Critics called it “TV junk food,” but this “Happy Days” spin-off really caught on with viewers. Though “Laverne & Shirley” was a mid-season replacement, it still finished #3 in the Nielsen ratings its first year, moved to #2 the following season, and was the #1 show in America its third and fourth seasons. But the public seemed to tire of these blue-collar Milwaukee “girls,” because the show drop completely out of the Nielsen Top 30 its fifth season—the last one set in the Cream City.
That’s ironic, because while the “Laverne & Shirley” may have gotten sillier each season, the fifth year also provided some of the better episodes. And a year later, when Garry Marshall shook things up and moved the setting to California, the show bounced back to #20.
Say what you will, but there was something about these two that was appealing. Maybe it was the odd-couple pairing of Shirley’s wide-eyed hopefulness and naiveté alongside Laverne’s tough cynicism. Or maybe it was because they were “good girls” at a time when there were just two kinds, the ones who “vo-dee-oh-doed” and the ones who didn’t. Maybe it was the way these loyal Shotz brewery workers were both happy with their lives, and yet dreamed about something bigger and better.
But the most likely reason for the show’s popularity is that “Laverne & Shirley” looked and felt like the second coming of Lucille Ball. Like Ethel and Lucy from the old “I Love Lucy” show, these two were constantly getting into situations that allowed for some pretty Lucy-like slapstick. It’s hard not to think of Lucy when you watch the antics of L&S, whether it’s cold-conking the pilot and having to land the plane themselves, having to wrestle pros for charity after they’ve mistakenly insulted the “ladies” earlier, scheming to meet Fabian so they can take his picture and win a bet, messing up at a debutante ball, or trying to complete an obstacle course to become Ladies Auxiliary Milwaukee Police. Lucy-style shenanigans form the basis of almost every episode, and Penny Marshall (Laverne De Fazioi) and Cindy Williams (Shirley Feeney) make it work.
So do their male counterparts, Lenny and Squiggy, two greasers who collectively have the IQ of a tube of Brylcreem. Andrew “Squiggy” Squiggman (David L. Lander) and Lenny Kosnowski (Michael McKean) have some of the best-cued entrances in sitcom history. Someone will say something about something crawling out from under a rock, and the next thing you know the girls’ front door will fly open and the boys will chime in with their signature “Hell-o.” If they’re not clueless, they’re usually breathless, as when they into the lanes of the Pizza Bowl food-and-bowling operated by Laverne’s father (comedian Phil Foster) looking for a stripper whom they claimed must have escaped from Mr. DeFazio’s birthday cake.
I can see why the audience dwindled this fifth year, though. Someone got the bright idea to do a two-part crossover episode with the first installment airing on “Happy Days” and the second on “Laverne & Shirley.” That isn’t a bad idea, but audiences expect a season to start with a strong episode, not a two-parter that comes off like a bad high school play about a Wisconsin farmer, his two buxom daughters, and a shotgun wedding involving Richie Cunningham, the Fonz, Laverne, and Shirley. He shoots a Tupperware salesman who comes near his daughter. I mean, this is Wisconsin in the ‘50s, not some isolated backwater at the turn of the century. And then there’s the over-the-top Farmer’s accent, yumpin’ yimminey! It’s one of the worst episodes of the entire series, and I would have been tempted to write off the season myself. But I kept watching, and the shows kept getting better. Sure, they’re still over the top—as was “I Love Lucy,” the show’s obvious influence. But even when it comes to lowbrow comedy, there’s good slapstick and bad.
Twenty-five episodes (plus the “Happy Days” kick-off episode, which automatically plays first) are included on four single-sided discs:
1) “Shotgun Wedding,” Pts. 1&2—Laverne and Shirley get “hitched” to Richie (Ron Howard) and Fonzie (Henry Winkler) from “Happy Days” so the guys can avoid marrying two farm girls.
2) “One Heckuva Note”—Old resentments are stirred up when Shirley finds a love note from her boyfriend Carmine (Eddie Mekka) to Laverne behind the stove.
