“The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang: King for a Day & The Vampire Strikes Back” (1980)

It saddens me that kids today no longer have the Saturday morning cartoon experience. No more rising at dawn to mainline Froot Loops while learning about adverbs. No more Michael J. Fox explaining why playing with matches is bad. No more anthropomorphic fat globules in top hats trying to convince kids that sticking toothpicks into frozen juice cubes is not only a fun rainy day activity, but also a delicious snack. And most importantly, no psychotic spin-offs of live action TV shows.

If I were to tell you there was once a Partridge Family cartoon in which they live 250 years into the future, would you believe me? How about a Brady Bunch cartoon where they live in a tree house with a talking bird and a set of panda bears? Maybe I can tell you about the time there existed a cartoon about the Harlem Globetrotters where they were superheroes, with one whose head was shaped like a basketball, one who could turn into a rope, and another whose giant Afro stored an unlimited number of gadgets. Or how about Gilligan’s Planet, the plot of which can be easily surmised by the title? Or Rubik the Amazing Cube, or the Mr. T cartoon, or the other Ghostbusters show? All of these existed, and all of them were poorly animated cash-ins with weird plot twists (they’re in space! they have magical powers! they have a talking bird/dog/gorilla!) that all seem to have come straight from the bottom of a bong.

Though Happy Days wasn’t specifically targeted towards children, there sure was a lot of tie-in merchandise marketed just for them. Besides the ubiquitous lunchbox, you could get action figures, a board game (object: collect 16 “cool points”), a card game, puzzles, Colorform kits, paper dolls, View-Master slides, coloring books, and a cardboard play set. It’s a wonder it took six years to get a cartoon on the air, but they eventually did, with a baffling, barely polished turd called The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang.

The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang is a cartoon that is so cynical and condescending of its young audience that it actually made me angry while rewatching it. Everything about it is sub-par, the writing, the animation, the voiceover work (despite it featuring some of the actual stars of Happy Days), as if everyone involved in it decided that kids were gullible dimwits who would watch anything remotely associated with their favorite TV show, no matter how lousy the quality. Now, I’m not saying that kids aren’t gullible dimwits who would watch anything remotely associated with their favorite TV show, no matter how lousy the quality, but you should at least pretend that you don’t know this and make some kind of goddamn effort.

Similar to the previously reviewed, mediocre Gary Coleman Show, the premise of The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang is barely explained during the opening credits. Wolfman Jack shouts over generic “50s” music about The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang (which consists only of Richie Cunningham and Ralph Malph, which isn’t much of a “gang” when you think about it) encountering a pigtail sporting “future chick” named Cupcake, who, after Fonzie repairs her broken time machine (by hitting it with his elbow, obvs.), accidentally takes the Gang along with her through a rip in the time-space continuum. Hijinks ensue through multiple failed attempts to return to 1957 Milwaukee.

Who is Cupcake? Where did she come from? Is she an alien? Is her name actually Cupcake, or did Fonz just decide to call her that? How did she end up with a time machine that she doesn’t know how to operate? Why does she also have the ability to cast spells? None of this is ever really explained, and you can tell it’s because nobody involved in the show thought it needed to be. After all, children are little more than sentient lumps of clay who accept everything they see at face value, and never ask questions.

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Ugh…I suppose I should mention the dog. This dog, this Salvation Army knockoff of Scooby Doo, is probably the worst “wacky animal” character in any animated program ever (and yes, I’m counting Scrappy Doo). His name is Mr. Cool. I think that bears repeating: the dog is named Mr. Cool. He occasionally speaks in something that sounds like garbled English, walks upright, and reacts to things in a comically human fashion, like ogling and wolf-whistling at beautiful babes. Let me tell you, Mr. Cool is hilarious, especially when he tries to imitate Fonzie and walks into something, or accidentally backs into the time machine and renders it unusable, which happens about six times in the two episodes I watched

This time machine breaks down more often than a gas station ATM, and yet, in keeping with the “Who gives a fuck?” tone driving the entire cartoon, no one expresses more than mild exasperation about it, even when they’re fleeing for their lives from dinosaurs and supernatural creatures. In the first episode, “King for a Day,” they go back to the stone age where, of course, dinosaurs and humans occupy the same space and time, and, of course, they’re there barely five minutes before Fonzie starts getting eye-boned by a blonde cavechick, who refers to him as a “hunky baby.”

