21 of the Best Wisconsin TV Shows & Characters

Wisconsin-on-TV

Most of the time – when you plop down on the couch and turn on the television – you’ll end up watching shows based in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.

Maybe the executives in Hollywood think that’s what Americans want to watch. Maybe the people creating those shows just lack creativity.

But some of the most memorable shows and characters in TV history feature places other than the Windy City, the Big Apple or L.A. In fact – quite a few of those shows and characters are connected to Wisconsin. Keep reading to check out our favorites!

8 TV Shows Based in Wisconsin

1. Happy Days

happy-days-resize

The Granddaddy of all Wisconsin-based TV shows is  Happy Days. The nostalgic sitcom about American life in the 1950s and ’60s, was based in suburban Milwaukee. Richie Cunningham’s family and friends (including the Fonz) have since become pop culture icons.

Garry Marshall is the man who brought the show to television. However, the real reason Happy Days took place in Wisconsin can most likely be credited to executive producer and co-creator Tom Miller of Miller-Boyett Productions.

Miller grew up in Wisconsin, and attended Whitefish Bay High School in Milwaukee. In 1977, he told the Milwaukee Journal  that the Cunninghams were based on his family – and he was Richie. If you keep reading, you’ll see that Miller’s influence in Wisconsin-based TV shows is quite evident.

The Fonz T-shirt

Get “The Fonz Wisconsinite” t-shirt

As for Fonzie – he was not based on any real-life Wisconsin character from Miller’s life. Rather, he was added to balance out Ron Howard’s performance with some extra cool.

Fonzie did ride a Harley Davidson bike in early episodes, but later was shown on a Triumph motorcycle.

Today Wisconsinites feel so connected to the Fonz that we’ve erected a bronze statue of him on the Milwaukee Riverwalk.

The Cunningham family’s fictitious Brew City address was 565 North Clinton Drive. However the actual house used for exterior shots was 565 North Cahuenga Boulevard in Los Angeles.

The look for the exterior of Arnold’s Drive-In, the gang’s favorite hangout, was based on the Milky Way Drive-In in Glendale, which is now Kopp’s Frozen Custard. But the manager at Kopps told OnMilwaukee.com that the inside of Arnold’s was actually based on another local eatery – the Pig ‘n Whistle – which is no longer in operation.

Pat Morita, the actor who played Arnold on Happy Days, is one of our celebrity Packers fans. And the actor who replaced Morita, Al Molinaro, is from Kenosha.

Happy Days inspired a bunch of spinoffs – including a Saturday Morning cartoon. Today there is even a Happy Days musical. The opening number is called “Welcome to Wisconsin.”

2. Laverne & Shirley

Laverne_and_shirley_1976The  most popular and successful of all the Happy Days spinoffs was without a doubt – Laverne & Shirley. The two characters were Fonzie’s friends on the show and were introduced in an episode in which they went on a double-date with Richie and the Fonz.

Wisconsinite Tom Miller was also an executive producer on this show.

The first five seasons of Laverne & Shirley were set in Milwaukee where actresses Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams played bottle cappers at the made-up Shotz Brewery – which was a spoof on Milwaukee-based Schlitz Brewery.

These two Sconnie BFFs lived in a basement apartment on Knapp Street – which in reality was not far from the real Schlitz Brewery location. The apartment’s set was previously used for The Odd Couple.

During the final few seasons of the sitcom, Laverne and Shirley moved to California. And it wasn’t long before things fell apart behind the scenes. Williams left the show in the seventh season, and Penny Marshall wanted production of the show moved from LA to New York. Laverne & Shirley was quietly cancelled after season eight.

The version of Laverne & Shirley everyone loves and remember is the Wisconsin one. The iconic opening sequence and theme song featured many shots of downtown Milwaukee.

3. That ’70s Show

Red_Forman,Just as Happy Days played with the American family in the ’50s and ’60s during the ’70s and ’80s – That ’70s Show spoofed American life in the 1970s for folks in the late 90’s and early 2000s to enjoy.

