Can Three’s Company Be Parodied?

Yes, according to the author of “3C,” an off-Broadway critical (i.e., examining the premises) re-telling of the 1970s sitcom “Three’s Company” that’s in the news today because of copyright-related threats from the current owners of the copyright in the television show.

At one level, this is yet another example of copyright bullying:  the owners of the copyright in the show are worried that new distribution deals will be worth less if the show is perceived critically (i.e., negatively).  (They cannot possibly be worried, really, that folks who buy tickets to 3C, now or in the future, will somehow be dissuaded from watching Three’s Company.)  From the news report, 3C sounds like sort of a parody, but the defense of the play also makes it appear as if “parody” is the most convenient “fair use” box around.  The play does not sound, to me, like a Platonic “parody,” let alone like a Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music parody.  The play is an existentialist critique.  But existentialist critiques do not often interest newspaper readers, let alone copyright lawyers, or federal judges.

There are, as always, more levels, and those are where the fun is.

Some might argue that “Three’s Company” was itself such a witless program that it was either self-parodying or beyond parody.  John Ritter played a straight man who pretended to be gay in order to room with two attractive women – Joyce De Witt as the “straight” (i.e., “normal”) one; Suzanne Somers as the blonde bubble-head.  (These aren’t my stereotypes; this is how the show was cast and played.)  Hilarity ensued.  Possible point for the TV producers:  Three’s Company should be preserved in 1970s amber, isolated from any critique (or parody), as a show so stupid that no comment is needed or possible.

Then again, in the years following, John Ritter in particular and (to some extent) Suzanne Somers were revealed – or revealed themselves – as skilled performers, suggesting that they played the camp foolishness of Three’s Company with a huge and sometimes painful wink at themselves, at the offensive stereotypes their characters represented (and the bleak emptiness of the sitcom condition), and at the audience.  (Joyce De Witt, as the third lead, never had much to prove.)  A true story:  I went to high school with a guy who is the son of the Canadian entertainer Alan Hamel, Suzanne Somers’s husband.  At the time, Alan Hamel was the TV spokesman for Alpha Beta grocery stores.  The line went around school:  Did you know that [name] is Suzanne Somers’s stepson?  (Playing on the AB slogan:)  Tell a friend!  Maybe the audience rarely got the joke, or the angst; I was there in the late 70s, with Love Boat and Fantasy Island and so on, and my memory is that the audience just ate it all up.  Connecting the dots — “Tell a friend!” was just funny and silly, nothing more.  Possible point, then, for the author of 3C, for bringing some of the show’s subsurface narratives to the fore.

I’ll be clear that my sympathies and, in my opinion, the clear weight of the arguments, lie with 3C.  The producers of Three’s Company aren’t and weren’t interested in subsurface narratives, in my view.  They’re only interested in their next deal(s).  If a critical re-telling interferes with the pricing of those deals (which it may very well not do – few off-Broadway plays are that powerful), then that’s precisely the kind of harm that the First Amendment and the fair use doctrine contemplates.  Parody is a form of criticism; criticism is often a good thing, and it’s a favored use in the copyright statute, precisely because of its resonance with free speech interests.  3C strikes me as criticism.  My own armchair summary above is criticism of a similar kind, and no one (I hope) will accuse me of copyright infringement.  I should also be clear that I have serious reservations about the validity of the criticism – can Three’s Company really be examined through an existentialist lens? – but that’s irrelevant to the copyright/free speech point.

Somewhere in all of this, as in all copyright kerfuffles that rise to coverage in the New York Times Arts section, is a series of cultural dis-connects over what arts and culture are, and what they do, that go beyond mere debates about money, power, and privilege.  That’s a topic for other posts.

Meanwhile, if you want to see a show off-Broadway that may or may not be a parody, but that makes the existentialism of pop culture explicit in a way that should be too funny to be threatened by a certain copyright owner, go see the just-opened Triassic Parq The Musical. From the show’s website:

A raucous new musical that combines singing, sex, and Velociraptors in ways hitherto unimagined, TRIASSIC PARQ follows a group of cloned dinosaurs as they unearth the very foundations of their existence. Morality, faith, science, gender identity, and interspecies fornication are all explored, and sung about, as Morgan Freeman narrates this epic tale of love, loss, and resurrected reptiles.