Unified Chuck Cunningham Theory

Chuck Cunningham could be the world’s greatest illusionist: now you see him, now you don’t. Not only did he vanish from Happy Days without a trace, but he erased all evidence of his existence as well. What happened to Chuck Cunningham? Maybe, he witnessed a hit on the Fonzarelli crime family or saw his mother being assaulted by Don Fonz himself, and entered the witness protection program. But we’ll never really know no matter how much Happy Days Fanfiction I may write in my spare time.

Time and time again writers and TV producers seem to underestimate the intelligence of the television audience. Not intelligence really, but cult like devotion and attention to detail. And not really even devotion when you think about it, but just an average attention span and minor observational skills. Which is weird because what a television producer should want is for the audience to pay attention. Although, it’s the same reason I repeat myself all the time because I don’t remember the jokes I’ve already told and I assume no one’s paying attention anyway… no matter how much Happy Days Fanfiction I may write in my spare time. The point though that I’m so inelegantly trying to make is that if you have a character on a show, then you don’t have a character on a show, the audience tends to notice.

This is called Chuck Cunningham Syndrome. Named after Richie & Joanie’s older brother who went up stairs and never came down. This is when a main character on a TV show vanishes with little to no explanation as to where they went. Most likely because we don’t need them or want them. Chuck was an extraneous character because Richie already had all the fatherly advice he needed in Tom Bosley and had Fonzie to teach him how to be the meat in a Tuscadero sandwich… so who needs an older brother? And why bother explaining what happened to such a useless character anyway? That’s Chuck Cunningham Syndrome! That little lazy urge to not bother because it’s just Chuck after all. The more unexplained the exit, the more Chuck it is. Which, of course, leads ask to ask what happened to X on Y [insert whichever minor character you fancy]? Realistically this is often caused by contract disputes or TV stars moving on with their careers (it happens sometimes), and producers are left with three real options: write the character away, kill them off, or forget they ever existed. And of these choices there are three major influences that determine which path is taken: the viewers’ hatred of the character, the actors playing the characters’ hatred of the producers, and the producers’ hatred of doing any actual work.

Something probably goes pretty wrong in negations if a character is killed. It’s probably a combination of all kinds of hatred. One of my personal favorites is Valerie from Valerie’s Family (the show was named after her!). I think she had a problem with how much attention Jason Bateman was getting and a little power struggle happened. And you don’t mess with the Bateman. It probably happened something like this:

Jason Bateman: Sweep the leg… Do you have a problem with that?
Miller-Boyett Productions: No, Sensei.
Jason Bateman: No mercy.
Then Valerie got an elbow to the knee.

On the Move

Moving away is perhaps the easiest way to unload an unwanted character. They’re both gone, but still theoretically reachable for any very special episode sort of occasion; you can even call them (Chrissy on Three’s Company). And if they’re good little children they may even be invited back to the show someday. With movement though there is a strange distance scale; the less important the character is the farther away they seem have to move. Randy Taylor (Home Improvement) moved to Costa Rica to do something or other. Waldo Geraldo Faldo on Family Matters moved to France to become a chef. Rachel, also Family Matters, went to take care of a sick Aunt (presumably in the continental United States). Bo and Luke Duke (The Dukes of Hazzard) went to race NASCAR, but only for a season. The mom on That’s so Raven moved to England to attend law school. Boner (Growing Pains) became a US Marine and I have to imagine traveled the globe killing people with his bare hands. Here’s any interesting connection: Boner, Waldo, and Chrissy all stupid characters whose humor was because they were so stupid. All stupid, all moved. Distance then may depend both character importance and intelligence quotient.

Into the Void

Moving away is an easy cover up, but sometimes writers want to be even lazier than that. That’s where doing absolutely nothing comes into play. Those of the void are doomed to return to the void. The void being nothing, as in let’s not even acknowledge a change. Nothing is mostly reserved for nothing characters. This is even lower than the minor character who leaves for exotic lands. They’re so low that TV producers don’t even want to do the work to cover up their tracks, they don’t even want to say a sentence about them. A minor character may be well liked or even be beloved, but these guys aren’t even acknowledged. Examples include: Seven (Married with Children), Judy (Family Matters), Max (Saved by the Bell), Tina Pinciotti (That ‘70s Show), and of course, the holy Chuck (Happy Days). Just from cases of Judy, Waldo, and Rachel it seems that family actually doesn’t matter on Family Matters. One addendum to the void: Cody (Step by Step), an extremely popular character, was written off into the void after he kicked his wife in the face. Face kick = instant unpopularity = void. Character popularity is linked to the amount of work writers and producers will devote to them.

