Tune in Tonight: "Joanie Loves Chachi"
It’s been mentioned before, but there’s a special sort of chutzpah behind the idea of a television spinoff. It requires often misguided confidence in the idea that there’s so much more story to tell about a certain character that it can’t be contained in one show, so an entirely new and separate show must be created for it. In the case of Happy Days, seven attempts were made to recreate that Milwaukee magic, plus three more that never made it past the pilot stage, though only two were successful. The last and most notorious flop, Joanie Loves Chachi, premiered when Happy Days itself was hobbling into its tenth season. Focusing on primetime’s most boring couple, it takes place in Chicago, where the titular characters have gone to find their fortune as professional singers, which, when you hear them sing, is about as likely as me saying I’m going to England to find my fortune as a member of the Royal Family.
Much like its predecessor during its last few seasons, the early 1960s setting is largely in plot description only, while Scott Baio’s feathered hair and Erin Moran’s Barbra Streisand perm put them strictly in the 80s. Also distressingly “modern” are the wet noodle pop songs they perform, which sound like something off the B-side of a K-Tel "Stars of Tomorrow" sampler. Moran, God rest her soul, is passable, but Baio, particularly in the interminable opening credits theme, is so flat and lacking in charisma that he sounds like someone forced him to perform at gunpoint. Their audience sure seems to appreciate it though, shrieking in adoration like they’re at a recording of The Ed Sullivan Show.
The premiere episode opens with Chachi having moved to Chicago with his new stepfather, Al (Al Molinaro), and his mother, Louisa (Ellen Travolta), to open a family restaurant. Chachi is so bereft at leaving his beloved Joanie behind in Milwaukee that not even the prospect of being the in-house entertainment at the restaurant is enough to lift his spirits. All that changes, however, when Chachi’s sleazy Uncle Rico (Art Metrano) shows up and offers to manage his music career. Chachi insists on bringing Joanie to Chicago to perform with him as a duo, but Uncle Rico would rather have him play in a band with his idiot kids Mario (Derrel Maury) and Annette (Winifred Freedman), and Bingo, a character who exists mostly because someone behind the scenes of the show saw Fast Times at Ridgemont High and thought “What this program needs is someone like that Jeff Spicoli fella.” Bingo seems to have stumbled onto the set from an entirely different sitcom, and stops the whole thing dead in its tracks whenever he speaks, which of course means that he was intended to be the breakout supporting character, the Fonzie of the show, if Fonzie was annoying and stupid.
Stuck performing on his own when Joanie is delayed, naturally Chachi is a smash hit with the restaurant customers, and he plays it up a bit by flirting with some of the women in the audience. Of course, Joanie arrives just as he’s making eyes at someone, and, unaware that performing in front of a live audience occasionally involves acknowledging their presence, she’s shocked and appalled at his behavior. Uncle Rico insists that Joanie is too much of a “Miss Goody Two Shoes” for the image Chachi is trying to create (despite that image being the human equivalent of a shmear of Miracle Whip on a saltine), and Chachi, already full of himself after exactly one performance, meekly agrees.
“I’ll show them Miss Goody Two Shoes,” Joanie declares, and though you’d expect her to appear the next night having gone through a Grease-esque bad girl makeover, instead she wears what appears to be an ice skating costume, and does an awkward shoulder shimmy while she sings. One wonders what, if this is Joanie’s idea of “sexy,” she wore when she performed in the past, perhaps a bed sheet crudely fashioned into a toga, or a giant, itchy wool sweater that covered her from neck to ankles.
Nevertheless, much to a jealous Chachi’s chagrin (and Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham, who just casually show up for the performance even though they live four hours away), the sight of Joanie’s bare arms drive the men in the audience mad with lust. He almost gets into a fight with one of them, and ends up accidentally punching Joanie instead. Her parents demand that she return home, but Joanie, having experienced that sweet taste of stardom, can’t turn back. She opts to remain in Chicago with Chachi to pursue their dream—a dream that, tragically, would not come to pass, as they were back in Milwaukee the following season, and no one mentioned their budding singing careers again.
I’m just going to come right out and say that it’s hard to separate the right-wing Twitter cretin Scott Baio of today with the Jim Henson’s Travolta Babies Scott Baio of thirty-five years ago, particularly when you factor in his tasteless initial response to co-star Erin Moran’s untimely death in 2017. It’s hard to believe that even as a teenager anyone would have found him charming or likable, yet he did possess that non-threatening, almost androgynous boy-man look that kept magazines like Teen Beat and BOP in business for many years. The live audience seems to buy whatever he’s selling, screaming, whooping, and applauding whenever he enters a room, leaves a room, recites any dialogue, or just stands there. There’s so much screaming that you’d think someone set rats loose in the studio while the episode was being filmed. Nevertheless, audiences at home weren’t as moved, and, noticing that when the spotlight was put directly on Joanie and Chachi it shone right through them, decided they only had room for one TV show dedicated to phony nostalgia.
Original airdate: March 23, 1982