Mork & Mindy
Mork & Mindy
In 1978 the ABC comedy Mork & Mindy hit the air. The show—about a naive, human-looking alien from the planet Ork—and its star Robin Williams quickly became hits. Expressions from the show, like "Nanu Nanu" and "Shazbat," and Mork's striped suspenders became overnight cultural icons. The frantic pace and inspired lunacy of this first season made it a wonderful addition to television history, especially to the tradition of William's hero Jonathan Winters and the show's sitcom ancestor My Favorite Martian. In subsequent seasons Mork & Mindy would change and drop in the ratings, but it will forever be a milestone in television and comedy.
Mork & Mindy began as a spin-off from Happy Days. Mork is sent to earth from the planet Ork in an egg-shaped ship to observe and report on earth's customs. He meets Mindy McConnell (Pam Dawber) and returns to her house to live in her attic. Mindy plays the "straightman" to Mork and tries to hide or avoid the complications of his sometimes strangely inhuman methods, such as sitting on his head or drinking through his finger.
The biggest trouble that faces Mindy is that Mork does not know the fundamentals of human interaction. Most importantly, he does not know what not to do or say in "society." In sometimes subtle or notso-subtle ways, Williams points out many cultural hang-ups that he sees around him. In traditional sitcom approach, each show has a message—obvious to Mork—and he has to report weekly findings to his superior Orson on his home planet. This conveniently allows the show to present weekly homilies on topics such as love and greed. Although the approach became a bit tiresome, it did occasionally allow for a humorous anecdote or quip.
In the episodes commentary comes in the form of broad satire, touching on the melodramatic. Mork takes all earth events and words literally, allowing for some funny interchanges. Mork & Mindy sometimes drifted—especially in later seasons—into commentary over comedy, a move that ultimately hurt its appeal. Williams, however, is a master of improvisation, and his ability to bounce off topics, draw from an endless supply of pop culture asides, and adopt voices and personalities at will kept audiences watching despite sometimes weak storylines. This frantic pace and "never-know-what-to-expect-next" feeling marked the first season, but sadly disappeared in subsequent seasons.
The show ran for a total of four seasons and slowly slipped in the ratings each year. Though Mork & Mindy was an initial success, the network made major cast changes and the record store disappeared, along with a bunch of minor characters. Second, in an effort to bolster ABC's traditionally weak Sunday lineup the show was removed from its dominant Thursday slot. Mork & Mindy's worst nemesis, it seemed, was a network set on ruining the show.
The sitcom continued to drop dramatically in the ratings, losing almost half its audience over the course of a single season. Mork & Mindy plunged from third in the national Neilsens to twenty-sixth. They attempted to undo some of the changes and return it to its original time slot, but it was too late. During the final season, in typical sitcom fashion, the pair got married and had a baby. Depending on your perspective, the last season offers either a high or low point when Jonathan Winters took on the role of the baby, Mearth (Orkans are born older and get younger over time). This was either the supreme paring of comics or a mark of the depths to which the show would go to survive. In any event, it was canceled at the end of the season.
The character of Mork first appeared in a February 1978 episode of Happy Days, where Mork tried to kidnap Richie Cunningham. The popular response to the character led to the Mork & Mindy series, which was produced by Garry Marshall, producer of Happy Days. In 1982 Mork, Mindy, Mr. McConnell, and Orson would all pop up again in one season of animated cartoons also titled Mork & Mindy (with the original cast providing voices).
Mork & Mindy represents many of the high and low points of 1970s television comedy. It was one of many spin-offs from successful shows that managed to outdo its parent. It was also one of the many shows that marked ABC's golden period of television comedy at this time, with a lineup of successes like Three's Company, Laverne & Shirley, and Happy Days. In addition, it brought national attention to a major star, Robin Williams. Finally, the show also became a major player in the popular culture of the era, introducing catch phrases, a look, and an attitude that continue into the late 1990s. In the end, however, the energy and talent of Williams and other cast members were not able to maintain the show, either from bad decision making on the part of the network or perhaps from a lack of steam.
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McNeal, Alex. Total Television: A Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present. New York, Penguin Books, 1991.