Case Study 84: Laverne & Shirley, Episode 5–“Falter at the Altar”

Original Airdate: March 2nd, 1976 on ABC

When sitcom fans in the 70s weren’t busy watching Archie Bunker yell racial slurs or Mary Tyler Moore throw her hat into the air, they were waist-deep in 50s nostalgia.* It all started with a weirdly successful rom-com anthology series. Love, American Style churned out more than a hundred episodes, which makes me wonder if Ryan Murphy is currently shopping American Love Story. One particularly well-received segment led to Happy Days, an omnipresent television juggernaut. It ran for eleven seasons and spawned a gob-smacking five spinoffs, and without it we wouldn’t have half of the best bit characters on Arrested Development. (In fact, Arrested may never have existed, seeing as how Ron Howard was an executive producer.) The ties between Laverne & Shirley and Days weren’t exactly bone deep—Laverne (Penny Marshall) dated The Fonz for a grand total of three episodes—but L&S was a roaring success in its own right, eventually airing 178 episodes. What works and what doesn’t?

Strengths

  • Cindy Williams. The entire cast does well here, but it’s really Williams’ episode. The premise is that her buddy Laverne has agreed to a hasty marriage proposal without really thinking it through, and Shirley’s conscience and sense of duty to Laverne obligates her to try and intervene. The show was renowned for its use of physical comedy, and you don’t really see too much of that here, but it’s the little moments that sell you. When Shirley finds out about the proposal, she chokes on her drink and Williams spins it into gold. Her chemistry with Marshall is perfect, even this early in the show’s run. There are emotional valences to the story that fail or succeed on their own merits (see below) but Williams credibly displays a range of emotion that you don’t always get in a standard sitcom.
  • Weddings. Shakespeare famously made weddings synonymous with comedy, and the tradition persists to this day. Why? A wedding is the biggest party most people will ever throw and it is ripe for disruption. There’s the solemnity of a church ceremony just waiting to be interrupted—in fact, a traditional ceremony has a moment specifically inviting interruptions, and of course L&S gleefully seizes the opportunity. There’s tons of family and friends mixing together who may not get along. There’s an expensive, ornate, top-heavy cake. While disrupting a funeral can also be hilarious, weddings are a naturally happier occasion and so everyone’s in a better position to laugh it off. We see Laverne’s wedding rehearsal, and while it’s not quite a debacle on the level of the pilot for The Brady Bunch, we at least get to hear greaser/wacky neighbor Squiggy (David Lander) respond to a request to give the bride away by saying “Okay, take her, I ain’t stoppin’ ya.” What are comedies good for if not taking the wind out of stuffy, nonsensical social institutions?
  • Strong character work. You learn something revealing about both of these women over the course of 22 minutes. Shirley cares enough about Laverne to risk a big fight by giving her a wheelbarrow full of wise yet unsolicited advice. I’d venture that most people in her situation would bite their tongue if their friend was considering a bad marriage. Play it out in your head—if I tell you your fiance is an asshole and you’d be a fool to marry him, what happens to our friendship after you go through with it? Not Shirley—she can’t stand the thought. She really does care about Laverne. And what does it say about Laverne that she’d consider this arrangement in the first place? You’d need to be a specific combination of insecure to settle so quickly and laid-back enough to accept the situation for what it is. The thing is, it seems more or less acceptable! Sal (Paul Sylvan, Busting Loose) isn’t an asshole. Laverne is quick to point out that he’s handsome and respectful and kind. She’s not wrong that it’s somewhat childish and unrealistic to expect fireworks and goosebumps to follow naturally along behind romance. You don’t have to have the love of a century to have a reasonably happy marriage that lasts a lifetime. Of course, Shirley talks Laverne out of it, but their conversations are revealing without painting either party as an asshole. It’s some pretty deft characterization, all things considered.

 
Weaknesses

  • Sappy moments. The show isn’t willing to accept that Laverne isn’t exactly wrong about marriage sometimes being a compromise. It tips its hand when we get treated to swelling violins beneath Shirley’s big speech about love and goosebumps and Laverne’s confession that she’s worried she’ll never hear another proposal. Look, I like these people but I don’t like them well enough to go on a Titus-Andromedon-grade face journey.

 
* Why did seventies audiences have such a hard-on for the fifties? A cynic might say that whitebread middle America missed the halcyon days before black people won a seat at the table, because there’s nary a black or brown face in the entire Happy Days expanded universe outside the occasional Very Special Episode.

Final Judgment: 6.5/10. I struggle with these pre-Simpsons comedies. They pre-date the days when a sitcom told five or six jokes a minute. The problem is that while L&S has a strong ground game and good fundamentals, no guts were in danger of busting. Nary a knee was slapped. I can’t really give a full-throated recommendation to a comedy that isn’t actually that funny, but that’s not because it’s badly-written witless tripe. When you’re waiting for the roars of laughter from the studio audience to subside between every wry one-liner you’re not left with much actual content at the end of the day. So I’m splitting a hair. I promise not to turn this into Pitchfork.

NEXT TIME: Hey, it’s been awhile since we’ve gone digging around through the YA bargain bin, and fate has dealt us a Pair of Kings.

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Case Study 84: Laverne & Shirley, Episode 5–“Falter at the Altar”