Women of MTM (1970-77) Part 1
Forty five years ago, The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered. While that fact, in itself, merits a podcast of celebration, Advanced TV Herstory considers MTM to be a major chapter of study. Even a cursory look into the show’s development and award-winning run reveals that there’s a lot to learn from this show, its cast and crew.
So, this podcast represents a different approach to bringing the show into historical context. Namely, we’re going to hear from author and entertainment expert Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. Armstrong, a graduate of Northwestern University’s School of Journalism is a seasoned writer with pretty excellent contacts honed through years of writing in the entertainment industry.
In 2013, Simon & Schuster published Armstrong’s book about the writers and crew of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It’s called Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted – and All the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show A Classic.
My interview with Armstrong will form three podcasts in all. We covered A LOT of ground and you’ll not only learn a lot from Armstrong and her first-hand accounts of conversations with talented writers and living legends like Betty White, but I am quite sure her infectious enthusiasm will cause you to fall in love with Mary and the gang all over again.
In this installment, we’re going to get to know Armstrong and her take on the women writers and what life was like for them in a male-dominated history. For fun, Armstrong and I revisited what many believe is the single best episode of TV comedy ever, Why yes, it WAS directed by a woman.
Subsequent podcasts will focus specifically on the team of women writers, many of whom often worked in pairs and a special woman, named Treva Silverman, a pioneer woman in the all-male writers’ room.
So, grab your tam and head to 7th Street & Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis. All too often in TV Herstory, we focus on the conflict and strife that led to change and successes. This time…. Love is all around.
Let’s jump right into Armstrong’s book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. My copy currently has post it tabs throughout the book because it really is a comprehensive look at the people who brought us this seminal show. Yes there are other books that have been written about the show – episode guides and the like, as well as bios and autobiographies of the stars themselves. Armstrong has done her homework and it shows. I asked her why, with a broad background and network in the entertainment industry, she chose to write this book.
From the perspective of women writers for TV, Armstrong heard over and over that The Mary Tyler Moore Show held great influence. It was well-written, the plot themes were relevant to a time of rapid change for American women and the characters were very well developed, given it was a 30 minute show. What was in the secret sauce at MTM? Could it have anything to do with the incredible number of women writers who worked on the show during its seven year run?
Telling their story
If you work from the premise – the wonders of hindsight – that The Mary Tyler Moore Show transformed American culture, then the women writers had a lot to do with it. Armstrong came to realize that with women in the room, the style changed, but so did the approach to plots.
Today we call it content. But in an industry stocked with male writers, premium was placed on experience. When you read her book, Armstrong recounts the story, that’s been retold in countless other formats from many others closely associated with the show, that even getting the show developed was no small feat. Actress Mary Tyler Moore was best known as Laura Petrie, Dick Van Dyke’s TV wife from The Dick Van Dyke Show which aired from 1961 to 1965.
That show was about a married couple, but the show largely revolved around men. Van Dyke’s physical humor carried the day. It was a herculean effort by TV executive Grant Tinker (who at the time was married to Mary Tyler Moore in real life) and the show’s creators to launch a show – in 1970 - about a single, professional woman who lived in Minneapolis.
Need more proof? Listen closely to the aspirational paternalism contained in the opening lines of the original theme song.
The end of that original opening posited “you might just make it after all.” This was two years before Title IX and the Equal Rights Amendment united women in their quest for equal access to education, job opportunities and independence. I give Armstrong credit for calling out in her book the evolution of the opening line lyrics over the years. Words matter. The show wasn’t that far off from any young woman’s real experience, as Armstrong explains.
So, two years before the U.S. Congress approved the Equal Rights Amendment as an addition to the American Constitution, subject to ratification by a majority of states, a Hollywood studio door opened to women and a significant task was handed to them.
In her book, Armstrong tells the stories straight from the storytellers. We’ll get into the full list of women writers who wrote consistently for the show and the impact each had on it. But as writers, they were just one ingredient of the secret sauce. It can be said that assembling a cast of actors known for their commitment to the craft was another. Getting the written word to flow from the cast is a director’s job. Women directors contributed to some of the series’ most prominent episodes. But it all takes leadership and a culture that allows people to feel empowered to contribute. Armstrong spoke to the ambience.
Look a little closer at the women’s roles that appear throughout the course of the show. They were like nothing you had ever seen before. And each represented a sector of the burgeoning women’s movement that needed a little face time. Mary Richards’ journey toward confidence is the clear backbone of the show.
Rhoda’s early metamorphosis and the role her character plays in Mary’s evolution is the work of women. We’ll get into that later. Why is it important? First, because the show featured a woman, so the primary audience was nearly half of a constituency that previously had only seen itself relegated to supporting roles. In 1970 and 1971, Mary was the only game in town whether you were middle-aged or 14. In 1971, All in the Family came along. Hmmm, am I more an Edith or a Gloria?
In 1971, the Emmy Award nominations say it all. Here’s what folks were watching and what the industry thought was the best on TV.
In its first season on the air, All in the Family earned the award for Outstanding Comedy Series. Its competition: Arnie, Mary Tyler Moore, Love, American Style and The Odd Couple.
For leading actress in a comedy series, Jean Stapleton took home the trophy for Edith Bunker on All in the Family. That year she bested Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards and Marlo Thomas as Ann Marie on That Girl.
For supporting actress in a comedy, Valerie Harper scored as Rhoda Morgenstern, beating out the delightful and accomplished Agnes Moorehead who played Endora on Bewitched and Karen Valentine for her role as teacher Alice Johnson on Room 222.
