Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Sunday Memory Drawer - MTM

2016 was a lousy year for losing touchstones of our lives.  Those artists who made a difference. David Bowie.   Prince.  Carrie Fisher.  Debbie Reynolds.   The list is endless.

And, sadly in 2017, it continues.   The latest one stung me the most.   The loss of Mary Tyler Moore, whose charmed life ended with lots of health issues that caused great pain and anguish.   You also remember that she lost her only son to an accidental gunshot several decades ago.   Yet, despite it all, we remember the accomplishments of a gifted and talented actor.  Let's face it.  Not many people get to star in two sitcoms that wind up as hallmarks in television.   I can only conjure up a few.  Lucy. Newhart.  To a lesser extent, Ron Howard and Patricia Heaton.  Lightning rarely strikes once.   When it hits a second time, you are gold.

And Mary was just that.  Golden.  Indeed, she stars in two scenes that probably rank in the top five of the best sitcom moments of all time.   Try this moment from the Dick Van Dyke Show and the phenomenal episode "Coast to Coast Big Mouth."

That scene alone merits a place in the annals.   But she topped it eleven years in her own show with the historic "Chuckles Bites the Dust."

I understand from somebody who was at the filming of this episode that this scene was shot twice and Mary was flawless in both takes.   Amazing.  Okay, you could argue that this is wonderful writing and that no actor could fail with these words.  Not so.  I've seen it with actors I know.  The right performer adds that little extra zing that doesn't show up on the page.

Mary Tyler Moore zinged an awful lot.

In the flood of tributes this past week, lots of people had personal memories of encounters.   Mine was ever so brief.   About eight years ago, Mary and I were on the same American Airlines flight from JFK to LAX.  I did not know this until I was standing next to her at baggage claim.   It was one of those moments where I just turned to the right and realized I was standing next to Mary Tyler Moore.   We exchanged a quick smile.   She didn't look well even then.  I, of course, retreated to my usual stance of not bothering celebrities I see in public.

But I came very close to saying something.   From the accolades this week, a woman in my position on that day might have thanked her for the lifestyle messages the character of Mary Richards provided.   But, for me, had I said something, it would have been about what her shows, most notably "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," meant for somebody who wanted to be a writer.   

The Me-TV channel reruns it every Sunday.   For some bizarre reason I have this programmed into my DVR.  Okay, what the hell am I doing?  Making a television appointment to watch this every week.  I mean, I have the entire series on DVD.

Yeah, but there's something different and unique tuning into a TV show on a regular basis.  Reminiscent of the days before DVRs and even VCRs.  If you wanted to watch something, you had to be home and in front of the tube.

And that's where I always was every Saturday night.  Usually watching with my grandmother.  

"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was the first TV show I was addicted to in my semi-adult years.  And, as a result, it wound up at #3 on the list of my Top 25 Favorite TV Shows of All Time.  
"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" came around about the time I could actually tell the difference between a great television show and a bad one.

Stuck in the middle of CBS' Saturday night block of the best shows ever telecast together in one single night, MTM, in its own quiet groundbreaking way, raised television comedy writing to a level that has never been achieved since.  Forget "The Office" and "Modern Family" and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt."   This was the pinnacle of it all and will never be topped again.

Because this show has stayed with me so deeply that it cuts into my own writing.  There have been times when I am working on something and my writing partner will scold me.

"You can't do that line.  It was on Mary."

Or I will resort to what I call a Ted Baxter moment.   You know, somebody says a line about somebody being stupid and in walks Ted.  Big laugh.  Ha ha.  Then I hear it all over again.

"That's what they would do on Mary."

I usually take out the reference, but now wonder what's so bad about that.  Is using "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" as your writing textbook such a negative?Especially these days when one lousy sitcom is a direct and unfortunate copy of another lousy sitcom.

Okay, maybe I have gone too far with my reliance on the MTM world. Actually, I started doing that at a much younger age. Apparently, imitation and borderline plagarism has no age restrictions. I'll splain....and, yes, there I am copying a line from another great comedy.

When I was going to Fordham University in the Bronx, I hung out at the college radio station WFUV which has been previously heralded in this blog. I didn't really have a focus or a concentration there. I did a little celebrity interviewing. I tried baseball play-by-play. I did some on-air news reporting. None of it provided a solid niche. Some of it I was downright awful at.

I was a little lost.

