Happy Days (Backdoor Pilot)

Love American StyleHappy Days turns 40 today, so people who felt dated by looking back at the 50s from the perspective of the 70s… well, they’re dead now. No, that’s not nice, but I remember as a little kid thinking that Happy Days was actually a show made in the 50s, seeing my dad sing along to such hits as “Splish Splash, I Was Taking a Bath.” I wonder if kids today are confused about The Goldbergs. I guess the lesson here is, every generation likes its nostalgia.

Happy Days actually spun out of another show, Love, American Style, so the episode in question turns out to be a backdoor pilot. It’s a fitting origin for a show that spawned no fewer than seven spinoffs. (How many can you name? I’ll list them after the jump.)

Love, American Style featured a different story about love, with completely different characters, for each episode. Sometimes the same actors returned to play different characters. (And you thought American Horror Story was so progressive.) Each episode was titled “Love and [something].” This one, written by Garry Marshall bears the name “Love and the Happy Days.” The episode centers around the acquisition of a television and how owning a television can lead to love (or not), so… it’s meta? Either that, or it was sponsored by RCA.

16-year-old Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) begins the episode introducing himself in a voiceover (like Veronica Mars — see, the influences are everywhere!) “Now it’s the 1950s and the world is really getting complicated,” he tells us. He outlines the basics of his typical day, only this day is special. The Cunningham family is getting a television.

Richie’s buddy Potsie climbs through his bedroom window to catch up on girls and 1950s-style cursing (“H-E-double-toothpicks”). We learn that Richie has a thing for Arlene, who is “stacked… but not very bright.” Bubbling out his chair with enthusiastic dating advice, Potsie is Michael Kelso to Richie’s Eric Forman.

Potsie and Mrs. Cunningham are familiar faces (Anson Williams and Marion Ross, respectively). Brother Chuck, sister Joanie and Dad are all different actors than the ones made famous on Happy Days. Harold Gould is a little more dapper than the Mr. Cunningham we’re used to.

In the original first world problem, each family member can only invite one guest to gather around the seven-inch, black-and-white screen to watch some big fight. Richie chooses Arlene over Potsie and gets a lesson in bros-before-hoes. In other words, the girl is just using him for his tech.

In a weird sidebar to the plot, Chuck, who’s living on his own at college, refuses to say grace at the dinner table. He says his classes are causing him to question religion. In an even weirder and smaller sub-plot, Joanie’s chosen friend for the party is the “colored” mailman. So possibly Garry Marshall was trying to demonstrate the possibilities a spinoff could hold for tackling tough issues like race and religion.

Oh! And there’s no Fonz, which I like. I always thought that guy was such an arrogant douchenozzle.

The first episode of Happy Days aired on January 15, 1974.

The seven spinoffs were:

  1. Laverne & Shirley
  2. Mork & Mindy
  3. Joanie Loves Chachi
  4. The Fonz and The Happy Days Gang
  5. Out of the Blue
  6. Blansky’s Beauties
  7. Laverne & Shirley (animated)
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