Perhaps That ’70s Show was also based in Wisconsin as tribute to sitcoms like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley – or maybe the shows creators just saw America’s Dairyland as the perfect, all-American setting.

The show followed Eric Forman (played by Topher Grace) and his friends and family in a fictional town called Point Place, Wisconsin. This led some to assume that Stevens Point may have inspired the show. But I can remember an episode in which Ashton Kutcher’s character mentions “the greater Oshkosh area.”

In fact – the show’s official website (which no longer exists) claimed Point Place was actually located just outside of Green Bay.  However, the city of Kenosha is also mentioned in several episodes – including one in which the gang drives “down” to Kenosha to see a movie.

Whatever the case may be, there were many Wisconsin references and jokes throughout the course of this show. A Green Bay Packers helmet was a permanent set fixture in the Forman’s basement where the gang hung out. It was actually dubbed “the stupid helmet,” and characters were forced to wear it after doing or saying something dumb.

There were deer hunting and ice fishing episodes, an episode in which Eric wore a Bears jersey to Lambeau, and even an episode titled “Love Wisconsin Style.”

But the most memorable Wisconsin tribute of all was Eric belting out “Hello, Wisconsin!” at the end of the show’s opening theme. With the exception of the first season, the theme song is performed by Cheap Trick which features frontman Robin Zander of Beloit, Wisconsin.

Actor Kurtwood Smith played Eric’s hard-nosed dad, Red Forman. Smith is from New Lisbon, Wisconsin. I’d say that must have helped him bring a little authenticity to the role of a Sconnie dad.

4. Step by Step

Step_by_step_tv_showTV producer Tom Miller of Miller-Boyett Productions continued to bring Wisconsin to the small screen in the 1990s.

Step by Step was basically a rehashing of The Brady Bunch formula as its plot involved the merging of two families. It starred veteran television actors Patrick Duffy (Dallas) and Suzanne Somers (Three’s Company) as the mom and dad of the Lambert family.

The sitcom was set in the city of Port Washington, Wisconsin and occasionally made reference to the state and Wisconsin sports teams. Frank Lambert and his kids are depicted as big Packers fans.

The opening sequence of Step by Step was supposed to be at an amusement park along the shores of Lake Michigan – but it was actually filmed at Six Flags Magic Mountain in California. The Wikipedia article incorrectly states “no amusement park exists that is located on the shores of this lake in Wisconsin.”

What? They’ve never heard of Bay Beach? That would have been awesome. Too bad the park didn’t have the Zippin Pippin roller coaster back then.

5. Picket Fences

Lauren_HollyWisconsin is good for more than just family sitcoms. It’s the perfect place to stage a quirky crime-drama. Picket Fences – from acclaimed writer/producer David E. Kelley – is a a great example.

The series centered on people living in the small town of Rome, Wisconsin – which is smack-dab in the middle of the state in Adams County. It won 14 Emmy Awards but only lasted four seasons.

A whole lot of funky stuff happens in Rome – like exploding cow udders. Mayors in the fictionalized version of the town often met with strange deaths – like spontaneous combustion or getting stuffed in a freezer after being decapitated.

Actor Tom Skerritt played Sheriff Jimmy Brock, and Kathy Baker played his wife, the town doctor. Picket Fences also provided the breakout role for actress Lauren Holly who portrayed Maxine, a young sheriff’s deputy on the show.

It wouldn’t be the last time Holly played a Wisconsinite. She was also the lead female character in The Godfather of Green Bay – an independent comedy from filmmaker and Marinette native Pete Schwaba.

6. The Young and the Restless

Y&R-castDon’t ever let anyone tell you Wisconsinites ain’t got no class. If that were true – how could one of the most successful soap operas of all time be based in our state?

The Young and the Restless began its run in 1973 and is still on the air today. The daytime drama is set in the fictional town of Genoa City – although there is a real village named Genoa City in Wisconsin.

