Tuesday, November 10, 2015

LAVERNE & SHIRLEY: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Miller-Milkis Productions 1976-83) Paramount CBS Home Video

Few buddy/buddy sitcoms have endeared themselves in our hearts as Laverne & Shirley (1976-83); the joyous pairing of Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams as single roomies, toiling together as bottle cappers inside Milwaukee’s fictional Shotz Brewery. Formulaic to a fault, the crazy quilt of comedy concocted for this memorable franchise toggles between clever repartee between this proverbial ‘odd couple’ - boy-crazy Laverne De Fazio (Marshall) and sexually repressed Shirley Feeney (Williams) – and visual slapstick, often created off the cuff by Penny Marshall’s brain-storming. Marshall’s brother, Gary not only launched the series, but also served as one of its’ executive producers. In retrospect, the early seasons are a veritable showcase for Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams’ abundant energies and inimitable sight gags. Miraculously, neither initially wanted to take their co-starring status beyond cameos already established on Happy Days – playing two somewhat loose playmates for Fonzie (Henry Winkler) and Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard). In reality, Williams was dating Winkler at the time – a relationship virtually unknown to fans, since, on TV it was Penny Marshall to whom Fonzie’s heart always belonged. And while Williams had planned to pursue a writing career, her costarring opposite Howard in George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973) had instead cemented her presence in front of the camera with an iconic splash too great to be ignored. But, oh what a team Williams and Marshall would soon make on television.
Penny Marshall’s Laverne Marie De Fazio was quickly singled out as the clear-eyed Brooklyn-born tomboy, cynic and realist; having taken her lumps early in life; her mother dead before the start of the series, her cliché of an Italian father, Frank (played with fiery zest by Phil Foster), perennially wishing she had been born a boy. Even so, Marshall brought something of an easily wounded tenderness to this part; also her verve for 3D monster movies, monogramed sweaters and the disgustingly unpleasant combination of milk and Pepsi (Pepsi Cola one of the proud sponsors of the show). “At kosher camp,” Marshall would later explain, “…they couldn’t drink milk with meat, so they had Pepsi. I wanted Pepsi, too. But my mother made me drink milk first. Then, she gave me the soda. Sometimes, she didn’t rinse out the glass. Sometimes, it wasn’t even empty. Eventually it became half and half. When I did it on the show, I knew it would get a reaction. And it did. People related to those little details.”
Aside: having only once attempted this combination (just to see if there was any enjoyment to be derived), I can honestly say while Laverne was my favorite half of this dynamic duo, I could have easily done without this milky misfire of her chosen beverage. Of course, a gutsy no nonsense gal from the school of hard knocks needed someone to offset her unvarnished sense of self. Hence, Cindy Williams’ Shirley Feeney became the de facto Miss Goodie Two-shoes of the piece; intolerably perky, self-righteous and passive/aggressive when needed; her most prized possession - Boo Boo Kitty; a stuffed black cat Shirley perpetually treated as if it were alive, just one of the bones of contention that left Laverne ready to tear her hair out. Friends: you can’t live without them even though, occasionally, you would very much like to punch their lights out.
Alas, in private, Penny Marshall’s life was anything but as level-headed as her on screen counterpart. “My mother was very sarcastic which I didn’t know as a child,” Marshall has admitted, “She hated my father and so I had the brunt of their dislike for each other. My brother and sister were planned. I was not planned. I was a mistake and told I was a mistake.” At nineteen, Marshall began to make her own; impregnated by a high school beau after a night of ‘pity sex’; later marrying, then divorcing the father of her daughter to wed aspiring comedian, Rob Reiner. Marshall’s gray period would continue thereafter, escalating and plagued by chronic drug abuse; marijuana and cocaine mostly, and fueled by some infamous drug and sex parties. It was at this juncture in her life Penny embraced acting, guided by brother, Garry’s gentle words of encouragement. At the time, Marshall and Williams had already united as writers on a centennial spoof for director, Francis Ford Coppola. Sensing reluctance from both Penny and Cindy to commit to a TV series, Garry suggested the show would likely only last a season and, if nothing else provide them all with a steady pay check for one year. “Maybe we can all open a carwash or something afterward,” Penny quipped at the time. Famous last words indeed; as, at $75,000 per week, Laverne & Shirley would make both Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams two of the highest paid actresses working in television.
