Thursday, July 17, 2008

the mask of Happy Days

I’ve been thinking a bit about Bosco McGowan over the last few days. I know: which famous Bosco McGowan do you mean, Aidan? Because there are so many of them. I mean the Bosco McGowan credited with writing two episodes of Happy Days: season eight's “And The Winner Is…”, in which the Fonz campaigns to become Teacher of the Year, and season nine’s “Poobah Doo Dah,” which guest stars Frankie Avalon. Both episodes are from the dismal distaff end of the series, post-Ron Howard, when all the actors were waterskiing away from that shark and into the rest of their careers (including Ted McGinley, famed devourer of shows).

One of the great mysteries of Happy Days is how it managed to last eleven painful years, with season succeeding clunky season, the characters bleeding out as the creative team dragged them into maturity across the bramble patch of late '50s/early '60s Americana. The term “Jump the Shark,” derived from the infamous episode in which the Fonz literally jumps over a marine enclosure with a man-chomping shark inside, happened as early as the fifth season. It was so terrible that 'jump the shark' has become a shorthand for those terrible moments when your beloved show has demonstrated utter contempt for both character and audience. There is no recovery from the shark jump; it is an irreparable defilement of a story. How then, could Happy Days continue onward for six more seasons? What would Bosco McGowan say?

The story of “Poobah Doo Dah” is simple: Al Delvecchio is put in charge of the Leopard Lodge's annual musical show when he claims that he can get his cousin to headline, who is none other than Frankie Avalon. During the run-up, everybody else auditions, and in fact, most of the episode consists of a series of static setpieces in which the characters do a little song and dance. Joanie and Chachi do a little rock and roll number, squeezed onto that stage of Al's malt shop, and they sing atrociously. A woman in spandex does some contemporary dance (?). Ron and Marion perform “The Way You Look Tonight” in their living room. The guys get on their candy-striped jackets and do “Farewell My Coney Island Gal” - who would have thought Ted McGinley could harmonize? When the big show comes and it becomes clear that Frankie isn’t showing, Al panics and appeals to the inimitable Fonzie to do a passable Frankie Avalon impersonation. Joanie crosses her fingers, Al drops the needle on the player, the stage lights go up on the Fonz in a blazer and dark glasses. All goes well until, predictably, the record skips. The Fonz is revealed, Al is humiliated, then Frankie Avalon shows up anyway in a sequined sports jacket and sings. And everyone's happy.

I can say with the confidence that it is one of the most perplexingly bad half-hours ever committed to television. It’s not bad in the way that the shark-jumping episode was bad. And it's not so-bad-it's-good bad, the kind of trash where you jump in and roll around, like a dog diving into a ripe pile of garbage. It’s so strange and bad that watching it produces a kind of vertigo, as if you’ve been tilted into an alternate reality where the rules of enjoyment and experience are fundamentally different.“Poobah” aired in 1982, but its aesthetic springs from the era of B-movies, when threadbare films were padded with pointless dance and exploitation sequences.

I don't know how else to put it: there is something wrong about this episode. Part of its wrongness is endogenous; Erin Moran, for example, has already lost her teenage freshness, and her eyes have taken on that too-bright shine of the bipolar sufferer or coke addict. In the episode her face and body have a cruel edge, as if too many nights were spent in the throes of binge drinking or bulimia. And the tight leather pants don't help (or make any sense). In fact, the closer you look at the characters, the less they seem to belong to the a working-class Milwaukee neighborhood in the early '60s. Scott Baio has the fluffy-bowl haircut of a late disco heartthrob; one of the characters, in a bizarrely anachronistic turn, sports Lycra and legwarmers, like a time-travelling Olivia Newton-John. I have no idea who this aerobics guru is supposed to be in the context of the show. Even the Fonz is anachronistic. His jeans are actually a pair of fitted polyester trousers with a denim-like appearance, and his D.A. Haircut is entirely wrong: grease-free and almost puffy, it looks a bit like the world's most involved combover.

In the final seasons of Happy Days, the writers and producers pretty much dropped any pretense of pinning down the show to a recognizable time frame.* Anachronisms of that sort are odd but not unexpected – after all, Scott Baio had a life as a teen heartthrob outside the show, and the haircut was a necessary part of that identity. The really weird anachronism is the fact that “Poobah Doo Dah” is a masque.

