Mary Tyler Mores How a single woman on TV came to define an era, and then some

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted and All the Brilliant Minds who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong (Simon & Schuster, 2013) 324 pages with illustrations, endnotes and index

When The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered in 1970, it was a departure for CBS, which was then known for its lineup of corny sitcoms, musical shows, and family dramas such as Green Acres (1965-1971), Hee Haw (1969-1992) and Lassie (1954-1973) set in Kornfield Kounty and Hooterville Junction. Young viewers were staying away in droves, so CBS tried something decidedly different.

In the pilot, “Love is All Around,” Mary Richards (played by Mary Tyler Moore) has just moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, after a bad breakup. She checks out her new apartment that her friend Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) helped her find, and then goes in for a job interview at WJM-TV’s newsroom, where she meets the surly Lou Grant (played by Ed Asner).

“How old are you?” Mr. Grant asks.

“Thirty,” Mary replies. Mr. Grant looks surprised.

“No hedging. Now how old do I look,” he says, admiringly.

“Why hedge?” Mary asks with a smile. Then pauses. “How old do I look?”

“Thirty,” Mr. Grant snaps. He then asks Mary if she’s married. She answers that she is not. When he asks her religion and if she is divorced, she tells him he should not be asking personal questions that were unrelated to her job. Mr. Grant gets up from his chair.

“You know what?” Mr. Grant asks. “You’ve got spunk …”

Mary smiles. “Well—” she starts.

“I hate spunk!” he snaps.

And with that a new type of sitcom came into being, one where women were not ageless, like all the heretofore television wives and one where women acted their age instead of like 40-something ingénues who got by on their pluck and spunk a la Doris Day.

Lou Grant hires Mary anyway to be an associate producer for the six o’clock news, where she works with the sweet but acerbic newswriter Murray Slaughter (Gavin Macleod) and anchorman and all-around nincompoop Ted Baxter (Ted Knight). She also becomes best friends with fellow 30-year-old single-gal Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), a sarcastic New Yorker who works as a window dresser.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was of its time, but also transcended it. It coincided with the feminist movement for an Equal Rights Amendment, which would have guaranteed women equal protection under the law had it been ratified by enough states after Congress passed it in 1972. It also coincided with the rise of other character-driven sitcoms that dealt even more directly with topical issues, shows like Norman Lear’s All in the Family and Maude, which also ran on CBS.

Armstrong spins stories out of every little detail including the casting process, how Brooks and Burns hired their secretary, how Sonny Curtis created the theme song and fought to be allowed to sing it, and how Iranian-born director Reza Badiyi shot the opening sequence for the show on a brutally cold February day.

The show also inspired millions of women and girls to be like Mary. Giving them a new vision not only of womanhood, but also of adulthood. One where being a mother wasn’t the only option. Other TV shows would embellish on it. Sex and the City (1998-2004) would add more sex, shoes, and cocktails; 30 Rock (2006-2013) upped the neurosis and goofball antics; while Parks and Recreation (2009-2015) added small-town government parody.

But it all started with Mary.

The show became a runaway hit, ran for seven years, won 29 Emmy awards, spawned three spin-offs, and is ranked as one of the top 10 best-written sitcoms of all time by the Writers Guild of America.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong explores the history of this groundbreaking television show in her book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic. Armstrong particularly focuses on female comedy writers who got their start on the show. In addition to dovetailing with feminism (though many feminists like Gloria Steinem did not like the show), The Mary Tyler Moore Show used 25 female writers on the show, more than any other sitcom at the time. (The next closest was Maude with 7 female writers). Plus, series creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns strived to cultivate new female comedy-writing talent.

Armstrong begins her book by writing about Treva Silverman, who would eventually become the show’s executive story consultant, making her the first female comedy executive in television. She would also become the first woman without a writing partner to win an Emmy for comedy for her work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

In the opening though, Silverman has just been discovered by Carol Burnett and moves to Hollywood to be a writer.

“At that point, Treva was one of only two or three women writers in TV comedy who worked without a male partner,” Armstrong writes. “She was such an anomaly that Mademoiselle magazine did an article on her. She was part of a sociological phenomenon, a generation of new feminists being profiled in news magazines, who prioritized their careers over marriage and were often the only women wherever they went, their miniskirts, high boots, and tent dresses distinguishing them from the cinch-waisted, full-skirted secretaries who came before them.”

In The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for several seasons, Mary seemed to be the only female who worked at WJM-TV, her experiences mirroring the experiences of these female comedy writers. This was why creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns wanted so many women on their team, to get honest and real stories from the career-woman trenches.

These early chapters, also focus on Brooks and Burns and how they developed The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The network didn’t take to the idea. Armstrong reconstructs one of the tense meetings the creators had with the network.

“‘Why do you have to say her age?’ an executive wondered. ‘You don’t have to say it. Lucy [from I Love Lucy] never says her age.’ But, the producers replied, they wanted to say Mary’s age. If she was thirty, and single, and divorced, wouldn’t she be inherently more interesting than the ageless wives who had populated television since its inception?”

