"Mary Tyler Moore" Rewind: It's wonderful, current, not funny

It's hard to imagine "Girls" or "30 Rock" without Mary Tyler Moore. But that doesn't mean it still has laughs

Published April 26, 2013 11:00PM (EDT)

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show" began airing in 1970, but its DNA is still all over TV. It is the progenitor of every comedy starring a woman, single, working or otherwise — “30 Rock’s” characterizations are closely modeled on “Mary Tyler Moore’s”; “Sex and the City” took “Mary Tyler Moore” story lines and made them explicit — but also every workplace sitcom, every friends-as-family sitcom, and every sitcom aimed squarely at adults. So most comedies. A book about its making is about to be released. It is all over most "best TV ever" lists. Because of "Mary Tyler Moore" costar Valerie Harper's illness, she has been making the talk show rounds with Tyler Moore, Cloris Leachman and Betty White. Hannah Horvath recently fell asleep watching reruns. It could not be more current, except for one thing — and this is some weapon’s grade sitcom sacrilege — it’s not that funny.

‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was created by Allan Burns and James L Brooks (who went on to make “Broadcast News” and “The Simpsons,” among other things) and produced by Mary Tyler Moore Productions. Moore, already beloved for her role as Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show," starred and produced. She played the spunky Mary Richards — “You’ve got spunk. I hate spunk,” Ed Asner famously told her in the first episode — a 30-year-old woman, newly arrived in Minneapolis, just out of a relationship, trying, in the words of the theme song, “to make it after all.”

Mary Richards is the sort of head-screwed-on-straight woman who does not anchor sitcoms often anymore, now that profound flaws are the rage. Stable, steady, smart, an aspirational every girl, warm and welcoming, an adorable hat tosser, the only question that could ever be raised about Mary's likability is, did you like her a lot or tons? She has the types of failings one would not be embarrassed to cite at a job interview — cares too much, has a hard time yelling at anyone — but without being a goody-goody. Tyler Moore made plenty of difficult things look effortless — she made physical comedy graceful, fake laughter authentic — and one was to make decency and kindness compelling.

Mary Richards was initially supposed to be a divorcée, but that was still risqué in 1970, and so Mary became a single lady. (The story goes that an executive said, “American audiences won’t tolerate divorce in a series’ lead any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with mustaches, and people who live in New York.” "The Butter Shave" episode of "Seinfeld" was obviously just for him.) In the pilot, Mary moves into a studio apartment in a Victorian house. Her bossy, married friend Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) lives downstairs, and her brand-new bestie, the bossy, brash, Bronx-born Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper) lives upstairs. (The detailing of the sets, from the stained-glass transom in Mary’s apartment to the hot-pink wood slats in Rhoda’s attic make most modern-day sitcom sets look as bland as catalog spreads.) She applies for a job as a receptionist at WJM-TV, but is hired instead by the gruff and golden-hearted Lou Grant (Ed Asner) to be an assistant producer on nearly the worst 6 p.m. news program in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, working alongside snarky (and swishy) writer Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod) and the idiotic, pompous news anchor, a true ancestor of “Anchorman,” Ted Baxter (Ted Knight).

Mary’s job is the kind that, as Rhoda puts it, “Gloria Steinem wants you to have.” "Mary Tyler Moore" was, from the beginning, feminist, but without too much fuss. The show was about a single career woman — Lou Grant describes her as a “woman’s libber” —  trying to “make it on her own,” but it was still for a mass audience: the premise was usually, though not always, radical enough. In one early episode Mary learns that her predecessor was making $50 a week more than her — at the time, Mary’s rent was $135 a month, if you want to get serious about building that time machine — and she petitions Lou for a raise, which she eventually gets. When Lou’s wife leaves him, she tells him that she wants to find out who she is as someone other than Lou's wife. After Ted starts dating and mistreating the sweet space cadet Georgette (the great Georgia Engel), Mary encourages her to be less passive, helping to create a more equal partnership Ted despises.

