Happy Days became one of the biggest hits on TV by selling its soul
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For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced or reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.
Garry Marshall faced a dilemma in the second season of Happy Days. The series, which had initially been an attempt to honestly depict a wistful look back at adolescence (Marshall told the Associated Press in 2004 that it was his “artistic period”), had been a minor Nielsen hit in its first season, but it was sinking like a stone, falling out of the Top 30 and toward certain cancellation. He had one last shot at making the series a success, though it would destroy almost everything he’d set out to create. What he came up with was almost terminally dumb, but it made the show one of the biggest hits in television history, one of the ultimate case stories TV fans can point to when it comes to art versus commerce. Marshall and the show’s other producers took a charming little single-camera comedy about the trials of growing up and made it a loud, kid-friendly, multi-camera comedy more about gimmicks than intelligent storytelling or nuanced characters.
And it worked.
Here’s the thing: It’s rare for this sort of pandering to actually work on television. Television deserves its reputation for seeking the lowest common denominator, but the shows that attract such viewers tend to come by them honestly. Take, for instance, The Beverly Hillbillies, one of the great, dumb hits in TV history. Everybody on that show—from the writers to the directors to the incredibly gifted cast—works their ass off to give the audience a good time. If viewers sit and think about it too much, they’ll start to realize just how stupid it all is, but if they let it wash over them (say, while eating dinner or talking with their kids about their days), then it provides some moderate chuckles and some light entertainment. Like all art, dumb TV usually has to have integrity to be successful.
Audiences can almost always sniff out when a show is being contemptuous of them, thinking that what they want is some dumb bullshit before they turn off the tube and go to bed. Numerous TV producers have tried, earnestly, to create a bad TV show they think the audience will embrace, and nearly all have failed. (The best reference point might be 1983’s Mr. Smith, a beyond-obnoxious comedy about a super-intelligent orangutan created by some of the writers behind Taxi, who were struggling to get more nuanced work on the air. The series immediately bombed.) The people who create the kind of terrible TV that lasts are the Aaron Spellings and Stephen J. Cannells and Chuck Lorres of the world (all of whom have been responsible for at least one or two genuinely good shows). They’re the people who really, honestly try to make shows that won’t make audiences think too hard at any moment. They have a gift for that sort of thing, and perhaps that gift shouldn’t be underestimated.
Marshall, whose career had taken him from Jack Paar’s early Tonight Show to The Dick Van Dyke Show to The Odd Couple, had something of a reputation for quality when he created Happy Days. The two sitcoms listed above are among the best of their respective eras, and the latter was a relentless gag machine, one that laid out a perfect comedic relationship and then spent five seasons finding every possible permutation of that relationship that would make viewers laugh. (Its “Password” episode is an almost perfect sitcom creation, one that should be taught in TV-writing courses if it’s not already.) Happy Days began life as an unsold pilot starring Ron Howard and Marion Ross (and a number of other actors who wouldn’t continue through with the series), and was picked up to air as an episode of the romance anthology series Love, American Style. On the basis of that pilot, George Lucas cast Howard as the lead in his American Graffiti, and suddenly, the long-dormant pilot was of interest to ABC again. Paramount Television sold the show as a series, and it hit the air in 1974 as a midseason replacement.
The differences between the episodes in the series’ first and best season and what came later are legion. For starters, Marshall toned down his joke-heavy style in favor of playing to the show’s single-camera strengths. (At the time, single-camera comedies—shot on location without an audience—were seen as more contemplative and less dependent on broad jokes. The primary example of the form at the time was Howard’s other long-running series, The Andy Griffith Show.) The stories were small and centered on good kid Richie Cunningham (Howard), who had to face down the usual teenage temptations. In the show’s third episode—one of its best—Richie goes out to a bachelor party and gets drunk. What follows is simply an attempt to depict this rite of passage as it might actually happen, within the standards of television of the time.
The series primarily focused on the Cunningham home, where Richie received solid guidance from parents Howard and Marion, and dealt with younger sister Joanie and older brother Chuck (who appeared infrequently). His friends included self-styled jokester Ralph Malph and the more worldly Potsie, who was always getting Richie into bad situations. It’s important not to overstate the quality of the show. Though often charming and sweet, the series was never wildly funny or particularly moving. It opted to be a sort of Leave It To Beaver for the ’70s, only it was still set in the era of that earlier program and didn’t have the character depth of that show. Nostalgia attempted to cover for too much, particularly in an era where sitcoms were earnestly tackling the issues of the day. But Happy Days was often a winning show, and it’s not hard to understand why audiences made it a Top 20 Nielsen hit in that first season. Like The Wonder Years later, the show traded both on nostalgia and adolescent memory, creating a world at once ultra-specific to its era and universal in its appeal.
