Mar 16, 2021

Happy Days

Happy Days (1974-84) was a Tuesday-night sitcom about three high school boys in the 1950s, twenty years before, who concocted all sorts of wild schemes in their quest to fondle girls’ breasts. I always wondered about the title -- why were the 1950s so darn happy?  Because breasts were plentiful?  Or because contemporary “problems,” such those pesky gay people, didn’t exist?

Transforming the police-state decade of the 1950s into a Paradise of horny heterosexuals made Happy Days a phenomenon: it fomented Saturday morning cartoons, comic books, board games, lunch boxes, action figures, and half a dozen spinoff series, including Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy, and Joanie Loves Chachi. The central cast, though neither built nor handsome enough to warrant a “kick in the gut” attraction, was certainly cute: Richie (Ron Howard), an eternally befuddled redhead; brash and brazen Ralph (Donny Most), who sometimes displayed his ample assets in tight jeans or a swimsuit; and Potsie (Anson Williams), puckish with gleaming eyes and a surprisingly buffed physique that he rarely if ever displayed on screen.

As the show aged, more muscle was introduced: in 1977 cousin Chachi (Scott Baio), whose muscles grew episode by episode; and in 1982 the immensely hot Flip Phillips (Billy Warlock), whose trademark cut-off t-shirt caused traffic accidents as male drivers jerked their heads around for a better look. 


The fourth major cast member and stand-out star, the ducktailed, leather-jacket clad Fonzie ( Henry Winkler of Lords of Flatbush), was renowned for his incessant heterosexual practice (wholesome and laudable in the 1970s, like eating a balanced diet).  He collected a boxful of engagement rings bestowed by hopeful girls, and needed only snap his fingers to bring several new volunteers running.

Yet Fonzie does not embody heterosexual practice at all, in spite of the innumerable poodle-skirt clad girls whose breasts he fondles (after shouting “Geronimo!”). He is no Casanova or Don Juan. Girls may be a pleasant diversion, but same-sex relationships are essential to survival. We see his life – his real life – in the closing shots of each episode, as he sits on his motorcycle in the parking lot of Arnold’s Drive In, surrounded by his friends, Richie, Potsie, and Ralph.

Fonzie is an odd addition to Richie’s gang: several years older and living on his own, employed full-time, he seems more likely a peer of their parents. Indeed, an 30-ish man who spends all of his time with high school boys would raise considerable suspicion today. 

 In early episodes, Fonzie is indeed an outsider, a dark and somewhat dangerous commentator on events, certainly not a friend. But gradually he begins to introject himself into every aspect of their lives, especially Richie’s life: he dines with Richie’s family every night, moves into an apartment over their garage, and takes classes secretly so he can graduate from high school with his friend. 

 In “Richie Almost Dies” (January 1978), as Richie lies in a coma, it is Fonzie, not his parents or a girlfriend, who refuses to leave his bedside. When Fonzie advises Richie against stealing an incriminating photograph in “Richie Gets Framed” (December 1978), his subliminal desire almost reaches the surface:

As my old grandma told me, two wrongs don’t make a right. [Pause.] Honey. [Pause.] And if you do this, you’ll never be able to look at that cherubim face [squeezes Richie’s cheeks] in the mirror again.

The stand-alone “Honey,” separated by a pause from its surrounding sentences, incites audience laughter because its speaker is indeterminate: we are not quite sure if Fonzie is still quoting his grandmother or himself referring to Richie as “Honey.” His facial expression, dark and almost alarmed, does not indicate embarrassment at using an affectionate term (and of course he could have made his point without it), but instead suggests an awareness that he is in uncharted and dangerous territory, perilously close to recognizing Richie an object of his own affection.

In “Mork Returns” (March 1979), the alien Mork (Robin Williams) arrives to conduct research on Earth life during the 1950s.  He hears not of incessant breast-fondling at Inspiration Point, the overt theme of Happy Days, but instead about the relationship between Richie and Fonzie: it is volatile, sometimes they fight, but they always make up. As Mork leaves to make his report, we hear “Isn’t it Romantic” playing in the background. The juxtaposition of a presumably homosocial friendship and a song presumably lauding heterosexual romance is stunning.


  1. There was a lot of revisionism about the 50s, of course.

    I see it as America trying to get over the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, the other Kennedy assassination (and the 1968 Democratic convention), the King assassination, knowing just how bad this country was if you were black, acknowledging gay people exist, nearly everything about Nixon...America regressed to an earlier time.

  2. "Happy Days' is nostalgic fantasy about the 1950s as seen in the movies not real life. I have no seen the show in years but you do make a good point about the Fonz-Richie bromance.

  3. Yeah, you could definitely read them as a couple. Not sure if Messrs Howard and Winkler would be so fond of that reading as we move into the 80s.

    TBH, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male had not only a lot of premarital sex but a lot of gay sex. The female volume was actually more scandalous (which is funny because all that het stuff implies women have sex as well), and many later generations (silents, boomers, and early xers) thought Kinsey cheated because things they did "shouldn't count". Meanwhile, the Mattachine Society started the 10% just-so story, when it was in fact 2% were a 6 and over half were at least a 1.

    A bit of a note on the state of gaiety in the 50s.

    1. I get the impression that Ron Howard is homophobic. There's a hookup story about him on "Tales of West Hollywood," but I think the guy who told me was making it up. In an 2011 interview, Henry Winkler said that Fonzie would have been a gay ally.

    2. Seems right, but there's still the odd age difference. Remember things like Michelle Remembers? Early 80s were a time of moral panic.

  4. Roh Howards movies are filled with macho jobs- firemen, astronauts, race car drivers- not sure if there is any body bonding in any of them- I do know that he omitted a gay angle from "A Beautiful Mind" so maybe he is not comfortable with dealing on gays in film


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