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Laverne & Shirley Was The Happy Days Spin-Off That Showed How Spin-Offs Should Spin Off

"Laverne & Shirley" was a special show. That might be said of hundreds of sitcoms. But among spin-offs — which tend to fall apart and flounder after their first few episodes, or if they're lucky, first few seasons — it was quite the shocking success. 

Debuting as a mid-season replacement, it was supposed to serve as an assist for "Happy Days," to guarantee the former's success. But right out of the box, it was just as successful as its predecessor in the ratings — and, within a season, soon eclipsed "Happy Days" in popularity for three seasons running, as reported by The Los Angeles Times. That's the kind of miracle that rarely visits network programs, let alone a show that was created to fill in time after the gold rush of the fall season took its first bow. While the show did end up tumbling down in the ratings after an ill-advised attempt at moving it to a different night — which itself resulted in a move to California for the show's main characters, as well as a labor dispute which would result in Cindy Williams leaving the show early, and a $20 million lawsuit being filed against Garry Marshall and Paramount (per AP News) — it had four solid seasons of success before meeting cancellation.

There are many reasons why "Laverne & Shirley" was such a cultural touchstone in its time. However, this spin-off, while being just one of many "Happy Days" spin-offs, was obviously the best one. Furthermore, it definitely serves as a definitive blueprint for how to do spin-offs the right way — with originality, heart, humor, and skill.

Laverne & Shirley forged its own identity and became a runway hit

The first thing any successful spin-off needs to do is make itself distinct from its predecessor, while maintaining connective tissue back to its mothership series. "Happy Days" started existence as a slice-of-life sitcom that was soon absorbed by the semi-supernatural adventures of greaser Arthur Fonzarelli (Henry Winkler), the best friend of original protagonist Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard). The Cunningham clan are middle class and suburban, comfortable in their lives and their values.

"Laverne & Shirley" is made of scrappier stuff.

Laverne DeFazio (Penny Marshall) and Shirley Feeney (Cindy Williams) are two blue collar bottle cappers, with union jobs. They were both born poor, near the waterfront district in Milwaukee, and while Laverne's father owns a business, all the show's characters live working class lives that often force them to scramble for money. There are many plots in which the girls desperately struggle to improve their social status, whether that means rubbing elbows with snooty rich people, attending night school courses that made them feel like pretenders to the throne of intellectualism, or putting on airs of poise and grace to attract a wealthier suitor. More often than not, they fail — but these failures are made okay by their ability to rely upon eachother. At their core, both characters are presented as two single women, both dreaming of marriage and children, but whose greatest love story would always be the friendship between them.

In 1976, women were entering the workforce en masses, and the art of balancing dates, office hours, and expectations — both traditional and new — was huge. With that in mind, it's no wonder female viewers enjoyed settling down every Tuesday night with two single women going through the same experiences.

Laverne & Shirley crafted memorable characters that stood apart from Happy Days

A good spin-off always injects its own cast of characters into pop culture, and even if we look outside the primary duo of "Laverne & Shirley," there's no doubting that Lenny Kosnowski (Michael McKean) and Andrew Squiggman (David L. Lander) are icons in their own right. 

The boys drew a whole different audience to "Laverne & Shirley." They are, in a way, the anti-Fonzies — that is, generally having horrible luck with women, constantly on the verge of losing their job delivering beer for Shotz (the same company that employed Laverne and Shirley), and always standing on the precipice of an even more severe sort of poverty than the girls. Still, Lenny and Squiggy are easy to love. While Squiggy is rough around the edges and can be blunt and caustic, he would do anything for both the girls, and for Lenny. Lenny, meanwhile, is a puppy dog type who once proposes marriage to Laverne when she thinks she is pregnant thanks to a wild, memory-blunting party at the brewery. 

Outside of Lenny and Squiggy, the spin-off also gave us Eddie Mekka, forever to be known as Carmine Ragusa, Shirley's singing boyfriend — part boxer, part soft-shoe dancing showman. There's also the salty, well-rounded Edna Babish, and Phil Foster as the crusty Frank DeFazio, Laverne's very traditional dad. It's absolutely very arguable that the casual TV fan probably has more memories of Lenny and Squiggy than Potsie Webber (Anson Williams) and Ralph Malph (Don Most). And that fact, perhaps more than anything, points to how successful "Laverne & Shirley" was.

Even at its lowest ebb, Laverne & Shirley was a victorious program

"Laverne & Shirley," of course, would have been nothing without its two leads and the powerful onscreen chemistry between them. Cindy Williams brought a gentle, charming brio to Shirley Feeney, making the character come off as a fist in a lace glove — something many actresses wouldn't be able to bring to life in such a likable way. Shirley dreams of marrying a doctor and making it out of poverty, desires clearly formed by Doris Day movies and "Leave it to Beaver." Marshall, meanwhile, brought a dour sense of humor to Laverne, a self-described "adjuster." She's out looking for happiness, good times, and a cute guy. While Laverne wants to get married and have kids, she has no illusions about leaving Milwaukee.

This two-way chemistry leaned heavily on slapstick comedy in a way that "Happy Days" never did. Cindy Williams often described her connection to Marshall as a kind of telepathy, according to People Magazine. When one watches this duo hang from a window ledge to avoid getting in trouble with pop singer Fabian, to swimming in a vat of beer to avoid an industrial spy who's been ruining Laverne's life, it's done in perfect harmony 

"Laverne & Shirley," like its title characters, was the scrappy spin-off that could. It was the series that rose to become just as culturally influential as its predecessor, but in its own way. A series that, in its era and now, stood apart from its fellow female-empowering sitcoms like "Rhoda" and "Maude." 

Above all else, though, it was a show anchored by a simple, but lasting message: whether or not your dreams come true, you're nothing without your friends.