Monday, August 16, 2004

Happy Days, Addendum

Follow-up to my previous post about "Happy Days," here's a little Associated Press item where creator Garry Marshall more or less admits that the early, one-camera version of the show had more integrity:

“‘Happy Days’ was my artistic period,” Marshall said. “I wanted to make a little film each week, all one-camera shoots like a little film. Pretty! Nice! And they said, ‘Too soft, and too expensive.”’

By season three, the show had switched to the live-audience format, which continued through the end of its 11-year run.

Marshall, of course, was always willing to retool his shows if the network suggested it. Mork and Mindy, after a hugely successful first season, ran into two problems in the off-season: the network wanted younger, hipper people onscreen (the only major characters apart from Mork and Mindy had been Mindy's father and -- a staple of the Garry Marshall cheese-factory -- wisecracking grandmother), and star Robin Williams wanted more "relevant" plots and for Mork to become less naive. So the show was retooled, several characters dropped, several new characters added, a whole new set added (a "hip" deli, to the extent that a delicatessen can be hip), and wacky new plots added in an effort to, as one writer put it to me, "distract" Robin Williams from his demands for a revision of his character. The show's ratings sank like a stone in the second year, and various subsequent retoolings, including bringing back the old characters, never returned the show to its former popularity.

That said, I like Garry Marshall, at least as a TV writer-producer (his films are a different story). He and his then-partner Jerry Belson wrote the funniest and most imaginative episodes of "The Dick Van Dyke Show"; "The Odd Couple," his last collaboration with Belson, is a classic that surpasses the play it's based on; I've already said that I like the early "Happy Days," and "Laverne and Shirley" is funny. (Admit it, it's funny. Admit it, you sing the theme song. Just admit it.) Even the crappy stuff he did, like the later episodes of "Happy Days," are redeemed by a certain professionalism in the structure, pacing, jokes; it may be corny but it's never slow or dull. Listen to Marshall's DVD commentary on one of his "Dick Van Dyke Show" episodes ("Baby Fat," season 4) and you'll hear a motormouth New York comedy writer who can't stop telling stories, but you'll also hear a comedy professional who has an eye and ear for what kind of sounds, sights, etc. will induce laughter in an audience. At one point he criticizes the actors' clothes for being too loud and distracting the viewer from the joke. You've got to respect that kind of professionalism.

One more trivia note: Jerry Paris, who had been an actor/director on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," became the principal director of "Happy Days" starting in the first season. Once the show went to a live studio audience, Paris directed every single episode, right up until the last one, yea, even through the Joanie/Chachi and Ted McGinley years. All in all Paris directed 240 out of the show's 255 episodes (the 15 he didn't direct were all in the early one-camera years, and that's only because it's hard for one director to handle all the episodes of a show that films on location). I don't know if that's a record, but I don't feel like going through TV Tome trying to find out. Of course Paris probably deserves a lot of the credit for keeping "Happy Days" fast and reasonably entertaining even when the plots were idiotic, but I'll save that for a post about TV directors.

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