Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Shows I Like: The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Not long ago I read the late legendary comedy writer and teacher  Danny Simon used to show episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in his classes and talk about the writing techniques. I loved hearing this because I, without knowing about Danny Simon doing so, have been known to do this very thing. So I have at least one thing in common with Danny Simon.

The show has been on my mind lately because Mary Tyler Moore co-star Valerie Harper announced that she has terminal cancer and has very little time to live, news that has saddened me deeply. I have been a fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Ms. Harper from the beginning of the show and nearly the very beginning of my life. The show first aired on September 19, 1970, when I was five years old. Somehow I knew it was great, even at that tender age. In fact, during its run, the show won a total of 29 Emmy Awards. Over the years my admiration for the show, its cast, and its writers, has only increased. 

A good friend of mine owns this slate from the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. He let me hold it and then had to pry it from my hands.
It is fair to say that I’m not sure I would know anything about constructing stories if it weren’t for this show. When I was about ten or so I started to audiotape the shows to listen to them over and over again. (This was before people had any way of recording television. Once show had aired that was it. You were at the whim of the network as to when you might ever see that show again.)

After repeated listening, I started to see the patterns to the stories. I had never read a book on story structure or ever heard anyone talk about such a thing; I was happening upon it without knowing. I remember clearly the epiphany when I first discovered the purpose of each act even before I knew the formal concept of an act.

The now classic Mary Tyler Moore show was created by Allen Burns and James L. Brooks. (Brooks went on to produce Rhoda, Lou Grant, Taxi, and The Simpsons, to name a few hits.)

One of my very favorite episodes – one I have used in my classes – aired in Season One of the series, is called Support Your Local Mother. This episode is so well constructed it blows my mind.  

In the episode, Valerie Harper (who plays Rhoda, Mary’s upstairs neighbor and best friend) gets a visit from her mother, but Rhoda refuses to see her, and so Mary, not understanding this, puts up Rhoda’s mother while she is in town. This is how it plays out.

In Act One, Mary’s friend and neighbor Phyllis instructs Mary on how to whack a table with a length of chain to give furniture an antique look. Mary, who is a prim and proper woman and a little uptight, finds it silly to whack her furniture and comes down with a case of the giggles with each whack.

No sooner has Phyllis left Mary alone to do her work when Ida Morgenstern, Rhoda’s mother (played brilliantly by actress Nancy Walker), shows up at Mary’s door. Rhoda lives upstairs, but Ida says that she is not home and Mary lets her wait in her apartment until Rhoda arrives.

Ida and Mary as Ida waits to hear from Rhoda
Mary goes back to her work beating her table and is now embarrassed to have company.  Ida is a no-nonsense New Yorker from the Bronx and finds Mary’s giggling a little odd. This is not a small thing. Mary is very middle-America, very Midwestern. Already it is established that there is a clash of cultures at work – brash New Yorker meets Pollyanna.

Turns out Rhoda has been home all along and is avoiding her mother, so Mary marches upstairs to talk some sense into her friend. Rhoda tells Mary her mother drives her crazy and that it’s better that she not see her at all. This makes no sense to Mary, so Rhoda explains that Bronx love is not like Midwestern love and comes with a healthy dose of guilt. Mary still doesn’t understand, but Rhoda still refuses to see her mother.

As Mary is leaving, Rhoda asks Mary in all earnestness to ask Ida if she’s taking her pills.

Okay, some things to point out here. If the three acts are thought of as proposal, argument, and conclusion, then Rhoda saying that Bronx love is not like Midwestern love in that it comes with guilt is the story’s proposal. The rest of the story will deal with this idea – the story will argue, or prove this proposal.

Nancy Walker as Ida and Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards
Also, it is great that the scene with Mary and Rhoda ends with Rhoda showing that she truly cares for her mother and her health. Without this, Rhoda would look just plain mean, but now we know she cares. That is beautiful construction.

We are still in the first act at this point. Mary lets Ida stay with her in hopes that Rhoda will change her mind, but right away Mary starts to get an idea of what Rhoda was talking about: Ida wants to pay Mary for letting her stay there and Mary refuses.  The two go back and forth over this with Mary saying that it would make her feel uncomfortable to take the money, but Ida finds a way of wearing Mary down and guilting her into taking the money.

