Books
9:35 am
Sun May 26, 2013

The Women Who Inspired Other Women With 'Mary Tyler Moore'

Originally published on Tue May 28, 2013 10:26 am

In the '60s, many of the women on television were cute, a little silly and married. A couple shows even featured women who were sweetly supernatural — think Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. Mary Richards, though, was single, sassy and filled with joy. She was practically magic to a new generation of women.

The beloved Mary Tyler Moore Show went on the air in 1970, and now, more than four decades years later, it's still a source of inspiration.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong has written a new history of the show. She talked to the women behind the show — some of the first women to break into the industry — about how the show made it to air and beyond.

The book is called Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. Armstrong joined Rachel Martin, the host of Weekend Edition Sunday, to explain how the creators of The Mary Tyler Moore Show wanted their star character to be different from the women who were on TV at that time.


Interview Highlights

On writing a different kind of woman

"Originally, they had intended for her to be divorced, because they felt like that was something that everyone was going through and talking about at the time. They did not get the divorced part through with CBS, but they did manage to have her be single and working ... [James L. Brooks and Alan Burns] brought in a lot of talented female writers, more than most shows had ever done before. ... The first person they hired to write for the show was named Treva Silverman, and they loved her work. She became a very intrinsic part of the development of the show, and how the show took shape, developed over the first several seasons."

On working in an office that didn't work for them

"One of the early and lone champions of the show at CBS was Ethel Winant. She was the only woman in the sort of executive ranks, and so there was an executive bathroom, but there was only one. ... So she would leave her high heels outside the door so that men knew she was in there, because there was no lock on the door either, of course."

On breaking ground, but staying safe

"They realized that their whole deal was to be very character-driven, and if that meant at times, Lou gets a divorce, so be it, but that had to come from the character and they had to do it in a really realistic way. They ended up doing a lot of things like that. They had an episode with a gay character, where Phyllis' brother turns out to be gay. They only did that, though, when they felt like it was the right thing for all of the characters."

On "Mary" echoed today

"I think we see it all over the place. ... We've had this incredible spate of shows about single girls, lots of them very good, but yeah, you know, I think that a lot of the young women who are creating shows are affected by this show. ... Combining the pathos and the funny is really a hallmark of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, so I think it is all over the place."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the 1960s, the women who populated television were cute, a little silly and were married, firmly rooted in their domestic lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: But if many of those ladies were supernatural, Mary Richards, single, sassy and filled with joy was magic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE IS ALL AROUND")

SONNY CURTIS: (Singing) Who can turn the world on with her smile? Who can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?

MARTIN: The beloved "Mary Tyler Moore Show" went on the air in 1970. And now, more than 35 years after it ended, it is still a source of inspiration. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong has written a new history of the show. She spoke with several of the women who were some of the first to break into the industry about how the show made it to the air and how it's still influencing the female characters populating your DVR. The book is called "Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted." Jennifer Keishin Armstrong joined us from our New York bureau, and I asked her how the creators the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" intended Mary to be different than the other women on TV at the time.

JENNIFER KEISHIN ARMSTRONG: Originally, they had intended for her to be divorced because they felt like that was something that everyone was going through and talking about at that time. They did not get the divorced part through with CBS but they did manage to have her be single and working.

MARTIN: Which was a big deal.

ARMSTRONG: Very big deal at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW")

MARY TYLER MOORE: (as Mary Richards) I would like to know why the last associate producer before me made $50 a week more than I do?

ED ASNER: (as Lou Grant) Oh, because he was a man.

MARTIN: The creators and the producers, James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, they knew their limitations as writers for this show, at least how you write about them, and they knew they wanted women to work on this show. What were they looking for?

ARMSTRONG: They wanted some more insight into what it was like to be a single woman in 1970 because they were both married men. So, they brought in a lot of talented female writers, more than most shows had ever done before. So, this was very different in the sense that the first person they hired to write for the show was named Treva Silverman, and they loved her work. She became a really intrinsic part of the development of the show, and how the show took shape over the first several seasons. And they hired several more women as well. When they first started the show, the women's movement was just kind of like a vague blip in the background and then it became really this huge thing as time went on.

MARTIN: You write a couple of really compelling vignettes about what it was like to be a woman in television at that time on the production side. One particular television executive, back in the day she was working in an environment in an office building where they actually didn't have a female restroom on the executive floor.

ARMSTRONG: Yes. One of the early and lone champions of the show at CBS was Ethel Winant. She was the only woman in the sort of executive ranks. And so there was an executive bathroom, but there was only one. Of course, we only need one. It's just for men. So, she would leave her high heels outside the door so that men knew she was in there, 'cause there's no lock on the door either, of course.

