September 14, 2021
Na-nu, Na-nu! This phrase – unknown before September 14, 1978 – became a part of the American cultural vernacular thanks to the incomparable Robin Williams in his role as Mork in the sitcom Mork and Mindy.
The show catapulted Williams to fame and fans of the show tuned in every week to see what crazy new thing Mork would do.
The story of Mork began the previous year as a plot line in the popular TV show Happy Days. In one episode Richie encounters Mork – an alien from the planet Ork – who attempts to capture Richie and take him back to his planet for study.
Apparently fans loved the Mork character and the concept. The Infallible Wikipedia tells us:
“Mork appears in the Happy Days season five episode ‘My Favorite Orkan’, which first aired in February 1978 and is a take on the 1960s sitcom My Favorite Martian. The show wanted to feature a spaceman in order to capitalize on the popularity of the then recently released Star Wars film. Williams’ character, Mork, attempts to take Richie Cunningham back to his planet of Ork as a human specimen, but his plan is foiled by Fonzie. In the initial broadcast of this episode, it all turned out to be a dream that Richie had, but when Mork proved so popular, the ending in the syndicated version was re-edited to show Mork erasing the experience from everyone’s minds, thus meaning the event had actually happened and was not a dream.”
The spin off show catapulted to the #3 spot on TV during its inaugural season, leaping ahead of Happy Days in the ratings.
Also from the Infallible Wikipedia:
“Mork arrives on Earth in an egg-shaped spacecraft. He has been assigned to observe human behavior by Orson, his mostly unseen and long-suffering superior (voiced by Ralph James). Orson has sent Mork to get him off Ork, where humor is not permitted. Attempting to fit in, Mork dresses in an Earth suit, but wears it backwards. Landing in Boulder, Colorado, he encounters 21-year-old Mindy (Pam Dawber), who is upset after an argument with her boyfriend, and offers assistance. Because of his odd garb, she mistakes him for a priest and is taken in by his willingness to listen (in fact, simply observing her behavior). Snip
Storylines usually center on Mork’s attempts to understand human behavior and American culture as Mindy helps him to adjust to life on Earth. It usually ends up frustrating Mindy, as Mork can only do things according to Orkan customs. For example, lying to someone or not informing them it will rain is considered a practical joke (called ‘splinking’) on Ork. At the end of each episode, Mork reports back to Orson on what he has learned about Earth. These end-of-show summaries allow Mork to humorously comment on social norms. Snip
This series was Robin Williams’ first major acting role. Pam Dawber found him so funny that she had to bite her lip in many scenes to avoid breaking up in laughter and ruining the take, often a difficult task with Williams’ talent.”
In the fall of 1978, I was 21 years old and in college so I didn’t see every episode of Mork and Mindy. But the show, specifically Williams’ role, made an impression. My fellow sorority sisters and I loved Mork and soon mimicked some of his outrageous phrases and antics.
We greeted each other with “Na-nu, Na-nu” and the accompanying hand gesture; we used the term “Kay Oh” instead of “Oh Kay.” The crazier male students attempted to ‘sit’ on their heads. In many ways Mork provided a primer on how to be outrageous which, when you are in college, is a goal for many.
Mork and Mindy was like fireworks, bursting onto the television scene, in a soaring arc of sparks and light. Many tuned in just to see what crazy thing Williams would say and do. I can only imagine how exhausting it must have been for Williams to keep it up week after week.
Although the series remained popular in subsequent seasons, nothing quite compared to its meteoric season one.
Occasionally, I still find myself saying “na-nu, na-nu” or “K-O” without even realizing how these terms – so very novel when first uttered – have become a part of American culture. All due to an alien named Mork who conquered the world in September 1978.
Answers to the Facebook post: Three’s Company (1976), Mork and Mindy (1978), Taxi (1978), Welcome Back, Kotter (1975), and Laverne and Shirley (1976)