The soap depicts Genoa City as a sort of metropolis that is home to major corporations and has an international airport. Of course, the real Genoa City in Walworth county only has a population of around 3,000 people.

The silly YouTube video below gives you a tour of the real Genoa City as if it were the actual Y&R location – complete with comic sans font and the show’s dramatic theme music.

The Young & the Restless has been the highest-rated daytime soap opera form more than 25 years.

7. Life with Louie

Louie AndersonStand-up comedian Louie Anderson grew up in the Twin Cities area, but the animated show based on his childhood was set in Wisconsin.

Life with Louie actually premiered in prime-time before moving to Saturday mornings with the rest of the cartoons. Based in the fictitious location of Cedar Knoll, Wisconsin – it followed the awkward adventures of a little version of Louie and his huge family. Anderson is one of 11 kids.

Louie’s father on the show was based on his real-life dad, but the depiction is also reminiscent of other classic fathers – including Red Forman and Ralphie’s dad in A Christmas Story.

Thanks to Life with Louie, Anderson received two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Performance in an Animated Series.

It’s unclear why the show was set in Wisconsin instead of Anderson’s native Minnesota. But the cartoon had a definite Midwestern feel and included episodes like “Alive! Miracle in Cedar Knoll, Wisconsin” which featured little Louie surviving a blizzard at home.

There were also some memorable Green Bay Packers references including the episode below. But it’s clear from Louie Anderson’s website that he is actually a fan of Minnesota sports.

8. Liv and Maddie

(DISNEY CHANNEL/Craig Sjodin)

(DISNEY CHANNEL/Craig Sjodin)

The Disney Channel sitcom Liv and Maddie is somewhat like Laverne & Shirley for kids. It features young actress Dove Cameron who plays both lead roles – identical twins with opposing personalities.

Liv is a girly girl who moved back to her home in Stevens Point, Wisconsin after working in Hollywood as a TV star. Her twin sister Maddie is a competitive tomboy.

The show seems to choose Wisconsin as the anti-California. And this isn’t the only show in which the Disney Channel uses Wisconsin as a sort of Hollywood opposite.

13  TV Shows with Characters from Wisconsin

1. Sonny with a Chance

Demi LovatoThis Disney Channel show did the reverse of Liv and Maddie. Sonny with a Chance stars Demi Lovato as a girl from Appleton, Wisconsin who gets selected to be part of a popular kids variety show.

So she leaves home for Hollywood. You can see a little animation in the show’s opening that sets up the premise. Watch for the airplane flying from Wisconsin to Los Angeles.

Sonny Munroe occasionally mentions her home-state on the show – even expressing some homesickness from time to time. But mostly, Wisconsin seems to be the perfect state for creating a character who appears to be fish-out-of-water in Hollywood…and for the opportunity to make cheese jokes.

For instance, Sonny’s mom once explains that, in Wisconsin they change people into cheese when they don’t keep their promises.

Lovato left the family-friendly sitcom in 2011 – but the show was spun off into a series called So Random!

2. Frasier

RozPeri Gilpin played Roz Doyle on the ’90s sitcom and Cheers spinoff Frasier.

Roz was Dr. Frasier Krane’s producer on his talk radio show. She hails from Bloomer, Wisconsin. Her backstory reveals she came to Seattle to escape smalltown Wisconsin. Roz’s mom is the Attorney General of Wisconsin, and was played by legendary film actress Eva Marie Saint (North by Northwest, On the Waterfront).

Roz had a major supporting role on the sitcom with many of her own storylines. She also helped to foil the uptight, hoity-toity characters of Frasier and Niles with her tough-girl attitude.

The role was originally offered to Lisa Kudrow (Friends), but she got fired and the part was given to Gilpin instead.

3. NewsRadio

NewsRadioAnother ’90s sitcom that featured a Wisconsinite in a broadcasting career was NewsRadio.

