1 9 7 6 – 1 9 7 9 (USA)
79 x 30 minute episodes
What’s Happening!!, which evolved from the 1975 movie Cooley High, found a black and bespectacled Los Angeles high school student trying to grow up amid the two shenanigan-instigating best friends, a tattle-tale little sister, a wise-cracking diner waitress, and a mother with a death grip of a hug – formidable circumstances indeed.
The show premiered for a four-week trial run in the summer of 1976, and then returned to the network that Fall for a full-fledged season.
Roger ‘Raj’ Thomas (Ernest Thomas) lived at home with divorced Mama (Mabel King) and younger sister Dee (Danielle Spencer).
When Raj was bad, Mama asked for his belt – and the implied beating from the not-so-petite Mama always straightened him right up.
And when he was good, which thankfully was most of the time, Mama doled out platitudes from the arm of the family room couch and hugged him until he couldn’t breathe.
Raj’s two best friends were Dwayne (“Hey, hey, hey!”) – played by Haywood Nelson – and the ever-boogieing Rerun (Fred Berry).
At the Thomas abode, it was kid sister Dee who gave the trio a hard time, and when they were at their favourite haunt, a diner called Rob’s Place, it was waitress Shirley (Shirley Hemphill) who served up food, drink and verbal abuse (pictured below left) – Rerun typically getting the greatest share.
Maybe the constant heckling that came Rerun’s way fuelled his show-off sensibilities – because this guy was all over the place. He instigated a strike at his and Raj’s apartment (with “No Roger, no Rerun, no Rent” as his infamous war cry); he tried to bootleg a Doobie Brothers concert, only to be caught, chastised and forgiven; he even made an appearance on The Gong Show.
Raj’s life may have been the centre of the show, but Rerun was the go-to man for the lion’s share of the comedy.
Though What’s Happening!! didn’t get too serious too often, there was a realism to the family dynamic that kept viewers connected to the characters.
Raj and Dee’s parents had been divorced for some time, and though Mama got by just fine on her own, the show still took a look at the pain an absentee parent stirs into his or her offspring.
The kids’ father, Bill (Thalmus Rasulala), would whisk into the household every once in a while, and Dee’s resentment toward him – along with Raj and Mama’s conflicted cordiality – was always clear.
In the show’s third season, the trio graduated from high school. Raj got an apartment with Rerun, and Raj and Dwayne began college.
Next door to the Raj/Rerun pad lived policeman Earl (John Welsh, pictured below) and his son Little Earl (David Hollander), who took an enormous liking to the eye-rolling Dee.
That third season was the last one for What’s Happening!!, but not the end of Raj and his buds.
Six years after the show went off the air in 1979, most of the original cast (and those two exclamation points at the end of the show’s name) were assembled for 1985 syndicated revival called What’s Happening Now!!.
Raj was now a married writer, Rerun a used car salesman, and Dwayne a computer programmer, who gave up the rat race eventually to open his own magic supplies shop. A young Martin Lawrence, incidentally, played Maurice, a part-time busboy at Rob’s Place, where of course, the gang still congregated. Some places just never stop being ‘happening’.
Shirley Hemphill starred in a 13-episode spin-off series entitled One In A Million in 1980.
Fred Berry (Rerun) died on 21 October 2003 at home, while recovering from a stroke. He was only 52.
Roger ‘Raj’ Thomas
Freddie ‘Rerun’ Stubbs
Mrs Thomas (Mama)
Big Earl Babcock
Nadine Hudson Thomas