In 1971, realism was starting to kick in. It was the last year of That Girl. Bewitched would sunset in 1972. Room 222, which was created by James L. Brooks a few years before he launched The Mary Tyler Moore Show, lasted until 1974 and with its high school teen focus, served as a voice for issues of the day.
The next time you watch a single episode or binge a season of Mary Tyler Moore, think beyond the plot. Shine a feminist light on Sue Ann Nivens, the character from 1973 to the series end who was the older working woman. Sue Ann was the most sexually honest and aggressive. Sue Ann had made it on her own (or at least in her own way) and her sharp tongue was antithetical to everything that was Mary.
We’ll learn in the next podcast about how Georgette came to be – yes, from the mind of a woman. But in watching how others work with Georgette and how the writers built out her character – seriously, they never wasted a single line - you may see a glimpse of someone you know or someone you once worked with.
Mary, Rhoda, Sue Ann, Georgette – that leaves us with Phyllis, played by Cloris Leachman. Phyllis appeared in 38 episodes and spun off into her own show. She was more than the wacky neighbor, which is a standard trope used in TV comedy long before 1970. As a married woman, sometimes happily, sometimes not happily, Phyllis served as the other side of the fence when Mary pondered just how badly she wanted to be married. She was the other end of the spectrum to Rhoda’s happiness and independence as a single woman.
And as a married woman, Phyllis brought another relationship to TV that caused women viewers to take note. Phyllis and her teenage daughter Bess addressed story lines that stretched beyond single life or workplace situations. Armstrong and I discussed just how fresh and timeless Phyllis and Bess are.
Bess, played by Lisa Gerritsen, only appeared in 10 episodes before transferring in 1975 over to her same role in the spin-off Phyllis. In this scene from a first season episode, Phyllis believes her husband the dermatologist, Lars, has chicken pox. To protect Bess from exposure, Mary takes in Bess for a few days. And it’s in that time period that Bess too gets to experience the distinct difference between Mary’s youth and independence versus her own mother’s somewhat sharp, overbearing, eager-to-please personality.
Bess Wants to Stay
Did Phyllis get the feeling like the women’s movement was leaving her behind? That too is an evolution, for which the spinoff TV show Phyllis serves as one woman’s break out.
So yes, some of us could talk about the Phyllis show as kindred spirits who appreciate well-written comedy. If four men in suits can sit at a desk all Sunday afternoon dissecting football plays, there’s room for feminists, historians, writers and funny people to poke around the edges of any character Cloris Leachman has brought to life. At 89, the woman is still delivering.
Armstrong and I lamented that both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda have not been released in full series boxed DVD set. Rather, seasons are available, each on its own. Phyllis is not available, except maybe in a pirated format. Beware on that. Hour-long drama Lou Grant is similarly not available on DVD. My greatest lasting impression of that show was the episode when CRTs were introduced into the Tribune’s newsroom. CRT, an acronym of cathode ray tube, was the initial word used for what we know to be a monitor today. Lou always did have a hard time coping with change.
My conversation with Armstrong ran the gamut and the next podcast, about the women writers and writing teams, crosses themes of style of humor, how their own personal experiences fed plot lines and the degree to which the MTM pedigree affected their careers.
But before we get to that in-depth look at the writing talent, I want to share Armstrong’s insight into the famous episode Chuckles Bites the Dust. It aired in 1975, season 6, episode 7 and is available on YouTube. I wouldn’t blame you one bit if, after listening to this podcast, you pull it up and enjoy it in a whole new way.
The episode was directed by a woman, Joan Darling. Actually it turned out to be her first directing assignment with the show. And while we go on to discuss the genius who developed The Mary Tyler Moore Show cast, Ethel Winant, Armstrong describes the Chuckles episode as an example of excellence in all categories.
For anyone who hasn’t seen the episode, the premise is very basic. Chuckles the Clown was a local children’s TV character, part of the WJM team. The episode begins with Ted Baxter absolutely giddy that he’s been asked to be in the circus parade. Lou bats him down and tells him he can’t. They send Chuckles instead.
Ted Baxter is not known for his ability to ad lib on the news. That would require more knowledge about something than he had. So he does his best.
Ted on Chuckles
If you listen closely, you can appreciate the sense of timing that each performer brings to the scene. You can also hear laughter. Every episode was produced before a live audience. Armstrong discussed with me how Joan Darling landed the opportunity to direct the show and goes into greater detail, in her book, about the actual taping.
For Darling, the challenge came in delivering the funeral scene. Here’s how Armstrong describes a mission that required everyone to be at their very best.
J Darling 2
Joan Darling has a robust IMDB page, which chronicles her work as an actress going all the way back to the early 60s. Following her inaugural shot at directing – how seriously can you ever expect to do better than Chuckles Bites the Dust? – she directed episodes in Rhoda, Doogie Howser, M.D., MASH, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and a bunch more.
Forty-five years after it first aired, The Mary Tyler Moore Show is a testament to the power of opportunity. It was the belief by the show’s creators, James L. Brooks and Allan Burns that women writers would make the show real and relevant. Joan Darling, presented with the opportunity to direct a quirky episode about the death of a clown, delivered a masterpiece.
We’ll learn how other women took their roles seriously, utilizing all they had learned from the industry, or from life to make their mark on the show.
Right now, buy the book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted written by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, published in 2013 by Simon and Shuster. Advanced TV Herstory is grateful that this book tells the story in such rich detail.
What’s Armstrong’s next project?
My thanks to Jennifer for agreeing to an interview. Show clips are taken from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, either DVD format or in the case of the Chuckles episode, from YouTube.
Stay tuned for more MTM and the fantastic women writers who made it so successful. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.