Suzanne Allard Levingston is a writer living in Bethesda.
The night before I headed off to journalism grad school, I stayed up packing and waiting for my girl Mary on 1 a.m. reruns. Mary was Mary Richards, the television news producer played by Mary Tyler Moore in the 1970s comedy series that bore her name. Mary had dark hair, a toothy smile, an inclination toward earnest goofiness and giant hopes of winning in a male-dominated world — all traits I shared. Girls like me grew up on Mary, laughing with her and her brassy best friend, Rhoda, as they navigated their lives as single women with workmates who were also friends.
As I folded my hopes into my suitcase, the theme sang out, “You’re gonna make it after all,” and there, miraculously, appeared the final episode of the series. I hadn’t ordered this on Hulu. This was 1980, when Hulu sounded like something you did in a grass skirt. No, this was kismet — a cosmic fluke that Mary’s last show would rerun on my last night home. I took it as a sign. Had there been Twitter, I’d surely have tweeted that I was gonna make it after all, too.
I was not alone in my Mary worship. Along with the rest of the nation, most of us little sisters of the women’s movement loved Mary. Oprah Winfrey, for one, watched every episode as a teen “like my life depended on it,” citing Mary as a trailblazer and an inspiration for her career. Anyone who’s loved Mary or wants to know the inside story of how this remarkable series came about will enjoy Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s well-researched appreciation,“Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted.”
Taking a leisurely look at the characters and the people behind the scenes of one of the most successful television series ever, Armstrong’s book pleases on several levels. There’s the story of simply getting the show on the air. “MTM” broke ground with its focus on the social and work life of a single career woman. The series began in 1970 as 30-year-old Mary relocated to Minneapolis after being jilted by her fiance. The producers originally wanted her to be divorced, but network research showed that viewers wouldn’t tolerate that storyline.
The first quarter of the book takes us through launching the pilot episode, in which Mary is interviewed for an associate producer job by curmudgeonly Lou Grant. “You’ve got spunk,” he famously told her. “I hate spunk.” (Confession: Not long after grad school, I worked at “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” in New York. When I found out that one of the managers was named Lew, I was so tickled to be in a parallel Mary universe that I had to restrain myself from running into Columbus Circle to throw my beret into the air — an homage to Mary for which “MTM” fans need no explanation.)
Mary was surrounded by a stellar cast, including Ed Asner as Lou; Valerie Harper as wise-cracking Rhoda Morgenstern; Gavin MacLeod as Murray, the married newswriter who’d always have a crush on Mary; and Ted Knight as Ted Baxter, the vain and dimwitted local news anchor. Early reviews called the show “a disaster.” But the smart, character-driven humor won over the nation, and the same media outlet that initially called Mary “unmarried and getting a little desperate about it” described her a few years later as “thirty-three, unmarried, and unworried — Mary is the liberated woman’s ideal.”
The women’s movement of the late 1960s opened the door for female characters. Moore’s then-husband, TV executive Grant Tinker, charged producers Jim Brooks and Allan Burns with creating a comedy series based more on realistic stories than on schtick. “Mary’s workplace, in particular, was rife with story possibilities,” Armstrong writes. “How might it feel to be the only woman in a room? What was it like not to be paid the same as men in your position? How might you handle sexist talk and unwanted come-ons?”
In Armstrong’s telling, comedy writing itself lagged behind in gender equality, and one of the delights of the book is learning how Brooks and Burns generously developed a stable of talented young women who could write Mary Richards’s life from their own experiences.
While Armstrong bogs her story down a bit with too much detail about the lives of “the brilliant minds” who worked on the show, it’s a joy to learn just how the program sprang from real life. The sassy Rhoda, who became so popular she earned her own spin-off, was partly inspired by the program’s secretary and a future writer, Pat Nardo. In one episode, to end a rift, Rhoda’s mother reads her a note she penned in the hospital the day Rhoda was born. Writer Karyl Geld took this verbatim from a note her own mother had written at her birth: “God has been good to me. The nurses haven’t been so nice, but God has been good to me.”
Mary Richards was not a brazen woman, but she did stretch boundaries. She said in one episode: “I’m hardly innocent. I’ve been around. Well, maybe not around, but I’ve been nearby.” Armstrong reminds us that in its seven-year run, “MTM” got “nearby” issues that had been virtually taboo on television: sex, divorce and even death.
An episode called “Chuckles Bites the Dust” tackled the news that the TV station clown, dressed as Peter Peanut, was crushed to death by a rogue elephant in a parade — the animal was trying to shell him. Ted Baxter ad-libbed a eulogy in Chuckles’s own words (which also make for a good toast): “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.” The only person who didn’t laugh was the censorious Mary — but at the funeral her emotions caught up with her, and she got giggles she couldn’t shake. The Washington Post’s Tom Shales called the episode a “bittersweet riot about laughing in the face of death.”
Through clips, reviews and interviews, Armstrong takes us back to a golden age of comedy when no one was embarrassed to be home on a Saturday night watching “MTM.” The talent behind Mary Richards contributed to later entertainment gems: “Lou Grant,” “Broadcast News,” “Terms of Endearment,” “The Simpsons,” “The Golden Girls,” “The Cosby Show,” “Cheers” and “Frasier,” to name a few. The DNA of characters from Liz Lemon (“30 Rock”) to Carrie Bradshaw (“Sex and the City”) can be traced to Mary Richards.
In the last episode of “MTM,” Mary Richards said: “Sometimes I get concerned about being a career woman. I get to thinking that my job is too important to me, and I tell myself that the people I work with are just the people I work with, and not my family. And last night, I thought, ‘What is a family, anyway?’ They’re just people who make you feel less alone and really loved. And that’s what you’ve done for me. Thank you for being my family.” “Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted” offers a welcome family reunion.
Suzanne Allard Levingston is a writer living in Bethesda.
MARY AND LOU AND RHODA AND TED
And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” a Classic
By Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Simon & Schuster. 324 pp. $26