As counterpoints of embellishment, Laverne & Shirley would also become justly celebrated for its supporting players; primarily Michael McKean and David Lander as Leonard ‘Lenny’ Kosnowski and Andrew ‘Squiggy’ Squiggman. The improbability of these two mutton-headed dolts never seemed to bother audiences. Some forty years after the show went off the air, there remains something rather tragically endearing about these two; Lenny eventually discovering his family lineage dating all the way back to a royal house; his last name, Polish for ‘Help! There’s a hog in my kitchen!’ In reality, McKean and Lander were friends since high school and fairly accomplished writers by the time they made their auspicious debut as this richly satisfying parody of the proverbial 50’s greaser and his tag-along buddy. If the girls could only marginally count upon Lenny and Squiggy to get them into – and occasionally out of – a tight jam; their more genuine sounding board was Laverne’s father; a protective surrogate to Shirley, while remaining humorously critical of his own offspring, whom he affectionately nicknamed, ‘Muffin’.  Shirley’s other rock of Gibraltar was introduced early on as an ever-potential love interest; Carmine ‘the big Ragoo’ Ragusa (Eddie Mekka); long-suffering from a lack of physical affections, but equally as devoted to Shirley’s happiness.
Garry Marshall’s spin-off brainchild from his own hit series, Happy Days retained the original franchise’s nostalgia for the fifties, gradually coaxed into the late 1960’s by the time the show went off the air – inexplicably skipping over two whole years chronologically. To say Laverne & Shirley was an overnight sensation is an understatement. Very few sitcoms have enjoyed such immediate and overwhelming popularity; Laverne & Shirley debuting at #1 in the Nielsen ratings, and retaining the top spot for their time slot for four consecutive seasons. Throughout its eight year run, Laverne & Shirley would remain true to its comedy roots; although there were a few noteworthy exceptions in which the producers and writers attempted to interject some unanticipated drama. The first hint of seriousness came near the end of Season 2; the episode: Look Before You Leap – dealing with Laverne’s suspicions she might be pregnant after a drunken indiscretion. In Season 3, the girls befriended Mrs. Babish’s mentally challenged daughter, Amy (Linda Gillen); Babish taking umbrage to Lenny’s romantic interests until she realizes he means Amy no harm. Season 4’s A Visit to the Cemetery, involved old childhood anxieties, as Laverne stanchly refuses to visit her mother’s grave, leading to a temporary rift between her and Frank. Season 5 marked the end to these introspective episodes with double whammies, ‘What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?’ in which Laverne recognizes her brother, Bobby (Ed Begley Jr.) is suffering from addiction, and ‘Why Did the Fireman…?’; once again focused on Laverne, this time lamenting the sudden untimely passing of her firefighter/boyfriend, Randy Carpenter (Ted Danson). 
The show’s now iconic opener ‘schlemiel, schlimazel, hasenpfeffer incorporated’ was practically an afterthought; Garry Marshall remembering Penny learning it while still a school girl, and encouraging her to teach the Yiddish-American hopscotch chant to Cindy as a ‘bit of business’ that might possibly find a home somewhere within the pilot episode. Instead, it became the tag to introduce Cyndi Grecco’s ‘Making Our Dreams Come True’; Laverne & Shirley’s memorable anthem. Executive producer, Thomas L. Miller added his own verisimilitude to the production; coming up with the name ‘Shotz’ for the brewery (a play on the real Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company), the girl’s fabled basement apartment on Knapp Street, actually named after a real street near Schlitz.
During the show’s run, Laverne and Shirley would frequently share the screen with visitors from their parent spinoff, Happy Days – one of TV’s first franchises to do cross over episodes (meaning, the plot from one show carried over into the story line of the other); Henry Winkler’s Fonzie and, later, Mork & Mindy’s Robin Williams paying tribute to these basement-dwelling roommates. On screen, Laverne and Shirley equally endured the slings and arrows of frequently being thought of as low class; Shirley’s pie-in-the-sky aspirations to rise above their working class station and Laverne’s begrudging acceptance of their lots in life, leading to all sorts of classist humor, rife for parody, while also striking a chord with a large portion of their middle-class viewership. Initially, Paramount was in search of another show for Garry Marshall to produce; hiring Michael McKean and David Landers to write the pilot. Both Landers and McKean had established themselves as writers when Penny Marshall suggested they audition for Marshall instead, performing bits from their campus comedy act. Instantly, McKean and Landers were written into the series, their dim-witted alter egos easily establishing themselves as beloved foils for the girls to play off.
