How Garry Marshall Shaped TV and Film Comedy

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ross-merrill - July 21, 2016

Garry Marshall died on July 19 at the age of 81. The writer, director, producer, and actor leaves behind a truly amazing legacy. Here's a look at how Garry Marshall contributed to TV, film, and general comedy. He will be missed.

A Shared Television Universe

Marshall created Happy Days in 1974. On that show, two of Fonzie's friends were Laverne and Shirley, who got their own spin-off in 1976. In Happy Days' fifth season, Ritchie was almost abducted by an alien, Mork...who then got his own show later that year. But what was most interesting about these shows was that they all existed in the same universe. Both Ritchie and Fonzie appeared on L&S, and Fonzie and Laverne appeared on the first episode of Mork & Mindy.

This wasn't the first time characters from one show had appeared on another -- Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare each hold the honor, sort of -- but it was the first time it was done multiple times with multiple shows. Later we'd get CSI crossovers, Third Watch appearing on ER, and NBC's "Must-See TV" characters interacting...and now movie crossovers, which hasn't happened on a grand scale since the 1940s. For all this, in some way, we have Garry Marshall to thank.

Non-Holiday Holiday Movies

Sure, there are plenty of movies about Christmas and Halloween. Independence Day gets Independence Day. Thanksgiving gets Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. But what about all the other holidays? Garry Marshall had them covered. As director, he shined a spotlight first on Valentine's Day, then New Year's Eve, and finally Mother's Day...all occasions that got shrift in filmmaking up until the 21st century.

The films weren't hits with the critics, but audiences loved them. New Year's Eve made three times its budget; Valentine's Day made four times. And these films give you something inoffensive and non-embarrassing to watch with your families on the actual holidays...even if you're watching with your parents on Valentine's Day.

Penny Marshall

Penny Marshall directed Big, A League of Their Own, Awakenings, and Riding in Cars with Boys. She directed those films because she directed Jumpin' Jack Flash. She directed that film because its star, Whoopi Goldberg ask her to. Whoopi asked her to direct because Penny had directed episodes of Laverne & Shirley, on which she starred. That show was launched because the two characters had a hugely popular appearance on Happy Days. And she appeared on Happy Days because her brother Garry produced the show. So we have to Garry to thank for helping to discover Penny's talent and bringing us some of the sweetest comedy movies of the late 80s and early 90s.

Launching Stars

Garry Marshall didn't just help launch his sister's career. He is crediting with giving breakout roles to Robin Williams (Happy Days), Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman), and Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries). Is it a coincidence that all three want on to win Academy Awards? 

Live-Action Laughs

Marshall founded the Falcon Theater in Burbank in 1997, which is still going strong 20 years later. Among its many shows, the theater has hosted musical mash-ups with titles like As U2 Like It, It’s a Stevie Wonderful Life, A Charlie James Brown Christmas, and Fleetwood Macbeth. I don't know what these shows are, but they sound awesome.

Mismatched Partners

Old sitcoms often had similar leading characters (The Honeymooners' Ralph and Ed) or one funny character and a straight man (I love Lucy's Lucy and Ricky). There were hardly any comedies featuring total opposites. So when Marshall and writing partner Jerry Belson adapted Neil Simon's The Odd Couple for TV, it was something of a gamble. Who was "the funny one"? Uptight Felix or slovenly Oscar?

Now, of course, the premise seems obvious, and TV imitated the concept with mismatched cops (Bones, The X-Files), mismatched lovers (Cheers, Dharma and Greg), mismatched co-workers (30 Rock), and mismatched relatives (Perfect Strangers).

Bronx Cheer

If all that wasn't enough, Marshall appear in front of the camera. We heard his unmistakable Bronx accent as the team owner in A League of Their Own, as the penny-pinching boss on Murphy Brown, and as voices on The Simpsons. And I haven't even mentioned that he wrote jokes for The Tonight Show with Jack Paar or directed operas in Los Angeles.

Any fun facts about Garry or memories of his work? Share them in the comments.

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