By the end of the first act, just as the two are about to go to sleep Ida takes one more little stab at making Mary feel guilty and we know that Mary is in for a hard time with Ida. This is a brilliant first act. It sets up everything perfectly.

Ida and Mary settle in just before the end of act one.

The second act is the argument for, or proof of, the proposal that Bronx love comes with guilt. Second acts prove (or sometimes disprove) their proposal through dramatization.  By dramatizing an idea I mean demonstrating through the storyline and actions and reactions of the story’s characters. To dramatize is to demonstrate and this second act demonstrates the proposal by seeing Mary driven to near insanity by Ida just as Rhoda said would happen.

Cloris Leachman, who plays Phyllis, along with co-stars Mary and Ms. Harper
At one point Mary tries to explain to Phyllis how she is being driven crazy by Ida, but Phyllis doesn’t understand. Now Mary is in the same boat Rhoda was in Act One, trying to explain to an outsider how this seemingly sweet woman is making her insane.

By the third act, Mary understands through experience what Rhoda was talking about in the first act. Now Mary can talk to Rhoda from a place of knowledge – and is able to convince her that should see her mother. It is an amazing piece of writing. There is a reason the show won a bunch of awards and has become a classic.

This is me meeting Ms. Valerie Harper in October 2012.  She was very sweet.
 As a side note I want to say that I was lucky enough to meet Valerie Harper not too long ago and I was able to tell her how great she is as an actress and how much the show means to me. It was one of the coolest things that has ever happened to me.

I would very much like to thank Ms. Harper and the cast and writers of this show that has had such an impact on my life from the first day it aired until this very day. This show was one of the very first things that helped me to understand my craft, not to mention how much joy, laughter, and happy memories it’s given me.

For those of you wanting to better understand the craft of storytelling, you have a great teacher in The Mary Tyler Moore Show.


Jennifer Armstrong said...

Just wanted to let you know about my book, MARY AND LOU AND RHODA AND TED, about, you guessed it: http://www.amazon.com/Mary-Lou-Rhoda-Ted-Brilliant/dp/1451659202

Anson Jew said...

Much maligned and underrated, the half-hour sitcom is where most of the best writing seems to happen in this country. I can't help but laugh just thinking about Chuckles the Clown.

Brian McD said...

Hey Anson,

Yeah, it's true that the sitcom is underrated. There have always been some sitcoms with amazing writing. Anything can be done well and anything can be done poorly. There are bad versions of everything. There are bad novels and plays and hour dramas and comic books and everything else. It seems ridiculous to write off sitcoms as a form.

Brian McD said...

Hello Jennifer,

I did not know about the book until I read your comment. Not sure why a didn't know. THANKS!!!

Malachi Rempen said...

Hello Brian,

I just read Invisible Ink. I've read a lot of books on storytelling and screenwriting and yours is far and away the finest. It started a paradigm shift for me. If I meet someone who is even slightly interested in storytelling, I don't recommend, I command them to read Invisible Ink. I've already ordered Golden Theme and Ink Spots.

I have a question, and this Mary Tyler Moore post seems to be the right place. I'll keep it short. I'm working on a non-chronological series of children's novels - that is, a series where you don't have to read the first one first. Each is a complete story, kind of like a sitcom.

I've discovered the armature for the series as a whole, but how do I determine the armatures for each "episode"? If they're too similar to the über-armature, won't the characters be resolving the same conflicts in each story? If the sub-armatures are too varied, won't it feel disjointed and defeat the point of having an overall armature?

How do writers for TV shows, or of any series, maintain characters with consistent flaws which they must deal with in every episode, yet also keep their conflicts fresh?

Thank you!

Meade Skelton Haufe said...

I have to say I rather disagree. The show is rather dated and overrated. I love Mama's Family, though! MTM I watch because she looked so pretty in the first 3 Seasons, especially. Mama's Family, however, is a timeless classic with a stellar cast.