8 Things I Learned About ’70s L.A. from ‘Three’s Company’
It looked like a funny place to be, but did art represent reality?
Warning: TV’s current retro wave might require Dramamine. There’s hardly a an old hit series that hasn’t inspired reboot talk, and the highs and lows of the reprisal craze don’t make for smooth sailing in front of the TV.
This middle-aged nostalgia fan prefers to stick with the originals. That goes triple for Three’s Company, one of my Top 10 favorite sitcoms of all time (right up there with The Golden Girls, The Jeffersons, Maude, Sanford and Son, and Absolutely Fabulous).
Although an update has been rumored for a while, it’s hard to imagine the sitcom time-traveling gracefully. I can’t think of another show from my formative years that feels more like a relic from my formative years.
This is particularly curious because, in some ways, the 1977 to 1984 comedy series almost seems to have existed in a vacuum. There were few pop-cultural references (Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds were among the infrequent A-list name-drops), and Mrs. Roper (Audra Lindley) and Mr. Furley (Don Knotts) aside, most of the clothing was fairly classic retro. Not a disco shirt, a pair of platform shoes, or a day-go new-wave ensemble in sight!
The premise, though, is as dated as a disco duck. So much so that a reboot would have to ditch it entirely. For those millennials who have never fallen under the comedic spell of Three’s Company’s madcap misunderstandings, here’s a series synopsis: Two L.A. women get a male roommate who must pretend to be gay because their landlord, following the dictates of the time’s sexual mores, can’t allow a straight man to live with two straight women, even in separate bedrooms.
Moralizing hasn’t gone out of style, but in 2019, that sounds like a premise from another planet. Unmarried men and women on TV now can cohabitate without anyone raising an eyebrow or a fuss. Single women like Rachel Green on Friends and Miranda Hobbes on Sex and the City can even have a baby and not get branded with a figurative scarlet letter by viewers and by the U.S. Vice-President. We’ve come a long way from Three’s Company … and Murphy Brown.
I don’t know anyone who ever thought Three’s Company was scandalous, even back when first-run episodes were airing. It’s hard to believe the kids in America were ever as square as Jack, Janet, and their revolving-door blonde roomies. Although John Ritter’s brand of physical comedy is timeless (see the video at the bottom for proof), the jokes are funny now largely because they’re so dated.
And so is its version of Los Angeles (technically, Santa Monica). I never made it to L.A. until the ’90s (first stop: Santa Monica, where my brother was living at the time), but thanks to Three’s Company, I have a pretty good idea of what I might have been missing — if the sitcom’s alternate universe was indeed art imitating reality. Here are eight key characteristics of Three’s Company’s La La Land in the late ’70s and early ’80s that I’ve rediscovered courtesy of YouTube.
1. Blondes really did have more fun (and dates).
An assortment of lovely ladies came in and out of the Three’s Company bachelor/bachelorette pad and in and out of Jack’s life — and most of them were blonde. Suzanne Somers, Jenilee Harrison, and Priscilla Barnes each took turns as the resident blondie (Chrissy Snow, Cindy Snow, and Terri Alden, respectively), and they always seemed to outrank poor, pretty brunette Janet Wood (Joyce DeWitt) on the babe scale.
Meanwhile, the various paramours of Jack Tripper (John Ritter) were more often blonde than not. Occasionally, the actresses who played them would go on to be better-known: Loni Anderson (in the 1978 episode “Coffee, Tea, or Jack”), Joanna Kerns (in the 1983 episode “Jack Be Quick”), and Lana Clarkson (in the 1983 episode “Alias Jack Tripper”).
The latter, who guest-starred as a knockout who finally went out with Jack after 19 phone calls, was shot to death in 2003 in the home of Phil Spector. The legendary superproducer is currently serving a prison term for the homicide.
2. Disco must have danced right past it.
Three’s Company may have launched at the height of disco fever, but its three young people in the city couldn’t have seemed less interested in getting their boogie down. The Regal Beagle, though perfectly OK for an after-work drink or two, wasn’t exactly jumpin’ jumpin’.
Most of the gang’s outings happened in staid, old-folks homey places that made The Golden Girls’ retiree version of Miami a few years later look a brat-packers paradise.
