The other night, I flipped through the TV channels and found an early episode of the long-running sitcom “Happy Days”. It was easy to tell it was an early episode, because it was not filmed in front of a studio audience…as Tom Bosley (Howard Cunningham on the show) announced at the start of episodes during seasons 3-11.
Those early episodes of “Happy Days” (with a re-recorded version of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” as the show’s opening theme) seemed a lot more intimate because the actors in the scene didn’t need to shout their lines for the studio audience, and the scripts didn’t have to be a laugh-every-half-minute to get a reaction from that audience.
Those early “Happy Days” episodes allowed a more real dialogue between more real characters. They were an awful lot like episodes of another program that one of the “Happy Days” stars, Ron Howard, appeared on: “The Andy Griffith Show”. The show that Griffith’s show was spun off from, “Make Room For Daddy/The Danny Thomas Show”, was shot in front of a live audience. Practically all of the Sheldon Leonard/Danny Thomas sitcoms had been at that time. But Andy Griffith was smart about how he desired his show to be presented. According to the website for the wonderful PBS documentary series, “Pioneers Of Television”… (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/pioneers-of-television/pioneering-programs/sitcoms/)
“Griffith hated the idea of a studio audience. To him, live audiences created pressure for a steady stream of one-liners that inhibited subtle character development. So the Andy Griffith show was shot with no audience, like a film, giving the cast and writers much greater freedom. ‘So Don (Knotts) and I can do these little quiet scenes — or me and Ronnie, or me and Aunt Bea, or Floyd the barber…any of those. We could do these long, little nice scenes without having to go for a joke,’ recalls Griffith.”
The rewards for Andy Griffith’s judgement were plentiful. “The Andy Griffith Show” is still regularly broadcast on TV or cable, and the show is among the best and most loved sitcoms of all time due to its placid quality and beloved characters. “Happy Days”? Well, it’s still shown on what I call “oldies but goodies” TV channels, but nowhere near as frequently as Andy Griffith. And as for that character development that Andy Griffith sought for the well-being of his show, the “Happy Days” characters developed, all right…for the worse. The wiki TV Tropes (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Series/HappyDays?from=Main.HappyDays) catalogued these character changes well:
“Fonzie was initially a street-smart ex-hoodlum with a Hidden Heart of Gold. He was rough and tough, but more-or-less tolerated the main cast. Then he became The Ace (i.e., a hero, though I say a cartoon character) and increasingly got more friendly (eating “veggies”, declaring “reading is cool”, etc.) until, by the end of the series, he’d adopted a young boy and was essentially as friendly as any other character. Potsie was originally Richie’s ostensibly more wordly best friend and prone to giving advice (whether useful or not), but as Fonzie more and more took on that role, he became…a hopeless ditz. Ralph’s fondness for telling jokes was upped starting Season 3, along with his cowardice in more outlandish episodes. Many characters were low-key in the early seasons. However, in the switch to filming in front of a live audience, the characters obviously (and understandably) became less so. Mr. Cunningham, for example, became more prone to over-the-top yelling.”
One very obvious note regarding the show’s lack of attention to period details in the later seasons of “Happy Days” was how, in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s, the characters looked like they walked straight out of a disco and directly onto the set to act out their roles as early 1960’s people. Suzi Quatro as Leather Tuscadero became the first person in the JFK era (that I am aware of) to wear a shag haircut. The show simply became unwatchable by that time, as the somewhat nauseating romance between Joanie and Chachi became the show’s focus after Ron Howard split the show.
Maybe “Happy Days” was a show about silly fun during its later years, but I believe the show could have been so much more if the producers kept it in its original, non-live audience state.