MARTIN: We talk about "Mary Tyler Moore Show" breaking a lot of ground, and it did. But the characters were still operating in a certain moral framework that was illustrative of the time, right? And what got me going back and watching some episodes was the fact that Mary's signature gag is this outburst of hysterical crying, which is not exactly a feminine message.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW")

MOORE: (as Mary Richards) I don't want to go to jail. I'm afraid to go to jail. I've never been to jail, Mr. Grant. I never even had to stay after school.

ARMSTRONG: You know, there are a lot of things that are not a feminist message about Mary Richards. And that's part of why she was so effective. Things changed a lot very quickly right after that. Right? We got "All in the Family." We got "Maude." We got a lot of different stuff happening on TV right after that. But this is still 1969. And she also had the Mr. Grant thing. She called Lou Mr. Grant, where everyone else on the show called him Lou.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW")

MOORE: (as Mary Richards) Mr. Grant?

ASNER: (as Lou Grant) Oh, Lord.

MOORE: Mr. Grant.

MARTIN: Did anyone you talked to explain why she did that, why they wanted her to call him Mr. Grant?

ARMSTRONG: They said they felt like that's what she would do. She's just that kind of person. They really were trying to make her what they call likeable on television.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW")

MOORE: (as Mary Richards) Mr. Grant.

ARMSTRONG: They were really protective of the character early on, and I think that's 'cause it came from that old idea of, you know, making her as good as possible. So that later when she said she was on the pill or when she stayed out all night, America had already sort of fallen in love with her as this good, decent girl.

MARTIN: You mentioned "All in the Family," which debuted just a few months after "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," which is a different show. I mean, that show took on really complicated social issues of the time in new ways for television - racism, homosexuality, even abortion and rape. I mean, they put it all out there. How did that affect "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"?

ARMSTRONG: I mean, I think there was competition, for sure. They're on the same network. They're on the same night. "All in the Family" did better in the ratings, made a bigger splash, but the people at "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" had to kind of go, OK, you know what? We're a different show and we need to focus on what we do and not try to chase this other thing that's happening in television. And realized that their whole deal was to just being really character-driven. And if that meant at times Lou gets a divorce, so be it, but that had to come from the character and they had to do it in a really realistic way. They ended up doing a lot of things like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Phyllis, Ben and I aren't getting married.

ARMSTRONG: They had an episode with a gay character, where Phyllis' brother turns out to be gay.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) He is witty, he is attractive, he's successful, he's single, he's gay.

ARMSTRONG: They only did that, though, when they felt like it was the right thing for all of the characters and that it would feel right.

MARTIN: So, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" runs for six incredibly successful seasons. The seventh season rolls around and there's a big conversation about how to end the show. And this is complicated because, as you mentioned, Mary's love life has not been a focal point of the entire series, but it's there lingering at the edges. Can you talk a little bit about the debate over whether or not to marry Mary off.

ARMSTRONG: They tried several times. There were dating episodes, and a couple of guys lasted more than one episode - very few, but a couple. And they just felt like they never found the right man. I thought that that was such a funny, I mean, they said it that way and I was, like, that's so interesting, right, because, gosh, I'm sure Mary Richards herself thought that way too, right? Like, I keep trying to catch this guy. It's just not happening. And they really felt like, I mean, it's sort of touching. They were like no one was good enough for her.

MARTIN: Where do we see "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" today? Where do we see it echoed?

ARMSTRONG: I think we see it all over the place. It was part of why I wrote the book is that I was a writer at Entertainment Weekly for 10 years and did a lot of women in entertainment stuff, especially the rise of Tina Fey. And when I talk to these women, they all cited this show as their inspiration, which I thought was so interesting that it was still having this echo effect. And now we've had this incredible spate of shows about single girls - lots of them very good. But, yeah, you know, I think that a lot of the young women who are creating shows are affected by this show. And, of course, I mean, "30 Rock" was blatantly sort of patterned as this bizarro version of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." I mean, Tina Fey has actually talked about that. And, you know, combining the pathos and the funny is really a hallmark of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." So, I think it is all over the place.

MARTIN: The book is called "Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted." It is written by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. She joined us from our studios in New York. Jennifer, it has been such a fun trip down memory lane with you.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW")

ASNER: (as Lou Grant) You know what? You've got spunk.

(LAUGHTER)

MOORE: (as Mary Richards) Well...

ASNER: I hate spunk.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE IS ALL AROUND")

CURTIS: (Singing) Girl, this time you're all alone, but it's time you started living. It's time you let someone else do some giving. Love is all around, no need to waste it. You can have the town, why don't you take it? You might just make it after all. You might just make it after all...

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.