Given the fact that the recent Brady Bunch revival was met with remarkably little skepticism, I suppose The Laverne & Shirley Reunion was inevitable. It is now apparently taken for granted that the post-baby-boomer-nostalgia appeal of such sitcoms confers upon them genuine cultural significance. As sweeps-stunt memory-mongering goes, this is a well-made little special, hosted by the show’s stars, Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams, who sit together on a couch while still managing to look miles away from each other. The hour is standard stuff — clips of those two Milwaukee brewery workers, Laverne (Marshall) and Shirley (Williams), being wacky, plus comments from costars and guest stars. Seen now, L&S appears to be one of the last sitcoms to place as much emphasis on physical humor as on verbal jokes, and Laverne and Shirley’s peculiar friends Lenny (Michael McKean) and Squiggy (David L. Lander) are definitely the grandfathers of Beavis and Butt-head.
Laverne & Shirley, which ran from 1976 to 1983, can be viewed, if you want to be culturally significant about it, as the second part of a trilogy by its auteur, executive producer Garry Marshall (who just happens to be the older brother of Penny). First came Happy Days, Marshall’s rosy evocation of the 1950s that established Ron Howard and Henry Winkler as stars. In one episode in which Howard’s Richie and Winkler’s Fonzie were hard up for dates, they settled for Laverne De Fazio and Shirley Feeney — ”da belles of bottle-cappin’,” as Fonzie called them — and the guest spot led to the spinning off of Laverne & Shirley. The success of these two sitcoms — and there was a period in the late ’70s when Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley jostled each other for the top spot in the Nielsen ratings, week in and week out — gave Marshall the clout to spin off still another show from Happy Days and to launch the third part of his lowbrow trilogy, Mork & Mindy, the trite alien-visits-Earth show blessed with Robin Williams.
In the reunion show, Winkler compares Laverne and Shirley to ”Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, to Lucy and Ethel.” Well, as the years have shown, neither Penny Marshall nor Cindy Williams ended up developing a comic persona to equal those of Jackie Gleason or Lucille Ball. In recent years, Marshall has become a full-time director (A League of Their Own, Big); Williams, a sometime actress. In the first few seasons of L&S, though, the pair had a nice comic rapport. Although their best dialogue was always more Abbott and Costello than Ralph and Ed, their slapstick in the funniest episodes is indeed comparable to Ball and Vivian Vance’s wide-eyed high jinks.
The problem is that the characters of Laverne and Shirley never had sufficiently distinct definition to make them great sitcom creations. As the seasons went by, Shirley’s personality hardened into that of an anal-retentive crab, while Laverne devolved into a boy-crazy dumbbell. But too many of their lines were interchangeable, and it was eventually left to Lenny and Squiggy — a transcendently stupid yet interestingly bitter, ambitious, and horny duo — to supply whatever belly laughs the series could yield.
Watching The Laverne & Shirley Reunion, you may not bask in the glow of fond memories as much as start asking yourself, Did I really watch this many episodes of Laverne & Shirley? You did. It was a guilty pleasure before the phrase was coined. B