Growing up with the Fonz

13 Oct

Aaaaeeee! The Fonz was a role model for boys in the 70s.

For the last few generations and for the first time in history, there have been 20 – 25-year lapses in style (music, design, art, clothing), due to rapid advances in technology,  manufacturing, and undoubtedly, marketing. When people get into their 30s and 40s and get nostalgic for the good old days where there much less stress and way more fun, the days/daze of high school, and for times of experimentation with music and clothing and finding out who you were, the entertainment industry is always there to cater to that longing.

As a Gen-xer, I’m part of the first generation to witness all of these quarter century lapses because I believe the Baby Boomers started all of this through television, K-tel Records, and swinging hi-fis. We are in an 80s revival now (get out your synths and viva la Madonna), the 90s were all about the 70s (platform shoes and Tarantino films), the 80s were influenced by the 60s (mini skirts and a psychadelic-influence in music – i.e. XTC as The Dukes of Stratosphere), and the 1970s had a thing about the 50s.

The 50s influence was all over the 70s – the films and music from Grease and American Graffiti and the consequent rebirth of Wolfman Jack. Television was no different – who remembers Sha Na Na? 50s-inspired sitcoms began with Happy Days in 1974 and the era of the Fonz began.

Fonz

Arthur Fonzerelli, Fonz, the Fonz, or Fonzie, was a character on Happy Days, an American television comedy set in the 1950s with character stereotypes of the period: the all-American family in a modest two-storey house where Tom Bosley knew best; high schooler Richie Cunningham and his best friend, Potsie, a sass-mouthed kid sister, and Fonzie, the bully with a heart of gold.

I wondered how having a role model like the Fonz would affect the developing self-esteem of the boys who watched the show, seeing as though Fonz was a stoic high school drop out, a former gang member known to police, a terrible womanizer, a thug who would beat you to a pulp just for looking at him the wrong way, but also a guy who stood up for his friends.

I liked the early years of the show the because they were so much more authentic to the period – costumes, issues, and the Bill Haley theme song – rather than in later years when Richie had moved on and Joanie wore permed hair though it was supposed to be 1963. I was able to watch the first (and best) season of Happy Days on YouTube to research Fonz for this post.  I also collected the opinions of men who wanted to share their thoughts about the Fonz in an online survey. These are my findings:

Interesting Fonz facts

  • Fonz and Ralph Malph were cited as co-stars in the first season.
  • Fonz arm wrestles and drag races to prove his power.
  • Fonz can start a jukebox by hitting it just so with the bottom of his fist.
  • Fonz will go out with teenage girls only if he thinks they will put out.
  • Fonzie’s first move: Snapping off a bra that Potsie attached to the bathroom radiator for Richie to practise on. Fonz then turns to the mirror to comb his Brylcreemed hair and realizes it is already perfect.
  • Fonzie’s first line in Happy Days: “You played with her chest?”
  • Fonz wore a light blue or cream-coloured cloth bomber jacket until the drag racing episode where the black leather jacket comes out for the first time.
  • Fonz is still within each of us who grew up with him:

The Fonz survey

I asked five questions about Fonzie’s influence in the survey and in return, I got some really interesting and surprising data. Some of the answers were hilarious, others honest, and some felt almost hostile towards him.

The first survey question revealed a lot. Though most liked him, more men than I expected said they didn’t like Fonzie for various reasons – some seemed to loathe him. I was delighted to read that several men saw through the tough facade and recognized the softer side of the Fonz, and that Fonzie spoke to the sense of self-confidence that many wished they had as boys. Most of the pollsters recognized the satire of the Fonzie character and none suggested having picked up any bad influence from him.

Questions and favourite answers below:

1. Did you look up to Fonzie as a role model? What impressions did he make on you, or did he teach you anything?

  1. Yes. Loved the leather jacket – loved the signature ‘ehhhhh’ – liked that he was too cool for school, but still had heart.
  2. I didn’t like Fonzie. I thought he was a bully. But I had a begrudging admiration for his ability to seduce women.
  3. No, I did not. He was supposed to be a tough biker dude but they softened him up, took away his edge therefore took away his mojo.
  4. Yes. He taught me the importance of coolness, the art of superciliousness and how to rock a leather jacket.
  5. He taught me that it was OK to express myself and be unique to me – not follow what everyone else was doing. He also taught me the meaning of friendship.
  6. Yes. Be confident and kind.
2. About being the Fonz, Henry Winkler says that the Fonz was his alter ego, that Fonz was everything he wasn’t. Did the Fonz represent something similar to you? Please explain if you can.
  1. He didn’t represent anything to me.
  2. The Fonz represented fearlessness – he was afraid of nothing or no one. Plus, he got laid a lot.
  3. He was the über cool guy unaffected by emotional vulnerability and self-consciousness that no high school kid really is.
  4. I never saw myself as being “cool”, but dressing in a way that was shocking gave me that “cool” feeling.
  5. He definitely was everything I wasn’t.
  6. The Fonz couldn’t even dance, or sing. i only hope he was a good mechanic. The Fonz represents all the things I don’t like about myself and avoid in others. He liked westerns, and claimed to have a sense of honour. If that is true, I will give him some credit for that.

3. What do you think made The Fonz cool when you watched Happy Days as a kid?

  • He stood up for his friends: 76.5%
  • He was popular with women: 70.6%
  • He was “tough”: 58.8%
  • He didn’t seem to need anyone: 35.5%
  • Other: 17.6% (Some other reasons Fonz was cool: “He was untouchable. Almost god-like.” Also, “the thing about him “not needing anyone” and “not showing his feelings” was a cover up. Underneath he was a sensitive dude.”)
  • He rarely showed his feelings:0%
  • He dropped out of high school: 0%

4. Did you imitate Fonzie as a kid? If so, how?

  1. No.
  2. No
  3. No.
  4. “Aaaaaay!”
  5. I’m sure I tried. But never successfully. It’s a tough gig.
  6. Yes – I admired his self-confidence to be himself.
  7. Mockingly, as did MAD magazine.

5. Please read the following YouTube comment found on a Happy Days episode: “OK, so let’s get this straight, a grown man… kicks the shit of 4 kids and then rails a highschool girl….yea, that would work real well today…”.

I think what this person is saying is that the concept of Fonzie and his “coolness” is dated. How do you feel about the Fonz now as an adult?

  1. I think the concept of Fonzie and his coolness was already dated in the 1970s when the show aired. Happy Days was not a simple portrayal of the 1950s, but more of a multi-layered commentary on the changes of mores and societal pressures between the 1950s and the 1970s.
  2. I agree that this behaviour is dated, but not his overall coolness.
  3. Older men are still banging high school girls. Fonzie was the 50’s model, so the character is dated, but not the behaviour.
  4. I think he would likely be arrested today.
  5. While the details may be dated, the core notion of the Fonz is timeless — the guy above the fray, at the centre of attention, mysterious and self-sufficient, the guy who seems to know something the rest of us don’t.
Fonz was many things to many people. Fonz was loved, he was hated, he was cool, and people didn’t mess with him. The most ironic thing about Fonzie is that Henry Winkler, the actor who played Fonzie, is Dyslexic, and felt he was hopelessly uncool. He says that the Fonz helped him experience life. Give Henry a couple of minutes of your time for the last word:
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