The 1970s Sitcom This Millennial Is Obsessed With (and Why Gen Z Needs to Get On Board)
This week, I was skimming emails at the end of my work day when I got a ping with a news alert: Cindy Williams of Laverne & Shirley fame had passed away.
The tributes (from the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Rosario Dawson and her Happy Days co-star Ron Howard) began to pour in, but it wasn’t until Katie Couric re-posted the show’s opening credits—schlemeil, schlimazel, hasenpfeffer incorporated!—to her Instagram feed that a wave of nostalgia-driven sadness swept over me.
Just as Gen Z turns on Friends as comfort food from an earlier era, my millennial self grew up feeling exactly that for Laverne & Shirley. I set out to re-watch the series this week and quickly found a recommendation for the next generation: that they give the series, a clear predecessor to the days of Ross and Rachel, a whirl.
After all, I had grown up watching reruns of Laverne & Shirley in the early ‘90s. The sitcom, a Happy Days spin-off and the brilliant brain-child of the late director Garry Marshall (also the big brother of Laverne, played by Penny Marshall), originally aired from 1975 to 1983, but it also played regularly throughout the afternoons of my childhood.
In fact, I was a bit of a TV obsessive even back then—my school dismissal was fairly early (around 1:30 p.m.) and I’d get off the school bus with my sister, make a snack and immediately switch on the tube. (FWIW, we didn’t even have a remote control.) I was a huge fan of the classics: Happy Days, I Love Lucy, Bewitched, which ran regularly in syndication during that time. But Laverne & Shirley was always unique.
The premise: Set in the 1950s and ‘60s, two friends and roommates—Laverne DeFazio (Marshall) and Shirley Feeney (Williams)—try to make their dreams come true in the big city, ahem, Milwaukee, while working on the assembly line as bottle-cappers at the fictional Shotz Brewery. As a duo, they’re hilarious and wacky, but also optimistic and unapologetic—they’ve got the comedic timing and sweetness of Lucille Ball and the on-screen chemistry of Monica Geller and Rachel Green. In other words, TV gold.
But there’s more. This once-iconic series (which hit number one during the 1977 to 1978 season) was actually pretty damn groundbreaking. After all, it showed the lives of two unattached, working class women who were scrappy, smart and fun. They had big dreams, but prioritized their friendship (even though finding love was always on their list). And they were rarely polished. (Although on second watch, I’m coveting quite a few of their looks.)
The more I revisit the series—which is available to stream for free via Pluto TV—I can’t help but see parallels to modern-day sitcoms just like the aforementioned Friends. Perhaps it's the effortless banter and the roommate premise, but also if Laverne and Shirley can remind me of Rachel and Monica, Lenny and Squiggy—their laughable yet lovable neighbors played by Michael McKean and the late David Lander—feel like a less-sophisticated Chandler and Joey. There are even bits that feel familiar to Friends plots—like one scene in an earlier season when Laverne and Shirley take turns yelling embarrassing truths about each other out the window. (That happened in Friends more than once.)
Did the series pave the way for some of the most genius TV comedy we enjoy today? Absolutely. Did it also subconsciously serve as an aspirational blueprint for my own future life in the big city—this time New York—one where scrappiness is required as much as optimism, guts and humor, namely friends to laugh about the moments when life doesn’t work out? Yep.
That’s what I love the most about Laverne & Shirley and why I think the series is primed for a rebirth (and resurgence) led by the likes of Gen Z. It’s a rare gift that a show—especially one that’s set in the ‘50s and ‘60s, a time when women were very much relegated to a specific “role”—holds up in modern times. But that’s all a credit to Laverne and Shirley, and ultimately Marshall and Williams, whose on-screen friendship and candor and ability to root for each other while laughing at life’s setbacks still manages to feel authentic and real.
It's the last line of that opening theme: And we’ll do it our way, yes, our way, make all our dreams come true.
Laverne & Shirley isn’t just enjoyable, it’s empowering. And I highly recommend a re-watch or a first watch. (I’m talking to you, Gen Z.)
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