In the beginning days of feminism, early 1970s, even after Betty Friedan gave it a name in her groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique, many women of America were discovering their own voices, but not on Television.
The only comediennes were either second bananas, like Rose Marie or Imogene Coca, and neither was known for her looks. Lucille Ball was a comedy icon and businesswoman, but her characters were more slapstick. Finally, Marlo Thomas broke the mold with her unmarried career woman, Ann Marie in That Girl.
I had just started writing with a partner, Iris Rainer Dart, and we got a plum assignment on that show. Shaking in our boots, as the producers were intimidating older guys with cigars, as I recall, we pitched a script about Ann Marie’s engagement party — all of the other writers were men, too, and probably had not been to one! They bought it, to our surprise. But Marlo, in her fierce defense of her character, eventually decided not to get married on the show, and they didn’t shoot our script.
Then, I saw The Mary Tyler Moore Show air midseason. It was about a single 30-year-old woman with a job at a local news show in Minneapolis. An independent working woman was a totally new concept in the world of network television, and I wanted in. By then, I was working alone and I called my manager, the comedy legend, the late Garry Marshall. I begged him to get me in there since I thought I could write for it. After all, I was a Midwestern girl — Milwaukee, not Minneapolis — but people always confused them. I had also worked in the publicity department of a small local TV station. Ok, it was in Los Angeles, but still.
Garry got me in there, and to my surprise, the executive producers, Jim Brooks and Allan Burns, were not only eager to hear my stories, but looking for female writers, which was mostly unheard of then.
I pitched stories from my own life, things that all women had experienced, but were fresh to the men. I also was so naïve, I thought you weren’t allowed to make stories up; they had to be true. Yeah.
They said if we get picked up for a full season, you will be the first one we call in. They had been given a Tuesday-night slot at CBS, which did not have a lot of faith in a show about a woman who was not married nor dying to be.
Then of course, it was a hit, though not instantly. When they moved it to Saturday night, it became “must-see TV” for the whole country.
I PITCHED STORIES FROM MY OWN LIFE, THINGS THAT ALL WOMEN HAD EXPERIENCED, BUT WERE FRESH TO THE MEN.
My first script, of five I did for them, was about standing up as a bridesmaid for someone I didn’t really like. And of course, wearing a dress I didn’t love, either. I switched it to an old camp friend of Mary’s who turns up to be the receptionist at the station and lassos Mary and Rhoda, whom she doesn’t even know, to be her bridesmaids. The dresses were brilliantly designed by the costume people as Bo Peep crinolines on steroids. All that was missing were the sheep.
Because the show creators and the story editors (great guys, like David Davis and Lorenzo Music) had never been bridesmaids, they thought everything I said was brilliant. Like how girls doodle their married names-to-be before the wedding, over and over. The bride’s was “Twinks Tvedt.” The last name came from a real estate agent who had shown me and my then-husband a home.
There was no writers’ room then. We pitched our stories, went back home to write them, and then reviewed them with Jim, Allan, David, and Lorenzo in a meeting. When the guys would say certain man stuff like, “then she goes and cleans up,” I’d tentatively raise my hand — scared — and say softly, “Uh, women don’t ‘clean up,’ we take a shower or a bubble bath.” They thought this, too, was amazing!
Any woman knows we talk different talk, but it had not been on TV before, except for more wisecracking types. So The Mary Tyler Moore Show really changed the sound coming back from the TV into our living rooms and thusly our lives.
We were never asked to be “feminist writers” or make political statements. That was more Norman Lear, Maude, All In the Family kind of scripts.
What we were trying for, and I believe we succeeded in, was showing independent single women, working and leading their lives and supporting each other. And then, I was amazed and pleased when they bought one script in which I had Mary — America’s sweetheart, who everyone wished was their best friend — do something out of character. More like mine.
There was a job opening at the TV Station that Rhoda might have been good for, and for one little moment, Mary reacted like I’m sure most of us has just once: she didn’t want to share her space. Even with her bestie.
Of course, Mr. Grant, Mary’s gruff boss, went gleefully over the top when he found that she was “just as rotten as the rest of us!” She quickly changed her mind and of course realized she wanted Rhoda to have it. I’d venture to say that all women have had a moment like that (come on! You know you have!) But we hadn’t seen it televised before.
WHAT WE WERE TRYING FOR … WAS SHOWING INDEPENDENT SINGLE WOMEN, WORKING AND LEADING THEIR LIVES AND SUPPORTING EACH OTHER.
Mary Tyler Moore came up at the right time of our lives, and her innate goodness and likability allowed us to write some very funny scripts where she played against character and got more laughs than anyone else could have.
And as an executive producer, she saw to it that many women got a chance in many different departments at the show. The wardrobe person was a brilliant stylist who created a look for her which all women wanted to follow. (For those of you who think Sex and the City was the first to inspire fashion trends.)
The casting person was Ethel Winant, one of the few female executives around at that time, and I would also do my little part to write in a female judge, or cop, or whatever. The casting people, who were mostly men, finally thought, Oh yeah. Why not? They just had always automatically cast a man.
By the end of the show, a lot of women writers had been hired and it opened the door to all of our careers. Starting on top, I’d say.
This was revolutionary. Especially when you consider that, when I’d been doing casting for the breakout sketch show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in the years before I joined the Mary Tyler Moore Show, I was told I could never be a writer. And the reason was: Men writers worked in an apartment and wanted to wear their underwear and fart, and it wouldn’t be comfortable for them to have me around. Yeah, farting almost derailed my comedy-writing career.
But thank god for Mary Tyler Moore and her company and the confidence in us. She did a heck of a lot more than turn the world on with her smile.
Susan Silver was one of the original writers for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bob Newhart, Partridge Family, among others and Movies of the Week. She currently has a radio commentary called “Susan Says” on NPR affiliate Robinhood Radio. Her memoir, Hot Pants In Hollywood: Sex, Secrets & Sitcoms, will be available on Amazon this spring.