Thursday, June 4, 2015

"The Comedy Continuum"

“We’re not crazy here.”

I received this preemptive warning during a phone conversation with Ed. Weinberger who, with his partner Stan Daniels, became my first employers in the subgenre of half-hour comedy.  At the time of that conversation, Ed. and Stan were simultaneously producing three series for the “Mary Tyler Moore Company” – The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Phyllis and Doc.

Trying to escape the unwanted possibility of relocating to New York, in order to work on the incipient Saturday Night Live – a potential second relocation in a single year, the first one being from Toronto to Los Angeles six months earlier – I wrote a two-page outline for an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which, via my agent, was delivered into the hands of the “Mary” producers. 

(NOTE:  Being a complete novice in the half-hour comedy arena, I was unaware that you were expected to submit not a two-page outline but a fully completed “spec” episode.  Ed. Weinberger had read – and apparently liked – my outline, which led him to subsequently get in touch with me.)

Why did Ed. Weinberger believe I was crazy?  (A man who for no reason puts a period at end of his first name?)

Because my reputation to that point had emanated from my work on two Lily Tomlin specials, and Lily’s specials were known for crayoning comedically “outside the lines.”  At least compared to the “Mary” show, which, though an indisputably superior sitcom, was sensibilitally straight down the middle. 

“Mary’s” stylistic ambiance was admittedly not a perfect match with the short film I had originally written for the Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour in Canada, which Lorne Michaels, Lily Tomlin’s producer, had screened for her, leading to my being invited to the States to join the writing staff on Lily’s special.

Truth be told, it was a little bit “crazy.”

The filmette opened in a hospital room in Dull City.  A woman who has recently given birth is resting comfortably in her bed, her “pleased-as-punch” husband standing excitedly by her side.  A nurse enters the room carrying their newborn, currently invisible beneath an enveloping blanket.

The nurse passes the newborn to the kvelling (proud) mother.  The woman cradles the baby in her arms, and then slowly peels back the blanket, giving the delighted parents their first glimpse at the recent arrival.

The “reveal” unfolds gradually… to the increasing consternation of the parents. 
With the baby now fully exposed, we see that the recently delivered infant displays an unexpected and alarming set of characteristics – two enormously oversized feet, an unruly halo of frizzy orange hair, a chalky complexion and a bright and bulbous red nose.

The newborn baby is literally…

A natural-born clown.

The filmette goes on to depict the vicissitudes of this natural-born clown – portrayed by Lily Tomlin – coming of age in Dull City.  A comedic allegory, if you will, for all “outsiders” making their way in conventional society. 

It sounds ponderous, but it isn’t, including as it does – after the police uncover a secret “cell” of like-minded “originals” – a climactic pie-throwing and seltzer-squirting confrontation between the unified clown contingent and the local constabulary.

However you categorize it, it was not “Mary dates a man who is considerably shorter than she is.”

Thus explaining Ed.’s admonishing,

"We're not crazy here."

Having convinced Ed. that I was, in fact, achingly conventional, I received an interview, and subsequently a job.  And the rest is history, if by “history” you mean the biographical activities of a person who will never appear in a history book.

Here’s the thing, however.

Although “The Clown Movie” is arguably “crazy”, if you expand the definition of “crazy” to include “revolutionary” – or at least courageously innovative – The Mary Tyler Moore Show was arguably “crazy” in its own right.


Unlike its broader and fantasitical predecessors, The Mary Tyler Moore Show dangerously dared to offer storylines and comedy that came from a rich and deep understanding of character.  No talking horses, no genies, no hillbillies unexpectedly striking oil, the “Mary” show’s characters confronted identifiable situations, exhibiting recognizable human behavior. 

In earlier series – with the notable exception of The Dick Van Dyke Show – the comedy was deliberately “pushed” – meaning exaggerated – to guarantee that the audience – “the audience” being not today’s demographically splintered aggregations but the universal mass audience – would laugh. 

Trusting their comedic instincts, their understanding of the zeitgeist, and the audience’s intelligence, the Mary writers rolled the dice with a boldly unadulterated premise:  

The travails of a single female struggling, womanfully, to make it on her own.

Which in its day was a precariously “out there” proposition. 

The show caught fire, its success inevitably propelling the television “comedy needle” in a realistic direction.

Goodbye Clem Kadiddlehopper.

Hello Mary Richards.

It is my opinion that as comedy advanced, its “reality level” trajectory progressively deepened.  To the point where today

Ah but sadly, my time is now up.

Sorry, folks.

I shall have to talk to you about “today”…

In answer to a query, the podcast that I participated in is called


Max said...

One of the new channels that recently appeared on my un-cabled TV, Decades, showed a MTM marathon last weekend...saw lots of good ones, including the death of Chuckles. Next weekend, coincidental to your statement, they're going to do a Beverly Hillbillies marathon. Don't think I'll watch much of that, tho a glimpse or 2 of Elly May never hurts.

Unknown said...

Hey you sounded great on the podcast, you should do more.