By: David Smay
May 23, 2022

One in a series of 25 enthusiastic posts, contributed by 25 HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of our favorite TV shows of the Seventies (1974–1983).


LAVERNE & SHIRLEY | 1976–1983

“One, Two, Three, Four / Five, Six, Seven, Eight / Schlemiel! / Schlimazel! / Hasenpfeffer Incorporated…”

Poised at an almost equidistant midpoint between American Graffiti and Spinal Tap, Laverne & Shirley, starring Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams, was the most popular TV show in America in the late ’70s. Spinning off from Happy Days, L&S remains overshadowed by its progenitor in popular memory. Whereas Happy Days inspired a Weezer video, a quip in Pulp Fiction, an indie band (Tuscadero) and the Smithsonian to display Fonzie’s jacket, Laverne’s iconic monogrammed “L” survives primarily on Penny’s gravestone.

In its first three seasons (’76 through ’79) Laverne and Shirley wasn’t just a ratings juggernaut but a genuine pop culture phenomenon. Ultimate proof? There was an animated spinoff. The theme song went into the Top 40, and there were tie-in albums for Marshall and Williams, as well as Lenny & the Squigtones which featured one of the first credited appearances for Nigel Tufnel on guitar.

There’s your clue about the lasting impact of Laverne & Shirley, which wasn’t primarily on television, but rather film comedy in the ’80s. Let us posit a day on the set with the stars grabbing lunch from craft services, and sitting down at the table with the showrunner, the writers, Cindy’s co-star from American Graffiti, visiting from the Happy Days set, and Penny’s husband and father-in-Law.

Seated at that table you have the directors of the following films: Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Night Shift, Splash, Cocoon, Parenthood, Big, A League of Their Own, The Sure Thing, City Slickers, Beaches, Overboard, Pretty Woman, The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid & The Man With Two Brains.

Garry Marshall presides at that table with his sister Penny, her husband Rob Reiner and her father-in-law Carl Reiner (who worked with Garry on The Dick Van Dyke Show), plus Ron Howard and the writers Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel. From that table you’re also directly launching the film careers of Christopher Guest, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Tom Hanks and Michael Keaton.

Once again, I’ve allowed Laverne & Shirley to be overshadowed, but there’s a reason why it was the top-rated show in America. Derided by TV critics at the time as lowbrow, a profound dumbing-down from the heights of the MTM stable and M*A*S*H, L&S was unapologetically built around the physical comedy and exquisite chemistry of Marshall and Williams, ably assisted by the goofery of Michael McKean and David Lander (who both previously worked with Harry Shearer in a cult radio comedy group, The Credibility Gap) as Lenny & Squiggy. Especially in the early seasons, it was grounded firmly in a Fifties working class Milwaukee (while in the back half of its run it drifted lazily through Sixties Los Angeles and down in the ratings).

You can count on one hand the sitcoms that went to #1 with female leads: I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, Laverne & Shirley & Roseanne. (Allowing a half share to the Friends ensemble.) The Mary Tyler Moore Show didn’t do it, nor Parks & Rec, nor 30 Rock.

Laverne & Shirley is the only sitcom since I Love Lucy to top the charts with women playing slapstick and farce. So give it up for the clowns; they made all their dreams come true.


KOJAK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | Lynn Peril on ONE DAY AT A TIME | Dan Reines on THE WHITE SHADOW | Carlo Rotella on BARNEY MILLER | Lucy Sante on POLICE WOMAN | Douglas Wolk on WHEW! | Susan Roe on THE LOVE BOAT | Peggy Nelson on THE BIONIC WOMAN | Michael Grasso on WKRP IN CINCINNATI | Josh Glenn on SHAZAM! | Vanessa Berry on IN SEARCH OF… | Mark Kingwell on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA | Tom Nealon on BUCK ROGERS | Heather Quinlan on LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE | Adam McGovern on FAWLTY TOWERS | Gordon Dahlquist on THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO | David Smay on LAVERNE & SHIRLEY | Miranda Mellis on WELCOME BACK, KOTTER | Rick Pinchera on THE MUPPET SHOW | Kio Stark on WONDER WOMAN | Marc Weidenbaum on ARK II | Carl Wilson on LOU GRANT | Greg Rowland on STAR TREK: THE ANIMATED SERIES | Dave Boerger on DOCTOR WHO | William Nericcio on CHICO AND THE MAN | Erin M. Routson on HAPPY DAYS. Plus: David Cantwell on THE WALTONS.




Enthusiasms, TV