Garry Marshall, the venerated film director and television impresario, passed away at the age of 81 on Tuesday. In recent years, Marshall was primarily known for his big ensemble movies based around holidays, such as Valentine’s Day and his last effort, this spring’s Mother’s Day. His biggest film is still 1990’s Pretty Woman, which made Julia Roberts a star. His movies were generally viewed as affable and inoffensive, at best, but, on the whole, Marshall’s impact on pop culture is vast and undeniable. While he directed many notable films, and made a classic appearance acting in Albert Brooks’ film Lost in America, it was television where he made his name, and where he had his greatest success. Garry Marshall is one of the most important names in American sitcoms.
While not every one of Marshall’s shows hit, which is inevitable when you are as prolific as Marshall, he managed to create some of the most popular and iconic sitcoms of all time. Generations were able to watch, and enjoy, his shows, thanks to their long lasting popularity. Many of us grew up in a time when Marshall’s shows dominated the Nick at Nite lineup, and his shows still air today on a variety of networks dedicated to classic television.
After a career as a writer for such programs as The Tonight Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Lucy Show, Marshall’s first success in creating his own show was the sitcom version of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. Perhaps he didn’t create the original concept, but Marshall was vital in terms of developing it for television. The idea of a, well, odd couple is pretty standard sitcom stuff, but The Odd Couple is, fittingly enough, one of the foremost examples of the genre. Over five seasons, neat freak Felix and slovenly Oscar bickered and fought and forgave and got into scrapes and sticky situations. The concept was so strong, and the original show so successful, that it was brought back to television twice, first in 1982 with an African-American cast headed by Ron Glass and Demond Wilson, and again in 2015, with a new version starring Tom Lennon and Matthew Perry. Marshall, despite his advanced age, served as an executive consultant in the newest version, and even appeared as Oscar’s father.
However, it was Happy Days, and the shows that stemmed from it, that made Marshall into a legend. The premise was simple. It was just the story of a family, and some of the kids in said family’s friends, living the All-American life in ‘50s suburbia. Nostalgia wasn’t the moneymaking juggernaut it is now, but Marshall, who created the show, knew what he was doing. The show ran for 255 episodes. It ran for six entire seasons after Fonzie jumped that shark. Oh yeah, Happy Days housed one of the most well-known TV characters of all time in Arthur Fonzarelli. His jacket is in the Smithsonian. There is a statue of him. Sure, Henry Winkler was great, and the cast had quite a few talented folks in it, but Marshall was a key component in creating one of the most enduring sitcoms ever.
Creating and producing Happy Days was impressive enough as is, but Marshall also managed to generate two successful sitcoms from it (it also brought us Joanie Loves Chachi, but nobody is perfect). Laverne & Shirley, which starred Garry’s sister Penny as the titular Laverne, ran for 178 episodes, although for part of that run there was no Shirley. The characters began on Happy Days, before getting their own successful show. Not unlike The Mary Tyler Moore Show, this story about a couple women doing it their way was vital and important when it debuted in 1976. Also, the show had Lenny and Squiggy, who were just funny, and helped bring Michael McKean into our world.
Even more ambitiously, Marshall managed to spinoff Happy Days with a show about an alien from Ork. It was a bit jarring when Mork first appeared on Happy Days, what with him being from outer space, but in his own world, the world of Mork & Mindy, it all made sense. Of course, the lasting legacy of the show is that Mork was played by a young Robin Williams, who would go on to be one of the biggest stars in the world. It was a very different show than Happy Days or Laverne & Shirley—it was built around Williams’ strengths, which mostly involved him acting completely insane, and it was a decidedly weird show. That didn’t stop it from being successful, or from being funny. It was a chance to watch Williams do his schtick for a half-hour every week, and Marshall saw the value in that.
These days, Marshall’s classic sitcoms don’t necessarily feel influential, and they don’t feel like they, for wont of a better phrase, “hold up.” They are definitely old school sitcoms. They aren’t Get Smart or The Bob Newhart Show or other “smart” shows that have more in common with what discerning, choosy comedy minds of this modern era laud. They are just pleasant shows. They are quintessential sitcoms of a bygone era. They are broad and they can be sentimental, but they told amusing stories and had some funny moments in every episode. Tons of sitcoms aired alongside the likes of Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, and a lot of them we don’t remember at all. They didn’t last. They didn’t get introduced to later generations. Why? Because they lacked the touch of a Garry Marshall. As a child of the ‘90s, where the world of the ‘70s was as far away as the ‘50s were for the Cunninghams and company, there was still something intrinsically delightful and charming about Marshall’s shows. His legacy will never be forgotten. Those sharks couldn’t kill the Fonz. Nothing ever will.
Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.