A long, strange trip on the road to Mandyville
“You don’t want to see me hungry. There used to be another kid around here.”
— Dan Conner on “The Conners”
On a recent episode of the TV show formerly known as “Roseanne,” family patriarch Dan hung a lampshade on his youngest child, Jerry Garcia Conner.
Named for the dead head Deadhead, the fourth child of Dan and Roseanne was in the final three seasons of the original series, then mentioned briefly in the first season of the revival, which began in 2018.
Now, however, the short, strange trip of Jerry appears to have come to an end — among the latest victims of what is know to television trope theologians as Chuck Cunningham Syndrome.
Oh, you’re probably wondering about the “lampshade.”
The origin of the phrase is subject to debate, although the most common theory comes from the old comedic gag of a character not wanting to be seen putting a shade over their head and pretending to be a lamp, which, of course, is known to the audience. ...
“Lampshade hanging,” in its current usage, refers to winking about the existence of any character or plot point that the series wants to disappear without having to worry about in the future.
In this case, despite Dan’s legendary appetite, he didn’t resort to cannibalism to rid “The Conners” of his fourth child; the quote was winking through fourth wall.
After all, this is a broadcast network sitcom in primetime — not some “prestige” cable or streaming miniseries headed by a cast of Oscar winners slumming for Emmys.
Oh, you’re probably wondering about Chuck Cunningham Syndrome.
Chuck was the older brother of Richie Cunningham, the lead character of “Happy Days.”
During one episode, Chuck (two actors played the part) went upstairs to his room ... and never came back down.
Like Don Craig of the soap “Days of Our Lives,” who went to the post office and didn’t return, and Dr. Goodman of “Bones,” who went on sabbatical and was never heard from again, Chuck conceivably wears his collection of sweaters and shoots hoops in the Mandyville driveway.
Mentioned only in passing during the remainder of the show’s second season, he disappeared so completely from the Cunningham household that Howard and Marion would make specific mention of their “two children” (Richie and Joanie) through the rest of the show’s 11-year run.
That’s not hanging a lampshade on the guy ... that’s turning the lights out completely.
Of course, “Happy Days” also gave us the most famous of such TV categories — “Jumping the Shark,” referencing an event in a long-running series so implausible that it meant the show was on its last legs.
Oh, you’re probably wondering about Mandyville.
Nope ... it’s not a reference to that Barry Manilow song about his dog, since the performer who sang (but didn’t write) “I Write the Songs” was actually singing about the breakup of a relationship — just not one of his, since the songwriter actually titled the hit “Brandy,” but changed it to avoid confusion with another hit of the era “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).”
But back through the looking glass to Mandyville, which was an in-joke used by the cast and crew of “The West Wing.”
The Mandy in question was a media consultant for the Bartlett administration who disappeared after the show’s first season and was never seen or mentioned again.
When a character met a similar fate in years to come, the behind-the-scenes explanation was that they had “moved to Mandyville.”
But even though Mandy the song muse and Mandy the White House media consultant weren’t dogs doesn’t mean that our four-legged friends are immune to being wiped out by Chuck Cunningham Syndrome.
And, for proof, we need to look no further than another of television’s classic trope-starters ... “The Brady Bunch.”
You knew immediately the level of comedic inspiration you were in for when at their wedding reception Tiger, the dog owned by Mike Brady and three boys of his own, went chasing after Fluffy, the cat owned by Carol ... Carol ... (What was her last name anyway?) and her three very lovely girls — a disruption that, of course, ends with the table holding the wedding cake being knocked over.
The only elements missing from that tragic tableau were a fruit cart and two workers carrying an excessively large plate of glass.
Tiger and Fluffy apparently had served their purpose at that point and were gone (although the dog house remained) by Season 2 — although leaving more of a lasting impression than that made by John Burns, the driver who was on his way to Mandyville after the first season of “Taxi.”
Why is it I can remember John Burns’s surname ... but Carol Brady’s escapes me?
Examples abound through television and movie series. Sequels lampshade characters at the drop of a hat, when they’ve decided time is better spent introducing new characters.
In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter if a show wants to dispense of an auxiliary character.
“Roseanne,” in its first go-round, switched actresses portraying daughter Becky so often that it became a running gag. Donna Pinciotti on “That ’70s Show” became an only child after we had heard her mention her older sister Valerie and actually seen her younger sister, Tina.
Heck, if Dr. Pulaski from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” wants to walk through the doors of a turbo lift and never be heard from again, who’s to stop her from moving to Mandyville?
Maybe she can open a practice with Dr. Ben Samuels from “St. Elsewhere” ... although that opens a portal into the Tommy Westphal Universe ... and we really don’t want to go there.
Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin once had a John Burns action figure on his desk at firstname.lastname@example.org