Of all the dramatic forms for a sitcom to emulate, the masque seems like a pretty bad fit. Masques were most popular in the era of King James and Queen Elizabeth, when royal occasions such as weddings and coronations were celebrated with elaborate songs and dances. Usually the masque involved a mix of hired performers, courtiers and sometimes royalty itself, all playing out brief allegorical skits. You're not likely to see a masque these days except as setpieces in a few Shakespare plays – the most notable being the wedding masque in The Tempest and the play-within-a-play from A Midsummer Night's Dream (“The Lamentable Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbee”). In the case of "Poobah Doo Dah", each performance encapsulates and strengthens the role of the performing characters. Joanie and Chachie play a boppy rock and roll number; they are the youthful force in the show, the last to mature, the ones on the bleeding edge of youth culture. In keeping with the increasingly porous boundary between the 50s and the 80s, Joanie's leather pants suggest an agressive, rocker chick edge. Ron and Marion Cunningham's performance of “The Way You Look Tonight” plays up their prewar manners and points to a far-flung archipelago of nostalgia.**

The most interesting performance is the Fonz's lipsynched rendition of a Frankie Avalon tune. In order to hide his true identity, Fonzie wears dark glasses and lets his never ending fountain of cool wash over the audience. It works until the record begins to skip, and Al, in a panic, starts fiddling with the record player's speeds. Instead of giving up, the Fonz instead keeps up as the music skips, scratches, spins up to 72 rpms, drops down to a molasses-thick 33, and finally goes silent. When the music ends, the Fonz removes his glasses to gasps and hisses from the confused and outraged audience.

It is ridiculous to think that the Fonz could pull off such an illusion. The audience is made up entirely of familiar faces in a small community hall (the Leopard Lodge itself, I suppose), the lights are bright on Arthur Fonzarelli's face, and what's more, his Frankie Avalon pose is clearly a Fonz pose: one leg slightly crooked, one shoulder back, as if he were leaning against an invisible Chevy or the wall of a malt shop in some fantasy America. How can a pair of sunglasses and a blazer fool everyone so thoroughly? The answer, of course, is that the Fonz does not properly exist. Let me clarify; none of the people on Happy Days exist, since they are fictions - but there is some attempt to make them recognizable people with a minimum of psychological depth. The Fonz does not quite exist in the same register as the rest of the crew. He is part character (Arthur Fonzarelli), part cypher ("the Fonz"), and he is the King of Happy Days (the Poobah). It is for him that the masque is enacted, and his presence in the masque is the seal of his power. His unmasking is not a failure but his apotheosis. Because the Fonz is also the audience, and it is us to whom the show ultimately panders.

It could be argued, by those who find time to argue such things, that Happy Days is the story of Arthur Fonzarelli. Forget about the Cunninghams and Richie's departure for Greenland. Never mind the love affair of Joanie and Chachie. Fuck Jennie Piccalo (What did she ever do for the show?). Happy Days should be Fonzie Days. In the initial episodes, he wears a white jacket and actually has no lines. As a silent character, he is the epitome of early '50s cool: silent and slightly dangerous, the kind of guy you go to when you need something offmarket. This is the Fonz as a white space on the limits of civil society. If the Milwaukee neighbourhood of the show were a map, the Fonz would be the blank spot at the edge, inscribed with the words "Here be Dragons". As a character with no character, he is the one to whom Richie turns when he needs a fake ID to get into a burlesque club; the Fonz is capable of bestowing upon others a portion of his blankness.

As the show progressed, the character of Fonzarelli became more popular. In response to that popularity, the character hatches from its white-jacket chrysalis and begins to feed on the heart of the story, taking more and more of it inside itself. The Fonz starts to talk; his white jacket turns black; and gradually he reveals himself as something more like a greaseball James Bond than a shady guy with a motorcycle. Episode after episode, he takes on additional talents until it seems there is nothing that beyond his capabilities. He can dance, he can best a French fencing champion, he can waterski over a deadly shark. As he grows more cartoonish, though, he also becomes increasingly domesticated. Even as the repetition of the character blunts subtlety and highlights the absurd, the show pulls all characters into its centre.

