Saturday, March 12, 2005

The Power of Cool: Arthur Fonzarelli as Archetypal Shaman

Happy Days began its run in January 15, 1974 and lasted until its final telecast on July 12, 1984 accumulating some two hundred and fifty-five episodes and giving rise to four spin-offs.[1] In that time, the characters of Richie, Potsie, and Ralph Malph became household names, genuine people as familiar to the millions of TV viewers as the members of their own family. “Nerd” entered the mainstream vocabulary and then the dictionary. Mr. and Mrs. C earned permanent positions as icons in the American popular consciousness. But no character was as idolized as the loveable rebel Arthur Fonzarelli – a.k.a. the Fonz - the man who would define “cool” for decades. But while he was melting young hearts with the flick of a comb and stretching the first letter of the alphabet so that it filled an entire sentence, Henry Winkler (and the writers that gave his character voice) had no idea that he was enacting a classic archetype – reinventing a myth older than history on 20th century celluloid. Apparently quite by accident, as if emerging straight from Carl Jung’s collective unconscious, the Fonz grew into nothing less than a modern representation of the classic magical shaman of early nomadic cultures. You don’t believe me? I’ll prove it.

A bit of background, if we may. The shaman is the medicine man, the healer, the familiar “witch-doctor” of tribal peoples. Frequently he is an outsider, a loner, often an orphan. He is someone who has undergone a traumatic experience – some near death encounter, some illness or epileptic fit, and come back to tell about it. This ordeal has marked him as somehow special, and it is his reenactment of the ordeal – the classic witchdoctor’s dance – that gives him the power to heal those around him.

The cosmology of the shamantic world is a three-layered universe. The realm we live in is suspended between an upper and a lower world – but it is a mistake to think of these in terms of our modern Western concepts of Heaven and Hell. The upper realm was not Heaven; it was the world of distant and impersonal gods, but while they might demand occasional sacrifices and chunk a thunderbolt or two, they weren’t really “in touch” with our middle world in any kind of useful way. You didn’t call on them if you had anything important you wanted to get done. By contrast, the spirits of the lower world were the ones with their elbows into it enough to know what to do – the ones with the street-level clout to do what needed doing.

But these lower-order spirits aren’t automatically evil. This isn’t Hell. In this world-view, the disease is neither good nor bad. The same spirits that cause the pain have the cure. The importance is to have a ‘right relationship’ with them, to speak their language and coerce or compel them to use their powers for help instead of harm. The lower-realm is your one-stop shop for taking care of everything that ails you.

Now the shaman, when he undergoes his death and resurrection experience, metaphorically (possibly literally?) descends into this underworld. There, he battles with the lower spirits, taming them and learning their secrets. Then he rises to the upper realm and encounters the spirits there, who fill him in on their less useful, but still necessary, higher level spells. His education complete, he returns to life and home. Thereafter, the shaman cures his tribe by repeatedly reenacting – through dance or ritual – his initial death and resurrection” – and the sick are made well by sharing in this experience.[2]

Which brings us back to the imagined 1950s of Milwaukee. When Happy Days first started in 1974, with the episode “All the Way”, the Fonz was not the cool guy he would later morph into. In fact, Arthur Fonzararelli was just a high school dropout, a mechanic working in a garage and lurking around Jefferson High School. He was thought of as a dangerous loser, and only the nerdie Richie Cunningham will hang out with him. He doesn’t even have his famous leather jacket, but wears a grey one instead. This is most assuredly not the Fonz we remember.

In fact, in episode # 35, “Fonzie Joins the Band”, Richie and his friends don’t even want him to play something as simply as the bongos with their band. The others gang up on Richie and force him to throw the unwanted Fonzie out. Can you imagine Ralph Malph throwing the later day Fonzie out of anything? Can you imagine a Fonz whose cool isn’t strong enough to stake him out a space in a band of nerds? Surely, this can’t be the Fonz we remember? Something big must happen to transform him into the personification of cool that looms so large in our consciousness.

Well, yes, something does happen, and it fits perfectly with our guidelines for shamantic initiation. In the episode “Fearless Fonzarelli, Parts 1 and 2”, a Fonzie afraid of “losing his cool” decides to jump fourteen garbage cans on his motorcycle for the TV show “You Wanted to See It.” The previous record is twelve cans, and we learn that there have been several motorcycle accidents with foolish folks trying to beat it.

