Originally introduced as characters on Happy Days, Laverne De Fazio (Penny Marshall) and Shirley Feeney (Cindy Williams) "schlemiel-schlamazeled" their way into the Tuesday night ABC prime time line up and into the hearts of television viewers in 1976. The show, set in the late 1950s, centered on the two title characters, and was rated the number one program in its second year of airing. In the earliest years of the long-running sitcom, the two twenty-something women shared an apartment in Milwaukee and worked at Shotz Brewery, the local beer bottling plant. Many of the episodes focused on the humorous complications involving the women or their friends. From ditching blind dates to goofing up on the conveyor belt at the bottling plant, Laverne and Shirley "did it their way" in Milwaukee until 1980 when ABC decided to change the setting of Laverne & Shirley to Burbank, California for a new twist. Aside from a change of climate and employment, now in Bradburn's Department store, the central characters and structure of the program remained the same until Williams left the program in 1982. Following her departure, the program continued for one year under the original title, but with Laverne alone as the central character.
"There is nothing we won't try, never heard the word impossible, this time, there's no stopping us, we're gonna do it!" This line from the theme song of the sitcom describes the state of mind of the program's two main characters. With the advantage of two decades of hindsight, Laverne and Shirley painted a picture of the 1950s from the single, independent woman's point of view. The plots of the episodes reflected concerns about holding a factory job, making it as a independent woman, and dealing with friends and relatives in the process of developing a life of one's own. Many plots revolved around the girls dating this man or that, or pondering the ideal men they would liked to have met: sensitive, handsome doctors. If on the surface the characters appeared to be longing to fulfill the stereotypical 1950s role of woman, their true actions and attitudes cast them as two of television's first liberated women. They thought for themselves and made things happen in their social circles. Together they fought for causes, from workers' rights at the bottling plant to animal rights at the pound. They helped each other and they helped their friends, who added much texture and comic effect to the program.
Their two male neighbors, Lenny and Squiggy provided much of the humor in the program with their greasy-1950s appearance and their ironic knack of entering at just the wrong time. If someone said "Can you imagine anything more slimy and filthy than that?", in would charge Lenny and Squiggy with the famous, distorted "hello!" Despite the fun poked at the two men, they were still portrayed as friends and thus were often caught up in the "Lucy-esque" escapades of Laverne and Shirley. Another prominent character, Carmine Ragusa or "The Big Ragu" was an energetic Italian singer. Friend to both women, Carmine was after Shirley's heart. Laverne and Shirley gave its lead characters room to explore boundaries and break some stereotypes common in television portrayals of women prior to the 1970s. Shirley was portrayed as interested in marriage, yet she was not sure that Carmine was "the one"; instead of settling, she kept her independence and her friendship with Carmine.
Among the loudest characters on the program was Mr. Frank De Fazio, Laverne's widowed father who owned the local Pizza-Bowl where everyone congregated. In his eyes Laverne was still a little girl, and he frequently checked up on her, evaluated her dates, and attempted to invalidate her decisions. Edna, Frank's girlfriend acted as a buffer between father and daughter, and even more as a motherly figure to Laverne after she married Frank midway through the program's network run. Though Frank would express his overly protective and chauvinistic views, Edna's buffering reason and Laverne's stubbornness always won out. Laverne & Shirley was an early prime-time proponent of women's rights and placed much value in the viewpoints and experiences of 50's women, suggesting that even in that decade women could be independent.
Since Laverne & Shirley was a spin-off of Happy Days, and because the programs aired back to back, it was easy to cross over characters from one to another. Often Laverne and Shirley were visited by Arthur Fonzerelli (better known as The Fonz), or ran into Richie Cunningham or Ralph Mouth (all from Happy Days) camping in the woods. Viewers were able to carry knowledge from one show (Happy Days) to the next (Laverne & Shirley) as characters shared experiences with each other outside the context of their own programs. The programs were thus able to layer meanings or overlap realities between previously mutually exclusive television families.
While visits to or from Happy Days characters were always extra fun, Laverne & Shirley provided seasons of hilarious antics and left behind many memorable pictures uniquely their own--Laverne's clothing, always decorated with large, cursive "L's," the milk and Pepsi concoction that was her favorite beverage, the giant posters of Fabian, and Shirley's infamous Boo-Boo kitty, a two foot stuffed cat that was the true ruler of her heart. Laverne & Shirley may have been a female "odd-couple", Shirley fanatically neat and Laverne hopelessly sloppy, but they balanced each other and provided a system of mutual support demonstrating that women could compete in the world of work as well as in the world of ideas. From a 1950s perspective, for two young women, that indeed was "making our dreams come true".
-Dawn Michelle Nill
Laverne De Fazio................................... Penny Marshall
Shirley Feeney (1976-1982)..................... Cindy Williams
Carmine Ragusa .......................................Eddie Mekka
Frank De Fazio............................................ Phil Foster
Andrew "Squiggy" Squigman................... David L. Lander
Lenny Kosnowski................................. Michael McKean
Mrs. Edna Babish De Fazio (1976-1981)...... Betty Garrett
Rosie Greenbaum (1976-1977)............... Carole Ita White
Sonny St. Jaques (1980-1981)..................... Ed Marinaro
Rhonda Lee (1980-1983).................... Leslie Easterbrook
Garry Marshall, Thomas L. Miller, Edward K. Milkis, Milt Josefberg, Marc Sotkin
January 1976-July 1979 Tuesday 8:30-9:00
August 1979-December 1979 Thursday 8:00-8:30
December 1979-February 1980 Monday 8:00-8:30
February 1980-May 1983 Tuesday 8:30-9:00
Gates, Anita. "Through Thick and Thin." The New York Times, 30 April 1995.
Hammamoto, Darrell Y. Nervous Laughter: Television Situation Comedy and Liberal Democratic Ideology. New York: Praeger, 1989.
Jones, Gerard. Honey, I'm Home: Sitcoms, Selling the American Dream. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1992.
Marc, David, and Robert J. Thompson. Prime-time, Prime Movers: From I Love Lucy To L.A. Law--America's Greatest TV Shows and the People Who Created Them. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992.
Marshall, Garry, with Lori Marshall. Wake Me When It's Funny: How to Break Into Show Business and Stay There. Holbrook, Massachusetts: Adams, 1995.
Mitz, Rick. The Great TV Sitcom Book. New York: R. Marek, 1988.
Newcomb, Horace, and Robert S. Alley. The Producer's Medium: Conversations with Creators of American TV. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.