This is pretty standard stuff on soap operas, as villains gradually become absorbed into core of heroes, only to make way for new villains. Villains provide a kind of dramatic convection, as they circulate into the core, out to the margins and back again. You can see the same process happening to the character of Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In true literalist fashion, Spike starts out on the margins of the show, when he crashes his car into the 'Welcome To Sunnydale' sign, and ends the series six seasons later at its dead centre, the so-called 'Hellmouth', which is the font of all the mystical and evil forces in the show. I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Spike is an updated vampire version of the Fonz. There's no Hellmouth in Happy Days; instead, the centre of the show is domesticity. As the Fonz ages, he becomes a shop teacher, gets a long-term girlfriend with a daughter, and ends up adopting a child of his own. Eventually, the Fonz performs his final metamorphosis into a recognizable form: the grown-up. And holy crap, is it ever boring. But that's kind of the point.

When The Fonz jumps over the shark in season five, there is a strong sense that the makers of the show have betrayed the audience. They have violated a key element of the unspoken agreement between us and them. It is a strong word, betrayal, and it carries the most extreme connotations; the greatest of all sinners in Dante's inferno were the betrayers. The terms of the agreement are undefined and fuzzy, but a violation of those terms is instantly recognizable. Instead of explain it to you, watch the scene in which The Fonz does his jump (below). Wearing his leather jacket and a pair of jean cut-offs as he wields his waterskis, he is the height of camp. It is an appallingly stupid premise, but even worse is the fact that the pressure of camp vaporizes the Fonz's cool.

'Cool' is the signifying attribute of the Fonz. He incarnates cool in the same way that a ruler incarnates authority. His cool gives him his remarkable resources and his ability to squeeze his way out of any situation. His cool blinds the audience to his identity in "Poobah Doo Dah," and it is his cool that deflects any blame for his part in the deception. When he is discovered, he simply snaps his fingers, and Al stumbles out onstage to accept the blame as a loyal courtier. But the secret of the Fonz's cool lies not in his triumphs but in his failures. His failures equalize him with his audience and keep his cool from boiling away into camp. It is clear that Bosco McGowan, who wrote two of the most abominable episodes of Happy Days ever, understood the Fonz like no other. The note-perfect imitation of Frankie Avalon must mean that the Fonz is a fan, just like the rest of us schlubs. He worships at the altar of nostalgia and pop culture. His cool flows from his audience; unmasked, the Fonz is us.


*If further proof were needed, the Joanie Loves Chachie spinoff propelled the titular characters not only to another city, but into the future as well - the characters found themselves going from '60s rock-n-roll to early '80s soft pop without batting an eye.

**This is an evocation of nostalgia within a show that is already pure nostalgia. I imagine that in the show Happy Days, there's a show called Happy Days, and it's one degree of suck worse than the first show, and so on. Think how terrible the show must be by the fifth or six iteration.


Working From Home Today said...

ah, Spike. Please don't tell me that people actually crushed on the Fonz like I crushed on Spike (against my better judgement, of course).

You can call me, 'Sir' said...

Ever since finding the nostalgic motherlode that Hulu is quickly becoming, I've seen my fond memories of childhood favorites soiled by more recent viewings. I watched a few episodes of the original Buck Rogers, which I was in love with as a kid. The show makes me cringe now, what with the horrible writing and hokey effects. It's the writing that hurts more than the effects, though, as I can forgive late 70s TV a lot in the realm of televised space adventures. The only shows that seemed to hold up well are Barney Miller, Hill Street Blues, Cheers, etc. Time tends to make us harsher critics of things.

palinode said...

working - I hope not. Henry Winkler is not a match for James Marsters.

'sir' - I dream of Hulu, but most of their streams are limited to the United States. I agree completely, though - a lot of shows that we cherished as children are pretty creaky in the harsh light of adulthood. I watched an episode of Fraggle Rock the other day, which I loved as a kid, and holy man, was it lame. The effects were awful, the songs seemed thrown together, and the characters not as engaging as I remember. It may seem silly to harp on the quality of characterizaton in a children's show, but damnit. You gotta have standards.

You can call me, 'Sir' said...

