Holden Caulfield Watches a 70’s Sitcom. Hilarity Doesn’t Ensue.

If television shows are as influential as most people assume they are, I’m amazed that I wound up a productive member of society1. My parents let me watch things that should have scarred any seven-year-old for life: Love Boat, Fantasy Island, That’s Incredible, I, Claudius, Diff’rent Strokes and Three’s Company, among other shows full of sex, violence, bullshit, stereotypes and empty calories2

The three principal characters and two supporting characters. This photograph was taken in 1977 and apparently published without a copyright notice, so there.

The three principal characters and two supporting characters. This photograph was taken in 1977 and apparently published without a copyright notice, so there.

You younguns might not believe this, but there was a time when (1) TV was the primary form of entertainment, (2) you only had a few channels to choose from, and (3) most of it was awful. In the same way an app that costs $1.99 today is better than an Atari 2600 cartridge that cost $19.99, much of quasi-professional YouTube is better than what we had to watch in 1977. I get as nostalgic for my childhood as the next guy, but even I can see my children have it way better.3

Three’s Company was a pretty execrable show. The plot (borrowed from a British television show called Man About the House) is about a straight man (an aspiring chef) who must pretend to be gay in order to live (platonically) with two women, one of whom is beautiful, buxom, bubble-headed and (of course) blonde (a daughter of a minister), and the other is plain, sharp, self-doubting and (of course) brunette (who works as a florist). The supporting characters are the straight man’s horndog friend, the not-as-worldly-as-he-thinks landlord (fooling him is the reason for the gay charade) and the landlord’s dissatisfied and lascivious wife. One-third of the jokes are sexual innuendo or misunderstanding, one-third about the man’s supposed gayness, and one-third pratfalls. It had fan service. Lots of fan service.

There aren’t a lot of free clips of Three’s Company because that’s not how the copyright holder rolls4I found this “best of” compilation.. A few of the jokes are funny, I guess.5 It’ll give a feel for the show.6[/ref] But remember, this compilation is as good as it got.

What saved the show was John Ritter, who played the straight man. Ritter has to play a horndog (but less of a horndog than his friend) one-third of the time and a horndog pretending to be gay another third of a time, often switching between the two several times in a scene7—all the while making the guy likable and without relying overmuch on stereotypes, and with almost no comic talent to work with.8 But, Ritter’s comic balancing act notwithstanding—and it’s worth watching a few episodes just to see it in action—Three’s Company wasn’t all that good to begin with, and it doesn’t improve with age.

“Three’s Company” Goes to the Dark Side

That was many years ago, and Three’s Company became one of those things you got nostalgic about mostly because you forgot how bad it was.9 More recently, in 2012, playwright David Adjmi wrote 3C, which was consciously modeled on Three’s Company. The set-up is exactly the same. There are three roommates: a male aspiring chef, a pretty blonde minister’s daughter, and a brunette florist. The male roommate must pretend to be gay because the landlord wouldn’t otherwise allow him to live with the women. There’s also the horndog friend, the annoying landlord and his wife. There’s also lots of misunderstandings, though hardly the comedic kind.

But the playwright’s intent was to ask how Three’s Company would have turned out in the real world, with real people reacting in real ways to situations raised by the show.10 Three’s Company would sometimes bring up a difficult subject, like sexual harassment or difficulties with one’s body image, then veer away with it through comic coincidences, pratfalls and wishful thinking. Adjmi seems to be asking: what if there was no comedy, no happy endings, but these characters actually had to deal with their issues?

Oh, and there’s this major twist. The male roommate isn’t a straight man pretending to be gay, but a closeted gay man pretending to be a straight man pretending to be gay. And he’s in love with his horndog friend (Goodness knows why—he’s not likable at all.). The brunette’s insecurity about her body becomes self-loathing. The blonde’s bubble-headedness becomes promiscuity as a way of getting back at her strictly religious parents.11 Adjmi is saying: If the characters of Three’s Company existed for real, this is how screwed up they’d have to be. The frightening thing is that they aren’t that screwed up. Everything they are and everything that happens to them is plausible.

Anything that could be made darker is made darker. The landlord isn’t just dim—he’s a gross homophobe. The landlord’s wife isn’t just dissatisfied—she’s suicidal. The horndog friend isn’t just gross—he’s a drug pusher, too.

3C has little echoes of plot points in Three’s Company’s episodes, but it doesn’t follow any episode’s plot. For example, where Three’s Company had an (unseen) boss who sexually harassed the blonde, 3C has the landlord have a not-entirely consensual relationship with the brunette (whom he assaults on stage), and the blonde has clearly been the victim of rape in her past.

Is 3C a fair use of Three’s Company? Before you answer, consider the case of Salinger v. Colting12, involving 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, a kind of sequel to Catcher in the Rye, examining Holden Caulfield 60 years after the novel’s events. In the “sequel,” Caulfield seems not to have grown up much, but his observations, so wise and shocking in a sixteen-year-old, seem lame and crotchety in a 76-year-old. The court held that 60 Years was not a fair use of Catcher in the Rye because it didn’t really comment on the original novel. All it did was place the sixteen-year-old Caulfield in a 76-year-old’s body and repeat the themes of the original novel without building on them. It’s what Catcher in the Rye would have been had Salinger made the horrible decision to make Caulfield an old, emotionally-stunted man. “It is hardly parodic to repeat the same exercise in contrast, just because society and the characters have aged,” the court observed.

The comparison with Salinger helps to sharpen the issue at stake with 3C: does 3C just repeat the same themes of Three’s Company in a different context, or does it comment on Three’s Company somehow?

What do you think? Fair use, or not? Once you’ve made your choice, click here to see if you were right.