I was a bit too young to appreciate your capri pants in real time. Some of my older peers regale me with tales of love for your Jackie O doppelganger as the wife of a beleaguered TV comedy writer. Laura Petrie, indeed.
And I missed you those first four years on the glorious Saturday night schedule on the Tiffany network. You know, the one you shared with Dur Bob Hartley, Archie Bunker, Carol Burnett and, for one season, the 4077th. By the time your best friend Rhoda was married (which I caught because Monday was a weeknight—I duly got my homework done in time for sitcoms), I finally discovered you on the weekends when my family didn’t go out for barbeque at Goerke’s or burgers at the Ski Lodge.
When I did find you, Mary Richards, it was like spending time at one of my parent’s cocktail parties. Lots of mature adults sometimes acting like kids. But not juvenile. Just human. I wanted to move to Minneapolis…where it was cold. Those streets you walked on downtown were very far from the dusty one-lanes of Guadalupe County. For some reason, Mary, I always watched those bright and loud taped Norman Lear sitcoms. I learned a lot from them but I wasn’t attuned to the nuance of soft, filmed well-written comedy. And third leg of the seventies sitcom stool…Garry Marshall…provided a lot of must-see TV in Fred Silverman’s new bonanza with Fonz and Mork. Age appropriate you could say. (The Sweathogs and Chico too.) I had the T shirts. Much as the cops in the 12th precinct, I never truly appreciated your sense of humor until later in life.
When your show ended and the reruns were syndicated in the afternoon, my afterschool specials involved this young woman with long hair starting a new life. It was like you were a different person altogether. I even thought Laura Petrie was older. In the early 70’s you looked like my babysitter! But by 1977 you were so sophisticated and world weary…dealing with a preening idiot anchorman and a sexpot homemaker. I discovered your arc, Mary.
In 1978, I was old enough to be embarrassed by your attempts at a variety show. You did introduce America to future superstars and helped them get their start though. That same year, your creators started their own company and moved to another network with a group of cabbies. The character comedy was just as brilliant..but it wasn’t home. The newsroom. The highrise you moved into. It was a garage. In grimy New York.
After you got an Oscar nomination for playing a brittle, wounded mother…I hardly saw you. My mother fell in love with your show when I did, in reruns. She watched you with Dudley Moore, over and over, in a film no one else saw. And I never watched your new sitcoms in the eighties and your attempts to remake yourself in movies of the week and flashy dramas in the 90s. But your saucy turn in an independent comedy in the 90s was a nice surprise. You brought your naughty side to the fore when you hosted SNL. But, dammit, you’re Mary Richards…stop it!
But from 1970-1977, you were my Mary…always. You and your husband created the highest quality TV: Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, Phyllis, Tony Randall Show, Lou Grant, White Shadow, Hill Street Blues, WKRP, St. Elsewhere and Newhart. Why does it trump today’s renaissance of television? All the hoopla and binge watching? Because, Mary, you brought class to the small screen. No pratfalls, no constant sexual innuendo, no crudity…your comedies were about humans and humanity. Of course, there was sexual tension between you and your boss…and when you didn’t get back by morning it was subtle and not spelled out in gory detail. The nymphomaniac you knew was middle-aged, not a co-ed and the workplace buffoon showed traces of humility. Traces. Even the highest quality programming now, Mary, inundates the audience with in-your- face dysfunction and crass sensibility that actually informs our behavior rather than mocks it.
So I go to sleep at night with your DVD on…or Bob….the comfort of friends. Quiet humor. A studio audience in on the joke. I tell as many young people as I can to watch your show to see how comedy is done right. Many tried to copy you. “Cheers” was too cruel. “Murphy Brown” too political. “Seinfeld” was too soulless. “Frasier” was full of itself. “Friends” set trends. Tina Fey decided to use your show as a template…and the love showed through the wild parody. Because, like me, she knew you then.
Many will ruminate on the sociological impact of your show. What you did for women in enlightening the discussion and altering the landscape of stale thought. I recognize that, but my appreciation lies in your commitment to QUALITY.
Thanks, Mary, for elevating sitcoms and entertainment in general. No one has topped those seven years on Saturday night. No one. You did make it, girl, after all!