THREE'S COMPANY

U.S. Situation Comedy

Three's Company, an enormously popular yet critically despised sitcom farce about a young man living platonically with two young women, aired on ABC from 1977-84. After a spring try-out of six episodes beginning Thursday, 15 March 1977, Three's Company ranked number 11 among all TV shows for the entire 1976-77 season--at that time, an unheard-of feat. The next year Three's Company moved to Tuesdays behind ABC powerhouses Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, which it also followed that year as number three in the ratings. In 1978-79, Three's Company nudged out Happy Days for the number two spot, and late in this season moved its caustic landlords onto their own short-lived spin-off, The Ropers (which ranked number eight among all network shows after a spring tryout of six episodes, but was cancelled in 1980 after a dismal second season). In 1979-80, Three's Company shot past both of its lead-ins to become the highest-rated TV comedy in America. That summer, ABC ran back-to-back reruns of the show in its daytime line-up, foreshadowing huge success in syndication, which the series entered in 1982, two years before its network demise.

Three's Company entered the television scene in the midst of TV's "jiggle era" that began in 1976 with ABC's Charlie's Angels, and was the medium's response to the sexual revolution and the swinging single. Three's Company, though otherwise apolitical in content, was the first sitcom to address the sexual implications and frustrations of co-ed living, which in 1977 was still somewhat taboo. In the minds of many, male-female cohabitation was anything but innocent and, apparently, would lead only to the evils of premarital sex. Three's Company toyed with this dilemma in its premise, an Americanized version of the 1973-76 British TV comedy Man About the House.

Set in Santa Monica, California, the series chronicled the innuendo-laden, slapstick-prone misadventures of the affably klutzy bachelor Jack Tripper (played by John Ritter) and the two single, attractive women--one a cute, down-to-earth brunette named Janet Wood (Joyce DeWitt), the other a sexy, dimwitted blonde named Christmas "Chrissy" Snow (Suzanne Somers). The three shared an apartment in order to beat the high cost of living, but Jack was also present to provide "manly protection." Though he never broke his vow of keeping a "strictly platonic" relationship with his roommates (the three were really best friends who always looked after each other), the series was rife with double entendre suggesting they were doing much naughtier stuff. Antagonists in this domestic farce were the the trio's downstairs landlords--first the prudish Stanley Roper, an Archie Bunker-type played by Norman Fell, and later the comically swaggering "ladies man" Ralph Furley, played by Don Knotts. The landlords were so suspicious of the "threesome" arrangement that they would not permit it until after Jack told them he was gay, a "lifestyle" against which, ironically, neither discriminated by refusing housing. Though Jack was a heterosexual with many girlfriends, he masqueraded as an effeminate "man's man" around the near-sighted Roper, who called him "one of the girls," and Furley, who often tried to "convert" him; this comic device played heavily at first but was toned down considerably by the show's fourth season. When out of Roper's and Furley's reach, Jack and his upstairs buddy, Larry Dallas (Richard Kline), leered at and lusted after every female in sight, including, in early episodes, Janet and Chrissy. Chrissy, especially, was prone to bouncing around the apartment braless in tight sweaters when she wasn't clad in a towel, nightie, short-shorts or bathing suit. The irony here was that even though sex was so ingrained in the Three's Company consciousness, nobody on the show ever seemed to be doing it--not even the show's only married characters, the sex-starved Helen Roper (Audra Lindley) and her impotent handyman husband, Stanley, the butt of numerous faulty plumbing jokes.

Three's Company's sexiness and libinal preoccupation helped gain the show tremendous ratings and media exposure. A February 1978 Newsweek magazine cover story on "Sex and TV" featured the trio in a sexy, staged shot. 60 Minutes presented an interview with Somers, who, in the tradition of Charlie's Angels' Farrah Fawcett, became a sex symbol and magazine cover-girl with top-selling posters, dolls and other merchandise. TV critics and other intellectuals rallied against the show, calling its humor sophomoric, if not insulting. Feminists objected to what they called exploitative portrayals of women (namely Chrissy) as bubble-brained sexpots. And while Three's Company was not as harshly condemned among conservative educators and religious organizations as its ABC counterpart Soap (a more satirical comedy with a shock value so high ABC almost delayed its premiere in fall 1977), it received low marks from the Parent-Teacher Association and was targeted in a sponsor blacklisting by the Reverend Donald Wildmon's National Federation for Decency.

Though Three's Company would become notorious as "T & A" television, its origins are that of British bedroom farce and America's "socially relevant" sitcoms. In 1976, M*A*S*H writer/producer Larry Gelbart penned an initial Three's Company pilot script borrowing scenario and characterizations from Thames Television's Man About the House. But that pilot, with Ritter, Fell, Lindley and two other actresses, didn't sell. Fred Silverman, programming chief at ABC, requested a revamped pilot for a show he believed would be a breakthrough in sexiness the same way CBS's All in the Family was in bigotry. So show owners Ted Bergman and Don Taffner commissioned All in the Family Emmy-winning head writers and Jeffersons producers Don Nicholl, Michael Ross and Bernie West to rewrite the pilot. The roommates, in Gelbart's script an aspiring filmmaker and actresses, took on more bourgeois jobs in the new pilot--Jack became a gourmet cooking student, Janet a florist and Chrissy an office secretary. The female leads were recast (DeWitt was added for the second pilot, and Somers for a third), the chemistry clicked and ABC bought the series.

