“Sheila, hold all my calls.
How ya doin’, kid? You’re looking a little pale, you gettin’ enough sunshine? The missus and I, we have a little weekend place out in Palm Beach, maybe you can drop by some weekend. You’re workin’ too hard, eh? So you’re in here because I wanted to talk to you about the script you brought me. Now, before we go any further, I love it. I think it’s the greatest thing I’ve read in months, we might be looking at the next Gone With the Wind here. But I can’t sell it to the boss. It’s too…complicated, y’know what I mean? The boss gives everyone exactly thirty seconds to pitch a story, otherwise it’s back to the ol’ drawing board.
You gotta be able to sell your idea in two sentences or less, that’s called “high concept.” Think of Jurassic Park: you think Stevie Spielberg had to go any further than “dinosaur amusement park” when selling that picture? The studio heads practically gave him a blank check and the deeds to their houses! Or Planet of the Apes: the plot is right there in the title! Simplify, simplify. You got something good here, kid, but you need to get to the essence, the heart, the dinosaur amusement park of your plot, and be able to explain that in one sentence. Y’know what I’m sayin’?”
This is how I assume all conversations between cigar chomping Hollywood honchos (who invariably look like Michael Lerner in Barton Fink) and beleaguered screenwriters take place, particularly when it comes to the notion of a “high concept” story pitch. But really, neither Jurassic Park or Planet of the Apes are the best examples of “high concept.” For that matter, nor is Passenger 57 (“Die Hard on a plane”), Speed (“Die Hard on a bus”), or Speed 2: Cruise Control (“Die Hard on a boat”). No, that dubious honor goes to a cartoon, 1981’s Laverne & Shirley in the Army.
Like Planet of the Apes, the plot of Laverne & Shirley in the Army is right there in the title: it’s Laverne and Shirley, in the Army. However, LASITA (that’s how the superfans refer to it) goes one step further and answers any questions the audience may have with dialogue during the opening credits. Why did Laverne and Shirley join the Army? Evidently it was Shirley’s idea, as she shouts “Laverne, let’s join the Army!” Laverne is not sold until she gets an eyeful of the hunky recruiting officer (“Where do I sign up?!?”). You’ll note that neither of them sign their last names on their enlistment forms, which may render them non-legally binding contracts. Do they have a nemesis, a la Big Rosie Greenbaum? They do–their nemesis (and the only other regular character on the show) is their commanding officer, Sergeant Squealy, a talking pig (voiced by Ron Palillo, making the barest attempt at not sounding like Arnold Horshack). Well, of course he’s a talking pig, how else would he give orders?
What it doesn’t answer was why this cartoon was made, but of course, that need not be asked. Despite the abundance of “Laverne’s a slut” jokes, like its lead-in Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley proved an unexpected hit with young viewers (and it was certainly Tuesday night appointment television for me). Also like Happy Days, there was a surprising number of tie-in merchandise for kids, including dolls, novelty albums of the characters singing, a board game (object: “collect the most hours out on a date in one week”), and a “Laverne & Shirley secretary set,” which included a miniature calculator and clipboard (regrettably, there appears to be no Shotz Brewery playset in existence). Continuing to follow Happy Days‘ lead, as the live action Laverne & Shirley began to see its peak years behind it, a rudimentary attempt at continuing its success as a Saturday morning cartoon was made, to underwhelming results.
Like Fonz and the Happy Days Gang, Laverne & Shirley in the Army eliminated most of the supporting characters (sorry, fans of Lenny and Squiggy, they don’t show up here), replacing them with an upright walking animal who serves as both a sidekick and comic foil. Like FATHDG (it just doesn’t work as well, does it?), LASITA was given a silly twist to make it more cartoon friendly–in the former it was time travel, in the latter they had frequent encounters with the supernatural, including Bigfoot, a werewolf, and a genie. Most importantly, like FATHDG, the most entertaining elements of LASITA‘s source material were diluted down to almost nothing–if it weren’t for the title, you’d have no idea who these characters were.
In the first episode, Laverne and Shirley, under the not so watchful eye of Sergeant Squealy, are assigned to guard a top secret rocket. While snooping around, they manage to not just get themselves and Squealy trapped in the rocket, but also accidentally launch it (in typical lazy writer fashion, the characters are exactly as smart or dumb as the plot requires them to be at any particular moment). Just before they crash on the moon, the girls (and Squealy) are captured by aliens who demand their assistance in attacking Earth. Hijinks ensue until Shirley dresses up like a sexy lady alien and fools their captors, allowing them to escape. Once they arrive back on Earth, Sergeant Squealy threatens to report Laverne and Shirley to his commanding officer, upon which the rocket falls on top of him. He is uninjured, Laverne and Shirley do not face a court martial for hijacking government property, we live to see another Saturday morning, amen.
Let’s just get this out of the way: Laverne & Shirley in the Army isn’t quite as bad as Fonz and the Happy Days Gang. Slightly more care was put into the character design. Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams performed their voiceover work with something almost approaching enthusiasm (Ron Palillo performed his with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm). I even came close to smiling once or twice. Now, mind you, that’s an extremely low bar to meet. Like, so low it’s still on the ground. The whole show could have been just Laverne and Shirley dunking Sergeant Squealy like a basketball, and it still would have been better than the soulless cash grab that is Fonz and the Happy Days Gang.
But it ain’t good either. To say that Sergeant Squealy is a more bearable animal sidekick than Fonzie’s dog Mr. Cool is like saying Richard Speck was a slightly better murderer than Ted Bundy–in the end, it doesn’t matter, they’re still all going to burn in Hell for eternity. Ponder the existence of Laverne and Shirley in the Army, and all you’ll hear is the faint sound of cash registers in the distance. That’s not to say that cartoons in general aren’t made to earn lots of sweet dough, but, as I’ve mentioned oft too many times when reviewing children’s animation here, at least some of them take the small but vital step of looking like they made an effort. Laverne and Shirley in the Army is still C-grade junk, comparing favorably to Fonz and the Happy Days Gang only because reading insurance paperwork is more entertaining than Fonz and the Happy Days Gang.
When both shows met with the indifferent audience response they so richly deserved, ABC came up with the brilliant plan of creating a whole new show featuring the characters together. Now titled Laverne & Shirley With the Fonz, the girls were still in the Army, joined by Fonzie and (ugh) Mr. Cool, who worked as truck mechanics. By this time, Cindy Williams was done playing Shirley Feeney altogether, and was replaced on the cartoon by Lynne Stewart, better known as Miss Yvonne, the Most Beautiful Woman in Puppet Land. This incarnation disappeared into the ether even faster than its predecessor, and, indeed, Laverne & Shirley itself was gone just a few months later, thankfully before we were subjected to Laverne & Shirley 10,000 B.C. or Laverne & Shirley Meet the Partridge Family.
Original airdate: October 10, 1981