Women Writers of MTM Pt 3 (Treva Silverman)
Welcome to the third and final segment in a series that profiles the many talented, funny women who played such a huge role in the making of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. This one focuses on the creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns’ first woman writer, Treva Silverman.
Now there will be some who say that it’s counter-productive or lacks self-esteem or something to perpetuate the distinction between a woman in the profession and simply the profession. Haven’t we past that milepost yet? As one who was a teenager during the formative years of the ERA and Title IX’s application to the school environment, that would have been my expectation too.
But forty years later, to be the sole woman in the room, struggling perhaps to frame your voice in a culture that possibly dismisses or talks over it, is to know that our progress for equality and opportunity across professions is inconsistent at best.
And if you are currently the only woman in the board room, the squad room, the engineering division or otherwise at the dais, featured as an attractive token of your profession or organization’s progressivism, you’re acutely aware of the situation. You don’t need to talk about it. You don’t want to talk about it.
But you do want to DO something about it.
That’s because this movement for equality has now been going on for 40+ years. Comedy writer Treva Silverman was brought in to write, partly for her perspective on how to frame a woman’s voice realistically in a script. And because she was a funny, talented person. We see that in how some of the best plots and character development involve male characters – Lou, Ted and Murray.
Today’s movement for equal opportunity, equitable pay and even character roles that aren’t gender specific in order that they be cast with the best performer, is the mission of organizations worldwide. Their efforts are supported by even more, who dedicate themselves to women’s issues across professions, across geographic and political concerns, across socio-economic strata.
As the saying goes, knowledge is power. The goal of Advanced TV Herstory is to imbue you with a little knowledge or perspective and celebrate the work of talented women. You learn better when you’re having fun. We are renewed and inspired when we hear the stories of others, like us, who gave it all they had and succeeded.
So let’s meet Treva Silverman.
Actually, we’ll do so hearing from Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, whose 2013 book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, has served as the framework for these podcasts. Armstrong’s book weaves the formative years of Silverman’s career through The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s seven years on the air.
Treva as resource
In addition to Armstrong’s reflections about Silverman, we’re also going to hear from her first hand. Silverman sat for a 2007 interview with Allan Neuwirth and Emmy TV Legends, the video archive of the American Television Academy and the American Television Foundation.
Silverman’s Emmy distinction is her selection as the first woman, without a male writing partner, to be honored as best writing in comedy – and writer of the year. That year, 1974.
Silverman grew up on Long Island in a household that supported her creative exploration and her gift, which was recognized when Silverman was a young girl, for music. She studied music and pursued songwriting as a career. To pay the bills, she had a job as a singing pianist in a Manhattan restaurant. That’s where James L. Brooks started up a conversation with her.
In addition to piano though, Silverman’s youth and early adult years were spent immersed in theatre, books, magazines and listening to the radio. From early in her childhood she knew she could find humor in situations, particularly those that she considered cliché, as she recounts in the Emmy TV Legends interview. It’s in that interview that she also cites one of her early influences.
So, loaded with talent she made her way to Hollywood. Remember, the 60s blend of comedy was pretty mild. Amid the tremors of the Civil Rights Movement, political assassinations and the Vietnam War, CBS soothed a jittery nation with, as we see it today, campy humor of Green Acres, Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction and the like.
Silverman found work on The Monkees and in this clip, talks about what it was like to pitch a story idea to an executive of That Girl, an early sitcom centered on a single woman.
That Girl pitch
She was fortunate to find a pair, in Brooks and Allan, who appreciated her for her ideas and knew her humor and perspective would be instrumental in the show they were preparing. As the first woman hired, Silverman set a tone and functioned a bit as a filter. I get the sense she had to use great diplomacy and patience, discussing ideas and details down to words and phrases, with men who are now considered masters of the sitcom craft too.
In her book, Armstrong recounts the disastrous taping of the first MTM episode. From a number of people who were there, each reflected on how Murphy’s Law surfaced– camera placement, air conditioning faltering– all sorts of factors that shake the confidence of a newly formed team – dampening everyone’s enthusiasm. The audience didn’t laugh.
Part of the disconnect with that audience may have been too that they were the first to receive a sitcom about a single woman reliant on no man, working in a profession in which she was not a secretary or housekeeper. She was respected by her male co-workers and contributed constructively at work. The comedy wasn’t about her shortcomings. The comedy was about her life situations.
Part of that comedy was the woman neighbor Rhoda, who would become her best friend in that first episode, and who would become a model for American women. Silverman’s fingerprints are all over Rhoda.