“Mary Tyler Moore” was not explicit by today's standards about Mary’s sex life, but she had one. In the third season, Mary goes on a date and is shown coming back home the next morning in the exact same outfit. She’s had a sleepover. In another episode, as Mary’s mother is saying goodbye to both Mary and her father she says, "Don’t forget to take your pill.” Mary and her dad both reply, “I won’t!” In an episode in which Phyllis tries to set Mary up with her brother — this is also the episode that contains the first TV utterance of the word “gay,” when Rhoda outs that same brother — Phyllis says that maybe they have been saved for each other. Mary replies, “Well, Phyllis, I’m not all that saved.”

“Mary Tyler Moore” aired at a moment when girlfriends could be seen talking about men and dating on television — Rhoda and Mary do it constantly — but not in the crass, dishy way of “Sex and the City.” One of the side-effects of Mary and Rhoda’s relatively tame debriefs, and of the less serialized nature of '70s sitcoms, where multi-episode arcs for boyfriends were not common, is that single 30-something Mary Richards is much less consumed and tortured by her singleness than most modern-day sitcom heroines. She's less angsty about dating and babies and the future than Mindy or Jess Day or Hannah Horvath or Penny Hartz.

"Mary Tyler Moore" aired when the terms and concerns of being single at a certain age — the clichés of that particular position — had not yet been defined: It was, in fact, helping to define those clichés. In the penultimate episode, after a guy takes off all his clothes when she offers him coffee, Mary realizes she’s been on 2,000 dates, 1,800 of which were bad. She ends up going on — even writing it down gives me the creeps — a date with Mr. Grant. But “Mary Tyler Moore” still ends with Mary single and unemployed, sustained by her girlfriends and her colleagues, a not at all unhappy ending that “Sex and the City,” a paean to single womanhood and best friendship in 21st century New York City, didn’t even try. "Mary Tyler Moore” does not focus on Mary's singledom as some sort of deforming predicament — she’s great, she’s Mary! — and so is more supportive of being unmarried and childless than far edgier-seeming, more recent shows.

"Mary Tyler Moore” also aired when the appropriate treatment of and behavior by working women hadn't been codified. Mary cries in the office all the time. In the third episode, Mary platonically tells Mr. Grant, “I love you," and not for the last time.  In a later episode, a new station manager arrives and promptly falls in love with Mr. Grant. (She’s played by the same actress who would fall in love with Rose on a future episode of "Golden Girls.") She propositions him, and though he turns her down, he finds it, and is supposed to find it, flattering, not sexual harassment. While interviewing Mary about what it's like to be a woman in the newsroom, a reporter asks her out. She says yes, even though he has made her do secretarial duties during their interview because she knows shorthand and he's a man. (After their date, he kisses her and asks, “Can I spend the night.” She says no. He says, “OK, see ya!”)

"Mary Tyler Moore" was as much, and at the beginning, more, of a best friendship show than a workplace comedy. Rhoda and Phyllis departed after seasons 4 and 5, respectively, for their own sitcoms. (“Rhoda” became a huge hit in its own right. Her wedding was one of the most watched TV episodes of the '70s, with 50 million people tuning in.) But until Rhoda left, her and Mary's relationship dominated the show. The two of them, along with Ethel and Lucy, are TV’s OG BFFs. (There's a reason Hannah Horvath was watching.)

Rhoda the Beautiful” is a quintessential example of the good and bad of existing before a certain kind of political correctness took hold. In that episode, Rhoda loses 20 pounds at Calorie Cutters, but still can’t stop knocking her looks. “All my life I've had this weight thing," she tells Mary. "I always thought if I could lose those 20 pounds, I would start to look OK." An exasperated Mary explains she looks more than OK. “Forget the Rhoda who does lots of put-downs of herself," she says, taking Rhoda to the mirror. "If you could just stop the defensive stuff, you might realize you are now a great-looking girl.” This scene perfectly captures the depth of their relationship, how much Mary has the self-effacing Rhoda's number, and the way that weight loss can start to be a perpetual boogeyman in some women’s minds — except that there is also that terrible “now,” as in "you are now a great-looking girl." "Mary Tyler Moore" had spent much of its first two seasons pretending that Valerie Harper was, somehow, fat, putting her in frumpy, oversize brown sweat shirts (the amazing headscarves came later) while Mary got to rock her impeccable belts.