While the girls always managed to rise above the situations they found themselves in, frequently growing richer in their bond of friendship as a direct result from these trials and tribulations, behind the scenes tensions as frequently flared; the confrontations cordially referenced in Cindy Williams’ biography as ‘operatic’. Despite a rift with the studio – presumably over Williams’ pregnancy, ending with the premature cancelation of her contract and leaving Penny Marshall to go it alone for virtually all of Season 8, Williams has since remained rather close to her co-star. Interestingly, Garry Marshall has been less than circumspect about what went down once the cameras stopped rolling, committing his roiling frustrations to paper in two memoirs.  According to Garry, it was hardly ‘joy galore’ on set; writers threatening to quit and the girls regularly at each other’s throats, with both Williams and Marshall using enough blue language to make even a sailor recant his true calling to become a Catholic priest. “Things were very chaotic,” Garry has written, “Penny and Cindy thought that they knew more than anyone else and that the writing staff was without talent… the writers… thought Penny and Cindy were mean; too young to be so bossy, and narcissistic.”  There may be something to these rumors, despite Williams’ rosier retrospective. Even now, Penny Marshall, who beat lung and brain cancer after four arduous years of hard-won battling the disease, has remained the most reclusive of the surviving cast members. 
Although made in the 70’s, Laverne & Shirley capitalized on the ‘nostalgia’ craze then sweeping the nation; the show presumably set in 1958, but curiously, skipping over the years 1963 and ’64 when rebooted after Season 5; the entire cast ‘moving’ to Los Angeles for Seasons 6, 7 and 8. In reality, none of the episodes were shot in Milwaukee; a second unit sent to photograph inserts and introductory bookends; virtually everything else, including ‘exteriors’ of the girl’s basement apartment, shot on soundstages at Paramount in front of a live studio audience.  Refreshingly, Laverne & Shirley began as an homage to blue-collar ethics, and not simply a ribald or farcical stab to make their arguably, ‘low brow’ struggles appear idiotic, quaint and/or ridiculous. The girls had jobs – jobs they hated – and dreams to treasure above all else. Shirley’s involved dating Carmine; an irrepressible cabbie, frequently bursting into Tony Bennett songs, with plans to make it big on Broadway. In reality, Mekka had been a Broadway star prior to joining Laverne & Shirley’s cast; his exit at the end of the series (off to make his ‘debut’) a send-up, meant to launch yet another spin-off series. Alas, this never went beyond the preplanning stages.
Apart from Lenny and Squiggy, the show also made regulars of Laverne’s Italian papa, Frank DeFazio (Phil Foster), proprietor of the Pizza Bowl, and, Edna Babbish (Betty Garrett, recently migrated over from All In The Family), as the girl’s empathetic landlady. Throughout Season 4, Frank – a widower – and Edna – unmarried – gradually fell in love and were wed. But the average shelf-life of a sitcom, at least one made in the seventies, was four years, and in hindsight, one can definitely see Laverne & Shirley begun to run out of steam, verve and viable plot lines by the end of Season 4: Season 5’s hilarious misfire, having the girls enlist in the army where they are browbeaten by a butch drill sergeant, Alvinia T. Plout (Vicki Lawrence, who eventually winds up pregnant and come to visit her discharged disciples in Season 6) just one of many false starts beginning to erode the show’s popularity and staying power. Others, included relocating the entire cast from perpetually windswept and usually snowy Milwaukee to sundrenched Burbank, CA (explained away after the girls lose their bottle capper jobs at Shotz, turn down an offer to become truck washers for the brewery, and, finally wind up as gift-wrappers at Bardwell’s Dept. Store); the introduction of Sonny St. Jacques (ex-footballer, Ed Marinaro) as a perpetually shirtless ‘moon doggie’ love interest for Laverne (killed off by Marinaro’s commitment to co-star on Hill Street Blues), and the increasing focus on Squiggy’s romantic dalliances with the their buxom neighbor; aspiring actress, Rhonda Lee (Leslie Easterbrook) did much to destabilize the tenuous on-screen chemistry, irreversibly wrecked by Paramount’s shortsightedness in terminating Cindy Williams’ contract at the start of Season 8.
Williams appears in only the first two episodes from this final season; Shirley promptly informing Laverne she has, at long last, found love with army sergeant, Walter Meany and will move out to follow her husband half way around the world. In reality, Williams was already very pregnant with her first child; her real husband, Bill Hudson, presenting a list of demands to Paramount to accommodate his wife’s condition. For some time thereafter, both Garry and Penny Marshall would equally blame Hudson for the way Williams’ future with the show quickly unraveled into banishment off the set. Believing the studio would either merely try to conceal her baby’s bulge behind couches and potted plants, or write the pregnancy into the show (for which television precedence had already been established on shows like I Love Lucy and Bewitched); Paramount instead cut the purse strings off prematurely, forcing several planned episodes to include a baby to be rewritten and/or parceled off to other characters; the show’s main titles reshot to exclude any and all references to Williams’ character, despite the fact the show continued to be called ‘Laverne & Shirley’.  
