Tuesday, August 05, 2008

an open letter to Bosco McGowan

A little while ago I wrote a piece on an episode of Happy Days, in which I suggested that the particular episode, “Poobah Doo Dah”, was a) really terrible television, and b) more like Jacobean court entertainment than a sitcom. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, whatever its flaws, “Poobah” had more to say about the character of the Fonz – and by extension, the show – than most of the rest of Happy Days.

What really grabbed my imagination, though, was the name of the man who had written the episode. When I grew tired of plonking out another line, another paragraph, I remembered Bosco McGowan. I had no idea who he was, beyond the fact that he had written two post-shark episodes of Happy Days, but the name was such a happy agreement of sounds that it started running through my head, like a fragment of a pop tune that won’t dislodge from the ear canal.

I confess that I posted the piece without thinking of some of the real-world ramifications. For example, what if Bosco McGowan read the work, took issue with my description of his episode, and fired off an email to the effect of “Hey you snot-nosed Canuck, you think it’s so easy writing for television, why don’t you give it a shot” etc? What if I offended someone, the way I offended people who enjoy buffet restaurants that one time? Do you have any idea how low-quality the food can be at a buffet? The preservatives and high stability canola oil alone probably give you brain damage. My point is, I would hate to upset someone who put their creative work out there, but if your first choice for supper is Buffet Queen, then you get no sympathy from me when you die of five cancers and a heart attack all at once.*

So. Cue yesterday, when I got a comment on the entry from Bosco freaking McGowan:

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

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

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

Thanks


Of course, this is the internet, so there’s a chance that the commenter is not Mr. McGowan. It could be a deposed VP of IndyMac taking his rage out on the world. It could be some hairy guy with a fry truck, a wi-fi connection and a hard drive full of gay penguin porn. You never know. But I’m going to trust in Bosco, because the tone of the comment is extremely generous, considering that I kind of trashed his creative work, and there’s something pre-web about the language and mode of address. I think it’s the salutory “thanks” at the end. That’s the kind of detail that trolls and fakers would miss. Although SEO is pretty hip. I didn’t even know what it meant (Search Engine Optimization, as it turns out). I had to ask my wife, who coded my template.

Dear Bosco:

Thank you for your comment. I cannot help much with SEO, although I can ask my wife for some links to decent tutorials in that arena. Search engines have always been kind to my blog, for whatever reason, and I’m glad that one of them led you to me.

Also, I feel churlish for having been harsh with “Poobah Doo Dah”. But I know that what you put on the page is rarely what comes out on screen, so I hope the bits I poked fun at were the bits that deviated from your script. And in any case, you can’t be held at fault for the butchering that Erin Moran and Scott Baio delivered to “Twisting the Night Away”. Also, I’m damn sure that you didn’t dress that one woman in spandex and leg warmers. That was just weird.

As for your question: What are the chances of “And The Winner Is” being critiqued? Initially I would have said: pretty slim. Season eight of the show isn’t out on DVD, I couldn’t find anyone on the internet with a copy of your episode, and the free preview for TV Land Channel ended last week. But I read a one-line summary of the episode ("The Fonz campaigns for Teacher of the Year Award") that unexpectedly sparked a childhood memory.

In 1980 I turned nine years old. I lived in a tiny town in Nova Scotia, pop. 1300, close enough to Halifax to connect me to the wider world but far enough that we didn’t get cable. Most of my days were spent reading, wandering around outside, and what little television I watched was usually what my parents were watching. That’s why I told my grade four class that my favourite TV program was Dallas.

I watched Happy Days from time to time, but mostly I was watching repeats from its early years, when Richie was young, Chachie hadn’t even shown up yet, and the Fonz occasionally wore a white jacket. It was all classic, pre-shark episodes on the box in my household (or so it seemed; in truth I probably watched a heap of later episodes as well, but I was such a spaced-out kid that I never noticed).

One day I turned on the television and started watching Happy Days – but it was like no Happy Days that I ever knew. There was no Richie Cunningham, for starters. The kids had all aged, the look of the show seemed different, but most startling of all, the Fonz was wearing a suit. And he was teaching a class. While I was reading books and skipping rocks at the harbour, time had happened to the show. A seal on the outer hull of Happy Days had ruptured, and time had leaked in. Worst of all, it had happened while I wasn’t paying attention.

