Yeah. That’s the Happy Days I like. Chuck’s Happy Days.
Chuck Cunningham, Richie’s older brother, lasted only two seasons, in which he really didn’t do much. He was played by two actors (Gavan O’Herlihy in season one and Randolph Roberts in season two) and his primary function on the show, it seemed, was to make a joke, announce he had to go to basketball practice, and leave.
And he’d say, “I have to go to basketball practice.” Um, just say you have to go to practice, Chuck. You’re carrying a basketball. We’ll figure it out.
This gave rise to what is know as the Chuck Cunningham Syndrome. That’s when a popular TV series just drops a character. Usually, little or nothing is said on the show of the disappearance and the characters are seldom, if ever, mentioned again. They become what George Orwell referred to as “unpersons”.
More specifically, I like the first season of Chuck’s Happy Days. That first season was on film and was a single camera production. Single camera means that the shows are filmed like little movies. There’s no audience so the shots can be done out of sequence. However, in those days, single camera sitcoms were accompanied by a laugh track to show the viewers when to laugh. Today’s single camera comedies don’t do that. Thankfully.
A multi-camera show is produced as a play before a studio audience. And this is where my TV sitcom snobbery begins. I tend not to like multi-camera sitcoms. I think the live audience presence on those shows leads to going for the easy jokes and milking applause breaks for popular characters. Sure, there have been plenty of good live audience involved sitcoms: The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Seinfeld to name a few. It’s just that single camera sitcoms seem better to me. Better written, better acted. Just better.
That’s my bias.
In that first season of Happy Days, Richie was the center of attention and Howard Cunningham, the dad, was the advice giver and the one to go to for those times when Richie and his friends found themselves in over their heads. Remember the episode in which Potsie gets scammed in a poker game by some college boys and loses a bunch of money? It was Mr. Cunningham who was able to fix the situation. This showed that Mr. C had a background and some complexity to his character. It made him interesting.
Fonzie started out as a minor character. As I recall, in the first episode he barely spoke a word while wearing a beige windbreaker, because a leather jacket was too dangerous and delinquent for such a family show. It didn’t take long though for the leather to show up and for Fonzie to take over. His takeover can be evidenced by a look at the episode titles. Richie’s name is mentioned in the titles 13 times, while the Fonz gets namedropped in 37. (This really isn’t damning evidence, because there were plenty of shows with neither character’s name in the titles and plenty of those episodes did focus on Richie. But still.)
Fonzie’s leap into the center of attention happened before a live audience. The Fonz got such great applause breaks when he first walked in on the scene that the producers just had to have more Fonzie. Soon Fonzie became the go-to guy to get advice and Mr. Cunningham became less and less important and more and more foolish and out of touch. He lost his interesting complexity.
And this all happened long before Fonzie jumped the shark.
Yes, I know. The whole jump the shark idea comes from the moment Fonzie did the shark jumping stunt early in season five. But, by then the show had long lost its integrity.
Yes, I know. The show was intended as light family fare. But does light family fare have to end up being so silly? So ridiculous? Especially considering what the show was when it started.
For instance, late in the show’s run, there was story that had the gang flying from Milwaukee, WI to Minneapolis, MN. A flight that ought to take less time than an actual episode sans commercials. I forget why but there was a panic on the plane, of course, Fonzie was cool. I don’t remember what happen to the pilot. Ralph went nuts and threw him from the plane. Something like that.
So, we see the view outside the plane. We see what looks like the Swiss Alps out there. In case you aren’t aware, Wisconsin and Minnesota share a boarder with each other and, although there may be some hills along that boarder, there ain’t no mountains. That little single engine plane was way, way off course.
And so am I at this point.
I think that first season was far superior to what followed.
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