Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"Belated Encouragement"

On November 26th, a commenter calling themselves ”aug” wrote, in part, concerning a script I wrote for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, entitled “Ted’s Change of Heart”:

”Anyway, wanted to let you know, your words still warm hearts on grey November Saturday mornings in Canada. For me, with of course the help of those gifted actors, there is no higher point in a 30minute episode of television.”

First of all, thanks, “aug.” That was very nice of you to take the time to say. I love praise. And praise for something I wrote in 1977, it’s like receiving an unexpected residual check of retroactive appreciation. It makes me giggly, giddy and glad. And those are just the “g’s.”

“Aug’s” compliment brings to mind a moment when a different reaction to “Ted’s Change of Heart” was expressed. Courtesy of none other than Ms. MTM (meow!) herself.

We were attending the annual “Mary Tyler Moore Company Weekend Getaway.” All MTM employees who were interested paid a discounted fee to collectively weekend at some nearby resort, hang out, and in some cases – okay, in most cases, but not me – participate in a multi-tiered – based on ability – tennis tournament. Even Mary joined in. Though, as I recall, she was rapidly eliminated.

The year was 1977. And that year, the getaway venue was La Costa, a resort and golfing facility that, judging by its clientele, appeared to be where the Mafia sent hit men who had done a good job. Their sport shirts betrayed the telltale indentation of abandoned shoulder holsters.

1977 would be Mary’s final season on the air. I had written “Ted’s Change of Heart” as a personal valentine to a show I had worshipped as a viewer, and loved even more as a participant. But I had also written it as a reaction to an aging series whose stories, as a result of its nearing the end of the line creatively, had become, at least to me, maddeningly superficial. It had come down to episodes like, “Mary Breaks A Nail.” Maybe not that bad, exactly, but close.

My contrarian brain decided, “I’m tired of doing ‘Mary Gets A Bad Haircut.’ Let’s give somebody a heart attack!

Wielding godlike powers, we decided to strike down anchorman “Ted Baxter”, a character who, from “Episode One”, infuriated his co-workers with his monumental self-absorption. The funny part was that, after his heart attack, Ted is equally irritating, but in a one-eighty opposite direction, annoying his co-workers with his suffocating, suddenly discovered appreciation of life.

The newsroom staff decides Ted has to be spoken to. Ted’s demands for group hugs and spontaneous relaxation breathing sessions are interfering with their rapid-fire responses to breaking news. Upon further consideration, however, it is determined that Ted is fundamentally right. How can you tell someone who’s insisting on taking time to acknowledge the wonders of nature and the significant people in your life to “Knock it off”? Surrendering to the impulse, they get swept up in the feeling themselves.

When Ted ultimately reverts to his former annoying self, the news staff realizes that that heightened feeling of appreciation inevitably wears off. Rather than being bummed out, however, Mary and her co-workers – minus Ted – decide to embrace the special feeling for as long as it lasts. In the final shot, the news team is seen huddling side-by-side at an office window, glowing, as they appreciate the sunset.

That was the episode. Hardly Seinfeldian in its sentiments. I don’t even know where it came from. But I was happy with the script. And enthusiastic about how it turned out.

By coincidence or design, I can no longer recall which, “Ted’s Change of Heart” was the episode broadcast on the Saturday night of the “Mary Tyler Moore Weekend Getaway.”

It was all very casual. We gathered in Mary’s, I guess, suite, because I do not remember a bed or pajamas. Some of us were standing, many sat cross-legged on the floor, as we watched the Mary broadcast together at nine o’clock. I remember Mary, enthroned in the midst of the assemblage.

The funny places got laughs, the touching places got respectful attention, the show ended, and there was applause.

The enthusiasm was apparent. But everyone was waiting for Mary’s reaction. Finally, she spoke, capsulizing her response in two, monosyllabic words:

“Strange show.”

It was not what I wanted to hear. A writer hearing, “strange show” about a script they’ve written is like a new parent hearing, “What an interesting looking baby.” You are looking for something else.

Sensing how I was feeling, a writing team named Tom and Jay, who at the time were running The Bob Newhart Show, made a point of coming over and saying, “Great show!”, adding, though my recollection may be hazy on the matter, “She’s full of shit!”

Mary didn’t care for the episode. “Aug” praised it effusively.

Sometimes, you just have to settle for breaking even.


Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; praise is good, and you deserve it.


Andy said...

That was a great episode. Point in your favor.

pumpkinhead said...

Did somebody not like the show because it centered on a different character? Who said that.

pumpkinhead said...

Did somebody not like the show because it centered on a different character? Who said that.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Thanks for the story (and all the others). Though watching the series again recently, I felt like more of the "Mary Breaks a Nail" episodes occurred in the first couple of seasons. More specifically, "Mary's date" episodes, which are almost never among the best ones.

But on the other hand I think one of the best episodes was all about Mary's petty little problems one after another (the one where she gets the hair bump and the cold and all the other bits of bad luck on the night of the awards).

Moore could obviously be quite cutting about shows. When MTM had WKRP in Cincinnati on the air a reporter asked her about it and she replied "It's not the kind of show I would be happy performing in," a statement one writer for the show summed up as "Mommy didn't love us." But she is brilliant.