While everybody else was mourning the loss of Johnny Cash, I was torn to pieces over John Ritter. It felt like being concerned about a hangnail on the day of a national tragedy. All day, friends took kindly to my sober mood until they realized which celebrity loss I was sad about. “John Ritter?” one of my friends asked. “The Three’s Company guy?” She laughed.
Her callowness aggravated me, but in retrospect, maybe her reaction was more appropriate than mine. John Ritter, after all, made a career of making people laugh. He was a brilliant physical comedian, a genius at playing the fool and delivering the naughty double entendre. He was best known to many as the characters he played, because those characters revealed cultural archetypes with weight and wit. For Johnny, the serious musician, there’s no better homage than to cry in your beer. But for John, the inimitable comedian, the best remembrance is a doubled-over chuckle.
John Ritter’s gift helped Three’s Company become a hit in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and the lasting pop culture artifact it is today. As Jack Tripper, Ritter futzed and fumbled his way through a playful perspective on America’s sexual revolution, exposing with unabashed risqué issues of sexual orientation, 20something romantic relations, and the changing roles of male and female relations. Many, at the time and today, wrote the show off as puff, but for others—including those of us who first saw the show in syndication in the early ‘80s—Three’s Company was our entree into what it meant for non-married men and women to cohabitate, to think about the lives of single people newly freed from the mandates of early marriage, to question assumptions about sexuality. In retrospect, many of the antics on the show are painfully dated and even offensive, but at the time, they were groundbreaking, mind-blowing, and prescient. Also, they were, and are, funny.
Ritter’s career was peppered with hits and misses, and a good many years spent out of the limelight completely. Those who connected with his later work, such as the ABC hit 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, may not know of his previous fame; those who loved him in his ‘70s form may have never bothered to follow the current turns of his career. But for everyone who encountered him, John Ritter was the guy with the punchline. He was the person who always put a bright spin on things, who remembered that there’s always something to smile about. He was our court jester.
The particulars of his death are unutterably sad: just a week shy of his birthday, with a career on the upswing, he died of an undetected heart condition, and at the devastatingly young age of 54. In the days since, footage of his two hit shows has been rampant, rife with Ritter’s boyish smile and kooky deliveries. Those of us who missed him that day gave toasts in our own Reagel Beagles, remembering that episode where he and Chrissy are handcuffed together, or the one were Jack takes up boxing in order to impress a girl. We recalled, groaning, that scene in Skin Deep (1989), the one with the glow-in-the-dark condom—or how great he was in Noises Off. So many scenes to remember, situations to retell. None of them will resurrect John Ritter the man, but they will help to solidify John Ritter the legend.
When a celebrity dies, the world shrinks a little. For a moment, a day, or maybe longer, fans see things a little differently. We begin to consider how deeply our culture shapes us. We feel simultaneously heartened and sickened that something so trivial can mean so much, feel heartened and sickened that it doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone else. When John Ritter died, in my grief, I felt like a very special oddball. We lost a very special oddball, too. I guess that coincidence is also something to smile about.