‘Happy Days’ Actor Said Show Trying to ‘Invent’ Catchphrases was a ‘Debacle’

by John Jamison
Bettmann / Contributor

Anyone familiar with TV classic “Happy Days” remembers the catchphrases that made the show so memorable. Everyone from Ron Howard’s Richie Cunningham to Henry Winkler’s Fonzie had their own trademarks. But apparently, the process by which they came about wasn’t an exact science.

And the term “catchphrase” doesn’t do justice to many of the “Happy Days” characters’ iconic signatures. Richie Cunningham’s laugh, for example, wasn’t a phrase as much as it was a character detail. Whenever he did his subtle little chuckle, the audience knew what he was trying to convey.

In fact, whenever the show tried to force an actual phrase, it didn’t go over very well. That’s how Ron Howard felt when he gave an interview to the Archive of American Television in 2006, at least. The lifelong actor talked about how some of the catchphrases came about and how they evolved.

“Then they started trying to invent them. That was a debacle. I can’t quite remember, you know. But every once in a while they’d come up with one and say this is going to be the brand new catchphrase,” Howard said. “We’d try it, it would fall flat and it wouldn’t take. The accidental ones were the ones that seemed to endure.”

It makes sense. Oftentimes, the funniest moments in everyday life are the ones that come about organically. It’s surprisingly easy to ruin the humor in something by forcing a joke or relying on a catchphrase that doesn’t feel natural.

The ‘Happy Days’ Catchphrases Weren’t Thoroughly Researched

It’s easy to forget that the 1970s show is depicting a snapshot of life in the 1950s. But apparently, “Happy Days” wasn’t too worried about period accuracy when it came to catchphrases or much else, for that matter.

“I think all the research we ever, ever did was we had a LIFE Magazine look at the ’50s book, that sort of sat around on a table the first year that we were shooting,” Ron Howard said in the 2006 interview. “And we were occasionally encouraged to go scan it and look at it.”

And it went further than period-accurate slang. The 1970s bled over into the show through the characters’ appearance as well. Ron Howard talked about how he tried to keep his hair in a 1950s style toward the beginning of his time on the show. But eventually, the cast gave up on that.

“After a while, everyone has ’70s haircuts, and you know, I kept saying ‘whatever happened to the ’50s?’ But, you know, I guess it’s a ’50s fantasy anyway so, it’s okay,” Howard continued.