Friday, April 01, 2011

Those Unhappy Days: The Disappearance of Chuck Cunningham

Along with the frothy good times that television sitcoms gave audiences in the '70s and '80s, studio mandated "very special episodes" proved that comedy is serious stuff. In the '80s, sitcom characters often dealt with drug addiction to appease the Nancy Reagan "Just Say No" campaign, meaning that one could turn on their television set on a given week and see some of their favorite sitcom characters addicted to narcotics; a problem they'd not had the week before nor would they have the week after. Yes, life's problems can be solved in a half hour.

In the '70s social ills such as rape and pedophilia cropped up on occasional sitcoms. Often these episodes became the most memorable only because they were the most disturbing; the sour notes in an otherwise simple sitcom song. Yet, the hardest hitting television episode of the 1970s never made it to the air.

Set in the idyllic 1950s, "Happy Days" began as an episode of "Love, American Style" before becoming a show in its own right. The gritty tone of this pilot and the show's early episodes are all but forgotten. The original first season's finale episode would have changed the tone for the subsequent season and the show overall. This had been the plan of producer Tom Miller but the executives at ABC wouldn't allow the finale to be shot.

The main characters of "Happy Days," the Cunningham family, consisted of father Howard, mother Marion, sister Joanie, and brothers Richie and Chuck (played by both Gavan O'Herlihy in "Happy Days" and Randolph Roberts in "Love, American Style"). While Chuck appeared in a few episodes of the show's second season, he disappeared with nary a mention before the third season began. Some have jokingly reported that Chuck died in the Korean or Vietnamese conflicts or that he got a scholarship to outer Mongolia. But Chuck's original fate had been Miller's brainchild.

It's uncertain whether Chuck would have remained in the Cunningham household after the bombshell dropped but his spirit should have loomed long over the family. The affects of Chuck's acts could be witnessed in the way that Joanie focused on sexuality, always describing things told to her by an off screen (until season 8) character, Jenny Piccolo.

The first season's finale should have revealed that Jenny Piccolo was the name of Joanie's other personality. Joanie's psychic schism had been the result of long-term abuse by her older brother Chuck (who demanded that Joanie "play his piccolo"). The revelation of Joanie's multiple personality disorder and the incestuous rape by Chuck would have made "Happy Days" a completely different show.

When ABC executives caught wind of Miller's plan they demanded a rewrite and forbade him from ever broaching the topics of the show again. Their mandate allowed Chuck to stay but Miller quickly wrote him out of the second season's episodes as his role had been negated -- The Fonz would be toned-down from a greaser to Richie's mentor. Later, Miller would attempt other controversial subject matter when an Oedipal relationship between Fonzie and Marion Cunningham went too far with Fonzie threatening to kill Howard Cunningham and take Marion away from Wisconsin on the back of his motorcycle.

Miller lost this battle with ABC as well and spited the network by making Fonzie more and more a parody of the character, resulting in the infamous "jump the shark" moment of the show (and let's not forget the replacement of the leather jacket with the "pleather" jacket").

Not only did Chuck disappear from the show but several of the show's writers wiped him from the face of the earth. When introducing his family, Howard Cunningham often remarked that he had two children, leaving out Chuck completely. Is it any wonder, with his crimes, that Howard would disown his first son?

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