Random Play: “Joanie Loves Chachi”

Written by Random Play, Television

In which Robin Monica Alexander, who ingested many illegal substances during her childhood, suffers an LSD flashback to the ill-fated Happy Days spinoff.

Okay, if you’re so smart: how many spin-offs did Garry Marshall’s Happy Days produce? Just one? Wrong. Oh, that’s right, two. Most folks who remember the late 1970s will quickly think of Laverne & Shirley, the branch most similar to the tree: both shows are set in Milwaukee in the late 1950s. The know-it-alls among you will also recall that Robin Williams’ alien from Ork first appeared on a Happy Days episode before ending up in Boulder in 1978 in Mork & Mindy.

So two’s the answer? Nope. It’s five. Blansky’s Beauties was a midseason replacement focused on a character who, like Mork, had been introduced on one episode of Happy Days; it ran for thirteen episodes. Out of the Blue‘s “crossover” character, a guardian angel named “Random” (I’ll say!), actually appeared on Happy Days after the first of its ten episodes had already aired. I’ll be honest: without the miracle of the Internet, I’d never have known these two shows existed; I certainly didn’t remember them. But the fifth of the Happy Days spin-offs, Joanie Loves Chachi, looms large in my recollections of 1982. Hey, I was a kid – there was a lot of room in my brain back then.

The Fonz had jumped the shark five years earlier, but Happy Days just kept on returning to prime time, season after season. (Ah, that simpler time before digital cable and reality TV.) However, the suits at ABC must have known that their luck couldn’t hold out forever. Fonzie was getting old. Both Laverne & Shirley (which shortly thereafter lost Shirley) and Mork & Mindy were limping toward their graves. How to keep some vestige of the Happy Days magic alive? Give Scott Baio, the cutie-turned-hottie who played Charles “Chachi” Arcola (and had been a refugee from Blansky’s Beauties) his own show. And sure, let Erin Moran come along for the ride. For the record, Garry Marshall, who had never previously met a spin-off he didn’t like, had nothing to do with this one. The premise sent the titular couple to Chicago to try to make it in show business. The result was two parts sitcom, one part rock n’ roll — well, rock n’ roll as played by TV actors in the early ’80s pretending to be musicians in the early ’60s. Granted, Baio had cut his teeth in Hollywood on the Alan Parker all-kids musical Bugsy Malone; of course, neither he nor any of the other cast members had actually sung in it.

I feel fairly certain that I never missed an episode of Joanie Loves Chachi, though I can barely remember anything that happened in those episodes (they aired seventeen). I do remember the goofy excitement I felt when I sat down to watch it. In the one episode that has stuck with me, Joanie, Chachi and their band spend the entire twenty-five minutes trying to figure out whether a guy who shows up at the club where they play is actually “cute Beatle” Paul McCartney or just a lookalike. The fact that he has recently been hospitalized for exhaustion clinches it for Joanie: “People get tired,” she squeals. “Rock stars get exhausted!” Whether the term “rock star” was even in use in the period during which the show takes place is doubtful; in addition, the stars’ haircuts were distinctly not period. Did I care about this lack of verisimilitude? Not a whit. The draw for me was the chaste love story/dream of stardom shared by Joanie and Chachi; any deficiencies in period detail or musical authenticity were simply swept into the same mental coat closet into which Shirley Feeney had vanished. Also, I had a tendency to become obsessed with shows that I knew full well no one else was watching, especially spin-offs of other, better shows. It’s a perverse point of pride. Maybe if the rest of you had given The Brady Brides a chance, it would have risen to the creative heights of its predecessor. And Burgess Meredith was great in Gloria.

Remember when Joanie didn’t love Chachi – when Chachi was, in fact, a head shorter than Joanie and a source of keen annoyance to her? Then Chachi had a growth spurt, filled out, and became the Chace Crawford of his day, with starring roles in films like Foxes (reuniting him with Bugsy Malone co-star Jodie Foster) and TV movies like Senior Trip. He also sang and danced in a Dr. Pepper commercial. My crush on him did not translate into purchases of Dr. Pepper (nasty stuff!), but it did send me to Channel 7 on the dial. It also sent me to Charles in Charge, Baio’s post-Joanie sitcom in which he played a New Jersey “manny.” However, Charles the college student (did you notice he never gave a last name? Why the frickin’ mystery? Was he in witness protection?) was not nearly as appealing as Charles the Italian stereotype, so when he went to syndication in the second season, I declined to go with him, despite the show’s ridiculously addictive theme song.

Despite finishing in the Top 20 in the Nielsens after its first season, Joanie Loves Chachi was canceled. Perhaps the folks at the network had learned what “chachi” means in Korean and were so embarrassed they just yanked (ahem) the show entirely. Stripped of their spin-off, the lovebirds went back to Milwaukee, where they were married in the Happy Days series finale. I remember feeling highly ambivalent about this. Sure, it was great to see those two kooky kids get hitched, but what about fame, fortune, and the Big Time? I felt I had been promised a fairy-tale ending and only got half of it. Essentially, the failure of Joanie Loves Chachi equaled the failure of their quest for rock n’ roll glory. If the powers that be could let the Fonz adopt a kid, surely they could have given Joanie and Chachi a record deal. Oh well, no sense in crying over spilt milk…time to go watch After MASH.

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