3. It was blindingly white.
In the dozens of episodes I’ve watched on YouTube during binge sessions over the last two years or so, I can remember seeing a black person in a speaking role only once — the time Jack got arrested for beating up a cop and two of his cellmates were black. Were all the other blacks on parole or living in Watts with Fred Sanford from Sanford and Son?
Oh, and the theme song was sung by Ray Charles. Not that Ray Charles — a white one.
4. It was homophobic in the most high-school sense of the word.
I was too young in the late ’70s and early ’80s to identify as gay or to get offended by the words Mr. Roper (Norman Fell) and Mr. Furley used to describe gay men. “Fairy” and “Tinkerbell” made occasional cameos, and to Roper and Furley, who hardly qualified as macho men, to be gay was basically to be female.
After Jack told Furley that he was moving into a one-bedroom apartment with a woman in the 1984 series finale, Furley pronounced him “cured” and hugged him. Yeah, pretty disgusting and unfunny, both by 1984 and by 2019 standards.
At least Roper and Furley didn’t treat Jack as less of a person because he was “gay” — even if Jack apparently had more of a problem with it than he let on. In the 1980 episode “And Justice for Jack,” he lost a sexual harassment court case because he couldn’t bear for the female judge to think he was gay.
5. But when it came to living with two women, it was worse to be straight than gay.
Three’s Company’s L.A. might be the only place in the ’70s where it was easier for an out gay man to score an apartment than an out straight man.
6. Men needed a #MeToo of their own.
In the aforementioned “And Justice for Jack” episode, Jack’s boss hit on him and then fired him when he turned her down. After he decided to sue, his female lawyer hit on him, and the judge ruled against him because she thought he was too sexy for his clothes.
She cited his shirt unbuttoned one button too low, his tight trousers, and his Mating Call cologne as proof that he must have been asking to be hit on, which is the kind of thing people used to get away with saying about female rape victims. Jack never got the vindication that his roommates got when they faced similar harassment, probably because the writers thought a woman aggressively hitting on a man and the guy having to fight her off was comedy gold.
Throughout Three’s Company’s run, Jack was sexually harassed by a string of women, making him perhaps the most-wanted male TV character of the era. Cute as John Ritter was circa 1977 to 1984, he was no Parker Stevenson, Greg Evigan, or Rick Springfield. Even if he had been, has it ever been funny for a woman to grab the butt of a man who clearly doesn’t enjoy her tight grip?
7. You weren’t allowed to hit a violent blind man — or forcibly remove him from your home.
“Jack’s Navy Pal” was possibly the worst episode of Three’s Company’s eight seasons. In this 1978 installment, David Dukes played a Navy nemesis who punched Jack on sight at their reunion — only his old enemy was blind at the time. (Dukes had previously played the guy who tried to rape Edith Bunker in a 1977 episode of All in the Family and the ad man who tried to convince George Jefferson to pretend to be a descendant of Thomas Jefferson in a 1976 episode of The Jeffersons.)
Jack felt he couldn’t hit a blind man, so he refused to return the punch. Unfortunately, the guy refused to leave unless Jack slugged him back. So what did the three roommates do? They tried to ignore him as he ruined their dinner party and demolished their apartment.
Yep, this was actually the plot of the episode.
I once called the police in Buenos Aires when a one one-night stand refused to leave my apartment unless I paid him for his time. No punches were thrown, and he didn’t break a thing — but he still exited the building in handcuffs.
8. You could get a furnished two-bedroom apartment with a huge separate kitchen for $200/month.
As a kid, I always assumed the furniture in the Three’s Company apartment belonged to its tenants. I must not have been paying close enough attention. When they moved out in the 1984 finale, they took everything but the furniture.
In “Jack’s Navy Pal,” Mr. Roper referred to the stuff Jack’s old Navy nemesis was breaking as “my furniture.” He insisted that Jack, Janet, and Chrissy pay to replace it, so they must have rented the apartment furnished.
In another episode, 1977’s “It’s Only Money,” their rent was revealed as being $300 a month. And between the three of them, they still had trouble paying it! Even after adjusting for inflation, $200 for a two-bedroom seems like a steal.
I’d even pay a little extra for the laugh track.