In this interaction, and so many others, Rhoda and Mary seem like real people, just like everyone else on "Mary Tyler Moore," all ensconced in relationships so intimate they know just how they are going to drive each other crazy. (One of my favorite details of "Mary Tyler Moore" is how everyone calls Mary "Mar" — Rhoda also calls her "kid" – a dashed off, casual reminder of their closeness.) What's remarkable about "Mary Tyler Moore" is that the characters pretty much arrived on TV this way:  The pilot for "Mary Tyler Moore" sprung forth fully formed, the only really big change being the sidelining of Phyllis' daughter. While most sitcoms take their time figuring out characterizations and relationships, they are all right there in the pilot.

"Mary Tyler Moore's" best episodes, like the pilot, are extremely well-structured and characterized. Often they build to a carefully constructed climax, when a somehow steady tower of perfectly placed Jenga blocks gets suddenly dashed. In one episode, Mary is up for an award, but is having the worst luck in the days leading up to the ceremony. Indignity upon indignity pile up until, by the time she wins, it too is a kind of bad luck, as she has to take to the stage sobbing, with a froggy voice, incoherently explaining how she usually looks so much better than this. The famous “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” voted the best sitcom episode of all time, deals with a deep, ur-comedy theme — is there anything we can't laugh at? — while building to an absurd apex: Chuckles, an oft-mentioned clown, dies after being peeled by an elephant. Lou and Murray can’t stop laughing about it.  We laugh at what we're scared of, Lou explains, but Mary is horrified, until she ends up losing it at Chuckles' funeral herself.

I first watched "Chuckles Bites the Dust" when my Twitter feed lit up for some reason, now lost to Internet time, about how hilarious it was. I didn't laugh. Not because it was bad. It's meticulously assembled, no line is out of place, and Mary Tyler Moore is an amazing fake laugher (much better than Asner or McLeod or anyone else). But comedy ages. "Mary Tyler Moore" is a throwback to a time when you invited sitcoms into your home week after week, and being good company, but not necessarily uproarious or scathing, was what mattered. There are plenty of moments in "Mary Tyler Moore" that are funny — Georgette’s whole space cadet thing kills me, and Betty White in an afro is a pretty great sight gag — but the best episodes, the ones that are still heralded as high points of sitcomery, didn't make me laugh out loud.

Humor is obviously subjective, but the thing that "Mary Tyler Moore" does not have in abundance is zingers. (It had some: see, "I hate spunk.") In one episode Mary and Rhoda stay up late into the night writing obits. By 4 a.m., punchy and exhausted, they start to goof around while writing one for a 110-year-old man. "For a long time," Rhoda riffs as Mary types, "Wee Willie Williams was the oldest living citizen of Minneapolis. There were other citizens of Minneapolis who were older, except they happened to be dead." Mary cracks up and then goes: "When last interviewed, Wee Willie Williams replied he had no immediate plans for the future, but hoped to include traveling, gardening and breathing." Watching Rhoda and Mary lose it at each other's jokes is delightful, even though those lines aren't that sharp (imagine what "30 Rock" could do with such a setup). Later, Ted reads this obit on air — the lines still aren't sharp, but they have at least been put in the service of a ridiculous scenario.

Preferring punch lines is a matter of taste, but it's a taste that's particularly in vogue, goosed by Twitter and the mile-a-minute style of pop culture comedy so prevalent now. "Mary Tyler Moore" got stronger on punch lines as it went along— and especially after Betty White became a regular as the pervy Sue Ann Nivens — but its strength is in the comedic build, the growing absurdity of a situation, and intricacies of character and long-term relationships, all amusing, all charming, but not riotous. To my mind, this is hardly an insult: "Mary Tyler Moore" is often called out as the rare example of an older sitcom in which the funny holds up. But the greatest thing about"Mary Tyler Moore" is that it's a sitcom that holds up even when its funny does not.

By Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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