Richie attempts to talk Fonzie out of this death-defying stunt, an act which transforms the apple-pie faced nerdling into the perfect “threshold guardian” as described by mythologist Joseph Campbell.[3]

Fonzie goes ahead with the jump – part one of the episode ending on a literal cliff-hanger – with Fonzie on cycle suspended between Heaven and Earth. Then, as part two picks up, Fonzie lands, crashes, and goes down in a pile of cans. For a moment, it seems dire, but he soon lifts up his head and asks “Am I dead?” These first words are particularly telling, as they symbolize his journey into that Undiscovered Country and back, setting up the cycle of Death (part one) and Rebirth (part two – where a crippled Fonzie must learn to walk again).[4]

Now, it is after this near-death encounter that Fonzie’s cool does indeed seem to grow. He swiftly transforms from a loner who planned to spend Christmas alone, to a man who can snap his fingers and cause any girl in the room to run to his attendance. Furthermore, his trademark ability to pound his fist on a jukebox to make it play a desired song grows too. And – far from being a guy who can’t even play bongos in a band – he is mobbed by women after performing “Heartbreak Hotel” at the school dance (Episode 58, “Fonzie the Superstar”). He emerges after the dance with his Elvis-costume torn to shreds by rabid females. This is indeed a markedly different Fonzie from the one of Happy Days' initial season, and one whose audience appear and marketing potential must be obvious to even Richie and his nerdy band mates.

But like any good Shaman, Fonzie must repeatedly return to the source of his power – playing out the Death and Resurrection game again and again. He repeats the motorcycle jump (this time without the crash). He drives fearlessly into a demolition derby. He stops the runaway stagecoach (this feat once again involving a motorcycle jump). He saves Pinkie Tuscadero, and – on a visit to Hollywood that sadly marked the decline in Happy Days' narrative quality – he jumps a shark pit on water-skis[5].

Every time Arthur Fonzarelli repeats this shamanic ritual, his power grows, until a good pounding from his fist not only starts the jukebox, but makes any broken mechanical device do whatever he wants. Now it dims lights, dispenses soda and candy from vending machines, operates payphones, repairs broken machinery. Though few viewers recognize the truth of it, when examined critically it becomes apparent that the Fonz is literally working magic here. Like any shaman, he has gained an affinity with the specific lower spirits– the gremlins – who can foul or fix the electronics of machinery. By the end of Happy Days' ten year run, his power of all things mechanical is positively godlike.

And his ability to snap his fingers for girls increases too. At first, this “power” only worked to mesmerize and summon the women in the room at the time. We’d see a girl in a booth at Arnold’s, seated off to the side but still visible in the frame of the camera shot. Fonzie would snap his fingers, and, as if jolted by lighting, she’d snap to attention and race to heel. But as his cool grew in magnitude, it was no longer necessary to show where the beautiful girls came from. They began arriving from off-camera, magically appearing whenever he gives the call, as if he was summoning them into existence. By the franchise’ later days, girls magically appear no matter where the Fonzie found himself. Fonzie could be in a deserted parking lot or an empty building – but if he snapped his finger – gorgeous women would appear and throw themselves at him. He could probably be in the middle of the desert or the Antarctic Circle and this power would still work, so great has he become.

But a shamantic journey is not complete without a battle with a spirit from the Upper Realm. And so here it is – and for any of you that don’t believe me, this then is my final proof – Mork from Orc made his debut on Happy Days. In Episode 110, “My Favorite Orkan,” the space alien (i.e. Higher Spirit) Mork comes to earth with plans to abduct Richie and take him back to his planet for experiments (the Orkans want to study someone “hum-drum”). Fonzie interferes, and Mork freezes the Fonze with his all-powerful finger.

Amazingly, however, Fonzie manages to unfreeze his thumb. Mork is astounded – no one has ever shown such resistance before – but Fonzie actually starts to reanimate and battles Mork for Richie’s life. The power of the alien’s finger wrestling with the “cool” magic of Fonzarelli’s thumb. Finally, Mork relents before the power of the thumb and lets Richie go. This is nothing short of the Shaman’s Journey to the Upper Realm to battle the Upper Spirits, where here the Upper realm is synonymous with Outer Space. Arthur Fonzarelli’s magical journey and rise to power finally reaches its shamanically appropriate conclusion when he battles with the Higher Spirit – Mork from Orc – besting the space alien to save a member of his tribe, his best friend Richie[6].

Now surely, no one at Paramount Pictures intended this James Dean knock-off to be a modern medicine man, healing his tribe (Richie, Ralph, Potsie et al.) with his magical abilities and ritual resurrection reenactments, but over ten years, and through the work of countless scriptwriters, that’s just what Arthur Fonzarelli became. By surviving a death and resurrection experience, and by repeatedly revisiting this source of power, an inconsequential auto mechanic and high school dropout rose to become a quintessential magical shaman – reaching out to repeatedly rescue the tribe around him, and capturing the focus of American television attention for decades. That his transformation into Archetypal Shamantic Healer was unconscious, arising organically out of the narrative, and not the deliberate product of any of the shows producers or writers, is only proof that the mythic form will always out in the modern fable. It’s all there. Grovin’ all week with you. Aaayyh!

[1] Laverne & Shirley, the forgotten Blansky’s Beauties, Mork & Mindy, and the ill-fated Joanie Loves Chachi. Note that Blanksy’s Beauties is sometimes discounted by Happy Days fans as a true spin-off, as the Scott Baio character has a different name. Pat Morita’s role as “Arnold” is seen as coincidence. However, this assertion ignores the fact that lead character Nancy Blansky was supposed to be the cousin of Happy Days' dad, Howard Cunningham.

