Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Podcast Tuesday: "Is This Even a Nostalgia Show Anymore?"

Henry Winkler and Deborah Pratt on Happy Days.

Happy Days can trace its roots back to a fateful 1971 meeting between two TV executives, Paramount's Tom Miller and ABC's Michael Eisner, who were snowed in at the Newark Airport and decided to use that time to brainstorm a new series. Miller and Eisner decided that a nostalgia-themed show might be a good idea, since the clothes and hairstyles wouldn't look dated just a few years later in reruns. They handed off the idea to Odd Couple producer Garry Marshall, who decided to set it in the 1950s. A half-hour pilot aired in early 1972 as part of the anthology series Love American Style, but ABC passed on the project.

The very next year, however, the movie American Graffiti and the stage musical Grease proved that nostalgia could be a potential goldmine, so ABC regained interest in Marshall's series. Happy Days finally joined the network's prime time schedule in January 1974. By this point, it had already changed rather drastically from the original pilot. Cast members Ron Howard, Anson Williams, and Marion Ross remained, but they were joined by Tom Bosley, Erin Moran, Donny Most, and, perhaps most significantly, Henry Winkler as greaser mechanic Arthur "The Fonz" Fonzarelli, the epitome of cool. Also, while the pilot was set in the gentle, pre-rock years, the new, more raucous Happy Days was chockablock with oldies by Bobby Darin, Fats Domino, Bill Haley, and more.

Winkler's character ultimately became the focal point of the series, and Happy Days gradually moved away from its roots. In the first two seasons, the characters could barely get through a conversation without making references to fads, fashions, and pop culture icons of the 1950s. But this aspect of the show grew less and less important over time. After a few seasons, the action of the show was shifted to the early 1960s.

By 1979, Happy Days was in its seventh season and was scarcely recognizable as the show it once was. It bore only a passing resemblance to that Love American Style pilot. Apart from Fonzie's leather jacket and the oldies emanating from the jukebox, you could barely tell Happy Days was supposed to be taking place in any other time than the late '70s. A perfect example of this phenomenon is the episode "Fonzie Meets Kat" from September 25, 1979. The far-fetched plot involves a mysterious woman named Kat Mandu (Deborah Pratt) who breezes into Milwaukee from parts unknown and intervenes during a bar fight between Fonzie and a sailor named Rico (John Papais). None of this seems designed to evoke a sense of nostalgia in viewers, unless they spent a lot of time at dockside bars getting into martial arts battles.

But what did we think of "Fonzie Meets Kat"? You can find out by listening to the latest episode of These Days Are Ours: A Happy Days Podcast.