Most critics called Three's Company an illegitimate attempt to use the TV sitcom's new openness for its own cheap laughs. But Gerard Jones, author of Honey, I'm Home: Sitcoms: Selling the American Dream, notes that the minds behind Three's Company intelligently responded to the times. He suggests that producers Nicholl, Ross and West recognized that even the highly praised work of producer Norman Lear's shows "had always been simple titillation." The producers simply went a step further. They "took advantage of TV's new hipness" to present even more titillation "in completely undemanding form," thus creating "an ingenious trivialization that the public was waiting for."

 


Three's Company
Photo courtesy of DLT Entertainment, Ltd.

Though Three's Company jiggled beneath the thin clothing of titillation, the show was basically innocent and harmless, a contradiction that annoyed some critics. Its comedy, framed in the contemporary trapping of sexual innuendo, was basically broad farce in the tradition of I Love Lucy, very physical and filled with misunderstandings. (Lucille Ball loved Three's Company and Ritter's pratfalls so much she hosted the show's 1982 retrospective special). As fast-paced, pie-in-your-face farce, Three's Company spent little time on characterization. But underlying themes of care and concern among the roommates often fueled the comedy and occasionally led to a tender resolve by episode's end.

Behind the scenes three was company until fall 1980, when Somers and her husband/manager, Alan Hamel, asked for a raise from $30,000 per episode to $150,000 per episode plus 10% of the show's profits. Co-stars Ritter and DeWitt, confused and angry, refused to work with Somers, whose role was reduced to a phone-call from a separate soundstage at the end of each episode (Chrissy had been sent to take care of her ailing mother in Fresno). For the remainder of the 1980-81 season, Jenilee Harrison performed as a "temporary" roommate, Chrissy's clumsy cousin Cindy Snow. By fall 1981, Somers was officially fired, and Priscilla Barnes was cast as a permanent replacement, playing nurse Terri Alden, a more sophisticated blonde (Harrison's character moved out to attend UCLA but occasionally visited through spring 1982). Though viewership dropped when Somers left, Three's Company remained very popular, focusing more on Ritter's physical abilities and his character's transition from cooking student to owner of Jack's Bistro, a French cuisine restaurant.

Three's Company, weathering key cast changes and America's waning interest in sitcoms, remained a top ten hit through the 1982-83 season. But in 1984, after 174 episodes, a final People's Choice Award as Favorite Comedy Series and an eighth, embattled season in which it dropped out of the top thirty in the face of competition from NBC's comically violent The A-Team, Three's Company changed its format. A final one-hour episode saw Janet get married, Terri move to Hawaii and Jack fall in love and move in with his new girlfriend. Ritter, who won an Emmy for Outstanding Male Lead in a Comedy in 1984, was the only Three's Company cast member to remain when production resumed in the fall with a new cast and new title. Recycling much of its parent show's comic formula, Three's a Crowd focused on Jack Tripper's consummated relationship with his live-in girlfriend (Mary Cadorette), whose disapproving father (Soap's Robert Mandan) became their landlord. This incarnation lasted one season.

Three's Company, though later considered tame television, pushed the proverbial envelope in the late 1970s, opening the door for sexier, if not sillier, comedies offering audiences both titillation and mindless escape.

-Chris Mann

CAST

Jack Tripper................................................. John Ritter
Janet Wood .............................................Joyce DeWitt
Chrissy Snow (1977-1981).................... Suzanne Somers
Helen Roper (1977-1979) ...........................Audra Lindley
Stanley Roper ((1977-1979).......................... Norman Fell
Larry Dallas (1978-1984)............................ Richard Kline
Ralph Furley (1979-1984) ..............................Don Knotts
Lana Shields (1979-1980)..................... Ann Wedgeworth
Cindy Snow (1980-1982) .........................Jenilee Harrison
Terri Alden (1981-1984) ..........................Priscilla Barnes
Mike, the Bartender (1981-1984)................ Brad Blaisdell

PRODUCERS
Don Nicholl, Michael Ross, Bernie West, Budd Gossman, Bill Richmond, Gene Perret, George Burdit, George Sunga, Joseph Staretski

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 164 Episodes

ABC
March 1977-April 1977                     Thursday 9:30-10:00
August 1977-September 1977           Thursday 9:30-10:00
September 1977-May 1984                  Tuesday 9:00-9:30
May 1984-September 1984                  Tuesday 8:30-9:00

FURTHER READING

Hamamoto, Darrell Y. Nervous Laughter: Television Situation Comedy and Liberal Democratic Ideology. New York: Praeger, 1989.

Javna, John. The Best of TV Sitcoms: Burns and Allen to the Cosby Show, The Munsters to Mary Tyler Moore. New York: Harmony, 1988.

Jones, Gerard. Honey, I'm Home! Sitcoms, Selling the American Dream. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1992.

Waldron, Vince. Classic Sitcoms: A Celebration of the Best of Prime-Time Comedy. New York: MacMillan, 1987.

 

See also Comedy, Domestic Settings