ABC’s popular teenage sitcom succeeds in spite of itself
To a decidedly better-educated, more-affluent and more-sophisticated black community that is swapping slum life for the suburbs, the characters on ABC television What’s Happening!! sitcom are disturbing enough to evoke a primal scream.
Mama Thomas (Mabel King) is stout and at home, and daddy’s gone. Reed-thin, book-smart son Roger (Ernest Thomas), who’s called “Raj,” is tied to mama’s apron strings and is constantly being humbled by his sassy baby sister Dee (Danielle Spencer).
Raj’s chubby neighborhood buddy Rerun (Fred Berry) is always eating too much and thinking too little, and his chum Dwayne (Haywood Nelson) is a shy, retiring type seemingly afraid of his own shadow.
Add to this mix Shirley (Shirley Hemphill), an intimidating, robust, drill sergeant-type waitress at the local soda shop hangout, and that’s What’s Happening!!
The setting is a poverty-level area of Los Angeles, and the storyline is built around the social awkwardness and pratfalls of teens who just happen to be black. The comedy cutting edge here isn’t white racism, but rather Raj’s tenuous steps into manhood; Dee’s precocious wit and banter that all too often disrupts a Raj-Rerun-Dwayne scheme, forcing them to make her a blackmail deal; the three friends’ clumsy flirts with puppy love, and their occasional problems at school.
On balance, What’s Happening! is the Archie comic book gang in blackface, or the black flipside of ABC’s Happy Days, except that it can’t rid itself of those nagging stereotypes: the black matriarch and doting black males.
Richie might be a mama’s boy on Happy Days, but then there is the Fonz, who outcools the coolest of black sitcom dudes, limited formal education notwithstanding. But when the Fonz becomes too much for even white America to stomach, it can click the channel escape hatch to the Waltons, Eight is Enough, Donnie & Marie or Baretta. Click the channel for alternative black images and, with precious few exceptions, you get one laugh after another.
Laughs with “What’s Happening”
Black screenwriter Pam Douglas, a former Universal Studios executive, fumes, “When I was suggesting black productions at Universal, one vice-president told me not to waste any time putting blacks in drama. Black programs, he said, exist not for whites to laugh with, but for whites to laugh at.”
That sends What’s Happening!! co-producer Bud Yorkin (who, with Saul Turtletaub and Bernard Orenstein formed TOY Productions) on the defensive: “Sure, that might work for one or two weeks, but you can’t have a strong show unless the viewer starts rooting for someone.”
“Whites and blacks laughed at Archie Bunker for the first two or three weeks, but then they got involved in the character. The kids on What’s Happening!! are no different than mine or any other kids. And judging by the amount of mail we get, the show has a lot of fans.”
The all-important Nielsen ratings, the life-support system of television shows, give Yorkin’s evaluation arguable support. Last television season, before ABC’s programmers tampered with the schedule, “What’s Happening.” was listed among the top 10 programs three times, peaking at No. 9 twice, and made the top 20 seven times. Switched to Saturday nights, the show took a bath, plunging as low as 63rd place on the Nielsen while climbing only as high as a meager 4lst place.
“The show was never strong enough to start a night,” explains Yorkin. “All in the Family could, and Sanford and Son could, but they are exceptions.”
Finally, last April, the network wised up and retumed the program to its comfortable Thursday night slot — sandwiched between Welcome Back Kotter and Carter Country — to save it from the graveyard.
This year, What’s Happening!! is ready for some post-adolescent changes. Raj is going to college, Rerun will show signs of maturing, Dee will soften her sting, and Mama will loosen her apron strings. And then, once more, What’s Happening!! will be in the hands of the Nielsens — not the critics.
Caption for top image: Raj, played by Ernest Thomas, gets a big laugh out of his younger sister’s costume, as Dee (Danielle Spencer) and Mama (Mabel King) give him menacing glares. The three play the leading roles in ABC television’s most popular black situation comedy, What’s Happening!!. In the series, Raj is smart and energetic, and dreams of a writing career, and Dee is the plague of his life with constant threats of “I’ll tell mama.” Mama is an overworked parent who can be as hard as nails, but can show great affection.