I recently finished a rewatch of all seven seasons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
I love that show. That and Dick Van Dyke were two of my favorite situation comedies on Nick at Nite growing up. I love Mary Tyler Moore, both as Laura Petrie and Mary Richards.
When watching the episodes, I knew I wanted to blog about it. I even started collecting pictures.
But as we all know, I have become The Missing Blogger, and I suck. However. My friend Meltha, who is as smart as she is funny, is also a big fan of the show, and I asked her to write something up for me.
She sweetly obliged. Her thoughtful and intelligent blog post can be found under the cut.
When my friend Bunny asked me to write something about The Mary Tyler Moore Show, my immediate reaction was a perkily tweeted “sure!” Probably a whole ten minutes passed before I began to panic over how hard it was going to be to try to sum up one of the funniest, smartest, most beloved TV shows ever. I kept coming back to a quote by E. B. White, the author who put generations of kids in therapy with the book Charlotte’s Web, “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.“
In short, trying to sum up MTM seems almost as pointless as Cupcake Wars. No matter how descriptive the judges are, the audience will never understand what those cupcakes taste like unless they experience them for themselves. If you have never had the extreme pleasure of watching Ted Baxter stand in front of the weather map and botch every line all while maintaining a level of idiotic-suavity that is simultaneously maddening and endearing, I will never be able to explain it to you. There is a reason the audience members sound like they are about to die from laughter most of the time. Get thee to a DVD collection and bask in the glory of these characters.
At heart, that really is what is so monumentally brilliant about this show. The characters are people you know, or at least wish you knew. Nobody would actually want to live next door to the Bundies on Married with Children or the Griffins on Family Guy. They’re horrible people, and that’s a conceit that’s used over and over in comedy that get tired really fast: hey, look at the awful, disgusting, stupid people who could not possibly exist in the real world and who would undoubtedly be dead in a heartbeat from the moronic physical things they do if any laws of normal anatomy and science were in play here! Aren’t they the funniest thing ever! But that’s not the route MTM takes. These are very real, though flawed and funny, people. There is no Jerry Lewis-like maniacal mugging at the camera, no bizarre body-bending a la Jim Carrey. What you get is a newsroom in Minneapolis full of people it is difficult not to love on first sight.
There aren’t really any jerks in the newsroom. Mr. Grant can be a chauvinist, Georgette can be a little too dense, Murray might be slightly glum, and Mary is the ultimate perfectionist, but no one actually wants to hurt people, and that’s perhaps why this show maintains its charm. Its humor is strangely gentle. The characters do not usually verbally abuse one another to make the audience laugh (a trend which has frighteningly seemed to leap from the screen into real life, where on a daily basis I encounter people who say nasty or sarcastic things as though they are waiting for a phantom audience’s laugh track to signal their approval of a cutting remark). There’s a certain kindness to the comedy that is pleasantly old fashioned today.
It’s easy to forget just how cutting edge this show was when it first aired. Mary Richards was an unmarried woman who was working full time in her career, making her own money, and living by herself in her own apartment. Today, this image is commonplace. In the 1970s, this was nearly insane. Previous comedies that used women at all usually had them as second banana wives or teenage daughters. The exception that immediately stands out is I Love Lucy, which of course did feature Lucille Ball in the main role as a nutty, hair-brained wife. While Ball was one of the funniest human beings ever in existence, the show is sometimes uncomfortable to watch now because of her dynamic with her husband Ricky. He spends at least half of his time in any episode treating her like a none-too-bright child. Even the title suggests who is really in charge since it is obviously Ricky who is making the statement, and it’s his view of things we’re seeing, both metaphorically and literally since Arnez was the director and Ball’s husband.
Mary Richards is not Lucy. She’s not even the Laura from The Dick Van Dyke Show, Moore’s other tour de force in television, who was a force to be reckoned with in her own right. Mary Richards is, first and foremost, Mary. While she might be dating and looking for love and even open to the possibility of getting married, she’s no one’s second banana. This is her life, and she is the focus of it. She’s almost neurotically worried about being nice, infamously apologizing to an empty chair she bumped into during her initial job interview with Mr. Grant, and her parties are disasters. She couldn’t sing to save her life. She doesn’t have the Bohemian spirit of her friend Rhoda, and she isn’t as overtly feminist as her buddy Phyllis. So what is it about her that makes Mary Richards so dang wonderful?
I think the answer to that is in the opening credits, the much-parodied hat toss. Mary Richards is having fun with her life. It might be stressful and not at all what she expected it to be, but in a world full of people who are shuffling through a crosswalk, barely noticing where they’re going, she is filled with a kind of manic joy that she’s made it this far, and the audience half-expects that hat to go straight into orbit. It’s hard not to smile at that.
So, my advice to anyone who has not experienced the wonderful humor of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is the following: watch it. Watch “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” in which a clown dressed as a peanut is stampeded to death by a hungry elephant. Watch Mary’s one date with Mr. Grant, which works about as well as a solar powered nightlight. Watch Georgette attempt to get Ted to the altar over and over again. Watch Murray turn office drudgery into a comic art form. And when you get to the end of it all, sing along to “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” cry because these gorgeous, funny, lifelike characters who have practically become your friends fade into history, and realize that sometimes, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, TV is just plain good.