Monday, May 18, 2009

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (TV)

(1976)
Produced by
Norman Lear
Starring Louise Lasser, Greg Mullavey, Dody Goodman, Mary Kay Place, Graham Jarvis, Debralee Scott, Dabney Coleman, Philip Bruns, Bruce Solomon, Victor Killian, Martin Mull
Wikipedia Entry

Norman Lear ruled mid-70s TV comedy. His All in the Family and spinoffs were such major hits that he was able to do what he wanted. A few were ratings misfires (like The Hot L Baltimore) but that didn't stop the networks from putting his shows on the air.  And All in the Family seemed to executives to be such a weird concept to be a hit, they were willing to accept weird concepts.

So, in 1976, Lear decided on another direction:  a satirical soap opera, running five days a week, that would parody the genre, as well as anything else that came to mind.  The result was Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.

Cast of Mary Hartman The show was set in the fictional Fernwood, Ohio, where Mary (Louise Lasser) lived and loved. Her best friend Loretta Haggers (Mary Kay Place) thought she was going to be the next country music superstar, despite having no noticeable talent.  Mary had issues with her husband (Greg Mullavey), her dippy mother (Dody Goodman) and even her grandfather (Victor Killian*) -- the Fernwood Flasher.

The show had very plot-driven humor.  It thrived on incidents and twists, along with characters that were all bizarre amalgamations of all sorts of soap opera cliches. At five nights a week, it didn't try for big laughs every scene, but handled plenty of small laughs that were referred to in such a way as to make them funnier and funnier as time went on.  Even today, I can't think of International House of Pancakes  or a station wagon full of nuns without smiling.

One favorite scene of mine was when Loretta, who was close to her dream, appeared on the Dinah Shore show, where she commented on how nice a Jewish production assistant was, especially since he "was one of the people who killed Our Lord."  The screen then went to an immediate apology the the part of Dinah Shore that opinions expressed were not those of the show or anyone within six degrees of separation from it.

But that joke indicated some of the show's problems.  First of all, no network was willing to give Lear a half hour a day for one particular show.  Lear produced it and sold it on a station-by-station basis.  At the same time, the controversial nature of the show made it inappropriate for prime time hours, so it was usually shown after the news.**  I was lucky to catch most of the first season because I was working nights at the time, and was alone with the TV after 11:30.

The show was helped by good casting.  Louise Lasser was the best-known member of the case (mostly because she was known as Woody Allen's ex-wife), but quite a few people went on to long successes, including  Mary Kay Place and Dabney Coleman.

Eventually, Louise Lasser tired of the role and moved on, and the show morphed from a soap opera parody, Fernwood 2Nite.

Despite the controversy, the show is not well remembered. First, because of the late time slots and controversial subject matter*** few saw it (though many heard of it).  Also the five-nights-a-week format doesn't lend itself well to DVD repackaging. There are some "Best of" DVDs, but Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was not a show about individual episodes, but rather due to cumulative effect.  It would be very difficult to cut it into manageable chunks without losing what made the show so good.

It would be great if someone could repackage the show correctly, but until then, we can all go down to the International House of Pancakes and have a good meal.

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*As a side note, Killian may be the only actor in history who starred in the movie, but whose name was removed from the credits.  It was in something called Unknown World -- something like The Core, but with even worse science.  Killian probably would have been listed atop the credits, but while the film was in post-production, he turned up on the McCarthy blacklist, so the producers decided not to mention the fact he was in the movie.

**At the time, the options for late-night TV were pretty much The Tonight Show or nothing.  Most stations ran their own programming after the news and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman filled this niche.

***Actually, not all that different from the daytime soaps.

2 comments:

Joseph said...

Another wonderful show. Mary Kay Place ( Also great but forgotten.) was abolutely priceless as the good -hearted would-be Country Music Queen Loretta Haggers. Her comment on the Dinah Shore Show, for my Money, is the second funniest in TV history. First place, of course, has something to do with Turkeys.

Chuck Rothman said...

That Dinah Shore comment had me rolling on the floor, especially the disclaimer afterwards.