Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Last Time I Saw Paris

A local station devoted to "family friendly" and/or religious programming has had huge success with Happy Days -- it's fun and it's so clean that they don't have to bleep the word "damn" out like they do with their Wonder Years reruns -- and I make an effort to tune in now and then whenever they get to the years after Ron Howard left. This may make me the TV viewing equivalent of people who gawk at train wrecks; I don't know, but there's a weird fascination in trying to watch how a show struggles to find stories to tell after its lead actor walks away.

What's really horrific is the season they did when Joanie and Chachi were off doing, well, Joanie Loves Chachi. To compensate for the loss of those characters (and Garry Marshall good-luck charm Al Molinaro, who also joined the new spinoff), the producers shovelled in a ton of new youngish actors who could hopefully appeal to the teenagers who made up the bulk of the show's audience, both in the nation and in the studio audience. (The Happy Days audience was legendary for its obnoxious cheering for almost everybody; it's almost ghoulishly interesting when somebody comes in and the audience doesn't clap, or claps very quietly.)

So in addition to Ted McGinley, the almost uniformly pathetic replacement for Ron Howard, and Cathy Silvers, who was actually quite funny, the 1982-83 season added Crystal Bernard as an innocent Southern girl staying with the Cunninghams for no discernable reason, Billy Warlock as "Flip," a young character of no discernable character traits but whose hair bore an eerie resemblance to Chachi's; and, just in case the Fonz hadn't already been emasculated enough, they gave him a steady girlfriend, Linda Purl, who was a spunky divorcee with a cute daughter played by, alas, Heather O'Rourke. Mix in a few guest characters who drifted in and out, and adjust for the fact that there may have been some new semi-regulars in episodes I haven't seen, and the new characters basically far outweighed the characters who had been there since the beginning. It was Happy Days: The New Class or Happy Days as produced by Dick Wolf.

And here's the really weird thing: these episodes are not that bad. In spite of the fact that nearly all the new characters are awful, that the old characters have outlived any point they may have had, that the stories end with huge horrible lessons accompanied by the most obnoxious "heartfelt" music in television history, a late episode of Happy Days is actually pretty entertaining, much more so than, say, a late episode of Law and Order. (Though admittedly Happy Days never had a line as funny as "Is this because I'm a lesbian?")

I think the main reason for this, and the real subject of this post, is the director, Jerry Paris. Garry Marshall sensibly hired Paris, whom he'd worked with on The Dick Van Dyke Show (where Paris was an actor and the principal director), and Paris set some kind of record by directing over 200 episodes of Happy Days. His way of directing a sitcom is the kind of lean, mean, tight and fast direction you hardly ever see today: no matter how sluggishly written the scene is, the show never stops moving because the actors are always doing something. There are all kinds of tricks he uses to speed up the pace of long scenes in confined spaces, like having the actors speed up their delivery, do little bits of business while someone else is talking -- basically, tricks designed to make even the corniest script seem relatively naturalistic in execution, so the actors actually give the impression that this stuff seems real to them, and so that the show is moving too fast for us to notice the clunkiness of the last line. He did the same stuff on The Dick Van Dyke Show; the early episodes, mostly directed by John Rich, are more carefully paced, but once Paris took over and got going, he sped up the show by finding ways to do physical comedy, and fairly complicated physical staging, concurrently with expository pages of dialogue. Of course, on that show he had better scripts to work with, but the job of the TV director is to do his best with what he's been given, which often means trying to make weak scripts entertaining. Paris did quite a job of that on Happy Days, and it's kind of a tribute to the craft of a good sitcom director that they turned out as fast and entertaining as they did, and that he cleverly found ways of disguising the weaknesses of some of the actors (by finding ways for the better actors to physically dominate a scene, regardless of who it's supposed to be about).

Another director who has done consistently good, fast work with poor scripts is Joel Zwick. Except for Bosom Buddies he hardly ever did a show with good scripts, and his feature hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding wasn't much better, but he turned out some of the fastest-paced and most cleverly staged sitcom episodes around. And of course there's James Burrows, whose near-legendary gift for pacing is probably the only reason Will and Grace has lasted this long (the scripts aren't much, but it's moving too fast for us to notice).

Two more notes on those later, bizarre Happy Days:

- The other reason why it's worth tuning into these episodes, or many Paramount-produced sitcoms of that era, is that you'll often see some interesting guest stars; Paramount's casting people in the late '70s and '80s were really good at finding young unknown actors and building up their careers by giving them guest shots on popular sitcoms, like Robin Williams on Happy Days or Ted Danson on Taxi. And sometimes the long-running shows would be sort of a halfway house for refugees from Paramount's cancelled shows; a glance at TV.com shows that Peter Scolari and Tom Hanks both turned up in guest shots on Happy Days right after the cancellation of Bosom Buddies. Plus sometimes they'd just use plain cool people as guest stars; the late episode of Happy Days I saw -- the one that got me off on this rant -- featured Wendy Schaal. I'm not saying that nothing with Wendy Schaal can be entirely unfunny (she's done some duds like everybody), but she's got quite a track record of being weirdly amusing, and casting her displays good sense on the part of any show.

- Despite all the Jump the Shark hoopla, Ted McGinley's reputation as a show-killer isn't really fair; Married... With Children went on fine with him in it. But that show recognized the point of Ted McGinley, which is that he looks, talks and acts like he stepped off the cover of Gigolo Monthly. Casting him as a dumb blond selling his surgery-enhanced good looks, as Married... did, is fine. Casting him as an actual human being, let alone an intellectual, like Happy Days did, is insanity. See the distinction?

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