3) “Fat City Holiday”—It’s nothing to make light of when Laverne and Shirley get jobs at a weight-loss camp and find themselves woefully underprepared. Totally Lucy and Ethel!
4) “Upstairs Downstairs”—The girls have an all-out catfight over a wrongly issued check, and soon they’re dreaming about Shirley in heaven and Laverne in hell. Like the first episode, one of the worst.
5) “What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor?”—It’s a bittersweet reunion when Shirley’s brother returns from the Navy with a complicated problem.
6) “You’ve Pushed Me Too Far”—It’s up to Laverne and Shirley to reunite Lenny and Squiggy after a skirmish between the guys results in Lenny’s broken leg.
7) “The Wedding”—Wedding bells are in the air when Frank and Edna (Betty Garrett) head down the aisle, and Laverne and Shirley decide to sing at the ceremony.
8) “Bad Girls”—Laverne and Shirley introduce Edna’s niece to the members of their former girls’ club . . . not realizing that the members have changed their focus from comradeship to crime.
9) “We’re in the Army Now”—After not getting a promotion, the girls quit the brewery and enlist in the Army, but find it’s tougher than expected.
10) “Take Two, They’re Small”—Lenny and Squiggy find the girls dates for an upcoming roller skating event, but their prospective matches come up somewhat “short.”
11) “The Fourth Annual Shotz Talent Show”—Being in charge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when Laverne and Shirley must organize the company’s highly anticipated talent show and put up with Mr. Shotz.
12) “Testing, Testing”—When a psychiatrist is brought in to perform job evaluations, Laverne and Shirley worry that their deepest, darkest secrets will come to light.
13) “Not Quite South of the Border”—Laverne and Shirley’s Mexican vacation gets off to a shaky start when they find that their hotel isn’t the exotic getaway that they anticipated. Another totally Lucy and Ethel episode.
14) “You Oughta Be in Pictures”—It’s lights, camera, action—but no glamour—when the girls unwittingly audition to play hookers in a military hygiene film. Yep. Lucy and Ethel!
15) “The Beatnik Show”—A visit to a local coffee house becomes a life-changing experience for Shirley.
16) “The Right to Light”—Protesters Laverne and Shirley chain themselves to the gas company building.
17) “Why Did the Fireman?”—Sparks fly when Laverne falls for a firefighter who must constantly put his job before anything—including anyone else.
18) “The Collector”—The stakes are high for Carmine when he takes a job working for a loan shark.
19-20) “Murder on the Moosejaw Express”—Laverne and Shirley’s train vacation gets off to a shaky start when a man stumbles into their compartment and drops dead, and they try to find the killer.
21) “Survival Test”—It’s a battle of the sexes as the girls take an army survival challenge against the boys.
22) “The Amazing Antonio”—Seeking his fortune, Laverne’s cousin leaves Italy and comes to America.
23) “The Duke of Squigman”—Lenny tries to find help for Squiggy, who has been sleepwalking and believes himself to be a Duke.
24) “The Diner”—Desperate for work, Laverne and Shirley take jobs as a cook and a waitress in the diner Lenny recently inherited.
25) “Separate Tables.” Shirley does her best to teach Laverne how to enjoy being alone.
Maybe one side-effect of the format war is that it’s convincing studios that movie fans really care about picture quality. Paramount really cleaned up this season. There’s less grain than in the previous two seasons and a much sharper focus.
The audio is also cleaned up, a “Dolby Digital Restored English Mono” that doesn’t have nearly the hiss and faraway sound that are often a part of these old TV shows. It’s a nice clean sound that should play well in upconversion.
The “Happy Days” episode that launches this season is considered a bonus episode, but other than that there are only episode promos (which you can access to refresh your memory before playing the whole episode) and a gag reel.
As I said, it’s ironic that “Laverne & Shirley” fell out of the Nielsens this year, because once you throw away the opening two-part fiasco and three other bombs, the remaining episodes are as good as this show has produced.