Synopsis of TV Show
“Come and knock on our door,
We've been waiting for you,
Where the kisses are hers and hers and his,
Three's company, too!”
Falling over couches. Lusty exhibitionist neighbors. Ascots. Suspicious landlords. Out-of-context misunderstandings. People overhearing conversations while hiding in the bushes. Conspiracies. Love. Sex. And the ever-present fear that someone will finally prove that you are not gay.
Shakespeare? Nope, ShakesLear.
If the Bard and Norman Lear had a love child, he would have been the creator of the 1977 TV series Three’s Company, which made liberal use of both Shakespearean plot devices and the modern sexual politics of Lear’s 1970’s sitcoms (courtesy of writers and producers from All in the Family, The Jeffersons and other Lear productions). In almost every episode, you could be sure of seeing some variation on the following: One (or more) of the characters would secretly overhear another character’s out-of-context conversation, misunderstandings would result, wildly inaccurate assumptions would be made by the eavesdropper, and the audience (who knew both sides of the story) would burst their collective bellies with laughter.
A hypothetical example: Jack is in the kitchen with Chrissy. Janet has just woken up from a nap in her sky blue numbered sports style jersey tee shirt and is about to push open the (paper thin) swinging kitchen door, when she overhears what she believes is Jack and Chrissy plotting to kick her out of the house. A terrible revelation, were it true, but Jack and Chrissy were actually talking about getting Janet a birthday present—it just sounded like they were plotting her eviction. Janet gets mad at Jack, and spitefully tells the landlord that Jack really isn’t gay (we’ll explain later). Mr. Furley (or Mr. Roper) threatens evict Jack. Jack falls over the couch and into a birthday cake that Chrissy had just baked for Janet, ruining the surprise. Janet, Jack and Chrissy all stutter at each other as they realize the mistake each of them has made. They all laugh. Jack has to hit on Mr. Furley in order to convince him that he really is gay after all, and Furley, disgusted with Jack’s advances, warns Jack off with a menacing karate chop and a furious war face.
And that’s Three’s Company in a puka shell. Throw in a salad at the Regal Beagle, the occasional appearance of horny neighbors, and many, many more Jack Tripper pratfalls, and you’ve got one of the finest examples of comedy television as it emerged from the shadow of the disco era.
It all began in March of 1977, in Santa Monica, California, Apartment 201. The pan-gender threesome of Jack Tripper, Janet Wood Dawson and Christmas “Chrissy” Snow lived the single life of struggling Los Angelenos—safety in numbers. Janet and Chrissy, after a goodbye party for their third roommate, found Jack passed out drunk in their bathroom. Jack needed a place to live. Janet and Chrissy needed a new roommate. It was a match made in heaven!
Unfortunately for the would-be roommates, Mr. Stanley Roper, the building’s not-yet-a-member-of-the-swinging-70’s landlord, pointed out that it was inappropriate for two single women to be living with a single man. Jack pretended that he was gay, and Mr. Roper, though he didn’t particularly like the idea of homosexuality, was more comfortable with a gay man than the threat of noisy swingers, so he relented and allowed Jack to stay. And voila—a show was born! For the rest of the series, Jack had to be ever vigilant of his sexuality around Mr. Roper (and later Ralph Furley)—a trope that generated 80% of the show’s comedy.
Jack became best friends with his upstairs neighbor and defective hedonist, Larry Dallas, and was the sexual target of his other neighbor, Lana Shields. Ironically, while both Larry and Lana were as randy as sailors on leave, they never seemed to hook up with each other. Another Three’s Company truism: we only want what we can’t have.
Generally, the action took place in the living room or the kitchen of apartment 201, where the décor was dominated by late 1970’s conventional design: hanging ferns in macramé holders, shag carpet, burnt orange and tan colors. 201 was a comfortable, non-threatening environment for gals who like to wear fuzzy turtleneck sweaters and fake leather boots, and guys who wear cords and wallaby shoes.