I needed something I could take my own personal pride in. And I hit on an idea that was perfect for me.

A radio version of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

Well, not really a direct copy. But so many elements of "Diploma City" were lifted from the MTM show that I realize there's a very fine line of difference between heist and robbery. I created characters and locations very similar, but placed them as college students in a Philadelphia college. Character names were derived from the writing staff of the MTM Show. There was a male version of Rhoda and a female version of Lou Grant. I had a girl Murray and a resident advisor like Phyllis. The only non-gender switch was in the Ted Baxter character. My version was named Milton Harper and the buffoon transferred intact.

I even mimicked the format of the MTM show. Scenes switched from the dorm to the newspaper office back to the dorm and then maybe to the local college hangout. If anybody from MTM Enterprises had cause to put on their car radio while driving through the Bronx, there would be a certain lawsuit.

Of course, while the TV show had such pros as Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, and Edward Asner, my casting coups rotated around my circle of friends.

"Hey, you wanna be on a comedy show?"

Before long, the weekly party was on. Intially, we would try to rehearse prior to taping. Eventually, we realized that rehearsal didn't really make a difference as that is reserved for professional actors of which I had none. Zip. Nada. Now, several of those cast members are still in my world to this day. A few even post comments here on this blog. They are all dear friends.

And most were lousy actors.

Indeed, revisiting some of these tapes today, I could easily publish a book entitled "When Bad Actors Happen to Good Scripts." On second thought, perhaps that should be "When Bad Actors Happen to Mediocre Scripts."

Yeah, I wasn't exactly the comedic hotshot I thought I was. But, for three seasons of 90 episodes, we sure as hell had a lot of fun. The same merging of talent that happens over time on an ensemble comedy TV show also happened on "Diploma City." The acting and writing did improve the more we did it. And the tapings were terrific weekly gatherings for a great bunch of friends. Several started to date each other. If somebody in the cast started dating, we'd cast the new girlfriend or boyfriend as...the character's new girlfriend or boyfriend. Nepotism was rampant, just like in Hollywood.

There was one time where we absolutely had no episodes in the can and we needed one for the following week. But there was no studio time booked. We rolled a ton of equipment over to the dorms and actually taped it in somebody's living room. We flew by the seats of our pants.

And, at least for me, it was pure exhilaration.

In the first year, our little half hour show usually came in a lot shorter than that. No one paid attention to time and I had no concept of how scripts should be paced or moved along. But, eventually, I got my creative chops down and then often had trouble confining the plot and dialogue to 30 minutes. We just got so good at what we were doing that we paid little attention to time constraints, which was fine if you weren't the host of the rock music show that followed. We feuded a bit as each week we cut into the time they had to play Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

Nevertheless, we pressed on undaunted. To tighten the MTM connections even further, I hit on a 150 watt light bulb of an idea to promote our show during the station's annual fundraising marathon.

What if I got somebody from the MTM Show to be on our show and make a pitch for WFUV?

I called MTM Enterprises' publicist in Hollywood and this was surprisingly easy to set up. Per my specific request, I was given the appropriate time and phone number so I could engage Ted Knight for the task. We awaited the appointed day and time as if it were Christmas morning. In advance, I fashioned a scene of dialogue that would break the fourth wall between one of our cast members and Ted. Then, Ted would go into his plug for listeners to send dough to WFUV.

At the hour of our reckoning, I called Ted and he was incredibly gracious. I essentially explained to him what we were doing and I recited the dialogue so he could copy it over the phone. We rolled tape and it went well. For about a minute. Suddenly, Ted's mind veered off the road as if he was trying to avoid hitting a deer with his car. He started to ramble about WFUV and Fordham, which made virtually no sense in the context of the show.

Amazingly, my actor followed Ted down into Confusionville and what resulted was a hilariously funny but impromptu conversation that I ran virtually unedited. Besides, I felt I had no creative license to ask Ted Knight for a second take. We were very proud of "Diploma City," but I now realize we could never hold a candle to the work they were doing on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." There are comedic moments in the body of that series that could only be crafted in heaven.

And that's where Mary is now, resting in peace after a magnificent life as an actor, a tireless worker for animal rights and juvenile diabetes, and, from what I am told by people who knew her, a decent human being.

This deserves a curtain call.   As it aired originally on the last episode.

Dinner last night:  Had a big lunch so just a sandwich.

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