The last thing I want to be accused of is venerating the same sitcom that, it seemed, virtually everyone who was not a teenager in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s felt certain signaled the end of the world as we knew it. But we felt fine. Hey, I lived through those dangerous days and survived. I watched Three’s Company and not only enjoyed it, then, I certainly don’t regret it, now. I regard that show kind of like I view my Catholic upbringing: it was probably not necessary and it’s likely that those hours (in church, in front of the TV) could have been better spent. But, for better or worse, they helped make me what I am, so I’ll make no tardy attempts to excommunicate Cardinal O’Connor or Jack Tripper from my memory bank. In this much-maligned shows defense, and unlike the Catholic church, it never pretended to be something it was not: an enterprise that puts profit above product and always answerable to a higher authority.
Not sure, in hindsight, if Father So-and-So’s sermons gave me more nightmares than Joyce DeWitt’s curious allure, or who was the worse actor—my divorced CCD teacher or Suzanne Somers (I’m pretty sure Somers wins purely on aesthetic points). We can point to Don Knotts’s (R.I.P.) floral crimes against fashion, but at least he was a product of the times, unlike the enduring sartorial styles still in vogue at the Vatican. And let’s get real: if Jack Tripper (R.I.P.!!) were, well, real, and he was running for president, which candidate would you rather have a beer with at The Regal Beagle?
But special props must be set aside for the immortal (yes, I said immortal) Norman Fell (R.I.P.!!!). If there was ever a “sixth man” award for TV shows, Mr. Roper would be a lock. In fact, it should henceforth be known as “The Norman Fell Factor” when a minor—but indispensable—character is given props by fans in the know. His sardonic asides to the camera were revolutionary in their own understated way; breaking the fourth wall to make inside jokes with the audience, edging toward something approximating postmodern long before, say, movies like Ferris Bueller or subsequent TV shows like Moonlighting made it an almost obligatory—and far less subtle—device. Of course, this strategy already existed on TV, dating as far back as stories have been told to audiences, and are recurrent in Cervantes, Shakespeare and Sterne, not to mention Melville (call him Ishmael) and the late, great Kurt Vonnegut. In other words, Fell was neither the first nor the most effective practitioner of this tactic—he was simply one of the funniest. In his relatively quick moments on screen, he could throw the audience, and himself, a bone each week—his antics would not have been nearly as amusing if his role were larger.
Maybe it’s a guy thing. Check that: did any women ever watch Three’s Company? Stanley Roper’s self-satisfied mugging was a highlight of each episode, and while the mere name Ralph Furley prompts a chuckle, by the time that bug-eyed, pants suit wearing rascal came on the scene, the shows best days were behind it (bet: that is the first time the words “the shows best days” have ever appeared in any appraisal of Three’s Company). And don’t kid yourself: I’m not about to forget our favorite used car salesman, Larry Dallas. Larry was more than just Eddie Haskell grown up and acid-tested; in many ways he anticipated both George Costanza and Cosmo Kramer (in other words, he was the original poor man’s Larry David). Okay, that’s stretching it, but one thing is for certain: while the Ropers got their chance to grasp the brass ring, the biggest crime Three’s Company ever committed was not spinning off Larry’s character for his own series. Just kidding. Sort of.