What's Happening!!

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What's Happening!!
season three title screen
Created byEric Monte
Based onCooley High
StarringErnest Lee Thomas
Haywood Nelson
Fred Berry
Danielle Spencer
Mabel King (Season 1-2)
Shirley Hemphill
Opening theme"What's Happening!!"
ComposerHenry Mancini[1]
Country of originUnited States
No. of seasons3
No. of episodes65 (list of episodes)
Executive producersBernie Orenstein
Saul Turteltaub
Bud Yorkin
Running time22–25 minutes
Production companiesBud Yorkin Productions
(seasons 1-2)
TOY Productions
(seasons 1-3)
Original release
ReleaseAugust 5, 1976 (1976-08-05) –
April 28, 1979 (1979-04-28)
Seated, L-R: Fred Berry, Ernest Lee Thomas, and Haywood Nelson (back to camera). Standing: Shirley Hemphill.
Spencer portrayed Raj's younger sister, Dee Thomas.

What's Happening!! is an American sitcom television series that first aired on ABC from August 5, 1976, premiering as a summer series. It returned as a weekly series from November 1976 until its April 1979 conclusion. What's Happening!! was loosely based on the Eric Monte-penned film Cooley High.[2] From 1985 until 1988, a sequel series titled What's Happening Now!! aired in first-run syndication, with most of the major cast members reprising their roles.

What's Happening!! was Bud Yorkin's second series after he ended his partnership with Norman Lear and Tandem Productions. The show was produced by TOY Productions, which was formed by Yorkin, Saul Turteltaub, and Bernie Orenstein after their split.


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


  • Roger "Raj" Thomas (Ernest Thomas), the show's protagonist, is a teenager living in Watts with his divorced mother Mabel, and his younger sister Dee.
  • Dwayne Clemens Nelson (Haywood Nelson) is the youngest member of the trio.
  • Frederick (Freddy) "Rerun" Stubbs (Fred Berry) is a bumbling, comedic young man.
  • Dee Thomas (Danielle Spencer) is Raj's younger sibling.
  • Mabel “Mama” Thomas (Mabel King) is Raj and Dee's divorced mother.
  • Shirley Wilson (Shirley Hemphill) is a waitress at the neighborhood soda shop.

Recurring characters[edit]

  • Bill Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) is Mabel's ex-husband and the father of Roger and Dee.
  • Gene "Rabbit" Walker (Ray Vitte) is a political science major at the University of Southern California, and a track team member.
  • Detective "Big Earl" Barnett (John Welsh) is a police detective.
  • "Little Earl" Barnett (David Hollander) is Big Earl's son.
  • Rob (Earl Billings) is the owner of Rob's Place and Shirley's boss.
  • Terry "Snake" Simpson (Leland Smith) is a star college basketball player whom Roger tutors in the third season.
  • Mrs. Gertrude Collins (Fritzi Burr) is the boys' high school teacher.
  • Marvin (Bryan O'Dell) is the boys' high school classmate and works for the school newspaper as a reporter.
  • Diane Harris (Debbi Morgan) is another classmate of Roger, Dwayne, and Rerun.

Notable guest stars[edit]

  • The Doobie Brothers appeared as themselves to perform a concert at Jefferson High (which was portrayed as Doobie Brother Patrick Simmons' alma mater).
  • Actor Theodore Wilson made three appearances on What's Happening!! as three different characters.
  • Actress Chip Fields appeared on What's Happening!! as two different characters.
  • The dance group the Lockers, of whom Fred Berry was a founding member, appeared in the first season as a group called the Rockets for whom Rerun auditions.
  • Sorrell Booke appeared as a college-basketball booster who tries to manipulate Snake in the third-season episode "Basketball Brain".
  • Actor Tim Reid appeared as Dr. Claymore in the episode "It's All in Your Head".
  • Irene Cara appeared as Rerun's would-be immigrant bride Maria in the episode "Rerun Gets Married".
  • Musician and actor Slim Gaillard appeared as Al in the episode "The Thomas Treasure".
  • Noted jazz singer Bill Henderson appeared in season 2, episode 3, "Trial and Error", as Clarence Hopkins.


The pilot episode, "The Birthday Present," was videotaped in front of a live audience at ABC Television Studios in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles on March 16, 1976. Three additional episodes were videotaped that June, with the plan to release What's Happening!! as a short-duration "summer series" in August, 1976. The first episode aired, "The Runaway," was actually the second episode taped, but was used as the premiere because it featured Fred Berry's dancing skills in a short scene.

The series was picked up after a successful summer run, and additional episodes were ordered for a November, 1976 airdate. Production was moved from ABC to Golden West Videotape Division Studios, an older, but larger facility, where it would remain for the rest of the series.

During the second season, Fred Berry demanded a higher salary and better studio accommodations for the actors by using the show's first season's success as leverage. The accommodations issue eventually led to a full-fledged walkout by Berry and Thomas during the second-season episode "If I'm Elected" (leaving Haywood Nelson to carry the entire episode, with Shirley Hemphill stepping to the forefront, along with Bryan O'Dell and Debbi Morgan in featured speaking parts). Producer Bud Yorkin, in turn, suspended the pair, forcing them to sign $25,000 promissory notes to return to the show and guard against further walkouts.[3] The dispute was quickly settled, and both returned for the following episode.

