During a yearlong, semi-melodramatic existential crisis in my early 20s, I waited tables all day, panicked about the future at night, watched TV (while panicking) and did it all again the next day. One night, I flipped through channels and landed on “Three’s Company” to see Jack Tripper (John Ritter), Janet Wood (Joyce DeWitt) and Chrissy Snow (Suzanne Somers) pratfalling around their plant-filled 1970s apartment.
Suddenly, watching reruns on Nick at Nite became my salvation. Until I could find a better job or solve the riddle of my existence, I had “Three’s Company.”
Years later, in the midst of a different crisis (one that involved being a working mom during a global pandemic), I found myself once again searching for “Three’s Company.” I needed the disco-era sexual innuendos and ridiculous double entendres. I longed to watch Jack somersault over a couch or tumble into a table. This time around, beyond belly laughing at Jack’s expressions, I’ve truly come to appreciate not only the humorous escapism of the show but also, dare I say it, the high art of it.
Or maybe high art is too much. No one would ever confuse “Three’s Company” with Masterpiece Theater. Still, even the silliest pratfalls require artistry.
“Three’s Company” aired on ABC from 1977 until 1984, and it was based on the British comedy “Man About the House.” In the American version, Jack, an aspiring chef, has to pretend to be gay so that his Puritanical landlord, Mr. Roper (Norman Fell), will allow him to live with two women in a $300 Santa Monica apartment. The presumption was that a straight man living with two women was so scandalous, it was better to live a lie.
Viewed one way, it was a progressive reversal in an era when gay men were more likely than they are today to live a lie by staying closeted. But of course Jack wasn’t actually gay, so he relied on certain stereotypes to pretend that he was, and there was no shortage of homophobic jokes and remarks.
Still, the show seems self-aware, and there’s a sense that the writers’ sympathies were on the right side. The gay panic comes mainly from Mr. Roper (later replaced by Don Knotts as Mr. Furley), an Archie Bunker-type bigot who uses slurs like “fairy” and “Tinker Bell” to describe Jack. And Ritter brings so much humanity to the goofy Jack, however he’s presenting, that you always get the sense he’s winking at the audience (or rolling his eyes) when Mr. Roper flashes his homophobia. We’re not meant to side with the landlord.
During its seven-year run, Ritter and the show won Emmys and Golden Globes, and his delivery and physicality put him up there with the comedy greats. The show is still in syndication, airing in blocs on Logo TV multiple days a week. (Cord-cutters can watch it on Pluto TV.)
In addition to its ability to obliterate existential angst, here are three reasons I love the show.
“Three’s Company” packs so many pratfalls, sexual innuendos and misunderstandings into each episode that the effort alone is worthy of a Peabody. Many of the double entendres come from the Ropers, especially the caftan-clad Mrs. Roper (Audra Lindley), a sex-starved wife who reads books with titles like “The Passionate Contessa” and tries to hypnotize her husband into sex. (It doesn’t work).
A typical example of Roper banter happens when Mr. Roper is asking about financial investments, and his wife deadpans: “Forget it, Stanley. If you own it, it’s sure to go down.” Silly, sure, but one reason the quips are so impressive is that there are so many of them.
It’s not all slapstick and sex jokes, though. In a Season 2 episode called “Roper’s Car,” Jack, Janet and Chrissy buy Mr. Roper’s beat-up Chevy for $212.60. When Janet and Chrissy worry about the cost, Jack says, “Do you realize if people waited until they could afford things, it would destroy the entire economy of this country?” The joke still plays. And of course, there are those pratfalls. Watching Ritter flop and roll and fling his body around is like watching a bell-bottomed version of Chaplin or Harold Lloyd. Some of the humor is dated, but the physical comedy is timeless.
The Blatant Sexism
There’s a whole lot of ogling, groping and flat-out misogyny going on in “Three’s Company.” There are blonde jokes and cringe-worthy moments when Jack’s buddy Larry (Richard Kline) leers at women, or worse. It’s easy to dismiss the show’s sexism as just that, but I think it’s also part of the joke. In the opening credits, Mr. Roper is introduced as a peeping Tom, peering out his window with binoculars. These men aren’t meant to be lauded. They’re meant to be laughed at.
Yes, there are plenty of moments in the show that might make a modern viewer gasp, and it’s not as if I long for that era. Still, the sexism in “Three’s Company” is truly something to marvel at because it’s so in your face. Although they’re not exactly modern pillars of female empowerment, Janet and Chrissy do hold their own with the creeps. And if Chrissy didn’t prance around in her negligee, it wouldn’t be “Three’s Company.” The show is not known for its subtleties.
In the fifth season, Somers was replaced by Jenilee Harrison, who played Chrissy’s cousin Cindy. Then came the third blonde, Nurse Terri (Priscilla Barnes), to replace Cindy. For me, though, it’s always about Jack, Janet and Chrissy. Their loyalty to one another tugs my heartstrings. Jack is constantly punching jerks who insult his best friends, and the episodes usually involve at least one group hug.
I like to imagine how their friendship would hold up during a pandemic. Would Jack make souffles all day? Would Chrissy give up on her negligees and start borrowing Janet’s more practical knee socks and T-shirt gowns? Would Janet become even more obsessed with house plants?
In the Season 2 episode “Janet’s High School Sweetheart,” Chrissy loans Janet her “almost Halston dress” (a J.C. Penny dress with a Halston label sewn in) for a date. The date turns out to be a lech, and Jack and Chrissy swoop in to help their buddy. A group hug ensues. Their friendship anchors the show, and it’s comforting knowing that Jack Tripper will always step up, knock over a lamp and punch out a creep for his friends.