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A Big Hat’s Off to ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’

Why I still quote the groundbreaking '70s sitcom after 45 years

It’s hard to believe The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted 45 years ago until I tote up all the times I have quoted it, which is at least once a week for all of those years.

I can’t explain why I was watching when MTM debuted in 1970 — although demographics weren’t much-discussed in that three-network era, I’m pretty sure 8-year-old me was not the target of the show’s sophisticated humor — but watching the show quickly become a Saturday-night ritual for the Hewitt family.

For whatever reason, pre-teen me — whose main concerns were mastering long division and convincing my mom that acrylic vests were a fashion statement I needed to be making — related to the show’s Mary Richards (Moore) as she moved from small-town Minnesota to Minneapolis to establish a splashy career in TV news. It’s a transition PBS is honoring by airing the 45th-anniversary special “Mary Tyler Moore: A Celebration” Tuesday, Oct. 13, at 8 p.m. EST.

Is it a coincidence that I have ended up in the same city as Mary Richards, where I can still do semi-regular drive-bys of the house she supposedly lived in and of the corner where she tossed her beret in the air on the show’s opening credits? I’d like to say yes, but I have to admit that making my home in Minneapolis is just one of the ways the show hit home.

Gently Breaking Social Ground

It is, for instance, the first place I realized there was such a thing as gay people, many years before I would figure out I was one. When we talk about sitcoms that broke social ground in the 1970s, All in the Family (the Saturday-night lead in to MTM) is the one that usually comes up, but I suspect it’s MTM, in its gentler way, that had the bigger impact.

When we talk about sitcoms that broke social ground in the '70s, All In the Family comes up but I suspect MTM had the bigger impact.

I know for sure it made a difference to little, didn’t-know-he-was-gay, me when the musician brother of Mary’s neighbor, Phyllis, visited Minneapolis and, to Phyllis’s chagrin, started spending a lot of time with her arch-enemy (and Mary’s best friend), Rhoda. Phyllis spends much of the “My Brother’s Keeper” episode moping about her sibling’s attachment to Rhoda, which Rhoda is happy to play along with until the concluding moments of the episode. At that point, Phyllis is convinced they’re going to marry and Rhoda counters that a marriage could never happen because, as she says matter-of-factly, “He’s gay. I thought you knew.” Phyllis, of course, is delighted.

When All in the Family tackled a gay character, Archie said something homophobic to a super-macho gay man he unknowingly befriended, then discovered the man was gay and then everyone else hugged the guy while Archie sputtered and we all learned an obvious lesson about tolerance that Archie forgot by the next week’s episode. On MTM, the message is so subtle you could almost miss it, unless you were a kid who was starting to figure out he was different, too: Gay is OK and, frankly, not a big deal.

It would take me decades to believe that sentiment completely, but MTM was on it in 1973, when blatant homophobia was still considered perfectly OK on TV and in the real world.

Finding humor in the inconsistent and sometimes vexing way people behave is the hallmark of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, whether it’s Mary realizing that her new tennis partner doesn’t want to hang out with Rhoda because Rhoda is Jewish in “Some of My Best Friends Are Rhoda” or Mary’s boss, Lou, falling off the cliff of divorce in “The Lou and Edie Story” or Mary erupting in unwelcome laughter at the funeral of a colleague in “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” once voted the best sitcom episode in history by TV Guide.

Lines to Remember

There are many classic lines from the series — Lou telling Mary she has spunk and adding, “I hate spunk,” for instance, or Rhoda downing a piece of candy and saying, “I don’t know why I bother to eat this. I should just apply it directly to my hips.” But the truth is that other shows are more quotable because what’s funny on MTM is not the lines but the way those lines match up to the specificity of the characters. Think, for instance, of Mary warning Rhoda that eating chocolate won’t help matters and Rhoda responding, “Cottage cheese solves nothing. Chocolate can do it all.”

Mary Tyler Moore in MinneapolisCredit: Courtesy of Pioneers of Television archives
Mary Tyler Moore in Minneapolis

My favorite episode of the series, and the one that contains my family’s most oft-quoted line, is “Put on a Happy Face.” It’s an unusually revealing episode in that it humanizes the seemingly-imperturbable Mary by thrusting upon her a streak of bad luck: In the space of a couple days, she has a flat tire, spills coffee on a white sweater, sprains her ankle, misplaces and must re-write the entire obituaries file at work, catches a cold, sees her laundry ruined by the dry cleaner, can’t find a date for a TV awards show, has a very bad hair day and loses a false eyelash. She ends up having to accept an award with all of those problems very evident to a roomful of beautifully put-together people and opens her acceptance speech with a sneeze before moaning, “I usually look soooo much better than this.” (Borrow that line next time you have a huge cold sore. It’ll make you feel better, I promise.)

A Show With Staying Power

The series ended while I was in high school, but I continued to catch it on the occasional rerun throughout college and, when VCRs became economically feasible in the early 1980s, my first goal with my first machine was to amass a collection of all 168 episodes.

Nowadays, of course, it’s easy to buy the DVD sets or to stream the show on services such as Hulu, but I had to comb through listings back then, hoping the missing episodes would pop up. Luckily for me, when I was in grad school in Madison, Wis., I discovered that the school housed the MTM archives. I swear that was a coincidence, but it did lead to my one and only incident of academic fraud.

I blame the system. The University of Wisconsin Archives, which contained scripts, props and the originally-aired tapes, were only available to students with legitimate research requirements. So I invented a research paper (I forget the alleged title — perhaps something along the lines of “Spunk: Art, Reality and the Semiotics of Mary Richards”) and ensconced myself in a glass-walled cubicle in the university’s library. Wearing enormous headphones while watching huge, foot-wide videocassettes of treasured episodes, I tried my hardest — with about as much success as Mary at Chuckles’ funeral — to suppress my giggles and look scholarly.

My younger sister and I still quote from those 40-year-old episodes and will continue to do so, long after anyone else remembers fun facts such as that the MTM theme lyric changed from “You might just make it after all” to “You’re gonna make it after all” after the first season.

But we’ll also know that tomorrow’s TV viewers will feel the impact of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, even if they’ve never seen it. Because subsequent series such as 30 Rock, Veep, Girls and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt wouldn’t exist if MTM hadn’t blazed a trail for them, establishing that it’s a healthy thing to have friends who are a lot different from you, that many of us create second families at our jobs and that, if we work hard and are kind to other people, we might just make it after all.

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