What's Happening!!

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What's Happening!!
Whatshappening.jpg
What's Happening!! opening titles from the show's Third season
Created by Eric Monte
Based on Cooley High
Starring Ernest Lee Thomas
Haywood Nelson
Fred Berry
Danielle Spencer
Mabel King (Season 1-2)
Shirley Hemphill
Opening theme "What's Happening!!"
Composer(s) Henry Mancini[1]
Country of origin United States
No. of seasons 3
No. of episodes 65 (List of episodes)
Production
Executive producer(s) Bernie Orenstein
Saul Turteltaub
Bud Yorkin
Running time 22–24 minutes
Production company(s) Bud Yorkin Productions
TOY Productions
Distributor Columbia Pictures Television (1979-1996)
Columbia TriStar Television (1996-2002)
Sony Pictures Television (2002-present)
Broadcast
Original channel ABC
Original run August 5, 1976 (1976-08-05)  – April 28, 1979 (1979-04-28)
Chronology
Followed by What's Happening Now!!

What's Happening!! is an American television sitcom that aired on ABC from August 5, 1976 to April 28, 1979. The show premiered as a summer series. With good ratings and reviews, and after the failure of several other shows on the network, What's Happening!! returned in November 1976 as a weekly series. It remained a regular show until 1979; ratings were modest. What's Happening!! was loosely based on the motion picture Cooley High, also written by Eric Monte.[2]

Premise[edit]

What's Happening!! follows the lives of three working-class African-American teens living in the Watts section of Los Angeles. The show stars Ernest Thomas as Roger "Raj" Thomas, Haywood Nelson as Dwayne Nelson, and Fred Berry as Freddy "Rerun" Stubbs. Co-starring are Danielle Spencer as Roger's younger sister Dee; Mabel King as Roger and Dee's mother Mabel; and Shirley Hemphill as Shirley Wilson, a waitress at Rob's Place, the neighborhood restaurant where the boys are regular patrons. Recurring characters include Rob (Earl Billings), owner of Rob's Place; and Miss Collins (Fritzi Burr), a sarcastic history teacher and the sponsor of the school newspaper.

Unlike Good Times, a contemporary show that also had an African-American cast, What's Happening!! only rarely and mildly ventured into social commentary. Most episodes focused on the goals of teenage males: meeting girls, finding afterschool jobs, and planning for the future. Episodes sometimes featured subplots involving Mrs. Thomas, Raj's bratty sister Dee, the overweight Rerun, or waitress Shirley.

Characters[edit]

Principal cast[edit]

Roger "Raj" Thomas (Ernest Thomas), the show's protagonist, is a teenager living in a house in Watts with his divorced mother Mabel and his younger sister Dee. Raj is an intelligent, well-mannered young man who sports large black horn-rimmed glasses and aspires to be a writer. Many episodes find Raj taking steps to pursue his dream, such as saving up for a screenwriting course or a typewriter. Eventually he graduates from high school, moves out, and attends college (ostensibly the University of Southern California).

Frederick (Freddy) "Rerun" Stubbs (Fred Berry) is an overweight, bumbling, comedic young man, commonly seen wearing a red beret and matching suspenders. He is often teased by his friends for being overweight and unintelligent. However, Rerun is a very skilled dancer and is commonly seen entering dance contests or trying to get on TV commercials. He is nicknamed "Rerun" because, due to his failures in school, "every summer he has to go to school to rerun the stuff he did all winter." In the third season, Rerun shares an apartment with Raj and works as a page for ABC.

Dwayne Clemens Nelson (Haywood Nelson) is the youngest member of the group. Dwayne has an unassuming, good-natured demeanor and suffers from debilitating shyness and acute fear of the dark. While Rerun attempts to enter dance contests and Roger aggressively pursues his dream of becoming a famous writer, Dwayne's plotlines often deal with his problems with girls and bullies. Dwayne's character is well known for his greeting, "Hey, Hey, Hey!" (which differs slightly from the "Hey, Hey, Hey!" greeting of Bill Cosby's Fat Albert character). Dwayne is the only character who appears in every episode of What's Happening!!

Mabel Thomas (Mabel King) is Raj's 'large and in charge' mother. She is typically the voice of wisdom, and the parental authority over the main cast. Mabel's ex-husband drifts in and out of her life during the first season. Her role became less important in later episodes until eventually she disappeared from the show, though her character was never written out and still mentioned off-screen. Supposedly, actress King disagreed with the show's concept and direction and decided to leave the show. Her trademark phrase is "This is true."

