DC at Night

DC at Night

Monday, May 27, 2013

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted

Ever since the advent of television, 5-year-olds have been influenced by what they see there. In fact, their TV friends often become as important as their real-life playmates next door. Elmo. Barney. Dora. It was no different for Jennifer Armstrong in her 1970's childhood. But what was unusual was her choice of TV friends. One was named Mary. The other was named Rhoda. And they were both characters on one of the biggest hit comedies of the decade, The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

"I was obsessed with Mary and Rhoda," says Armstrong, now an author and former writer for Entertainment Weekly. "I watched everything they did and tried to imitate them. I was Mary sharpening pencils. Or I was Rhoda with a scarf wrapped around my head."

When Armstrong revisited the show in re-runs, she came to more deeply understand the real impact it had on her. "I realized I was really inspired by the show when I was growing up," she said of the sitcom, which instantly became a guiding light for women in the gender-changing era of the 1970's and is credited with helping  increase involvement, responsibility, and visibility of women in television.

As she began to reflect on her own life in her 30's, Armstrong discovered a subconscious patterning. Like Mary, Armstrong had left a relationship, came to the big city (although in this case it was New York, not Minneapolis), and taken a job in media. "It was a little creepy," she says with a laugh. And what about the show itself. "As a 30-something woman, I was responding on a nostalgia level, but I was amazed how it (the show) still really worked," she noted.

So, with all that Mary and Rhoda influence, it's not surprising that Armstrong eventually chose the subject for her latest book entitled Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted and All the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic. 

A scene from the series final episode.
Armstrong appeared recently at the National Archives to discuss the book with many devout fans of the show.  "It doesn't seem mind blowing now, but I think this show really did pave the way," Armstrong said.  She noted that during interviews she had conducted with prominent stars Tina Fey and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, both had acknowledged the great influence the program had on their own comedy work..  The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the 1st comedy show in television history to employ multiple female writers. At the time, there was a belief that women couldn't write humor.  But the show's creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns wanted to capture the real essence of a single working woman. "The men writers didn't know what it was like to be a single woman in the 70's because they were all married men in the 70's," Armstrong said. She cited one example of where gender played a role in a small, but significant shift change. One of the male writers had Mary say she was going to the bathroom "to get cleaned up." But one of the female writer's immediately kaboshed that line. "A woman wouldn't go get cleaned up - that's a dude thing," she said.

Armstrong alternated between reading snippets from her book and then offering additional insider information on the passages. One such example dealt with Cloris Leachman, the actress who played Mary's snobbish neighbor Phyllis, who also served as a foil for Valarie Harper's character, Rhoda. "She (Leachman) was a genius. She was brilliant on the show and she is still brilliant.  I say I didn't interview Cloris Leachman; I experienced Cloris Leachman," Armstrong told the audience.

In many ways, Leachman was a living embodiment of the dilemma of the new 1970's woman who found herself trying to juggle a marriage, a family, and a career. Trained as an actress, Leachman had left the business for 17 years to raise a family. At the time of her audition, she was 43 years old and had 5 children between the ages of 3 and 16. But, to employ a show business cliche, she immediately demonstrated that she was born to play the role of Phyllis. Arriving 1/2 hour late, she blurted out, "Who makes the decisions here?" She was pointed in the direction of Brooks, Burns, and Mary Tyler Moore's producer husband Grant Tinker. "Well, she jumped in Brooks and Burns' laps and began  messing up Tinker's hair. And Tinker had the kind of hair you didn't mess up," Armstrong said.

After gaining the role, Leachman would often frustrate directors by going off script placement. When questioned about her movements, she would just smile and say, "I just realized that was what Phyllis would do," Leachman would respond. While some associated with the show were disturbed by Leachman's behavior, fellow co-star Harper gave her support. "Just go with your instincts," Harper told Leachman. And that formula must have worked because not only did The Mary Tyler Moore Show win 29 Emmys during its 7 seasons, but both Harper and Leachman were awarded spinoff shows named appropriately Rhoda and Phyllis.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
While the Mary Tyler Moore fans enjoyed Armstrong's presentation, they learned that if it weren't for the current cuts prompted by the Sequestration, they would have had an even better program. Archives event coordinator Doug Swanson told the audience that originally Armstrong was scheduled to moderate a panel discussion on the show, which would, like her own book presentation, be part of a series on 1970's culture being held in conjunction with Archives current exhibition Searching for the Seventies. Three of the original stars of the show had agreed to participate. However, when the Sequestration budget cuts kicked in, the Archives lost its money for travel expenses for program participants. So, once again in DC, it was Bad, Congress, Bad. I bet Lou and Mary could have figured out a way to avoid the completely idiotic Sequestration created by those bickering, partisan denizens of Capitol Hill. Why even Ted Baxter wouldn't have come up with such a doofy, doltish idea.

Blog Archive

Popular Posts