BOOTLEG FILES 627: “Laverne & Shirley in the Army” (1981-82 animated series).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Never re-released after its initial broadcast.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Oh, I hope not.
In concept, making an animated series based on “Laverne & Shirley” made perfect sense because the beloved sitcom was the most cartoonish program in the 1970s prime-time schedule. With its propensity for slapstick comedy and a line-up of over-the-top characters, “Laverne & Shirley” was a living cartoon.
Unfortunately, Hanna-Barbera Productions made the same mistake with its animated version of “Laverne & Shirley” that it made with a 1980 cartoon series based on “Happy Days”: the basic premise of the source material was jettisoned and only a few of the original characters received the ink-and-paint treatment in labored, outlandish plots that had no emotional or comic relation to the original sitcom. In the case of the “Happy Days” cartoon, named “The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang,” Fonzie was paired with Richie and Ralph in a dreary time travel adventure, complete with an anthropomorphic dog named Mr. Cool. The misplacement of the characters was pointless, and the centuries-jumping stories felt like a weak retread of the classic Mr. Peabody and Sherman cartoons.
Yet “The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang” was sublime compared to the mess made with “Laverne & Shirley Join the Army.” That premise was inspired by a two-part “Laverne & Shirley” episode that found the wacky gals bumbling their way through basic training, with Vicki Lawrence as their drill sergeant. But in a stupid move, Hanna-Barbera stripped all of the wonderful supporting characters that enlivened “Laverne & Shirley” and gave a severely watered-down interpretation of the eponymous kooks.
The opening credits to “Laverne & Shirley in the Army” explains the foundation for the program quickly and succinctly: Shirley inexplicably yells out, “Laverne, let’s join the Army!” Laverne is skeptical of the idea, but she quickly becomes enamored by the masculine recruiting officer and exclaims, “Where do I sign up?” Immediately, the new recruits find themselves with a peculiar commander: a bipedal talking pig named Sgt. Squealy. Why is there a talking bipedal pig in the U.S. Army? Well, that question never gets answered. Even more bizarre is having Ron Palillo of “Welcome Back, Kotter” fame as the voice of Sgt. Squealy – the performance is simply Arnold Horschack in a porcine setting. Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams voiced their Laverne and Shirley characters, but their line readings are given without any feeling or imagination – one gets the feeling the soundtrack was a cold reading.
Laverne, Shirley and Sgt. Squealy are based in Camp Fillmore, which is a conspicuously underpopulated military base. For the most part, they get involved in antics that few new Army recruits endure: getting trapped in a rocket that lands on the moon and is intercepted by Earth-hating aliens, being taken prisoner by a Soviet submarine, running into Bigfoot, getting involved in espionage intrigue in Paris, dealing with a hostile genie, and saving a football team from a dirigible-flying Blofeld-type fiend.
Are you laughing yet? If not, that’s no surprise. “Laverne & Shirley in the Army” is, arguably, the worst of the Hanna-Barbera canon: dismal ideas that drag on over a half-hour episode. Outside of the cursive “L” on Laverne’s uniform, there is nothing in the cartoon version that hints at the earthy humor and pathos undercurrent that made Penny Marshall’s sitcom performance so endearing. Likewise, the cartoon Shirley is a personality-free blank, eons removed from the wonderfully off-kilter Cindy Williams creation for the TV show. And if you’re hoping that Sgt. Squealy can create laughs, forget it – outside of constantly threatening to report them to his superior Sgt. Turnbuckle, the pig is as appealing as a plate of cold bacon.
It also didn’t help that the animation in “Laverne & Shirley in the Army” was among the shoddiest ever created for a TV series. If any thought went into the production, it is not evident on the screen, and the only way to watch this output is with a thumb firmly pressed on the fast-forward button.
Hanna-Barbera churned out 13 episodes of “Laverne & Shirley in the Army,” which were dumped in the Saturday morning kiddie TV ghetto on ABC in the 1981-82 season. The series made no impact and should have been allowed to disappear, but Hanna-Barbera opted to bring it back for the following series as part of a new mix called “Mork & Mindy/Laverne & Shirley/Fonz Hour,” which included a cartoon version of the “Mork & Mindy” series. “Laverne & Shirley in the Army” became “Laverne & Shirley with the Fonz,” keeping the military setting but making Fonzie and his Mr. Cool dog mechanics at Camp Fillmore. By this time, however, Cindy Williams had already quit “Laverne & Shirley,” so her cartoon voice was taken over by Lynne Marie Stewart. Only eight episodes were created before that bad idea was cancelled.
To date, “Laverne & Shirley in the Army” was never released in any home entertainment format. If God is good, it never will be. However, blurry videos can be found on YouTube, for the benefit of masochists with absolutely nothing to do with their time.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
Listen to “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud, with new episodes every Monday.