Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Memory Bank: The Fonz

The other day, I had a very…interesting time trying to explain “The Fonz” and his popularity in the 1970s to my five-year old son, Joel. 

You see -- I told my boy, Fonzie (Henry Winkler) -- was a kind of tough guy from the 1950s who appeared on a show made in the 1970s, and he had this thing called “The Fonzie Touch” where he could just tap any machine that was broken, and it would start working…

In one episode, Fonzie jumped his motorcycle over a row of garbage cans, and in another, he water-skied over a shark...

And then the Fonz had his own Saturday morning cartoon series, The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang (1980 – 1982), where he would travel through time…

It was at about that final revelation that I realized I must have sounded absolutely nuts.

So how do you explain the “Fonz Mania” of the mid-1970s?

Garry Marshall’s Happy Days ran on ABC television from 1974 to 1984, and expertly tapped nostalgia for the “simple” days of 1950s.  It was such a popular sitcom, in fact, that Happy Days spawned a whole bunch of spin-offs, including Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy, and Joanie Loves Chachi.  

The series was ostensibly about Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) and his high-school friends Potsie (Anson Williams) and Ralph Malph (Don Most), but the cool, leather-jacket wearing, motorcycle-riding Fonzie became the break-out character in almost no time.  He was famous for saying “Ay!,” among other things.

Again, in the cold light of day in 2012, it all sounds a little…strange.

But when I was a kid, Fonzie was absolutely everywhere in the pop culture. I remember I owned two iron-on T-shirts in kindergarten.  One featured Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise from Star Trek, and one featured the Fonz.

And then there were Fonzie action figures from Mego (with thumbs posed in the “up” position), and Happy Days lunch boxes, trading cards, color form sets, model kits…you name it.  Sega even launched an Arcade game called “Fonz” in 1976.

Today, there are punk rock and heavy metal bands named after the Fonz, and a bronze statue has been erected in his honor in Milwaukee, where Happy Days’ was set. 

I haven’t watched Happy Days in years (though it was a staple of my Tuesday nights for close to a decade…), but I nonetheless remember the Fonz well, particularly from those episodes in which he matched his “cool” powers against larger-than-life villains like Mork from Ork (“My Favorite Orkan”) or the Devil himself (“Chachi Sells His Soul.”)

The Fonz also went to Hollywood and battled Jaws, as I mentioned above (“Hollywood”), rode a killer bull called Diablo (“Westward Ho!”) and took on the mob (“The Claw Meets the Fonz.”)   

As the series went on, the Fonz’s exploits become weirder, wilder and much more far-fetched (hence the term “jump the shark,” which originated with Happy Days).  By about the midpoint, it was almost like Fonzie belonged in an adventure series as the star, but had to settle for being on a family situation comedy.
The secret of Fonzie’s appeal, I suspect is that everyone wanted to be like him.  He was loved by women, envied by men, and well…infinitely cool.  By the same token, the Fonz was human enough to possess frailties and insecurities, and so he was easy to relate to.

And yet, no matter how you cut it, it is truly bizarre that a rough 1950s “greaser” became, arguably, the greatest TV star of the decade of disco.   Given Fonzie’s widespread popularity in the 1970s -- and Generation X's fond memories of the character -- it is truly shocking that Hollywood has not yet made a Happy Days movie, or re-booted the series. 

But really, who else but Henry Winkler could play the one and only Arthur Fonzarelli?


  1. Watching "Happy Days" now, it's hard to understand how it was ever popular. Honestly, it is just cringe inducing. The first season was pretty good but as soon as Fonzie took over the show went off the rails. To be fair I never like "Laverne and Shirley" either so maybe this type of humor just eluded me.

  2. John, your shrewd choice of subjects is one of the reasons I love your blog. This post reminded me that somewhere in the midst of my childhood Star Wars/Empire Strikes Back mania, I found time to get into 50s pop music and acquire a fake leather jacket and several combs, Fonzie style.

    From the little I've seen of Happy Days in more recent times, I get the impression it 'jumped the shark' long before Fonzie jumped the shark. I suspect it was sharp and funny for no more than a season or two. I think its unrelenting sentimentality and cosiness (Fonzie was surely the least threatening greaser ever) would be hard to take today. But when I was a kid it presented an enjoyable fantasy of what teenage life might be like.


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