Dave Foley plays the role of Dave Nelson, a radio news director at WNYX in New York who grew up in Milwaukee. The character was sort of like Kermit the Frog trying to control a cast of crazy Muppets. While Dave tells everyone he’s from Wisconsin – it is later revealed he was actually born in Canada.

Occasionally, Dave gets made fun of for his Wisconsin connection and usually the insults come from anchorman Bill McNeal – played by the late comedian Phil Hartman.

Here’s one such exchange from NewsRadio…

Bill: What’s so interesting about radio?
Dave: I think radio is a fascinating medium.
Bill: You’re from Wisconsin. Artificial light is fascinating to you.

4. Perfect Strangers

Perfect StrangersYet another Miller-Boyett production with a Wisconsin connection is the mismatched buddy sitcom Perfect Strangers.

The show follows the life of Larry Appleton – a Wisconsinite from  Madison who grew up in a large family. Larry moves to Chicago to get his first apartment, and he’s surprised when his distant cousin Balki shows up.

Balki (played by Bronson Pinchot) is a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant from an island in the Mediterranean called Mypos, and he needs a place to stay.

Larry Appleton (played by Mark Linn-Baker) often portrays some polite, Wisconsiny passive aggressiveness to his cousin. He is reluctant to take Balki under his wing – but eventually agrees.

The role of Larry was originally intended for Louie Anderson, but he was not chosen in the end. Producers liked the chemistry between Baker and Pinchot.

Here’s one more fun fact: The sitcom Family Matters (yes the one with Steve Urkel) was actually a Perfect Strangers spinoff. Harriette and Carl Winslow were recurring characters on the show and lived in the same apartment complex as the cousins.

The opening to Perfect Strangers shows Larry on his journey from Wisconsin to Chicago.

5. Melrose Place

Melrose Allison ParkerWhat happens when a bunch of ambitious young professionals live together in a posh Los Angeles apartment complex? A whole lot of fornicating and fighting – that’s what.

One of the most dramatic characters on Melrose Place was Allison Parker – played by Courtney Thorne-Smith. Allison went to the University of Wisconsin where she developed a bit of a drinking problem.

Allison may be most-remembered for her romance with Billy Campbell during the early seasons. But things weren’t always so rosey for this Wisconsinite.

She was stalked by an ex who tries to rape her before he commits suicide while on the phone with her. She goes blind (temporarily) when Kimberly blows up the apartment complex. She marries a rich old man (Brooke’s father) and then he dies when he falls of his yacht – but Allison doesn’t get any of his money because the old dirtbag tricked her into signing divorce papers.

Later on in the show, she starts working at a bar and becomes an alcoholic. She is forced to get an abortion because her pregnancy is life-threatening and then is told she can never have children. Allison Parker finally leaves Melrose Place and moves to Atlanta after breaking up with Jake. Her friends later learn she’s landed in rehab.

Maybe Allison never should have left Wisconsin. Her story sounds almost as tragic as our satirical article about Barbie – another blonde bombshell from the Badger State.

6. GI Joe: A Real American Hero

RecondoThankfully, Wisconsin has been represented on TV by more than just dramatic divas and dorky dudes. There are also patriotic macho men to – like Recondo from GI Joe.

Recondo’s real name is Corporal Daniel LeClaire and he is from Wheaton, Wisconsin. He’s the kind of dude who would make Ron Swanson proud.

You could call Recondo the resident outdoorsmen of the GI Joe crew. He is a jungle trooper who specializes in intelligence. But – strangely for a Wisconsin character – he hates the cold and prefers the jungle.

Another Wisconsinite in the world of GI Joe is Grand Slam – a laser and electronics specialist from Chippewa Falls. However, Grand Slam was only featured in the opening sequence of the GI Joe: A Real American Hero cartoon series and never made an appearance on the show.

Now you know – and knowing is approximately 50% of the battle.