And as a Saved by the Bell side note to the void, it wasn’t just Max and it can be argued Tori entered the void as well. But realistically that class graduated and people just went their separate ways (and really only Lisa was friends with Tori, and they barely kept in touch with Lisa after the original run). However, the Bayside High student body changed on an episode to episode basis. Some students coming into focus as others returned to the background, when their character used up what little story arc they had they simply slipped back into the void or high school as it were. The main reason for so many characters coming and going is because Zack dated most of the student body: Kelly, Jessie, Lisa, Tori, Kelly’s sister, Wrestler Christy Barnes, Bridgette Wilson’s Ginger, Slater’s ex Jennifer, Slater’s sister J.B., handicapped Melissa, Charlie "Craterface" Coburn, and Ms. Bliss to name a few. We have to assume that all the students just stayed in school and are okay being womanized by Zack. No jealously, no acts of revenge, or schemes to win Zack back, which then leads us to the conclusion that Zack’s lame in the sack. So, bad sex does not fill the void.

The Wrap Up

Hiding in plain site remains perhaps of one of the greatest sitcom moments in television history and it came from Boys Meets World. Boy Meets World was by no means a great or even good or even an okay show, and I suspect it ran so long because Ben Savage was related to Fred Savage. However, it did bring us two wonderful things: Topanga and the return of Minkus. Minkus was Corey’s annoying antagonist in the first season, but subsequently vanished. He was, however, a much-cherished nerd and they brought him back for the graduation episode where he revealed he was there the whole time, just off camera on the other side of the school. If a character has a certain amount of resonance they get a wrap episode. Oz (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Pete Ross (Smallville), and Steve (Married with Children) all got very special episodes to sum up what they’ve been up to. Cody from Step by Step actually even made a later appearance proving that kicking someone in the face isn’t all that bad, worthy of only about a two year ban. The more popular a character is, the more demand for the story line to end with a satisfying conclusion. Although, we also like to hear about characters we hate, if only to hear that they died in some gruesome accident off camera.

So, in conclusion if a minor character in a venomous contract dispute who happened to kick their wife/husband/child/lover in the face and had unfulfilling sex with Zack Morris but were beloved for their stupidity left a sitcom, they would have to move half way across the world to die of dysentery helping islanders, but we wouldn’t know this and pretend they never existed until their body ended up in an episode to be named later.

  • Nicki
    Comment from: Nicki
    08/02/11 @ 11:12:52 am

    Effin brilliant!

  • GaTCHa
    Comment from: GaTCHa
    08/02/11 @ 11:19:37 am

    Awesome ^_^ Good job!

  • Barry
    Comment from: Barry
    08/02/11 @ 12:03:59 pm

    Yes!!! I forgot all about Valerie’s Family. I’m so used to it being The Hogan Family that I forgot it had a life before their aunt moved in. Since you brought up Seven on Married With Children, I started wondering whatever happened to Marcy’s niece, Amber. As soon as Bud started sleeping with her on a regular basis, she disappeared too. Maybe, he’s like Zack Morris as well.

    Thanks for this piece. It truly made my day.

  • Rene
    Comment from: Rene
    08/25/11 @ 10:25:42 am

    Man, thankfully we have the internet or these lost soul would be relegated to the deepest pockets of our brains. I remember the Valerie issue and having discussions with my grandmother about it. It was upsetting and confusing for a kid but I never stopped watching the show. It almost didnt matter after a few weeks.

  • MissEnota
    Comment from: MissEnota
    09/28/12 @ 06:34:50 pm

    This reminds me of an opposite phenomenon…Sandra Huxtable on the Cosby Show. In the first season, the parents mention they have four kids (Rudy, Vanessa, Theo, and Denise) then they later added the oldest sister. I spent some childhood hours thinking about that one.

  • Sara
    Comment from: Sara
    08/24/13 @ 10:19:02 am

    When you brought up Boy Meets World, I thought for sure that you would talk about Cory and Eric’s little sister, Morgan. Morgan was in the earlier seasons (or just the first one? I don’t remember), and then she vanished without an explanation. A few years later, she came back, played by a different actress, and explained that she’d been on a really long time-out.

  • Matthew
    Comment from: Matthew
    07/20/14 @ 06:45:57 pm

    My solution for what happened to Chuck - Howard caught him boning one of his male team mates and poured him down the memory hole. What could be worse for a middle class, Milwaukee family than having their eldest son outed as gay? Howard and Marion made him leave - he probably transferred to UC - Berkeley and had a great life in SFO. Ritchie, Joanie et al. were told never to mention his name ever again, and Howard and Marion made like they only had two kids. Sadly, this would be a completely plausible thing to do in the 1950’s.

  • MrVampire
    Comment from: MrVampire
    11/26/14 @ 08:22:16 pm