Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Oh Happy Days

The AV Club is looking at TV shows that ran over 100 episodes. Their entry on Happy Days has a thesis--that creator Garry Marshall set out to create a quiet, wistful comedy about the 50s and sold out that vision in an attempt to be popular. I guess that's one way of looking at it.  I think a better way is Marshall saw the show wasn't working and decided to fix it.

Marshall started out writing jokes, a profession where it's easy to know if you've succeeded.  Did you hear anyone laugh?  Indeed, most of his writing before he created his own shows was done for live audiences--Joey Bishop, Jack Paar, Dick Van Dyke and so on.

The first show he created (with partner Jerry Belson), Hey, Landlord, was a failure.  The second, The Odd Couple, was a success.  Not a huge hit, but it ran five years, was well-respected and won Emmys.  The first season was done one-camera style. This allowed for more subtle performances, but Marshall figured he needed the experience of a live show to make the comedy come alive, too, and so switched to the multi-camera format for the rest of the run.  I think this was good for the show--the actors may be "bigger," but it's worth it for the added vitality, and it also requires the writing to get real laughs.

Something similar happened with Happy Days.  It was created as a nostalgic look at a time Marshall remembered well, and as such was rejected.  Luckily for its creator, it was later swept onto the air when the 50s nostalgia movement overtook the nation.  But that was never enough. The show at first was about small things, and was relatively realistic. The main trouble was, for all its sweetness, it wasn't that funny.  In fact, it was sort of dull. Soon, audiences were drifting away.

Irving Berlin once said a good song is one that sells a lot of copies.  I don't know if Marshall feels the same way, but he'd seen success and failure, and understood you don't just get a network show so you can experiment with your feelings.  There's more than one way to make a good show, and if yours is flailing around, you take steps.

He recognized a couple things. First, Happy Days needed the jolt of a live audience to get out of the doldrums.  Sure, you may lose a little nuance, but you'll gain so much electricity that it's worth it. Second, he recognized that Fonzie, a character who was almost an afterthought in the original conception, was the breakout. Put him front and center--with the lead, Richie--and the audience should respond.  This is not selling out so much as acknowledging reality.

So he went live, moved Fonzie over the garage and suddenly had the biggest hit on televsion.  It started a Garry Marshall empire, with successful spinoffs Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy.

The AV Club says this kind of retooling rarely works, because audiences can sniff out when they're being condescended to.  Actually, I'd say major retooling (as opposed to minor retooling which every show goes through) rarely works because it's a sign you're in trouble to begin with, and it's hard to fix something that was born broken.

More important, I don't think Marshall was saying "okay, you dummies, you didn't like subtle, I'll give you obvious." It was more like "I was glad to get this on the air, but now that I see it I've figured out a way to make it come alive."

Irving Berlin would have been proud.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was a teen comedy set in the 50s so the 'rents would like it too

5:39 AM, September 11, 2012  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

Another thing that the AV Club analysis ignores the distinction between retooling a known quantity and retooling an unknown. When Queen went semi-disco with Hot Space they lost their American audience forever, because they were a known quantity. But hundreds of bands have re-tooled their sound during the era before they became famous, and there were no negative repurcussions because their fan base didn't exist yet.

I remember when Happy Days was the hugest show and all the kids at my elementary school talked non-stop about the Fonz. I was able to convince my parents to extend my bedtime from 8:00 to 8:30 and to allow television on a weeknight (hitherto forbidden in my house) because ALL the other kids were watching it. A couple years later, Happy Days' old episodes entered syndication, and for the first time ever we all saw the old shows where Fonzie just wore a white T-shirt, Ritchie had an older brother, Potsie was the second-most important character in the show, and the theme song was "Rock Around the Clock". None of us were even aware that this earlier version of Happy Days had existed. So the "retooling" was totally unknown to us.

9:43 AM, September 11, 2012  

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