In addition, Mabel King offered producers input on her character and storylines during the second season. She requested that Mabel's ex-husband, Bill, (Thalmus Rasulala) return full-time in order for the children to have (once again) married parents, showcasing what she felt would be a strong Black family. The producers disagreed with King's unsolicited input, which resulted in additional tension on-set and a much-reduced role for King during the second season. Her character, Mama, was not written out of the show but rather limited to brief appearances on set (where she would say she was "leaving for work" or "going to the store") or mentioned in passing by other characters as being "at work."

Series changes[edit]

The show changed significantly in the third season, with Raj and Rerun graduating high school (Rerun after seven years, ostensibly due to a learning disability), with the two moving into their own apartment near the University of Southern California. Mabel King finally left the show (her character moved to Phoenix, Arizona to tend to a sick relative), and Shirley moved into the Thomas household as a boarder and Dee's guardian. Also, several new recurring characters were introduced. The first was a basketball player whom Roger tutored and nicknamed "The Snake" (played by Leland Smith). The other characters were white detective "Big Earl" Barnett (played by John Welsh) and his son "Little Earl" Barnett (played by David Hollander), who were neighbors in the apartment building where Roger and Rerun lived.

What became the role of "Little Earl" was initially created to be filled by ten-year-old Gary Coleman at the suggestion of ABC President Fred Silverman. Silverman was a huge proponent of Coleman and, feeling that breakout stardom was around the corner for the young talent, wanted him added to the show. When Silverman left ABC in 1978 to head rival network NBC, he had Diff'rent Strokes created for Coleman; it ran for eight years and was highly rated.[4]


During the third season (1978–79), Berry again threatened to strike over a drastic salary increase (not appearing in the third-season episode "Dee, the Cheerleader"). Thomas joined Berry in the strike threat, which led to a heated meeting with the executive producers, culminating with Berry making accusations of racism.[5] In light of the unverifiable accusations, and being unable to come to terms, the producers opted to cancel the series, which was only moderately successful at the time.[6]

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 several months.[7]


What's Happening!! was a modest ratings success.

Season Time slot (ET) Rank Rating[8]
1976–1977 Thursday at 8:30-9:00 PM (Episodes 1–4, 10–21)
Saturday at 8:30-9:00 PM (Episodes 5–9)
25 20.9
1977–1978 Thursday at 8:30-9:00 PM (Episodes 1–15, 22)
Saturday at 8:00-8:30 PM (Episodes 16–20)
Thursday at 8:00-8:30 PM (Episode 21)
42 N/A (Tied with Dallas and The Rockford Files)[9]
1978–1979 Thursday at 8:30-9:00 PM (Episodes 1–12)
Friday at 8:30-9:00 PM (Episodes 13–18)
Saturday at 8:00-8:30 PM (Episodes 19–22)
28 19.8 (Tied with Monday Night Football)

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

The show was a modest success in its network run, despite some serious production problems, and 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 change their after-school programming lineup from cartoons to evening sitcoms in the 1980s. In a few markets the show actually had higher ratings in syndication than during the network run. With this success in mind, a revival of the show was produced entitled What's Happening Now!! It ran from 1985 to 1988 in first-run syndication.

Home media[edit]

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released all three seasons of What's Happening!!

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 Happening!![10] On September 2, 2014, they re-released the first two seasons on DVD.[11]

On April 21, 2015, Mill Creek released a budget-priced complete series set, a 6-disc set featuring all 65 episodes.[12]

DVD Name Ep # Release Date
The Complete 1st Season 21 February 3, 2004
September 2, 2014 (re-release)
The Complete 2nd Season 22 October 5, 2004
September 2, 2014 (re-release)
The Complete 3rd Season 22 August 23, 2005
The Complete Series 65 June 10, 2008
April 21, 2015 (re-release)



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 to total 131 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 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!!

Starting January 2, 2017, the digital broadcast network Antenna TV began airing the original series.


  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. 33 (8). Johnson Publishing Company: 76. June 1978. ISSN 0012-9011.
  3. ^ "'Messy' Dressing Room Cleaned Up, 'What's Happening' Stars Return". Jet. 53 (5). Johnson Publishing Company: 57. October 20, 1977.
  4. ^ "Producer Bernie Orenstein on Casting "What's Happening!!"". YouTube.
  5. ^ "'What's Happening!!' star discusses show's impact on race and his favorite episode". 4 May 2021.
  6. ^ Huff, Dominique . (April 19, 2006). "'The Exploitation of Fred 'Rerun' Berry". The Signal. Georgia State University.
  7. ^ "Shirley Hemphill: A Star is Born". Ebony. 35 (7). Johnson Publishing Company: 93. May 1980.
  8. ^ Brooks, Tim; Marsh, Earle (2007). The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-Present (Ninth ed.). Ballantine Books. p. 1688. ISBN 978-0-345-49773-4.
  9. ^ |1977–78 Ratings History|http://www.tvratingsguide.com/2017/07/1977-78-top-30-ratings-abc-does-its.html
  10. ^ Mill Creek Entertainment Signs Deals With Sony Pictures Home Entertainment To Expand Their Distribution Partnership Archived 2014-10-06 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ Mill Creek to Re-Release 'Seasons 1 & 2' on DVD Archived 2014-07-07 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ 'The Complete Series' Returns to DVD this Spring Archived 2015-02-13 at the Wayback Machine

External links[edit]