It also starred a nogoodnik named The Fonz.
Initially intended as the sort of “cool” guy Richie would never be, The Fonz soon became wildly popular with the audience. Again, it’s not hard to see why. As played by Henry Winkler, the character seemed to be the definition of cool, a strong, silent type who stood off to the side and occasionally gave Richie the right advice he needed in a situation. The Fonz was meant to be a cautionary tale as much as anything else, the kind of guy Richie might turn into if he didn’t get with the program and keep being the good, vaguely nerdy kid he was. The Fonz was a good guy at heart, but he was also sort of intimidating, and his quiet cool was at once something Richie wanted to be and something he understood wasn’t the be-all, end-all of life.
The series began to fall off in its second season. The ratings slumped, and the show fell out of the Nielsen Top 30 for one of the two seasons it would spend outside that list. (The other was the series’ last season.) Despite being in the same timeslot where it had become a hit—and where it would rise to become a hit again in the next season—the ratings proved its audience was only interested in the show’s nostalgia up to a point. In that same AP interview referenced above, Marshall says the series was “soft” at the time, meaning that the show lacked the kind of hard, obvious jokes for which his earlier shows had been known. It was more character-oriented, less about crazy situations. Around the midpoint of the second season, Marshall decided to try changing all of that.
In the episode “Fonzie Gets Married,” the show tried out a half-hour in front of a live studio audience. The plot—Fonzie’s getting married to a woman Richie recognizes as a stripper—didn’t bear much relation to the gentle tales of adolescence the show had begun with (though it did have some relation to the slight sexual frankness the show would lose with time). It’s a loud, boisterous episode where everything’s pitched so that everybody in the studio audience can hear every line. Winkler’s more subdued performance became much broader, and the idea of The Fonz as this quiet guy Richie could turn to in a crisis was replaced by Winkler belting every line and playing up every moment as much as possible. When people think of The Fonz—the catchphrase-spewing, “AYYYY!”-shouting, jukebox-punching force of pop culture—they’re probably thinking of the guy invented in this episode.
In season three, Marshall and his team didn’t look back. The show pursued the tone of “Fonzie Gets Married” and pursued it as much as it could. It mercilessly dumbed itself down, the better to appeal to little kids. It focused on The Fonz, at the expense of Richie, greatly sidelining Potsie and Ralph. The characters met aliens and fell into comas and, yes, jumped sharks. Indeed, just a handful of episodes into season three, Fonzie is making daredevil jumps on his motorcycle, the better to appeal to Evel Knievel fans. The series spun off Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy, two shows that went on to dominate the Nielsens as well, though neither could be called restrained or even close to good TV. (Well, Laverne & Shirley at least had some fine moments of physical comedy.) Happy Days became the vanguard sitcom in a new movement, away from the sophisticated, witty, urbane comedies of Norman Lear and MTM Productions, and toward the kind of shtick-y comedies those other producers had aimed to get away from. Marshall and his producers gave the audience everything they thought it wanted. Soon, the Happy Days style would take over television, and its network and studio would ride that style to the very top of the Nielsens.
Which is all well and good, but it never once answers just why Marshall’s desperate hail-Mary pass to save his show by selling out worked. Again, it’s rare for this kind of a retool to succeed, because the audience is good about sniffing out when it’s being condescended to. Yet the Happy Days retool didn’t just work; it worked instantly. The show became insanely popular in its third season, then entered Nielsen Top 10 in season four. The answer, I suspect, lies in Marshall’s tendency to do this on all his shows—even the ones that were good or the ones that bombed quickly. Marshall really did seem to believe that, on some level, what the audience wanted was what would be good. If people weren’t watching, then his show must not be as good as it could be. He was a consummate professional of joke-craft: TV blogger Jaime Weinman points to a Dick Van Dyke commentary where he says the jokes aren’t landing as well as they might because the characters are wearing outfits that are too garish. But that also meant he chased an audience that increasingly wanted a break from the drudgeries of the ’70s, just a little stupid fun to laugh at, instead of creating the small, artful show he’d wanted to make.
Look again at that AP quote: Marshall criticizes the show for being the very thing he wanted it to be. In some creators, this would inspire intense anger at the audience, intense revulsion of those who had rejected his baby. Marshall was different, though. If the audience wasn’t watching the show he wanted to make, well, he must have been wrong to presuppose what they’d want in the first place. Marshall viewed television not as a place for him to express himself, but as a place where he would respond to the concerns of the network and audience, until he had beaten out whatever was personal and whatever was popular was all that was left.
Next time: Bewitched