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Two amateur comedians working nightclubs for peanuts in the 70s ham-handedly and quite accidentally stumbled into the roles of a lifetime portraying what they felt were their least likeable characters but instead found themselves leaving an indelible mark on tv pop culture history for generations to come. Their names? David Lander and Michael McKean. But you might remember them better as… LENNY AND SQUIGGY. This is their legend. Let’s step into the Fun House!
Lenny and Squiggy : “HELLO!”
…and welcome to the Dandy Fun House video show, podcast and blog. This is where we explore the outer realms of Retro Pop Culture, Toys and Games and all the Fun Stuff. I’m your host Neil Dandy and in this episode we’re going to gather around the old 70s pop culture campfire, toast some marshmallows and lean forward while I tell you the Legend of Lenny and Squiggy.
David Lander and Michael McKean met in college in the late 1960s at Carnegie Tech, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the drama department where they became fast friends. Sharing a love for acting and comedy as students they became practically inseparable.
Then post-graduation in 1971, David and Michael relocated to Los Angeles and spent time studying under an improv coach named Roger Bowen who trained them in scene flow and comedic timing. This led to them accepting an invite to join a radio comedy troupe known as the CREDIBILITY GAP who were known for doing news satire for the stations KRLA Los Angeles as well as KPPC Pasadena. This comedy troupe also included one Mr. Harry Shearer who later would go on to greater fame acting in many film and television roles which he still does today.
In addition to radio satire, they also performed live using their radio reputations to garner opening act slots for rock shows. In fact as lore would have it, they once opened for Richie Havens at the Long Beach Fox Auditorium, and as was the custom in hippie culture those days, venues like the Fox and the Fillmore were known to hand out fruit in the lobby. This particular show, oranges were given and the Credibility Gap found themselves dodging airborne citrus throughout their entire performance. From that day forward, they only accepted offers where they would be the main attraction and no hurlable objects allowed. David and Michael continued performing with the Credibility Gap all the way up until 1979.
During the earlier part of their run with the group, they created a couple of characters named Anthony Fazigliano and his pal Leonard Kosnowski. You see where this is going… These characters were based on people from their childhood they weren’t necessarily fond of but had interesting personalities.Anthony (played by David Lander and later changed to the character name “Anton”) had a cousin named Squiggy who only had two words in his vocabulary. The first word was “Kick” and the second was something I’m not repeating.
It was during this time around 1976 despite performing frequently around Southern California with the Credibility Gap, they were still very much “starving artists”… BUT!!!! Something very interesting was brewing on the other side of town that would change their lives forever.
LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY 1976 – 1983
It was the time of year when tv producers would bring their ideas for new shows to the networks and the brother / sister team of Garry and Penny Marshall along with producers Lowell Ganz and Mark Rothman had just pulled off the network television coup of a lifetime!
They sold a series to Larry Silverman at ABC without a pilot episode which was unheard of; based on the characters of two girls who were bit-part guest characters very briefly on the hit tv show HAPPY DAYS. I’m of course speaking of the now-infamous duo of LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY. Larry had seen the girls’ characters on Happy Days, thought they were funny so he said what the heck! Let’s give it a go!
Michael Eisner, one of the executives at ABC revealed that in the beginning Cindy Williams who played Shirley, did not wish to do the show so they shot a 7 minute screen test with an actress named Liberty Williams (no relation). They eventually convinced Cindy to shoot a screen test and Eisner went and hid the footage of the Liberty Williams scene from the other Executives because in his mind there was simply no other actress for this role besides Cindy. And history thanks him for his deceptive deed!
In the beginning they only had the characters of Laverne and Shirley as well as Carmine Ragusa “The Big Ragu” (played by Eddie Mekka). They needed more supporting cast to play working class Milwaukee, Wisconsians.
According to an interview with David Lander, Penny Marshall was familiar with the Credibility Gap and particularly the Lenny and Anton characters, so she called David on the phone with the idea that Lenny and Anton would make a good story line as last-ditch dates for the girls on the first episode. She tried to explain her idea to the show’s other producers but they weren’t quite seeing her vision.
SO! She invited David and Michael to a party at her and her husband Rob Reiner’s house to celebrate their new contract with ABC also being attended by the show’s producers and writers. David kind of waffled on the idea because the Credibility Gap were performing at the Improv that night. But once the performance was done, he and Michael made the last-minute decision to show up and figured if nothing else, they’d get some free food.
They showed up and pretty much sat in the corner by themselves not knowing anyone, then Rob Reiner (you know, Meathead from All In The Family) approached and asked them to do Lenny and Anton for the guests. David and Michael were baffled by the requests for these particular characters because from their roster of personalities and the skits they had developed over the years, they felt these characters were the least commercially appealing ones they did. Nevertheless they obliged and got themselves into character.
Since they didn’t have hair gel, they just slicked themselves back by pouring glasses of water over each other’s heads and improv’d the whole performance off the cuff with material they’d never done before and never did again about one of them deciding to attend butler school learning how to become a manservant.
They performed about 15 minutes of highly inappropriate material, and guests were howling.
Writer Mark Rothman called a quick sidebar with the show’s other writers wondering if this act might work cleaned up for television and they came to the conclusion that if it were made family-friendly but was only a mere fraction as funny as what they had just witnessed, it would still be the funniest thing on tv. And they didn’t know how right they were!
The following day, Garry Marshall called up the boys and asked them to be on the show, they all agreed to change Anton’s name to Squiggy and two weeks later Lenny and Squiggy found themselves live in front of a studio audience making episodes of Laverne and Shirley.
BUT THERE WAS A PROBLEM!
They were only amateur comedians and didn’t have union cards which means they couldn’t hardly work at all on a union production for a major network. To navigate around this, the show’s producers hired them as “apprentice writers” (because they also weren’t members of the Writers Guild).
