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New book shows how 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' gently pushed feminist issues
'Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted' author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong says Moore's character Mary Richards 'made feminisim okay' to mainstream America
By Sherryl Connelly / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Published: Sunday, May 19, 2013, 2:00 AM
Updated: Sunday, May 19, 2013, 2:00 AM
Valerie Harper (l., as Rhoda Morgenstern) and Mary Tyler Moore (as Mary Richards) in 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show.'
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” is such a revered TV comedy that sometimes people forget it dropped the F-bomb.
“Mary Richards was the stealth bomb of feminism,” says Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, the author of “Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ a Classic.”
Armstrong says of Moore as Mary Richards: “She went in there and made feminism okay. But she had to be the good girl first.”
For the new book, Armstrong conducted more than 30 interviews — unfortunately, Moore was one of the few key figures who didn’t cooperate — to get the picture on the iconic, Emmy-winning 1970s sitcom. The CBS series won the heart of mainstream America and helped change its mind about how women should live.
“When Mary went on the pill in season three, it was huge,” Armstrong says. “But people had to accept it because they liked her. They knew she was a good girl.”
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, whose book relates the making of a piece of pop-culture history.
“Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted” is a delightfully thorough history of the show, evoking in detail the making of a piece of pop-culure history and telling sweet tales about the colorful cast.
But what really jumps from the page is the story of the women in the writers’ room. This was a collective unheard of in television before, and these writers used details from their own experience to make Mary, well, Mary. And Rhoda, Rhoda. And Phyllis crazy.
“They brought women’s stories, stories from their lives, that had never been told before,” says Armstrong. “Everything felt fresh. Everything felt funny.”
Like in that episode where Mary puts so much angst into finding “The Five-Minute Dress.” That was about how much time she got to wear her outfit because her would-be date, the aide to a busy politician, kept being called away. That actually happened to writer Pat Nardo. Her guy worked for the Lindsay administration.
“Pat was living in the Bronx and she came down to my apartment to get dressed,” laughs Gloria Banta, Nardo’s scriptwriting partner on the show.
'Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted,' by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
James L. Brooks and Allan Burns were the show’s brilliant creators. Early on they realized that writing a show about a thirtysomething happily single woman, the likes of which had never been on television before, was not just a man’s job.
“Brooks and Burns went from being open to hiring women to being determined to disprove the longstanding belief that women weren’t funny,” Armstrong writes.
First on board: Treva Silverman, who broke into comedy writing after Carol Burnett caught her in a revue in New York. Silverman would later quit the show in its prime to live the dream of traipsing around Europe, destinations chosen by whim. Meanwhile, other women took their own paths, at least for comedy writers, to get to the show.
Charlotte Brown’s dentist mentioned during a checkup that Brooks was a patient. Her dentist passed on a spec script to Brooks. “God, this is awful,” he told her, but said to keep pitching.
Nardo was originally a secretary who took notes on Burns and Brooks’ brainstorming sessions, explicitly telling them when something was not funny. She would read the creators bits from letters between her and her friend, Banta, back in New York. Burns and Brooks suggested that Banta and Nardo write together.
Susan Silver, who wrote for 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show,' says the show's female writing staff 'by their very presence changed the face of TV.'
“We wrote that first script in three weeks sitting under a tree in Central Park,” Banta says.
As Mary broke barriers, like staying out all night with a man or fighting for equal pay, she also ended up in funny situations. Like when she was being dressed in a Bo Peep dress as a member of a wedding party.
“All I did was talk about my own life and it turned out to be the life of women of my time,” says Susan Silver, who wrote the Bo Peep scenario. “[Production company] MTM opened the door and women writers came in and by their very presence changed the face of TV, sitcoms and comedy in general.”
Oddly enough, some feminists did not embrace the show. Brooks told Armstrong about being invited to a feminist panel, moderated by Gloria Steinem, where she publicly chided Brooks for how Mary always called her boss “Mr. Grant.”
“Jim had this memory of being really assaulted by the whole thing. He was surprised and confused,” Armstrong says, laughing. “But they didn’t create the show by sitting around and saying, ‘Let’s make the ultimate feminist show.’ ”
Though that’s kind of what they did in the firstname.lastname@example.org