Sometimes you get ahead with laughter. Actually, I’m willing to bet a lot of the time we all do. It’s a strange, tough world out there, and progress is never easy. I think most often what we notice about progress is the fight to get it more than anything else. Of course the fighting we remember is more typically the raised-fist shouting kind, but sometimes, upon reflection, we can see that there were other ways our society moved forward that were far more daring than we thought at the time. That’s because those risks taken were met with a smile and a good one–liner.
Laverne & Shirley wasn’t the first or best sitcom about the plight of single women (The Mary Tyler Moore Show arrived in 1970 and is still the gold standard), but it might have been sneakier. Whereas Mary Tyler Moore was about a woman climbing the corporate ladder while dealing directly with sexism, Laverne & Shirley was less obvious in its feminism. Unlike the Mary Tyler Moore Show, it didn’t take the subject head on, it was a less agenda-driven (not that there’s anything wrong with that) series that put laughter ahead of message.
But the message was implicit in so many ways. Laverne (played by Penny Marshall) and Shirley (Cindy Williams) were friends and roommates working as bottle cappers at a fictitious brewery in Milwaukee. Two single women, working a blue-collar job, dating regularly, and holding strong opinions on TV in 1976. However light the comedy may have been, the show’s symbolic value was evident. Hell, you can hear it just before the show’s ebullient theme song (“Making Our Dreams Come True”) when Laverne and Shirley chant “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated,” which is a Yiddish American hopscotch chant, and a clever cultural insertion. A snooty sort might listen to the theme song that follows and dismiss it as a silly bit of ‘70s cheese, but even amidst it’s not-all-that Dylanesqe lyrics a statement can be found in the “we’ll do it our way” refrain. Laverne and Shirley may have been struggling, but they weren’t settling.
The chemistry between Williams and Marshall was pitch perfect. There was a modest Odd Couple aspect to their relationship, with Williams’ fussier Shirley being the Felix, and Marshall’s brash Laverne being the Oscar. I never really thought about how many episodes I saw of Laverne & Shirley when I was a kid, but I am pretty sure I laughed during all of them. My memories of the show are a bit all over the place, but I do recall a particular scene where Shirley was trying to maximize efficiency in their apartment and Laverne struck back by insisting on using the fewest amount of steps possible to get from the door to the kitchen. Laverne then proceeds to walk a straight line, stepping all over their furniture while Shirley looks on, aghast. Maybe you had to be there, but trust me, it’s funny.
After the show left the airwaves, Marshall went on to be an A-list director, but Williams’ career faded. She certainly kept busy over the forty years after the show was canceled, but she never found another success to match the iconic Laverne & Shirley. Before the series debuted in 1976, it was Williams who had the better resume of the co-stars. It may be hard to think of it now, but Williams made two stone cold classics in consecutive years: George Lucas’ American Graffiti in 1973, and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation in 1974, playing pivotal parts in both films.
I suppose Williams never got away from Shirley’s shadow. Back then, going from film to TV was considered a step down in Hollywood. There was a sense that film was art, and TV was just TV. Once Williams got locked in as a “TV actor” she never got a chance to follow up on the promise of her early film work. Thankfully, with the advent of cable TV and the boundary stretching golden age of TV that we are in now, that ability to move from film to TV and back again is no longer an issue, but it was in Williams’ era.
But here’s the thing, as much as any of us film-first types (like me) might want to believe that film is the more powerful medium, well, we’re wrong. You might be able to argue it is the more artistically powerful medium, but it’s not the most powerfully influential, TV is. When one goes to see a film, they go to a theater and sit with some strangers in the dark. There’s a distance in that. However, when you are home watching your favorite show, it’s right there against the wall as you laugh as loud as you want because you are in your home.
For eight seasons on Laverne & Shirley, Cindy Williams came into our living rooms and probably made us smile. She was smart, funny, and unthreatening. She was also playing a single woman approaching thirty, working in a brewery, and trying to figure out how to make a life. In 1976, that was subversive, even if you were laughing so hard that you didn’t notice.
Cindy Williams died on January 25, 2023. She was seventy-five years old.