The first alien I ever loved originally came to earth in 1950s Milwaukee. He didn’t have the best intentions, since he planned on alien abducting my good friend Ritchie; used his magic finger to make Ralph, Potsie, and Al do crazy things; tried to destroy my favorite burger joint, Arnold’s; and even beat the unbeatable Fonzie in an epic thumb vs. finger duel that became the stuff of legend. Ultimately, he decided to leave empty handed, but returned on another mission 20 years later to Boulder, Colorado and launched a phenomena. Let’s talk a little more about it after the break.
I am of course talking about Mork from Ork; and for a brief moment, his show, Mork and Mindy, was the funniest thing on television. Filled with goofy, quirky humor, 1970s sitcom earnestness, and fueled by newcomer Robin Williams, the show captivated audiences and became a cultural touchstone, inspiring a generation of kids to try to sit on their head at the dinner table and shout “shazbot” when they were sent to their rooms.
The show follows the exploits of Mork as he learns about Earth’s culture. Taken in by the kind-hearted Mindy (Pam Dawber), each week featured ridiculous humor, characters as often as crazy as the alien (including one guy who thought he was an alien), and a funny social commentary at the end of every episode as Mork reported his findings back to his superior, Orson. (Always with the mantra “Mork calling Orson. Come in Orson.” ) For a bookish 10-year old who felt he didn’t quite fit in, the weirdness was like a salve, and I couldn’t wait each week to watch the insanity. I dreamed of the day I could wear my clothes backwards to class, sport a pair of rainbow-colored suspenders, or hop into my own personal egg-ship. The manic, improvised humor that defined Robin Williams was there from day one, and writers learned to leave gaps in the script to allow the comedic genius space to work.
But it wasn’t just humor that made the show work. The show had a sweetness to it. The two main characters inevitably fell in love and married, but Dawber and Williams had a real chemistry, and pulled it off. The secondary characters were usually strong. Mindy’s dad (played by Conrad Janis) always stood out as a paragon of sitcom dadness (daditude? dadosity?) Perhaps best of all, the young couple had a baby and introduced a new generation of fans to the great Jonathan Winters (because Orkans age backwards). And while some would argue the show jumped the shark at that point, the episodes that featured Mork and Mearth were amongst the most tender as the two innocents learned about the world together.
The show flared brightly for two seasons, then flagged in the ratings, eventually getting cancelled in 1982. During its four years, it featured talent like veteran character actor Tom Poston (who went from there to an eight-year run on Newhart), personalities like the great Foster Brooks, and relative newcomers like Jay Thomas (Eddy from Cheers), Morgan Fairchild, and a very young Corey Feldman. The plot took Mork from questing alien to struggling husband to caring dad, and for four short seasons was simply magical.
There may never be another show like it.