As successful in the ratings as Three’s Company was, it may come as a surprise that the show almost didn’t made the air in the first place. The concept for Three’s Company was based on a European series called Man About the House, which, like the American version, played off changing moral values and the sexual revolution for the sake of comedy. After several unsuccessful attempts at a pilot—all with John Ritter as Jack—the producers finally found the right chemistry for the cast in Joyce DeWitt as Janet and Suzanne Somers as Chrissy. Norman Fell and Audra Lindley were cast in the roles of Stanley and Helen Roper, the building landlords who lived downstairs from the trio. Richard Kline made occasional appearances and later became a featured part in every episode as Larry Dallas, hopeless swinger and Jack’s best (only?) friend. With this lineup, the show, which was universally hated by critics, was a hit. Viva la sexual revolution!
But like the sexual revolution itself, which, by the late 1970’s was waking up to a wretched social hangover, Three’s Company was not built to last forever. In 1979, the changes began. The Ropers moved away to a condo and their own spin-off series, The Ropers. Don Knotts made a grand entrance as the karate-chopping Mr. Furley, who now managed the building for his brother Bart. Unlike Mr. Roper, who constantly avoided sex with his wife, Ralph Furley had swinging on the brain but was even less successful with the ladies than Larry. To add to the madness, Ann Wedgeworth joined the cast as Lana, a sexually voracious older woman who was obsessed with Jack. In her introduction (“A Camping We Will Go”), Lana, Jack and Mr. Furley all went camping. Mr. Furley was after Lana, Lana was after Jack and Jack had to pretend he was after Mr. Furley. A classic episode.
By the end of 1979, Suzanne Somers had emerged as the big star from the show. At the time, each main cast member was earning $25,000 per episode. Not bad in 1970’s dollars, but Somers was feeling that an opportunity was at hand, and prior to the start of the second season, the actress demanded $125,000 and a share of the profits. Suzanne’s gambit didn’t work, and after a brief appearance in one more episode, Chrissy left the apartment to go take care of her sick mother. To fill the empty-headed void that Chrissy left behind, ABC and the show’s producers hired Jenilee Harrison as Cindy Snow, Chrissy’s western-wearing cousin, who added physical clumsiness to the mental ditz role. Alas, Cindy just didn’t have that Chrissy magic, and a couple of seasons later in 1981, she was replaced by Priscilla Barnes in the role of Terri Alden, registered nurse. Terri was more of a no-nonsense blonde and made a sharp contrast to the low-intelligence Snow family.
Terri, Janet and Jack kept the mirth at apartment 201 alive for three more seasons of nutty comedy, running through the fall of 1984. At the start of the new season, the show was replaced by Three’s a Crowd, featuring Jack as a restaurant owner with a live-in girlfriend. An attempt was made to recapture the Jack/Furley relationship by including Jack’s father-in-law as a repeating character, but audiences didn’t buy it. Three’s a Crowd only lasted one season.
Three’s Company defied the odds and savage critics to endure in syndication for many years after its 1984 cancellation. Anybody who needed a lesson in swinging 70’s libido culture had a perfect road map, and those who lived it had 172 episodes of memories. Whatever the reason, Three’s Company continues to survive beyond its critics’ prediction for failure, earning a well-deserved place in pop culture history.
Release History of Prime Time Show3/15/77 - 4/21/77 ABC
8/11/77 - 9/18/84 ABC
TV Sub Categoriescomedy
TV CastJack Tripper John Ritter
Janet Wood Dawson Joyce DeWitt
Christmas 'Chrissy' Snow (1977-80) Suzanne Somers
Helen Roper (1977-79, 1981) Audra Lindley
Stanley Roper (1977-79, 1981) Norman Fell
Larry Dallas Richard Kline
Ralph Furley (1979-84) Don Knotts
Cindy Snow (1980-82) Jenilee Harrison
Terri Alden (1981-84) Priscilla Barnes
Lana Shields (1979-80) Ann Wedgeworth
Jim the Bartender (1977-81) Paul Ainsley
Dean Travers (1977-81) William Pierson
Reverend Snow (1978-79) Peter Mark Richman
Mike the Bartender (1981-84) Brad Blaisdell
Mr. Angelino (1981-83) Jordan Charney
Felipe (1981-83) Gino Conforti