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.
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
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.
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.
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."
Photo courtesy of DLT Entertainment, Ltd.
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.
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
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
Janet Wood .............................................Joyce
Chrissy Snow (1977-1981).................... Suzanne Somers
Helen Roper (1977-1979) ...........................Audra
Stanley Roper ((1977-1979).......................... Norman
Larry Dallas (1978-1984)............................ Richard
Ralph Furley (1979-1984) ..............................Don
Lana Shields (1979-1980)..................... Ann Wedgeworth
Cindy Snow (1980-1982) .........................Jenilee Harrison
Terri Alden (1981-1984) ..........................Priscilla
Mike, the Bartender (1981-1984)................ Brad Blaisdell
Don Nicholl, Michael Ross, Bernie West, Budd Gossman, Bill Richmond,
Gene Perret, George Burdit, George Sunga, Joseph Staretski
HISTORY 164 Episodes
March 1977-April 1977 Thursday
August 1977-September 1977 Thursday
September 1977-May 1984 Tuesday
May 1984-September 1984
Hamamoto, Darrell Y. Nervous Laughter: Television Situation Comedy
and Liberal Democratic Ideology. New York: Praeger, 1989.
John. The Best of TV Sitcoms: Burns and Allen to the Cosby Show,
The Munsters to Mary Tyler Moore. New York: Harmony, 1988.
Gerard. Honey, I'm Home! Sitcoms, Selling the American Dream.
New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1992.
Vince. Classic Sitcoms: A Celebration of the Best of Prime-Time
Comedy. New York: MacMillan, 1987.