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The “humor” in The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang comes from the fact that everyone except the Fonz is incompetent. Cupcake is incompetent. Richie is incompetent. Ralph is incompetent. Mr. Cool is so incompetent he’s a danger to himself and everyone else, and you wonder why they just don’t crate him or toss him out of the time machine somewhere around 1789. They would all be brutally killed without Fonzie, who is completely unruffled even while facing a T. rex, so laid back he’s about to fall over. He doesn’t even have to resort to fisticuffs, just wisecracking his way out of every potentially violent situation.

In the second episode I watched, “The Vampire Strikes Back,” Fonz and the Gang do manage to make it back to 1957, but end up in Transylvania rather than Milwaukee, after Count Dracula sneaks into the time machine and changes their coordinates. Oh wait, I’m sorry, not Count Dracula, that’s a licensed property, I meant Count Von Wolfenstein, who still wears a full tuxedo with cape, and pronounces his w’s as v’s. Count Von Wolfenstein has brought the Gang to Transylvania because he wants to make Cupcake his bride, and…huh? They never encountered each other before, so how could he…? And why not just…? But how…? It may seem silly, but I just can’t help trying to fill in the gaping holes in the “plot” of this cartoon. If the writers couldn’t be bothered to do it, then, by God, somebody has to.

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While everyone else is trying to escape the clutches of Count Von Ripoffstein, Ralph is turned into a werewolf. He eventually recovers, but the final gag reveals that he’s–haaaaaaa ha ha ha!–developed fleas, and the episode closes with him and Mr. Cool having a scratch together. The last bit of dialogue is Richie saying “Ha ha ha…oh yeah,” in a tone of voice so indifferent you know the next words out of Ron Howard’s mouth were “Okay, I’m done with this shit, right?” before taking off his headphones and flinging them across the room.

It’s a tough call deciding where the least amount of care and concern went into ensuring that The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang was a quality product. Certainly the writing, which reduces the bulk of the dialogue to bad puns, Cupcake saying stuff like “Cosmic calamity!” and Richie and Ralph mostly just yelling for Fonzie’s help, is a strong contender. But then there’s the animation, which repeats shots and more often than not renders the characters with either blank expressions or dopey smiles, regardless of whatever situation they’re in. However it’s tough to compete with the voiceover work, which sounds like the entire season was done in one recording session in a hotel room somewhere, in between Happy Days shoots and TV Guide interviews.

Everything about this production screams “contractual obligation,” and as with every contractual obligation you both pity and hate the people involved in it. Sure, it sucks that you have to play second fiddle to a talking dog that knows how to give the thumbs-up sign, but for God’s sake, you’re making more money for it than most people will see in a year, why not just fake it for the fans? The fact that a lesser damn could not be spared by anyone who took part in this didn’t stop network brass from putting it on the air, so what harm would have come from actually trying to make it worth watching? Maybe they could have gotten a few more toys and lunchboxes out of it.

The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang lasted an unremarkable two seasons, but it wouldn’t be the last we’d see of Fonzie and–ugh–Mr. Cool in animated form. They would later show up as truck mechanics in Laverne & Shirley in the Army, an equally baffling cash grab in which the titular characters lock horns with a drill sergeant who is a talking pig, all while encountering Bigfoot, werewolves, and genies. This would be part of a whole hour of spinoff garbage that included a cartoon in which Mork and Mindy are aged down to high school students, and Mork is given a pet six-legged creature named Doing (pronounced “doyng”). But, please, allow me to recover from this one first.

Original airdate for “King for a Day”: November 8, 1980 (Watch it here)

Original airdate for “The Vampire Strikes Back”: December 20, 1980 (Watch it here)

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