Eventually, Brooks and Burns did give in and change Mary Richards from divorced, which the network abhorred, to having never been married.

Armstrong spins stories out of every little detail including the casting process, how Brooks and Burns hired their secretary, how Sonny Curtis created the theme song and fought to be allowed to sing it, and how Iranian-born director Reza Badiyi shot the opening sequence for the show on a brutally cold February day.

“As they wrapped up filming on Nicollet Mall, Badiyi told the shivering star, ‘Run out into the middle of that intersection and throw your hat up in the air as if this is the happiest moment of your life,’” Armstrong writes. That opening sequence became so famous, there’s a statue depicting it in Minneapolis. “[Brooks and Burns] could not believe how good it looked once it was edited together, freeze-framed at the end with the hat in the air and a scowling older woman who happened to be walking by disapproving of Mary’s independence for eternity.”

After The Mary Tyler Moore Show gets on the air and becomes a hit, however, Armstrong’s book changes pace. It becomes a round up that jumps from person to person, briefly explaining how this or that female writer got her job. Some sent in spec scripts, others were introduced to Brooks and Burns through friends. The duo mentored many female writers and even encouraged their secretary to write an episode or two.

Armstrong tries to capture each of the women’s personalities, for instance here she describes University of Michigan senior Marilyn Suzanne Miller, who sent in a spec script to the show that Brooks and Burns enjoyed.

“Miller, the show’s youngest hire, was now using her new job to gain access to a rollicking social life in Hollywood. … At night she hung out with Garry Marshall’s [a major Hollywood producer] sister, Penny, and comedian Jay Leno at the coffee shop across the street from The Comedy Store, until 3 or 4 a.m., just hours before she’d have to get up for work.

“As Marilyn and Penny sat across the street waiting for their friends to come off the stage, Marilyn ate chocolate chip cookies while Penny knitted. They gawked at Led Zeppelin, The Who, and The Rolling Stones as the groups smoked in the parking lot between the club and the Hyatt hotel next door (known in those days as “the Riot House).”

But then Armstrong moves on to the next vignette and fails to build a connection with a single character, even Silverman, who gets a lot of focus in the beginning, is lost for many subsequent chapters, and only bobs up occasionally in the book.

Also, Armstrong has the confusing habit of referring to people by their first name in one sentence and then a few sentences later switching to the last name, which can throw readers who think that she has started talking about a different person.

But Armstrong does include great anecdotes. When Betty Ford guest starred, she was so drunk that Moore had to read her lines to her off camera. Ted Knight (who played bonehead anchorman Ted Baxter) had at least one meltdown about being perceived as an idiot due to his role. Cloris Leachman (who played new-age mom and busybody neighbor Phyllis) would ignore the rehearsed blocking and do whatever she thought her character Phyllis would do in the moment.

Among the book’s gems is a quote from the 21-page Mary Tyler Moore Show treatment about Mary:

“Mary is open and nice. That’s why she’s in trouble … In the world of the seventies, openness is for national parks; niceness is for Betty White, who can turn a buck with it; and trust is something the President asks for and doesn’t get. Lest you be left with the picture of Mary with warm apple pies cooling on her windowsill, singing duets with her pet squirrel, that’s not our girl. It’s just that she seems especially wholesome when contrasted with those around her. (We’ll let you in on a secret that’s for our eyes only. Mary is not a virgin. This becomes a very wholesome quality when you realize that Rhoda [Mary’s best friend and neighbor] is not a virgin many times over.)”

The book may have benefitted from even more quotes from the treatment, but the book is well researched. Armstrong conducted interviews with many of the show’s writers and stars. But in the end, her premise for the book also becomes a bit of a diversion. She focuses on the female writers for the show, which leads her to ignore contributors like writer Ed. Weinberger, producer David Davis, and producer Stan Daniels, who, unlike many of the female writers, remained with the show for its duration and helped formed its creative nucleus.

Armstrong is also, obviously, a fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and while sometimes it seems she might be looking at the show’s behind-the-scene’s team with rose-colored glasses (she writes, for instance, that Brooks often re-wrote entire episodes and the other writers “didn’t mind one bit” because what he wrote was so good and they all just wanted to make the show as great as possible). But she is also great at reminding other fans why they loved the show.

“When I was five years old, I loved to play Mary and Rhoda,” Armstrong writes in the author’s note. “I didn’t know that these icons of female independence would influence the rest of my life. I just liked the way they looked, the way they loved and supported each other, and the glamorous adult lives they led. … My mother bought a giant wooden J, her own first initial, spay-painted it gold, and hung it on her bedroom wall just like Mary did with her M. … My mother and I, two decades apart, embraced the props of the only enviable, unapologetic single women we knew in our insular suburban existence. We hoped to catch a little of that spirit in our own lives, even though we were both too young to realize what it meant.”