Clumsily, Ed Marinaro, previously cast as Laverne’s handsome cousin, Antonio, visiting from Italy, reappeared briefly as a possible romantic figure for our love-starved ugly duckling. By the end of Season 7, Marinaro was out and Laverne & Shirley already listing badly. Now, Williams departure from the series, and Michael McKean’s absence from several episodes (gone off to film This Is Spinal Tap, 1984) plus the inexplicable disappearance of Betty Garrett (idiotically referenced as having dumped Frank and moved back home), did much to hasten clear-sounding death knells for the series. Yet, the proverbial nail in the coffin was undeniably Cindy Williams’ departure. Laverne & Shirley without ‘Shirley’ is like Abbott with no Costello or Tom without Jerry. It just doesn’t work. Fascinatingly, although the ratings dipped, the show remained in the top 25 (still a contender). There was even talk to continue on and do a Season 9; terminated when Penny Marshall announced she would not be coming back unless the show could be relocated to New York.
The last chapter in Laverne & Shirley’s storied history is rather sad. Behind the smiles, Cindy Williams sued Paramount for wrongful dismissal and $20,000,000; the case, eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed sum but leaving its impact and pall on the rest of the cast. ABC’s commitment to keeping the franchise alive went only so far, balking at Penny Marshall’s demands to move from L.A. to New York and electing instead to retire the series after 176 episodes. The network did hedge its bets, however, using the second to last episode from Season 8 to piggyback a pilot episode for ‘Carmine’ – the failed launch of yet another spinoff with Laverne appearing only as bookends to this episode devoted to Eddie Mekka’s lovable actor in training, given his big break to star in an off-Broadway revival of Hair.
I am old enough to recall Laverne & Shirley as it originally aired and almost immediately went into syndication, and, personally, I will never understand executive logic – particularly TV executive logic: ABC repeatedly tinkering with Laverne & Shirley’s hit status by moving it around their programming chess board to various time slots after its familiarity with audiences had already been well established. I come from the school of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – clearly, a mentality at odds with the network brain trusts. For the first four years, Laverne & Shirley sponged off the critical success of Happy Days, immediately following it on Tuesday nights – the perfect appendage to Happy Days for a weekly diet of nostalgia and laughs. But in 1979, for reasons only known to those sitting in higher places, ABC unceremoniously displaced Laverne & Shirley to Thursday evenings where it was incongruously pitted against CBS’s iconic hour-long family drama, The Waltons and NBC’s popular intergalactic space fantasy, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Overnight, viewership tapered off. In panic mode, ABC once again moved the show, only this time to Monday nights where it fared no better. Reinstating the franchise at the tail end of Happy Days for the next three years proved only a minor reprieve. For although the ratings would hold steady from thereon in, never again would Laverne & Shirley regain its overwhelming popularity in the Nielsen’s.  At the same time, ABC sought to launch a morning cartoon spin-off with Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall lending their voices. It was not a success with the prepubescent sect and quickly disappeared from ABC’s Saturday morning lineup.
While both Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall have gone on to do other things; Marshall’s list of big screen credits includes 1988’s Big – the first movie directed by a woman to break the $100 million mark, followed by other noteworthy projects - it is unlikely either actress will ever be forgotten; first and foremost identified for these eight years together as a team, in fair weather and under darker clouds, as the irrepressible madcaps, Laverne De Fazio and Shirley Feeney. The original plans to scrap the show after Season 5 with a move to New York City might have spared Williams and Marshall a lot of grief and equally respected the precepts of the program, as well as preserved the integrity of these characters for their fan base. There is little to deny after Season 5, Laverne & Shirley was largely – if not strictly – played for its camp value – the play-acting degenerating into rank pantomime. Yet, all things considered, Laverne & Shirley has weathered the decades as few buddy/buddy sitcoms from their time. Today, it isn’t the cavalcade of cameos we recall, despite an enviable roster: Jay Leno, Christopher Guest, Mark Harmon, Dennis Haysbert, Carrie Fisher, Art Garfunkel (who also dated Penny Marshall), Adam West, NFL pro cum actor, Fred Dryer, Vicki Lawrence, Ed Begley Jr., Anjelica Huston, Carol Kane, Harry Dean Stanton, Jim Belushi, Jeff Goldblum and even Hugh Hefner – to name but a few. Rather, it is the camaraderie of the show’s two embattled stars that holds up spectacularly well.