They received very nominal pay at first with the idea they would be worked into the show in small increments beginning around the 3rd or 4th episode. But as it turned out, the writers got themselves into a pickle and were experiencing major issues with the first script and ended up writing Lenny and Squiggy into the first episode to bail out the story line.
In the beginning writers would hand David and Michael routines to do but the comedians respectfully protested and requested that because they had been working together and doing these characters for so long, it had become almost second nature to them how to play off one another and what the characters would say and do in most any given situation. The producers agreed and gave them carte blanche to write their own jokes and routines. So basically, the Lenny and Squiggy routines we all loved and enjoyed on the show came directly from the actors themselves and was an entirely organic improv performance!
And it worked!
The show became an instant hit and by its third season, Laverne and Shirley was the most watched program on television receiving a staggering six Golden Globe nominations as well as an Emmy nomination!
You wanna talk about LENNY AND THE SQUIGTONES?? Let’s talk about Lenny and the Sqigtones!
During the first season of Laverne and Shirley, the production team came up with an idea that various members of the cast should hold a talent contest at Shotz Brewery where they all worked. And Lenny and Squiggy entered as just a two-piece vocal and acoustic guitar duo calling themselves Lenny and the Squigtones (and also had a guy in a chair sitting next to them doing absolutely nothing named Max). They played a song called Night After Night which was about two nights in a row. It’s probably one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my life! Go look it up online and set your drink down before watching! This marked the first time they would perform as Lenny and the Squigtones.
Over the next few years, opportunities slowly presented themselves for more and more musical numbers and this also opened doors for musician friends of David and Michael to become backing players for scenes which called for a band. A couple of these backing players included Harry Shearer of the Credibility Gap and also Christopher Guest who took on the stage name Nigel Tufnel.
Yes, I hear you guys screaming into your phones and computers right now! We’ll get to all that here in a few minutes. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, hang tight. I can only Lenny so much Squiggy at a time! Sheesh!
This band was used here and there throughout the show’s run and in 1979 Casablanca Records took an interest and struck a deal to produce an album entitled “Lenny and Squiggy Present Lenny and the Squigtones.” It was recorded live at the Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood, California. It was a combination music and comedy album with songs like IF ONLY I HAD LISTENED TO MAMA and many others intertwined with various gags throughout. I got this record when it was first released and today I own two copies of it. One for listening and one that I keep sealed in mint condition because… well… that’s how cool this record is!
It’s a classic but didn’t really catch on. The 50s culture-craze of the mid-70s was dwindling and the American public was ready to move on to something new. The 80s were looming and a “New Wave” was on the horizon. Lenny and the Squigtones DID however get invited by one Mr. Dick Clark to perform on American Bandstand and he actually dedicated a pretty good chunk of the show to them, spoke with various members of the band and really gave them a great spotlight. But having failed to gain much traction with the act as a breakout of Laverne and Shirley which was also beginning to wane, Lenny and the Squigtones unfortunately didn’t do very much after that.
In 1980, Laverne and Shirley needed a breath of fresh air so they decided to move the setting of the show from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Burbank, California. Lenny and Squiggy of course followed along and set up the SQUIGNOWSKI TALENT AGENCY.
Then in 1982, Cindy Williams became pregnant and two episodes into the production of the eighth season she ended up filing a $20 million lawsuit against Paramount who now owned the show, over Paramount’s reported demand that Cindy work ON HER DUE DATE! (This is according to Wikipedia.) The case was settled out of court and Williams was released from her contract.
The remainder of the eighth season was produced without her and ratings continued to decline. Nevertheless, viewership was still strong enough for the show to be picked up for a 9th season with just Penny Marshall. Penny agreed under the stipulation that production be moved to New York. ABC balked at the relocation expense and removed Laverne and Shirley from it’s schedule in May 1983.
Despite retaining the rights to their own characters, Lenny and Squiggy did not continue after the show’s conclusion except for a brief walk-on reunion in 1993 on a tv special called “A 70’s Celebration: The Beat Is Back” performing a skit where they were catching up after being mad at each other for years because Lenny said something bad about Squiggy’s mother to his face instead of behind his back like he should have.
In 1984, David Lander was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and went public in 1999. He spent much of his time speaking at MS-related events and released his autobiography in 2002 entitled “Fall Down Laughing: How Squiggy Caught Multiple Sclerosis and Didn’t Tell Nobody.” David Lander passed away in December of 2020 and was remembered by his old pal Michael with a simple early picture of the two posted on Twitter with no words (as if there were any which could suffice).
As for Michael McKean and the other members of Lenny and the Squigtones (for those of you who were screaming at your phones and computers earlier): Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer all teamed once again with director Rob Reiner to create the cult-classic movie “This is SPINAL TAP!” which was a fake documentary about the fake adventures of a fake heavy metal band. The movie also spawned tours of this fake band which actually played their instruments in real life and led to a very successful follow up album “Break Like The Wind” which featured a special guest performance by none other than Cher!
Michael McKean has also performed in many more roles for film and television, most notably and recently for the character of Chuck McGill on Better Call Saul for which he received a Prime Time Emmy and he continues to enjoy a very successful career to this day.
And that my friends draws nigh the Legend of LENNY AND SQUIGGY. I’ll bet you learned a thing or two. I know I did! Be sure and use it to impress your friends.
Now before we douse our 70s pop-culture campfire and retire to our pup tents and dream sweet dreams of Lenny and Squiggy, I’d like to encourage you that if you enjoy this content and wish to support future productions, please consider becoming a Dandy Fun House supporter by visiting the patronage page at http://www.dandyfunhouse.com .
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Night night campers. Come back real soon to the Dandy Fun House where everything is always… FUN AND DANDY!