Dee Thomas (Danielle Spencer) is Raj's younger sibling. She personifies the typical 'annoying little sister'. Dee is obsessed with making money, usually by blackmailing her brother and his friends a quarter at a time. She is also shrewd and difficult to keep secrets from. As the series progressed and Dee grew older, her caustic personality mellowed into a sly sense of sarcasm. While Dee still enjoyed occasionally scamming Raj out of a quarter every so often, she became much more likable and got along better with him. After Raj moved into an apartment in the third season, Dee remained in the Thomas house with waitress Shirley moving in to help out. Her trademark phrase is "Ooooohh, I'm tellin' Mama!" Her favorite food is peanut butter. Her birthday is September 17.

Shirley Wilson (Shirley Hemphill) is a portly waitress at the neighborhood restaurant Rob's Place, where the main cast are regular patrons. She is a brash person who likes to take shots at the boys, and most often clashes with Rerun (the overweight characters exchange "fat jokes"). Some episodes turn the spotlight briefly on Shirley and her joys and sorrows. Shirley moves into the Thomas residence in the last season to supervise Dee after Raj moves out and Mrs. Thomas leaves to tend a sick relative.

Recurring characters[edit]

Bill Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) is Mabel's ex-husband and the father of Roger and Dee. He divorced Mabel, ran out on his family, and became a shady character. When he first appears, he tries to con Mabel out of money. Later episodes in which he appears depict him in a more positive light and culminate with his marriage to Lee Henderson (Lee Chamberlin). After his marriage, Bill was never seen again on the show, although he is mentioned.

Gene "Rabbit" Walker (Ray Vitte) is a political-science major at the University of Southern California, and a track-team member. He appears in two first-season episodes as a boarder at the Thomas home, renting Dee's bedroom. In his first appearance, he is referred to as "Dean" which is even written on the end credits. Gene took a liking to Dee, giving her the nickname "Small Portion". In another episode his character is mentioned as being away (although his name was not given) so Mrs. Thomas offered his room to an ex-con on the run who Dee was pen-pals with.

"Big Earl" Barnett (Johnathan Welsh) is a police detective who lives in the apartment building Raj and Rerun move into and was introduced in the third and final season.

"Little Earl" Barnett (David Hollander) is Big Earl's son. He has a huge crush on Dee, who is about 5 years his senior.

Rob (Earl Billings) is the owner of Rob's Place.

Terry "Snake" Simpson (Leland Smith) is a basketball player whom Roger tutored. He eventually became a friend of Roger, Dwayne, and Rerun.

Miss Collins (Fritzi Burr) is a high-school teacher. She admired Roger, but had trouble with Rerun.

Marvin (Bryan O'Dell) is Roger, Dwayne, and Rerun's high-school classmate. He was a reporter for the school paper and was sometimes seen at Rob's Place.

Leon (Henry Robinson) made two appearances as a customer in "Shirley's a Mother" and as a strong arm gangster who bets on Rerun's disco dance abilities in "Disco Dollar Disaster".

Diane Harris (Debbi Morgan) is another classmate of Roger, Dwayne and Rerun. For the first two seasons she was frequently seen in the classroom or at Rob's Place with them, and at a birthday party for Roger. (In the pilot episode, she was referred to as "Diane Stewart.")

Larry Nelson (Greg Morris) is Dwayne's father, a local politician.

Notable guest stars[edit]

  • The Doobie Brothers appeared as themselves to perform a concert at their former high school, Jefferson High, where Raj, Rerun, and Dwayne attend. Incidentally, one of the band's members was a classmate of Rerun's, as he remembered Rerun from one of their old classes; Rerun responded that he's still a student there.
  • Actor Theodore Wilson made three appearances on What's Happening!! as three different characters: he played Betty's father in the pilot episode, in which Betty [who is Betty?] hosted a house party without her parents' permission; a card player alongside Mabel's employer, who gambled away his wife's jewelry but pointed the finger at Mabel as a coverup; and as bootlegging criminal Al Dunbar, who forced Rerun to illegally record the Doobie Brothers concert.
  • Actress Chip Fields appeared on What's Happening!! as two different characters: Shirley's pregnant sister Norma; and Rerun's sister Donna, with whom (and her husband Ike) Rerun lived before moving in with Raj.
  • The dance group The Lockers appeared in the first season as a group called "The Rockets" that Rerun auditioned to perform with on TV. (Fred Berry was an original member of the Lockers.) Wolfman Jack also made an appearance in this episode.
  • Sorrell Booke, Hazzard County's corrupt county commissioner Boss Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard, appears in the Season Three episode "Basketball Brain", as an agent of the star basketball player whom Roger is tutoring.
  • Actor Tim Reid appeared as Dr. Claymore in the episode "It's All in Your Head"

