…And I think he did a pretty OK job.
I grew up a latchkey kid. Or, in today’s terms, I was free-range parented. There were some long days, especially during the summers, when I would go eight or ten hours without the accompaniment of an adult this side of Charles Ingalls, Schneider or Mr. Drummond.
From them I learned three lessons: 1) If a problem takes more than a half hour to solve, it’s best to throw a ‘To Be Continued’ up there and wait a week for the answers. 2) Dick Van Patten is the richest motherfucking newspaper journalist who ever lived — and the only man in the world who could make Sacramento look so effing cool. And 3) There’s no problem in the world a glass of warm milk consumed in the dead of night while wearing a robe can’t fix.
My parents made sure I had full cupboards of literature and model planes and activity books and access to baking supplies and though I did all of that, I also remember spending innumerable hours thinking of safe places in the backyard to hide should the neighbor’s hound of hell finally find a way to jump over his chain link dog run to make a bee-line for my throat.
I explored the neighborhood like Harriet the Spy in search of a mystery or at least wondering what was going on behind of the doors of the homes similarly vacated during the day by other working folk. Once in awhile, I would pass by an open window and fantasize about sneaking in, making popcorn and watching something on their VCR. We didn’t have a VCR.
Some days, I would go through my father’s change jar and scrounge enough for a half pound of gummi bears or a roast beef six-incher from Subway, the only restaurant I can think of with the same prices, and workers, today as in 1988.
We had a bottle brush tree which lived on the other side of our plate glass family room window and sometimes 10 a.m. to noon would simply be spent counting hummingbirds and honeybees who visited the thousand tiny bloody syringe outcroppings from the branches.
And when I did get lonely — digging a hole purportedly bound for the Orient with my trusted mutt in the backyard, or throwing the ball up and losing it in the sun and then covering my head to watch it bounce beside me, when heaving lawn darts at the yucca trees failed me — I would turn on the TV (even though I wasn’t supposed to.)
And that’s when Garry Marshall came into my life. The Bronx-born writer/director/older brother of Penny was responsible for the dialogue and plot lines that defined my youth and still inform who I am, profoundly, today.
But more on that in a second.
Marshall started out as a writer working out of a deli for comedians then on to TV sitcoms in the late-1960s. It is worth listening to his talk in early May with Marc Maron about early days in New York. There is the nod to the giants of comedy when he came up: Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, Norman Lear — all of whom Marshall would one day call contemporaries. What set him apart, for awhile, is he came to the genre as a relative outsider and his brand of humor, though it was always purportedly catered to the masses, put a spit polish on his own inequity.
A year after helping bring Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” to TV in 1970, he wrote the pilot for “Happy Days” as a spin off from the underappreciated long-form vignette series “Love, American Style.” The show was a tribute to the 1950s and debuted on the small screen in 1974 after “American Graffiti” became the box office sleeper hit of the previous summer. The film showcased an almost grown-up Ronnie Howard and launched the career of filmmaker George Lucas.
Howard, heretofore the precocious ginger son of the sheriff of Mayberry, starred as Richie Cunningham, an all-American boy who was one part Li’l Abner, one part Charlie Brown and one part Archie. Despite his freckles and crooked, welcoming smile, Richie was the sadly drawn American middle child marooned in suburban Milwaukee on the perennial cusp of maybe. As he became an adult, he was met with seemingly endless, and at the same time, zero prospects.
To re-watch the first two seasons of “Happy Days,” back before the Fonz was a caricature of himself (and a cultural phenomenon) and more a cautionary tale living above a garage, the show wasn’t as sweet as it lives in memory. It was television’s first nod to the imperfections of family life and struggles left mostly unspoken in the post-war era.
The Cunninghams, though they always tried to hold it together for their children (remember Chuck, the oldest?), alluded constantly to a stagnant marital life, financial troubles at the hardware store and the sage advice of Mr. C. came in a kind of only-when-necessary way that didn’t show a lot of depth, understanding or actual compassion. His kids’ problems were their own and he did not own them. If anything, it showcased an ahead-of-its-time look at the benefit of parents separating themselves from their charges even early on.
To me, it showed that family life, even through a lens of a sitcom, is never perfect. Early “Happy Days” could feel lonely. I remember my initial understanding of the irony in the show’s title was during a Season 1 episode, “The Deadly Dares” where Ritchie and his best friend Potsie attempt to join a gang called the Demons, but before doing so have to perform “six deadly dares” (it was also the episode we are introduced to my favorite character in TV history, “Bag” Zombrowski.) Try as they may, Richie and Potsie fall short and though it turns out to be for their own good, they aren’t happy about it, and become all that more isolated among their peers as a result. But in this, their friendship strengthens.
That was the pattern, not the anomaly. Richie missed the game-winning free throw, came close but never got the girl and always felt the outsider at the party — like Garry must have — like we all do.
These feelings of insecurity wrapped up in colored paper like a Tootsie Pop drew America in and the show lit the match that was to ignite Marshall’s juggernaut sitcom empire. “Happy Days” led to the spin-offs “Laverne and Shirley” — probably one of the best and most underrated sitcoms of all time, starring his sister, Penny and Cindy Williams (also an “American Graffitti” alum) — and “Mork and Mindy,” about a misplaced alien portrayed by shooting star wild man comedian Robin Williams who was feted by his attractive roommate and later lover, Pam Dawber.
Marshall went on to write and direct some of the biggest comedies of the last three decades including “Pretty Woman,” which grossed $463 million worldwide and, like a Beatles song on the radio, can be found playing somewhere in the world at any time during any day and “The Princess Diaries” which launched the career of Anne Hathaway and brought us a much-needed spoon full of Julie Andrews. Near the end of his career was the trilogy homage to lesser-than Hallmark holidays, “Valentine’s Day”, “New Year’s Eve” and “Mother’s Day.” The latter released at the end of April grossed only $32 million, but considering the budget was $25 million, plus whatever comes along in its second life streaming and on cable, even Marshall’s failures were modest hits.
Though early tributes to the man will all be glowing — Henry Winkler’s heartbreaking tweet comes to mind…
GARRY MARSHALL Rest In Peace .. Thank you for my professional life. Thank you for your loyalty , friendship and generosity .
— Henry Winkler (@hwinkler4real) July 20, 2016
…some of Marshall’s work has been overlooked or at least classified as overly sweet and a little removed.
But that’s exactly what I needed growing up. Someone to address the notion that life isn’t easy or doesn’t turn out how you want it to, but it does turn out for the best. Because, well, doesn’t it?
Don’t we all eventually end up where we’re supposed to be, whether we designed it that way, or no? Isn’t there always a resolution that shows us not only we had much to learn, but that puts us in a better place, whether we liked it initially or not?
Shouldn’t you always keep trying?
Sure, we aren’t all hookers rescued by Richard Gere — but in some ways, if we truly believe and strive to be something better than we are, better than our circumstances allow, then we can make things a little more pleasant along the way to our destination.
He certainly did.
Those are the lessons I learned from Garry Marshall growing up and it’s what I believe today. Oh, that and never water ski in your leather jacket. You’ll never hear the end of it.
Sclemeel, schlemazel, hasenfeffer incorporated. RIP Garry Marshall.