Everything you need to know about Garry Marshall, the much-loved TV creator and film director who died Tuesday at age 81, you’ll know by the decision he made late in the second season of Happy Days, his most enduring hit.
The TV series had debuted in January of 1974 — midseason — and had proved to be a nostalgia-driven hit, riding the same wave of warmth for teen culture of the 1950s that had propelled 1973’s American Graffiti into a box office smash. It landed for the season at 16th in the Nielsens.
But season two saw the show drop precipitously, almost falling out of the top 50 programs on television. The numbers were bad enough that the series' network, ABC, could have been well-justified in canceling the program.
But we all know that didn’t happen. Thanks to Marshall, Happy Days somehow overcame this sophomore slump to rise to the top spot in the Nielsens just two years later and ultimately run for 11 seasons. How?
Garry Marshall: people pleaser
If you look at the first two seasons of Happy Days, they feel incredibly different from everything that came after. They’re smaller, quieter, less full of obvious jokes with setups and punchlines. The show is lovely and even borderline artful, part of a 1970s sitcom movement that believed television could attempt to tell stories about real life, not just be filled with gimmick sitcoms about aliens and genies.
And that speaks to one key thing I’ve left out about Happy Days: The project was a deeply personal one for Marshall, one that was, in some ways, modeled on his own life. Born in 1934, he was well-positioned to make a series that remembered an America that was post–World War II — but not that far past it — with a rosy, youthful glow overlaying everything.
The secret to that early Happy Days feel came in the use of what’s called a "single-camera" setup in TV parlance. In essence, most episodes of the first two seasons of the show were filmed like mini movies, unlike most sitcoms of the era, which were filmed in the "multi-camera" setup, like stage plays.
("Multi-camera" literally means that three to four cameras are all positioned to catch the action at the same time, which means filming can go very quickly — the better to accommodate the live studio audience meant to provide laughter.)
So in short, the first two seasons of Happy Days are a bit like The Wonder Years: a lovely memory of adolescence, from a man just young enough to remember it and just old enough to miss it. But the TV audience of 1974 and 1975 gradually proved uninterested in such an approach, which, again, didn’t come with lots of easily identifiable jokes.
So Marshall tried something that had worked for him before. In the first season of his 1970 TV adaptation of the stage play and film The Odd Couple, Marshall had also filmed the series in single-camera style, the better to make use of the preexisting movie sets. The show was fine, but its first season was easily its weakest. His actors — Tony Randall and Jack Klugman — were stage-trained vets who performed so much better in front of an audience.
In season two, Marshall switched to multi-camera (and the audience), and the show’s quality skyrocketed, as did its number of jokes.
Thus, when Happy Days was struggling, he decided to do the same thing. One episode in season two was filmed before a live studio audience, and whatever Marshall and ABC saw in the numbers encouraged them. The show was renewed for a third season, tossed in front of an audience every week, and became the series you probably remember to this day.
This approach made Happy Days worse, eventually — but it also made it a bigger hit
But where the audience had made Odd Couple better, it gradually sold Happy Days’ soul. Jokes got dumber and broader. The actors’ performances lost most of their nuance. Many of the series’ younger performers, trained to act in the more naturalistic single-camera style, gradually seemed to get lost in the face of the new format.
But it was also a show that eventually had a bunch of characters from the original incarnation of the series who had no place in its weirder, wackier confines. (This even applied to the show’s hero, Richie, played by Ron Howard, whose more innocent persona didn’t entirely fit in the later seasons..)
And, of course, you know that Fonzie (Winkler) took over the show, because even people who’ve never seen Happy Days know that Fonzie took over the show.
The rise of the Fonz was Marshall’s approach to making television in a nutshell. A small supporting character who provided a kind of melancholy undertone to the early episodes — when he was presented as a washed-up older kid, a cautionary tale for the youngsters who nevertheless maintained his cool — became, in essence, a superhero and the star of the show.
Think about this: Mork and Mindy, a show about an alien living on Earth, spun off from Happy Days. A show intended to be part of a movement pushing back against the broad, gimmicky sitcoms of the ‘60s eventually spawned a show about an alien.
But it, too, was a hit. That was Garry Marshall’s greatest skill: He knew what people wanted, and he wasn’t afraid to ditch his own artistic ambitions in favor of entertaining as many human beings as possible.
What’s so bad about people-pleasing?
Even as I write that, I feel like I’m selling Marshall a bit short.
It’s true that of his TV shows, only The Odd Couple would come anywhere near my list of the best TV shows ever made, and I can’t say that I find any of his movies (save maybe the agreeably weepy Beaches or the '90s cheese of Pretty Woman) to be among the finest of their respective genres.
But a Garry Marshall production was always filled with solid, old-school craftsmanship and a desire not to fulfill his own ambitions but to give the audience exactly what it wanted. He had learned his skills from the best. Indeed, one of the shows he worked on early in his career was the all-time classic The Dick Van Dyke Show. Once he knew his craft, he saw his duty as to the audience, not himself.
And it’s perhaps too easy to deride that sort of attitude. Art is supposed to be personal, right? It’s supposed to be an expression of the artist’s soul that causes the audience to think about life in a new way. Or so we think.
But there’s also something to the idea that art can be well-made entertainment. All of Marshall’s shows ran too long, so it’s pretty easy to find lousy episodes of Happy Days or Laverne and Shirley — heck, the former literally spawned the phrase "jump the shark." But look at that first multi-camera season of Happy Days, and it’s a solid, well-made show, with some good laughs and a cast that was game for anything.
If Marshall is going to have a legacy, then, I don’t think it should be any of his TV shows or his films so much as his overall attitude, his notion that once you knew your stuff, you were bound to serve viewers, not whatever ambitions you had.
There are plenty of artists who skew in the other direction — chasing their own personal muses into weird, alienating corners — like, say, Nic Pizzolatto did in season two of True Detective. Why is it so hard to celebrate someone who does the exact opposite, never making great art but making solid entertainment throughout?
The early seasons of Happy Days were close to something of real artistic value, yeah, but you probably don’t remember them nearly as well as you remember Fonzie’s increasingly surreal adventures.
It’s easy to think of giving the audience what it wants in jeering, pejorative terms. But not all art has to challenge. Some of it can be agreeable comfort food. We’re running out of those who know how to make it, and now that Marshall has passed, we’re down one more.