Saturday, October 15, 2011

MTM Enterprises - The 70's

Last night, after acquiring Season 6, I had the pleasure of sharing with Kelly this scene from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show", considered the funniest moment in TV history. It inspired me to write this blog about this classic comedy factory.

Mary Tyler Moore, fresh off her success reteaming with Dick Van Dyke in a comedy special (revisiting them their Dick Van Dyke Show personas, Rob and Laura Petrie), was tapped by CBS to star in her own sitcom in 1970. She formed a production company with her husband Grant Tinker and the rest is herstory.

The number of sitcoms created by MTM Enterprises in the 70's were only eclipsed by those of Norman Lear (All in the Family, Sanford and Son) and Garry Marshall (Odd Couple, Happy Days). Whereas Lear's videotaped sitcoms were loud,brash, controversial, and populated with Broadway stage actors, MTM's filmed output provided slick, well-written and consistent entertainment with film and TV professionals...rivaled only by "Barney Miller." This was due mainly to bringing on incredible writers ( James L. Brooks, Alan Burns, Lorenzo Music, Patchett and Tarses) and directors (Jay Sandrich and Jim Burrows).

As I did in my last post regarding Norman Lear, I want to take a look at the MTM programs that didn't quite last as long as they should have. The shows you know about need no discussion: Mary Tyler Moore Show, spinoff Rhoda, Bob Newhart Show and WKRP In Cincinnati. The dramatic programs included Lou Grant (another MTM Show spinoff) and The White Shadow. Here are the shows in the 70's you won't find on DVD.

Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers. (CBS). This 1975 fall series was highly touted but lasted only a few episodes. Hang-dog character actor Sand played a Boston concert cellist. This premise once again set an elitist bar for sitcoms which at this time were mostly set in blue collar environs. Featured Penny Marshall (what didn't in the 70's?) and the recently departed Steve Landesberg ("Barney Miller").

Texas Wheelers (ABC). Another failed 1975 fall project, this single-camera sitcom featured no live audience..or even a laughtrack. A far cry from the urban sophistication of MTM's other shows, this one featured Jack Elam as a dad raising a family including future reality TV stars Gary Busey and Mark Hamill. This one should be on dvd for the curiosity factor alone but there probably weren't enough episodes. Busey and Hamill would go off into their own versions of outer space from here.

Bob Crane Show (NBC). This midseason replacement in 1975 featured the now-infamous Crane as a dad going back to college with his daughter. His Disney dads were probably a template for this format. This may have been one of his last jobs before his horrible murder. Crane may have been haunted by inner demons but I was haunted by the theme music from this series all my life for some reason. Here it is:

Phyllis (CBS). The second "Mary Tyler Moore Show" spinoff was not as popular as the previous "Rhoda" but still lasted two full seasons. It was actually funnier. Cloris Leachman brought her hilarious Phyllis Lyndstrolm character to San Fransisco after the death of her unseen husband Lars, leaving her penniless and looking for a way to support herself and her daughter.

She worked for a photographer the first season and a city councilman the second. The family she moved in with was a wacky crew headed by veterans Henry Jones, Jane Rose and the feisty Judith Lowry. "Phyllis" still shows up on reruns on cable, usually following "Rhoda" (just like in 1975).

Doc (CBS). Another fall premiere on CBS. A gentle sitcom about a NY family doctor played by Barnard Hughes and his wife played by Elizabeth Wilson. This show had a great timeslot and did well enough to be renewed. Unfortunately, it was retooled to the point of non-recognition. MTM decided to compete with Lear at this point, moving the good doctor to an urban clinic with all new characters and videotaping the series...a first for MTM. This was much cheaper than filming and with rare exceptions would be standard format in the future. I clearly remember a very young Steve Martin playing a guest role on this show during the first season.

Tony Randall Show (ABC/CBS). Probably one of the highest quality programs and one I would hope to end up on DVD. Randall played a widowed Philadelphia judge raising two kids with the wacky courthouse cohorts played by popular film actors of the day (Allyn Ann McLerie, Rachel Roberts).

This show (somehow failing next to Barney Miller on ABC) moved to CBS Saturday lineup the following season with minor changes....a different actress played the daughter (sitcom curse in the seventies, mocked on "Roseanne") and the addition of the great Hans Conried. Seinfeld's dad (Barney Martin) played the hapless court clerk.

Betty White Show (CBS). The now legendary White decided not to continue as Sue Ann Nevins after MTM but create a new character. She played the star of a "Police Woman" type crime show at odds with the director, her ex-husband, played by John Hillerman (Magnum). Georgia Engel followed her from MTM as her roommate. I feel if this show had followed a filmed format it would have hit the mark more. But that's just me.

We've Got Each Other (CBS). Also premiering in the fall of 1977 with White's show was this one (also videotaped). Oliver Clark and Beverly Archer joined another Newhart veteran (Tom Poston) in this sitcom about role -reversal in a marriage. Clark was the stay at home husband while Archer was the working wife. This one disappeared altogether as audiences stayed home but watched something else.

In the fall of 1978.Mary Tyler Moore tried to continue her success with a variety show, Mary. This lasted only a few episodes so at midseason they tried a revamp. Still an hour show featuring variety, The Mary Tyler Moore Hour was a sitcom about running a variety show. Very meta for the time. Still no audience, sadly. But she launched a lot of careers with this one: David Letterman, Michael Keaton, Swoosie Kurtz. Dave still thanks Mary for this one. Also some veterans including Dick Shawn were featured.

Last Resort (CBS). Playing to the new "Animal House" frat style humor, MTM ventured into unkown territory in this 1979 fall entry about a group of ne'er do wells working at an upscale resort restaurant.

Paris (CBS). A dramatic 1979 crime series featuring James Earl Jones. Highly praised but barely watched.

In the 80's, when Grant Tinker took over programming for NBC, MTM created a franchise that would inform dramatic programming for decades to come-.the dramedy.Hill Street Blues St. Elsewhere and LA Law would be critical and commercial darlings for years to come.

Many writers and directors from MTM would flourish with their own production companies in the late 70's and 80's. James L. Brooks and Alan Burns created the legendary Taxi. Their production company would create two more ABC sitcoms that were highly praised but lasted very few episodes: The Associates (1979) about a law firm (featuring Martin Short, Joe Regalbuto, Allye Mills, and Wildred Hyde-White) and Best of the West (1981,.a three camera sitcom about the Old West with Joel Higgins, Tom Ewell, Leonard Frey and Tracey Walters).
Great casts, no audience. The offspring of this creative group would end up creating Cheers, "Cosby Show', "Dear John," "Amen," Wings", "Frasier" , "Will and Grace", and other flops.

And of course Bob Newhart returned in 1982 with the long running Newhart...pretty much one of the few MTM sitcoms of the 80's. Starting off videotaped, Newhart evidently shared my opinions about that style and reverted to film for the rest of the run. Good for him.