Besides the fact that the Fonz was wearing a suit, I remember very little from the show except the tension that was running through it. Fonz has something to prove, and for once, his mixture of bravado and cool isn’t enough to assure his triumph. There is a scene in which he gets up to speak, to accept the adoration that is his due, but he is caught out. The adoration is for someone else. That suit was too much for him.

In a later scene he comes to class with a steering assembly. The wheel comes from a car belonging to another teacher, the one who stole the Fonz’s thunder. It is a backhanded victory, an acknowledgment that his sphere of influence is limited – that once outside of that sphere, he’s subject to the vicissitudes of professional jealousy and class snobbery (there’s a sense that he’s being looked down on because of his working-class roots). Even though the beats are played pretty broadly, with lots of canned audience guffaws and whooooahs, it’s a nuanced, class-conscious, grown-up take on the Fonz character. Which in the last sad days of Happy Days, was pretty rare.

That's my critique of "And The Winner Is". I know that there was more going on the episode** but that's all that my screwy childhood memory is going to give me. I don't know how it is that the most memorable episode of Happy Days for me, except maybe for the one where Richie gets a fake I.D. to get into a burlesque show, is the only other episode you wrote. But thank you all the same.

Palinode


*Of course, if Bosco McGowan is a buffet fan, then I'm really screwed here.

**There are some themes in "And The Winner Is" that resonate with "Poobah Doo Dah": the contest; the perils of public presentation and humiliation; the eventual redemption after the humiliating experience. To a certain extent this is fairly typical sitcom material, but the themes are so pronounced in these two episodes that it's downright
McGowanesque.

7 comments:

srah said...

I hope he reads this!

And I really want to work "McGowanesque" into my regular vocabulary.

palinode said...

srah - I figure that, since he found the first Happy Days, he'll definitely find this one.

Sarah Louise said...

okay, I really need to get you onto my Google reader.

I've only seen a handful of HD episodes, and I have to say my favorite part of the show is the theme song. But I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the critiques of these two episodes.

Also, I ate at a buffet last night and was really glad that I ALSO ordered an entrée. Plus, the customers were such a sad lot.

Keep writing!!

xo,

SL

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

This question is, of course, completely hypothetical in nature, but uh....if there is such a thing as gay penguin porn, where might someone find it on the intertubes?

Schmutzie said...

I remember that episode! I really liked it at the time, because there was a depth to it, a certain sadness, that I found quite compelling.

Ozma said...

There are too many wild things about this. That you remembered the name. That you saw the episode. That it made an impression. That he wrote to you.

Lord, how TV falls upon our young wet brains and shapes them.

I only watched one show as a very young child. Gilligan's Island. I didn't just watch it, I scrutinized it like some kind of alien anthropologist. I wanted to understand adult life and GI was the way into it, I thought.

But Happy Days was a close second, even if I got to see that show much less. To me, watching Happy Days was such an eventful thing. It would make my week, it would make my month. I would analyze each episode for the subsequent week. Why did the father seem angry so often? Why was Potsi sort of a pariah, even though he appeared handsome and normal to me?

TV was very hard for me to watch. I used to get so emotional watching Happy Days I sometimes had to walk out of the room. One thing about this that I remember was that the Fonz struck me as intensely vulnerable. His vulnerability pained me. Or maybe it was that exact episode that gave me this impression. I feel this tweak in my heart like--was the Fonz humiliated in that episode? That was exactly it. The Fonz was so alive to the possibility of his own humiliation--that was entirely his motive and so I would watch many of the episodes in suspense and fear that he would be humiliated.

lotus07 said...

I recall Happy Days, when it first came out. It was the year after American Graffiti had come out and it was an exact copy, which was good. The cast was young and fresh, it was all shot on location (no sound stages or canned laughter) and the characters were edge and dealing with real world issues. The Fonz was a footnote in the back ground. After that first season, it jumped the shark pretty early for me and I lost interest rather quickly. Much like other sitcoms that started off inovative (MASH, All In the Family) it was quickly taken over by the greedy money launderes in the Hollywood Glass towers.