Let me tell you a story of disappointment:

I'm currently in Toronto for a conference and am staying for relatively cheap in a hotel whose rooms lack TVs. I thought to myself, 'No problem, I can just log some serious Hulu time.' That's when the guy dressed as a maple leaf jumped out of my closet, kicked me in the junk, and yelled, 'Sorry, asswipe! No Hulu for you! BWAHAHAHAHAHAH!' Then I asked him how he could read my thoughts and he just kicked me in the junk again. You Canadians are some junk-kicking dynamos.

I want to find the person responsible for this Hulu travesty and destroy them.

palinode said...

'sir' - It was not a Canadian in that maple leaf suit what kicked you in the junk. That was some lawyer on behalf of whatever company owns those episodes of television. I was enthused when Hulu first came out, but it was quickly apparent that if you didn't live in the land of all internet (the US) then you didn't get to play. I understand that Hulu is working on securing the rights for streaming media in other territories, though, so put some ice on that aching junk and rejoice.

cenobyte said...

This was, I think, the best commentary on stuff that I've seen in a long, long time. I have long thought of the Fonz in similar terms; the royalty at some grand ball, and that the show was always about him.

Mostly, it's good to know that I'm not the only person who thinks about these things...

Thank you, Palinode.

Bosco McGowan said...

Wow, you are quite the wordsmith,
but it's SEO I'd most like to learn
from you.

By the way, I alwyas thought I wrote
one bad and one good episode of Happy Days.

Any chance of hearing your critique
of, "And The Winner Is"?


Bosco McGowan said...


(I figure it's uncomfortably hot there, yet not as unforgiving as the summers in Hades.)

Alright, I did read your open letter to me

...And you vindicated both of us, somewhat at least; but my God, Man -- You've inflicted semi-permanent damage to my fledgling internet marketing career.

People tend to do business with people they know and like. I thought playing the Happy Days card was going to work largely in my favor in that regard, but now
when people research me, about the first thing they see is your splendid assertion that I "wrote two of the most abominable episodes of Happy Days ever."

I swear Aidan, sometimes that line makes it to the search results page, without even having to click on your blog.

Here's the thing: If you really believed that, then so be it. As I said, above, I don't share the opinion. I've always felt like I had a jewel and a turkey...(and even the turkey wasn't one of the most abominable in the history of the show. For instance, if you ever see in the opening credits, "Produced by Walter Kempley", you can almost bet the farm you're in store for far, far worse. (But I digress.)

Anywaze, come to find out, (from your open letter to me), you weren't being honest when you wrote the word, "two". If you had written the word, "one", instead, you not only would have come from a place of authenticity; but I wouldn't feel nearly as crappy when I tell people I wrote a couple of Happy Days, & then they go & see that abominable, "abominable" quote of yours. *snicker*

And now the sea salt in the festering wound is, I'm starting to bid on some free lance writing jobs, which means that would-be employers are going to believe that, of all 2 of my episodes, both of them were among the most abominable of all 250. (Maybe I'll get points for consistency.)

I guess I'll just have to tell them, "I don't care what that squintey Portegee says; only HALF my writing is embarrassingly atrocious beyond compare...And besides, I heard he got kicked out of Mensa for showing everybody up. Who needs THAT crap?"

But seriously Bro, thanks for writing the open letter.
Sometime maybe soon I'll post a
reply to that as well, largely about H.D.

B.M. ('net marketer de manana)

palinode said...

Whoah! I've never been damned to anywhere before.

I see where you're coming from, Bosco - and perhaps I should dial down the attitude that caused me to write 'two' instead of 'one'. I can certainly provide an update to better reflect my opinion.

Sometimes when you're writing on the web you forget that the people you're writing about really exist in the outside world - and that those people are quite capable of finding you.

Anyway, I'm glad you read my open letter, at least. Also, be advised that even though I'm going to change that line, I a) stand by my judgment on one of your shows, and b) it may take a while for Google to pick up on the change.

palinode said...

Bosco - I checked the entry and it looks like I've already made the change to remove that line. I probably altered it not long after receiving your original comment.

I'm guessing that Google is displaying the original version from its cache. Eventually the cached version will be replaced by the more recent one (hopefully sooner instead of later).