[2] This is perhaps the earliest recognition of the transformative power of theatre and explains why live performances are often felt to have more powerful impacts on audiences than recorded ones.

[3] Joseph Campbell outlined the “Hero’s Journey” – his reduction of all narrative into a single heroic quest. According to Campbell, when the Hero receives the Call to Adventure, some other character – often a friend or relative who has been supportive up to this point – emerges to question the Hero’s drive, becoming his first obstacle towards reaching his destiny. Fonzie heroically ignores Richie and charges forward to adventure.

[4] For the purposes of family-friendly entertainment, Fonzie’s death is merely symbolic. He has torn a ligament, however, and fears he may not walk again. Only when Mrs. C calls his courage into question does the Fonz put aside his crutches and take his first unassisted steps.

[5] Happy Days went quickly south after this episode. The break was so noticeable that today the term “jump the shark” refers to the point at which any previously high quality television show begins noticeably to decline.

[6] The proof that this is a shamantic battle arrives in Mork’s second visit to Happy Days, whereupon we learn that he and the Fonz have a grudging respect. This grows into a friendship, culminating when Fonz gets Mork a date with Laverne in Part 2 of the Mork and Mindy Pilot. It is not enough for the Shaman to best the Upper Spirit; he must tame them as well, enlisting their power as his own.


Anonymous said...

Cool! Watching "Happy Days" when I grew up, I felt there was something special about the Fonz, but now I see the whole pattern.

You mention Mork... who later got his own TV series, which I liked even better. Where does he fit into Campbell's mythic model?

And another question: if the shaman character is female, does the pattern of the myth change? (I assume it does?)


Jeremy said...

Great fun! I've been trying to think of SF film/show examples where a character might fit the same archtype, and the first one that popped into my head is the underrated film, Dark City.

Lou Anders said...

In reference to the Fonz, Mork fits in as the air spirit that must be tamed. In his own series (the final seasons of which I did not view), I suspect he is the hero of his own journey. As to how the archetype changes when applied to a female protagonist, I'd like to hear some opinions.

Dark City is indeed underrated. Have you listened to the brilliant commentary by Rogert Ebert, where he tries to define a subset of science fiction in which the protagonist wakes up to the illusory nature of the world and then acts as messiah to the rest of society. Recorded about a year or two before the first Matrix and really insightful in light of that fact.

Actually, a film that wears its archetype on its sleeve is the lamentable WB Looney Toons film Space Jam. In the film, the land of the Toons is not a suburb of Hollywood a la Rodger Rabbit but is located at the center of the earth. There is no discernable reason for this other than that it clearly represents the "lower realm". When this realm is threatened by space aliens, i.e. beings from the "higher realm", they kidnap Michael Jordan. He is pulled through the concentric rings of Porky Pig's WB logo, literally the rings of the Inferno, where he marshalls the lower spirits by teaching them basket ball. His fellow NBA players have their powers taken from them by the Higher Spirits/Space Aliens, but when Jordan bests the aliens, he returns from his journey to the higher and lower realms with a magic basketball that returns their talents to them, literally becoming the shaman who travels to the otherside and returns to heal his tribe.

Jeremy said...

Oh. It just occured to me that Gene Wolfe's new books fits this so blatantly, I finally understand exactly where he's coming from. The realms, etc.

I'm going to have to find that commentary. Sounds interesting, and I think Ebert has a good point there. I was wondering if the messianic thing was the same as the shaman or something else.

Lou Anders said...

there is a great book called The Death and Resurrection Show by Rogan Taylor (Anthony Blond, 1985 ISBN: 0856341517) about the connection between shamanism, stage magic, and the entertainer. (Did you know that in the original rabbit-outta-the-hat trick the rabbit was dismembered and chopped up before being retrieved whole?). It's a fascinating read that suggests some of the long-standing reasons for the Church's opposition to, among other things, rock'n'roll, and talks about how both Harry Houdini and John Lennon were very disturbed by the amount of people who were brought to their performances to be healed!

Jeremy said...

That sounds utterly fascinating. Thanks for the ISBN. Looks like an expensive title, so I'll see if I can score it via interlibrary loan.

Lou Anders said...

Let me know what you think when you read it!

tc said...

Actually, there was yet ANOTHER Happy Days spinoff, Out of the Blue, the 1979 sitcom about Chachi's guardian angel, Random. I kid you not. For more info, see

Lou Anders said...

Fascinating. I did not know about that one, I admit.

Urban Sha(wo)man said...

I get laughed out of the building most times I bring this up, but I think folk here just might see it: One of the most pure hero's-journey movies I've ever seen has to be Purple Rain. Yes, that one. With Prince. :) Think about music as the gift he has to bring back to the people, and it pretty much all goes *click*.

kids costumes said...
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kids costumes said...

I'm going to have to find that commentary. Sounds interesting, and I think Ebert has a good point there. I was wondering if the messianic thing was the same as the shaman or something else and i love Elvis. a lot