“Penny was her own free spirit,” Williams has said, “There were arguments along the way and some unhappiness too, but always because we were looking for ways to make the show better – and it was better for it…so…” In her defense, Penny has equally been forthright to correct a misconception about her working relationship with Cindy Williams, “We were not estranged during the show. But then she got married. I was very happy. She was having a baby. But Bill (Hudson her then husband) was a pain in the ass. He wanted to be a producer. So that’s what happened. But she was married and she thought he was being protective.”
Perhaps the show’s success was kismet; Laverne & Shirley finding their niche on Paramount’s stage 20; home to another ‘odd couple’ – or perhaps, I should say – ‘the’ Odd Couple (1970-75) a show on which Penny Marshall had briefly co-starred. For several years after Cindy Williams’ ousting from the series, she and Marshall drifted apart and did not speak. Ultimately, Penny blamed Cindy’s husband, for the debacle. There is some evidence to suggest Bill Hudson’s intensions were hardly altruistic, either toward his wife or even aimed at the good of the show. Time, however, heals most wounds and Williams and Marshall are once again on speaking terms, even appearing together for a 2013 episode of Nickelodeon’s Sam & Cat. Today, Marshall reflects more soberly on the success of, and fallout from, her years on Laverne & Shirley. She has also mellowed in her assessment of what made it click. “Try hard,” she has said, “Help your friends. Don’t get too crazy, and have fun;” words to live by, or rather, inspired by the memory and enduring legacy of Laverne & Shirley; one of the cornerstones in situation comedy that continues to “make all of our dreams come true…for me and you.”
I suspect a lot of dreams will continue to come true for fans of this classic sitcom, now that Paramount Home Video has debuted Laverne & Shirley: The Complete Series on DVD; all 176 episodes remastered; most of them looking years younger than anticipated. In the early years of Paramount’s foray into DVD, the studio continued to market their vintage series under their own banner, later relegating TV to the CBS home video branch of their Viacom empire. I have a few bones of contention with this release. First off, ASCAP residuals being what they are, some of the original music used in this series has either been altered or excised altogether, depriving us of some fine vintage performances from all concerned, though chiefly Eddie Mekka’s formidable singing talent. Mercifully, Cyndi Grecco’s theme song remains intact. Laverne & Shirley just wouldn’t be the same without ‘Making Our Dreams Come True’. Video quality is generally quite solid, sporting eye-popping colors and very good contrast too. Age-related artifacts are present throughout; some episodes more heavily plagued by their presence than others. The richness of color during the main titles in Season One is extraordinary; on the rest of the seasons, less so – Season 3-7 showing some age-related wear and tear and color fading not present in the actual body of the episodes themselves, leading me to suspect older elements were being used even during the show’s run, intercut to keep updating the main title sequence, but not preserve the integrity of the original photography. Sloppily done, if you ask me.
It would have been kind of Paramount CBS to go the extra mile and clean up the chips and scratches. It also would have been prudent of them to remaster the cross over episodes from Happy Days, included in this set, but looking at least 40 years too ugly for TV – faded, riddled in age-related dirt and scratches, and generally resembling something of a careworn and faded ‘work print’ rather than the final edit meant for broadcast.  I am also not a fan of the studio’s need to save a few bucks as we move beyond Season 3, compressing more half hour episodes per disc. Compression artifacts are generally not an issue. So, I suppose my complaint herein is not altogether warranted. The audio on all of these episodes is mono. Occasionally, it can sound quite strident – the overall characteristic very thin during Seasons 1-3 and improving marginally thereafter. It won’t distract, but it isn’t great either. Extras are limited to a few gag reels scattered throughout. I wish studios would realize classic TV shows are not merely meant to be dumped on the market as though they carry no worth at all in terms of historical significance. If Laverne & Shirley ever makes the leap to Blu-ray (and I won’t be holding my breath that it will), I still might expect Paramount to go the extra mile and corral some – if not all – of the vintage retrospectives about Laverne & Shirley – including them on a single disc of extra features. Bottom line: the comedy sketches in Laverne & Shirley: The Complete Series have dated somewhat. Although fans of this show (of which I count myself among them) will surely treasure this release, despite the aforementioned shortcomings and shortsightedness made in the spirit of cost-cutting; those new to the franchise may not entirely find its’ zany antic to their tastes. I’ll pity them their ‘sophistication’. It has no place within such rambunctiously good humor.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


No comments: