Exemplifies Escapist Television

At a time when television programming was dominated by relevance and reality shows, Happy Days took a lighthearted, nostalgic look backward to the 1950’s and early 1960’s.

Summary of Event

On January 15, 1974, and every Tuesday night for a decade thereafter, the American Broadcasting Company American Broadcasting Company (ABC) sent out to a receptive audience Happy Days, a television show that was inoffensive, comfortable, lightweight, enjoyable, and destined to become an American institution. The show did not develop overnight. In 1973, the film American Graffiti, American Graffiti (film) director George Lucas’s Lucas, George nostalgic look at young people in the early 1960’s, was well received by theater audiences; Ron Howard was a member of the film’s ensemble cast. In February, 1972, the anthology television program Love American Style aired an episode titled “Love and the Happy Days,” which was set in the 1950’s and starred Ron Howard. From that basis, the hit television show was born. Television;comedies
Marshall, Garry
Winkler, Henry
Howard, Ron
Bosley, Tom
Ross, Marion

Originally, Happy Days revolved around two stereotypical high school students, Richie Cunningham and Potsie Weber (played by Anson Williams) of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The two boys hung out after school at Arnold’s, a drive-in restaurant, and discussed girls, grades, and other topics of similar concern. The show did reasonably well in the ratings but seemed to the network to lack some vital spark. This problem was solved with the addition to the cast of Henry Winkler, a graduate of the Yale Drama School, in the role of Arthur Fonzarelli, known as “Fonzie” or “the Fonz.” Although conceived as a minor character, the Fonz stole the show and became its real star. Fonz was a leather-jacketed, greasy-haired 1950’s-style juvenile delinquent. From the moment he gave his soon-to-be-famous thumbs-up gesture and uttered his single most famous line—“aaayyh”—he became a national hero for thousands of American kids.

In many ways, Fonzie was the antithesis of the values the show had originally set out to portray. Instead of being a clean-cut, all-American type, Fonzie was something of a teenage renegade, a dangerously attractive rogue who had a way with women. Fonzie was tough, confident, independent, undominated, always free—the ultimate in 1950’s cool. He cared about three things: girls, cars, and the Cunninghams. Lacking a family of his own, he adopted the Cunninghams as his surrogate family, first offering advice to Richie and eventually moving into an apartment over the Cunninghams’ garage.

The presence of the Fonz as a character changed the focus of the show. Winkler quickly moved from fifth billing to third. The plots of many episodes came to center on the relationship between the straitlaced Richie and the unlaced Fonz. In many ways, this was typecasting. Ron Howard, who played Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, was in his personal life very much like the characters he portrayed. Fonzie, however, was well symbolized by his black leather jacket (now exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.), which became his inseparable trademark. In one episode, he was actually seen waterskiing in it. Winkler played the only character on the show who was more than one-dimensional. With great skill, Winkler infused the Fonz with both life and vulnerability. The public responded well to this portrayal. During its second season, Happy Days received fifteen thousand fan letters, ten thousand of them addressed to Winkler.

The rewards for Winkler were proportionate to his popularity. As the Fonz caught on, Winkler’s pay rose from $750 an episode to $80,000. The network was pleased to pay this sum, however. With Fonz-induced popularity, Happy Days could command higher prices for commercial time. The price of a thirty-second spot on Happy Days rose from $50,000 to $90,000 in one year. To accommodate this growing popularity, the show’s writers moved Fonz into an apartment over the Cunninghams’ garage so there could be greater interaction within the group.

Happy Days was described as a recombinant program. The producers took from other shows and from literature elements that had proven audience appeal and recombined them. Garry Marshall said he conceived of Happy Days as a “look back, a humorous Waltons.” He saw himself in the tradition of Norman Rockwell, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn. Marshall was a master of formula writing and the situation comedy format.

Appealing characters, rather than plot, spelled success for Happy Days. Most of the episodes had highly predictable, routine plots; almost none was memorable. No one who watched the show, however, can forget the Fonz. The appealing nature of the characters also is seen in the number of spin-offs from the show. Laverne and Shirley
Laverne and Shirley (television program) and Joanie Loves Chachi
Joanie Loves Chachi (television program) were both developed from Happy Days characters.

Happy Days was filmed before a live audience and was dependent on lots of quick, easy laughs. The pilot episode contained eight jokes and sight gags in the main titles alone, all carefully placed to get the audience laughing instantly and continuously. On some occasions, Garry Marshall actually went into the studio and threw candy to audience members to keep them in a good mood.

The program was no more about the 1950’s than it was about Milwaukee. It was about nostalgia in general and the desire to solve life’s everyday problems. This was what a large audience wanted, and Happy Days provided it.


Happy Days represents one impact of a marketing change that came to television in the 1970’s. At that time, demographics became important, as sponsors began to target audiences for their products. Writers saw demographic considerations as yet another restriction on their creative abilities. The challenge was to stimulate creativity while directing shows toward specifically targeted audiences that would be watching at a known hour.

Garry Marshall was able to write creatively for a specific audience, adolescents, while retaining appeal for some older viewers who would watch his shows with their children. This demographic targeting suited ABC quite well. ABC typically courted audiences that were young and urban. Happy Days might well have failed on the rival Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) or National Broadcasting Company (NBC) networks.

Some critics of the content of Happy Days drew unkind conclusions from this demographic targeting. Regardless of criticism, Happy Days and its success helped to make demographic targeting a fact of television writing and scheduling. The program also spawned a plethora of shows meant specifically for adolescents and children.

Another impact of Happy Days was the creation of a second stream of situation comedies for the 1970’s. At a time when the Norman Lear-inspired relevance shows filled the schedules of CBS and NBC, Garry Marshall created reactionary programs that ignored current problems to hark back to a supposedly simpler and purer time or to invoke ideals of happy, carefree lives. These programs began with Happy Days and would include Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy, Mork and Mindy (television program) and Diff’rent Strokes.

An interesting contrast can be made between Happy Days and M*A*S*H. M*A*S*H (television program)[Mash (television program)]
Television programs;M*A*S*H[Mash] Both shows were set in the 1950’s and aired during many of the same years but with completely different views of life. The troubles that came up in Happy Days were the normal problems of growing up in “Anytown, U.S.A.” and could all be handled with love, compassion, and understanding, commodities readily available in the stable nuclear family represented by the Cunninghams. M*A*S*H saw people caught up in circumstances of war beyond their personal control; love, compassion, and understanding could only alleviate situations. In short, Happy Days was a mid-1970’s swing away from contemplating problems to “just for the fun of it” television.

Happy Days was apolitical in content yet aired in an era of political concern following the Watergate scandal and the war in Vietnam. The show even avoided the political crises of the 1950’s. There was never any mention of McCarthyism or the Korean War. One episode concerned fear of atomic war and the building of home bomb shelters, but few of the other societal concerns and tensions of the era received notice.

Garry Marshall was proud of the content of his show. This feeling was reinforced when the two hundredth episode of Happy Days was read into the Congressional Register as an example of a wholesome television show. Marshall also argued that the show was not devoid of serious messages. The impact of the show on its target audience cannot be denied. After Fonzie took out a library card as part of one episode, thousands of teenagers nationwide did the same thing during the next few days.

A further impact of Happy Days was to make Garry Marshall and ABC powerful figures in American television. At one time, Marshall had three hit shows on the air: Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and Mork and Mindy. All were on ABC and were largely responsible for moving ABC from third to first place in network popularity. In the 1976-1977 season, ABC had seven of the top ten shows, led by Happy Days.

At the height of its popularity, Happy Days had fifty million viewers per week. When ABC decided to take the risk of broadcasting the episodes of the miniseries Roots
Roots (television miniseries) on eight consecutive nights in 1977, a major contributing factor to the decision was the knowledge that even if Roots flopped, Happy Days would hold the network’s audience.

Happy Days had its negative side. Its plots were little more than sanitized nostalgia. Many of its jokes and pranks were done only for their own sake and contributed nothing to the development of the story. With minor exceptions, the show depicted an all-white America at a time when the nation was increasingly aware of cultural and racial diversity. Over the course of a decade marked by tension, however, Happy Days offered escape. Television;comedies

Further Reading

  • Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. 2d rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Provides thorough coverage and analysis of television from I Love Lucy to the Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan debates. Author was head of the section of the Library of Congress that deals with broadcasting.
  • Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows, 1946-Present. 8th ed. New York: Ballantine, 2003. Provides information on hundreds of programs, with summaries and biographies.
  • Fiske, John. Television Culture. New York: Methuen, 1987. Scholarly, analytic work examines television through technical sociological research and studies.
  • Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. An analysis of how the television industry functions, with power plays made by small groups of top executives, writers, producers, and agents. Gitlin examines what makes good shows good and why some catch on while others fail.
  • Goldstein, Fred, and Stan Goldstein. Prime-Time Television. New York: Crown, 1983. Combines text and pictures to present a vivid history of television from 1948 to 1983. Almost every program or series on the air for a significant time is included in this comprehensive work.
  • Hefzallah, Ibrahim M. Critical Viewing of Television. 2d ed. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2002. The author, a teacher of classes on critical viewing of television, has written about how to understand television, how it affects viewers, and how to become a critical viewer.
  • Lowe, Carl. Television and American Culture. New York: H. H. Wilson, 1981. Reprints of articles, addresses, and excerpts from books on television as a social force in American society. Covers such diverse topics as politics, religion, news, and education.
  • O’Connor, John, ed. American History, American Television. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983. Presents television both as a force in recent social history and as a matter to be studied. Deals with a wide range of topics, from Amos ’n’ Andy to Watergate.
  • Rose, Brian G., and Robert S. Alley, eds. TV Genres: A Handbook and Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. Attempts to explain to viewers how and why television shows fall into a limited number of formats. The cross-fertilizing of formats, or genres, is discussed, as are genres from police shows to religious programming.

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