Everything I Needed to Know I Learned from Three’s Company

I’m not being ironic. Let’s get that out of the way. Too many times have I proclaimed my adoration for the misadventures of Chrissy, Jack, Janet, the Ropers, and Mr. Firley to a room of nodding peers.  

“Yeah right, it’s so bad it’s good. You know what I mean?”

“No, I don’t know what you mean.” 

Well, maybe I do know. But still, my favorite childhood show has been treated harshly by history, E! specials and the evolving cultural landscape. I harbor a warm place in my heart for this prototypical wacky seventies sitcom. Pull up a throw pillow while I share what Three’s Company means to me.

Being the eldest sibling in the family I had to learn about sex the hard way—from friends with older siblings, a shitty health class film strip, and TV. When Mom tried to give me the dreaded talk, I fled the room, leaving a trail of assurances that I knew all there was to know about periods and the fine art of making sex, in my mortified wake. But Judy Blume and Three’s Company had my back. 

Each new episode delivered an avalanche of double-entendres and the helpful canned laughter that let me know something was percolating beneath the goofy antics of my favorite power trio. In one episode, Chrissy complains of a growing wart on her hand while in the bathroom with Jack. Mr. Roper eavesdrops through the pipes and concludes that she is pregnant with Jack’s baby. Mr. Roper’s eyes bugged wide as Chrissy bemoaned her wart growing bigger and uglier every day. My mom smirked.

“I don’t get it,” I said. “Why is Mr. Roper so mad?”

“He thinks she’s talking about a baby.”

“What?”

She explained this time, but usually when I asked her for clarification, she pushed up from the couch with a snort. “Never mind.”  

That’s when I knew something was really dirty.

The ruse of Jack’s homosexuality was my introduction to the concept of gayness. Admittedly my initial impression linked gayness with madly flicking wrists and Jack’s sudden lingering eyes on Mr. Firley the times Janet elbowed Jack into remembering he was supposed to be gay. The show was a fiesta of stereotypes that dare not speak their name. It wasn’t until the ill-fated Terri period that I made the connection that Jack’s sudden switch in behavior meant he was attracted to men. 

Questions remain. Is being a chef really a stereotypically gay job? Was hairdresser deemed too on the nose? Why would a landlord in seventies California care about a coed apartment? It was California. Didn’t people walk around naked there?  

I learned about stereotypes of women. Janet, the brunette, was the smart one. Chrissy, the bubbly blonde, was the dumb one. Perhaps the smallest measure of progress in sitcom history was Terri, the final Chrissy replacement after the short-lived and tragically flawed cousin Cindy. Terri was blond and smart, and also quick with an elbow to horndog Jack. The gender politics on Three’s Company were undoubtedly regressive. Chrissy was advised to wear a low-cut shirt to get a job; Janet’s intelligence was a strike against her attractiveness; Jack drooled over both women and they only jokingly slapped back at his playful grabs. The women pined for suitors who were hopelessly drab and square. Why did such attractive women find themselves dating older, dumpy men in brown polyester suits? I now realize that the answer, as it so often is, was the male-created show was a playground for middle-aged male fantasies.  

I learned about stereotypes of men and car dealers. Smarmy swinging Larry versus the frisky but good-hearted Jack. There were sharks out there and their uniform involved chest hair and chains. The Larry-s wanted only sex while the Jacks wanted a nice girl to settle down with and sex. Don’t forget the sex.  

Finally, I learned every sitcom plot device that I would ever need to know. Two dates with different women on the same night? Check. A panoply of wacky misunderstandings? Check. Perhaps the one sitcom plot missing from the Three’s Company oeuvre was the very special Christmas episode where a character, obviously Mr. Roper, exhibits Scrooge-like behavior and is thus visited by scenes from his past, present, and future causing him to change his Christmas-hating ways. I imagined a chastened Stanley sweeping into bed and taking Helen into his arms to make sweet, appreciative love. To all a good night.  

My thesis thoroughly proven about this vanguard of comedy, let’s get down to the real debate. In the landlord pool, who reigns supreme: the Ropers or Mr. Firley? I’m in too deep. I love them both, but there is something irresistible about Don Knotts in a cravat. He can knock on my door anytime.



Katherine Sinback’s work has appeared inThe RumpusHobart, and Taco Bell Quarterly, among other publications. Born and raised in Virginia, Katherine lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. More at www.katherinesinback.wordpress.com. She can be found on Twitter @kt_sinback.

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