7. Wilfred

Wilfred

Wisconsin is a great state for a dog to live in. The title character of the FX series Wilfred agrees as he speaks fondly of his home state.

Wilfred has a unique and slightly confusing premise. It follows a young man named Ryan (Elijah Wood) who has some obvious mental health issues, and Wilfred (Jason Gann) plays a big part in it all. While everyone else sees a normal dog – Ryan sees Wilfred as a man in a dog costume. You could call him Ryan’s imaginary friend – but the show plays with the idea of exactly what Wilfred is.

What you do know is that he’s the pet of Ryan’s next-door neighbor and potential love interest, Jenna. She and her boyfriend moved to California from Wisconsin. Ryan dog-sits for Jenna and he and Wilfred become buddies.

Throughout the show, Wilfred is revealed as a big fan of the state of Wisconsin. He speaks fondly of the “giant lake” and cheers for the Packers.

“I remember you, Ryan. Memory is like the Packers when they’re behind by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter…it comes back.”

In one episode, Wilfred even wears a Packers shirt to go jogging on the beach. This dog is also a big fan of Jordy Nelson in particular. The series wrapped up with its 4th season during the summer of 2014. In the clip below, Wilfred reveals he is originally from Sturgeon Bay.

8. Without a Trace

Samantha_SpadeWisconsinites can also be FBI agents on TV. Samantha Spade, portrayed by actress Poppy Montgomery, was one of the main characters of the CBS crime-drama Without a Trace. The show centered on the FBI’s missing person’s team in New York City.

Spade’s character is originally from Kenosha, Wisconsin. But she didn’t exactly have a happy childhood. Her backstory reveals she lived with a poor family that had a lot of problems. For one thing, she killed her mom’s boyfriend with a shovel when she caught him abusing her sister. The two girls buried the boyfriend in the woods.

Samantha Spade may have been destined for a life of crime-fighting. Her mother named her after the literary detective, Sam Spade from “The Maltese Falcon” and other stories by Dashiell Hammett.

9. Caroline in the City

Caroline_in_the_CityAnother Wisconsinite-in-New-York television show was the sitcom Caroline in the City, which lasted four seasons back in the Must-See TV days of NBC.

Caroline, played by Lea Thompson, is a cartoonist with a syndicated comic strip who moves to New York from Peshtigo, Wisconsin. Folks in Peshtigo are pretty proud of Caroline – in one episode she gets a park named in her honor. Too bad her brother Chris steals the show as usual.

The show also featured a couple of crossover episodes with other NBC sitcom characters. Matthew Perry appeared as Chandler Bing in one episode and there was a Frasier crossover with Niles and Daphne.

Actress Amy Pietz – who plays Caroline’s best friend in the comedy series – actually is from Milwaukee.

10. Danny Phantom

Vlad -  Danny PhantomEvil, billionaire super-villains can come from Wisconsin too. You already know this if you are a fan of Nickelodeon’s Danny Phantom.

The cartoon centers on a boy-hero named Danny who is secretly half-ghost. This is complicated since Danny’s parents are ghost-hunters who attended UW Madison – and that’s where they met Vladimir Masters.

Vlad’s alter ego is Vladimus Plasimus and he serves as the main bad guy in the series. Martin Mull provides the voice for the character.

Vlad suffered an unfortunate accident while working with Danny’s dad, Jack at UW. He was also in love with Danny’s mom, Maddie, and became filthy rich in an unsuccessful attempt to win her heart.

The villain owns a giant mansion in Wisconsin and is a huge Green Bay Packers fan. However, he isn’t a big fan of the actual city of Green Bay – watch the clip below to find out why.

11. Futurama

Is Fry, the main character from the Matt Groenig animated series, Futurama, originally from Wisconsin? Probably not. But his mom might be.

Phillip J. Fry is depicted as a New York City pizza delivery guy who accidentally cryogenically freezes himself on New Year’s Eve 1999. Fry thaws out 1,000 years in the future.

