Monday, March 12, 2007

This Is Just Sad, Yet Instructive

So you remember how I wrote about how good Happy Days was in its first couple of seasons (the single-camera years), and then posted a clip from the fifth season (the Mork From Ork episode) to show how far the show had fallen by then? Well, one additional thing I didn't really remember was that the show fell even further the year after that.

The thing about the Mork episode was that even though it was stupid and aimed entirely at kids, it was funny. Not good, but funny. But someone has posted a clip from the show's big sweeps stunt episode from the following year -- where Fonzie apparently fakes his own death and the Laverne and Shirley characters attend his funeral -- and it is stupid and aimed entirely at really dumb kids and is not at all funny. It gets especially bad after the L&S characters leave and the plot kicks in: Everybody's overacting, especially the guest villain, and the music, jokes and characters are all right out of a bad Saturday morning cartoon. If Saturday morning cartoons had a studio audience with screaming kids.

And yet it's always interesting to chart the downward slide of Happy Days, for this reason: with a Garry Marshall show, every decision, every change, was driven by what the network wanted and/or what Marshall thought the public wanted. Marshall's a fine comedy writer and a true comedy professional -- listen to his commentary on an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, where he even evaluates the impact that clothing choices have on the delivery of a joke -- but he was always willing to make changes to his shows, either to keep the network happy or to fit in with prevailing trends. Every comedy pro is primarily concerned with audience response, but Marshall would go out jogging and shout out ideas for character names to passers-by, just to see if the man on the street (literally) responded well to the name "Fonzarelli."

Because of Marshall's eagerness to adapt to whatever was "in," Happy Days is like a television lab where Marshall and his cohorts test out every trend of the '70s. The unsold pilot (which aired as an episode of Love, American Style) is in the mold of Summer of '42, because that movie had just made a splash. When the show was revived, it was because of the success of American Graffiti, so the first season is heavily influenced by that movie in look, feel and tone. In the second season (which was still one-camera), the network wanted more "hard" comedy -- meaning big laughs instead of observational chuckles -- so there was suddenly much less exterior shooting and broader comedy. Then came the third season and the famous re-tool.

But Marshall kept on adapting the show to the needs of the times. He told an interviewer that he tried to have a quota of episodes each year aimed at different tastes (some Howard-Marion episodes for the parents, some "lesson" episodes, some episodes for people who liked '50s nostalgia, an episode with singing, and so on). The "family hour" came in, with Happy Days' 8 p.m. slot becoming specifically aimed at kids -- so Marshall made the show more kid-friendly. Jaws was a huge hit that changed the entertainment industry, and that's why Fonzie jumped over a shark. Mork appeared on the show because Star Wars was the biggest hit in the world and Marshall's kid suggested that they should do an episode about somebody from outer space. Whatever you're seeing on an episode of Happy Days is based on an attempt to cash in on some trend, somewhere.

So by the 1978-9 season, which is the season of the clip featured above, the biggest hits on TV tended to be broad farces like Three's Company and Marshall's own freshman hit Mork and Mindy. So Happy Days went even broader and became an out-and-out cartoon farce, at least during an important sweeps episode like this one. By the time Ron Howard left, the wacky trend had burnt itself out, so the show gradually became a little more down-to-earth. The new characters weren't only introduced to replace the ones who left, but to reflect changing tastes in entertainment (movies like Grease had shown that kids and teenagers liked slightly less wholesome entertainment, so some mildly non-wholesome jokes were introduced through new featured players like Cathy Silvers). When Marshall thought that the old Arnold's set looked too uncool for the current generation of kids, he did an episode where the place burnt down and was rebuilt as a more grown-up looking place. Whether Happy Days was good or bad, and it was pretty bad for large portions of its run, Marshall was always adapting it to whatever he thought the audience wanted to see.

I kind of like that about him. Even if the results are often embarrassing.


Marty McKee said...

If it's funny, then why the heck isn't it good??

Jaime J. Weinman said...

If it's funny, then why the heck isn't it good??

That's a good question. I guess it's just that it (the Mork vs. Fonz thing) is so dumb that I'm kind of ashamed of myself for finding it funny. It's a Guilty Pleasure (tm).

I see your point, though -- the idea of a Guilty Pleasure (tm) is kind of flawed. (A work of entertainment is supposed to provide pleasure; if it does that, why should we feel guilty?)

Visaman666 said...

I was 9 when the show debuted, so I guess I was the prime demographic. When Fonzie jumped over the barrels on the show "You asked for it" it was a big deal to my classmates!

But as we grew older the show had less appeal to us, but I have to admit that we loved Mork and Mindy.