Show changes[edit]

The show changed significantly in the third season, most notably with Roger and Rerun moving into their own apartment. Mabel King left the show due to creative differences, but the character of Mama was not written out. Instead, she was always said to be working or not around. To provide an adult presence in the house for Dee, Shirley moved in to the Thomas household as a boarder. Also, several new recurring characters were introduced. The first was a basketball player whom Roger tutored nicknamed "The Snake" (played by Leland Smith). The other characters were Caucasian detective "Big Earl" Barnett (played by Johnathan Welsh) and his son "Little Earl" Barnett (played by David Hollander), who were neighbors in the apartment building where Roger and Rerun lived. These changes/adjustments would ultimately cause the show to "Jump the Shark", as the ratings began to drop.

During the second season, using the show's success as leverage, Berry demanded a higher salary and better studio accommodations for the actors. The accommodations issue eventually led to a full-fledged walkout by Berry and Thomas during the second season episode "If I'm Elected" (leaving Nelson alone to carry the entire episode).[3] During the final season (1978-79), Berry threatened to strike. Thomas again joined Berry in the strike, leading to the executive producers to cancel the series, rather than give a pay raise to the series' stars.[4]

What's Happening!! aired its last episode on April 28, 1979. A year later, Hemphill starred in her own sitcom, One In A Million, which premiered in January 1980, and ended on July 23, 1980, after being on ABC for a few months.[5]

Ratings[edit]

What's Happening!! was a ratings' success breaking in the top 30, during the series run:

  • 1976–1977: #25
  • 1977–1978: #45
  • 1978–1979: #29

What's Happening!! held the title and became the first African-American teen sitcom to break into the Nielsen ratings, as part of the top 30 Rated Programs from 1976 until 1979, although the 1977–1978 season did not break the top 30.

Success and What's Happening Now!![edit]

The show was a modest success in its network run, despite some serious production problems. But repeats of the show's 65 episodes did reasonably well in syndication. In some markets, the show was perceived to appeal to both children and adults in a similar way to The Brady Bunch and Happy Days. The show was often aired in transitional hours where stations would go from the cartoons to the evening sitcoms. In a few markets the show actually had far higher ratings in syndication than during the network run. With this in mind, a revival of the show was produced entitled What's Happening Now!!. It ran from 1985 to 1988 in first-run syndication.

DVD releases[edit]

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released all three seasons of What's Happening!! as well as the complete series on DVD in Region 1.

On August 27, 2013, it was announced that Mill Creek Entertainment had acquired the rights to various television series from the Sony Pictures library including What's Happenning!!.[6] On July 3, 2014, it was announced that they will re-release the first and second seasons on DVD on September 2, 2014.[7]

DVD Name Ep # Release Date
The Complete 1st Season 21 February 3, 2004
The Complete 2nd Season 22 October 5, 2004
The Complete 3rd Season 22 August 23, 2005
The Complete Series 65 June 10, 2008

Syndication[edit]

The show was syndicated on many local channels (with all 66 episodes of sequel series What's Happening Now!! joining the syndication package in the fall of 1988 totaling the package of 131 combined episodes) and continued in an on-again, off again manner until 2009.

BET reran both series from September 20, 1993 to October 27, 1995.

TV Land reran the show during the 2005–2006 television season.

As of March 1, 2013, cable network TV One shows reruns of What's Happening!!.

On December 2, 2013, the newly rebranded Encore Black channel started airing What's Happening!!.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Full cast and crew for What's Happening!!". IMDB. Retrieved July 8, 2007. 
  2. ^ "What's Happening!!: ABC's popular teen-age sitcom succeeds in spite of itself". Ebony (Johnson Publishing Company) 33 (8): 76. June 1978. ISSN 0012-9011. 
  3. ^ "'Messy' Dressing Room Cleaned Up, 'What's Happening' Stars Return". Jet (Johnson Publishing Company) 53 (5): 57. October 20, 1977. 
  4. ^ Huff, Dominique . (April 19, 2006). "'The Exploitation of Fred 'Rerun' Berry". The Signal (Georgia State University). 
  5. ^ "Shirley Hemphill: A Star is Born". Ebony (Johnson Publishing Company) 35 (7): 93. May 1980. 
  6. ^ Mill Creek Entertainment Signs Deals With Sony Pictures Home Entertainment To Expand Their Distribution Partnership
  7. ^ Mill Creek to Re-Release 'Seasons 1 & 2' on DVD

External links[edit]