Silverman admits to having altered the trajectory of Rhoda. In this softened character, women enjoyed the progressive yet totally believable approach the character took in managing life’s challenges. Coming from a more worldly, diverse vantage point, Rhoda Morgenstern caused Mary Richards to see other ways of advancing her life.
Mary may never have grown in her confidence and owned her decisions had her neighbor been a dumpy, self-deprecating load. Valerie Harper, as an early feminist, contributed to that trajectory in her timing, her energy and of course, the wardrobe. Beyond softening and changing that important character’s world view and impact on Mary, Silverman brought a human side to Lou Grant and Ted Baxter. She did so by telling of their relationships with their women, Edie and Georgette.
How does a respected sitcom writer develop the confidence to be able to tell the team, “Hey, let’s take our gruff, teddy bear character to a point of pain?” She knew Asner would be capable of handling the story, as his dramatic acting credentials were well known. Rather, that position of strength came from the leadership of the organization – both the show’s leaders as well as MTM Productions’.
Before we talk about the Ted/Georgette chapter, listen to how Silverman describes how Mary Tyler Moore’s humility contributed to a writer’s ability to take risk.
So when your boss, and your boss’ boss – they all trust you and the growing team of writers with the lives, loves and losses of these beloved main characters – that’s a cool thing. It’s also a little intimidating, it seems to me. They had no idea that day in and day out, what they were creating would become an American classic.
In the two earlier segments of this podcast series, Armstrong talked about the importance of Ethel Winant’s work in casting. No single character was minimized. Each performer stuck with the show until such time as she was ready for a spin-off, namely Rhoda and Phyllis.
Rounding out the core team of characters that performed through the show’s seven seasons is Ted Knight, who played anchorman Ted Baxter. Like Silverman’s treatment of Lou’s divorce, it took a serious romantic influence to advance another side of Ted.
Georgette’s path to becoming Ted’s wife was not pre-ordained in the writers’ room. The episode that would serve as the send-off of Rhoda to New York required writing and casting a few co-workers. Silverman had to develop a character who would have contrasted Rhoda, doing windows at Hempel’s department store all these years.
Once Georgette was in the fold for deeper character development, they found her to be the yinto Ted’s yang, with a sensitivity and sensibility he lacked. And, up until spring of 2015, Georgia Engel was a regular sidekick to Betty White in TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland, as a character not too far removed from Georgette.
Silverman continues to serve as a resource and role model for women across many fields of creative and non-creative work. Moreoever, as I hear it in her storytelling, she credits the fundamentals of leadership, as it is taught and trained today, as essential elements of the series’ success.
Between Tinker, Moore, Brooks and Burns, there was a vision for the show. They brought on a talented cast and crew and enabled them to stretch, take risks and give it their all.
When researching for her book, Armstrong felt that empowerment statement in many of her interviews - a humility that was praised for prevented obstacles otherwise found in an ego-driven industry - assured each team member that credit would be given for work performed. That credit took the form of Emmy trophies and long lasting relationships.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show was exciting to work for because it challenged TV’s norms of the day. Some might say that it did so for only a short period of time, as All in the Family and Maude quickly rose to take more risk with more controversial issues and a grittier style of messaging and acting. As Armstrong points out, they all advanced the American conversation, just with different approaches.
From Armstrong’s book and interview clips heard on this segment and the two previous, there’s a consistent message that MTM Productions was a unique organization and presented a once-in-a-lifetime workplace. Tinker, Moore, Brooks and Burns modeled the culture that created that success: humility, hard-work, creativity and diversity.
Across any industry, organization or basic plan, those are the ingredients of success.
Thanks for tuning into this installment of Advanced TV Herstory. Hey, put an M on your wall or a WJM patch on your blazer for having completed all three segments. MTM and the many people associated with it, who so enthusiastically want to share their stories, are an important chapter in TV herstory. And 45 years later, they still inspire.
My idea for this string of podcasts evolved when I was looking at my office bookshelf one day and saw Armstrong’s book – Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. To do a podcast about MTM would require a definite A-game and Armstrong, it felt, had already written the book. Literally.
So as I roll these credits one more time, I want to extend a big thank you to Jennifer Keishin Armstrong for generously agreeing to an interview. Learn more about what she’s up to at jenniferkarmstrong.com. The other source of clips for this segment is the invaluable Emmy TV Legends website and an interview conducted with Treva Silverman in 2007.
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This script and past scripts can be found at my website cynthiabemisabrams.com.
Thanks for listening. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.