & Shirley goes to…
Come back next week for Season Three! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!