While Fry grew up in Brooklyn, his mother is a huge supporter of Wisconsin sports teams. She’s such a big fan that she often ignores her children to watch sports. In fact, the day Fry was born his mother was too busy listening to a baseball game on the radio to even notice.

The show never explicitly says Mama Fry has a connection to Wisconsin, but we’re going with it based on the clip below.

12. B.J and the Bear

BJ_and_the_BearB.J. McKay drives his semi truck around with his pet chimpanzee named Bear – trying to avoid Sheriff Lobo. Now that’s a TV show!

B.J. and the Bear follows the comedic adventures of a man and his monkey. B.J is a former Vietnam war helicopter pilot who became a freelance trucker.

We know he’s from Wisconsin because he has “Billie Joe McKay – Milwaukee, Wisconsin” painted on the side of his truck’s cab. (See it for yourself in the video below) Plus, BJ’s trucker handle is The Milwaukee Kid.

In it’s third and final season, B.J. and the Bear was based in Los Angeles where McKay operated his own trucking company, Bear Enterprises.

13. The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang

And finally – we’ve come full-circle – back to Happy Days.

Cartoon series, The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang, was honestly pretty forgettable. But it did feature the voices of Ron Howard and Henry Winkler as Richie and Fonzie. As a bonus, the Fonz has a talking dog named Mr. Cool and they meet a “future chick” named Cupcake with a malfunctioning time machine.

A big part of the show was the gang’s time traveling adventures. You’ll hear Wolfman Jack say in the cartoon’s opening that the gang is trying to “get back to 1957 Milwaukee.” Can you dig it? I don’t have proof – but this cartoon probably inspired the sci-fi show Sliders.

The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang ended after only two seasons. However, the animated-version of Fonzie and his dog lived on to join the military and appear in another short-lived cartoon Laverne & Shirley in the Army.

Many More Wisconsin TV References – Tell us Your Favorite!

For this article, we stuck to actual characters and TV shows based in Wisconsin. But there are many other fun Wisconsin references on the tube. FBI agents Mulder and Scully investigated weird Wisconsin stuff on The X Files, and the CW’s Supernatural had several episodes based in Wisconsin.

There’s also Wisconsin actress Heather Graham’s guest-starring role on Scrubs as a psychiatrist from Milwaukee – Graham’s real hometown.

What’s your favorite Wisconsin TV reference? If you think of a good one we missed – leave a comment below and tell us about it.

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Comments

  1. I think “Leave it to Beaver” was based in Wisconsin. I can remember hearing a WI reference on the show.

  2. If you watch the bonus features on the Madagascar movie dvd, there’s a thing on there with the penguins. They talk about the scenes they’re in and when they get to the scene where they get to Antarctica, one of them says, “It looked more like Wisconsin.” I lol’d so hard!

  3. In the movie Stripes with Bill Murray, towards the end, there is the line “It’s Czechoslovakia, it’s like going into Wisconsin.” To which his partner, responds, “I got my ass kicked in Wisconsin once.”

  4. New dawn of the dead

  5. In the movie “Real Life” (Albert Brooks) the fictional documentary to be filmed of a real life family comes down to two families. When “documentary producers described how they came to decide upon one over the other, (both equally good choices, the one chosen was in Arizona, the other in Wisconsin) “YOU spend the winter in Wisconsin!!” as they all laughed.
    hahaha

  6. Breaking Bad had a Wisconsin reference. Hank says that Walts something or other “is as big as Wisconsin”

  7. Tom Wopat from the Dukes of Hazard was from WI

  8. Bay Beach is not on Lake Michigan. It is on Green Bay. So technically they are correct.

  9. Donna Moss from The West Wing was from Madison, Wisconsin and went to the UW.

  10. And how could you forget Feed The Fish with Tony Shalhoub!

  11. Jeff Kloes says:

    Woody Hoyt, played by Jerry O’Connell in Crossing Jordan was also from wisconsin

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