It’s hard to imagine now, but when The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted in 1970 the notion of a TV show built around a successful, fulfilled single woman was about as alien as a bagel from Mars. In this excerpt from the new book We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, several of the show’s principals tell Yael Kohen what made the iconic sitcom so special—and especially funny.
MARY TYLER MOORE, actress Some of the shows that have been very successful have come from no truth whatsoever—as in Three’s Company—but they are all larger-than-life and almost comedic versions of soap operas and some of the nighttime series. I did not want to be that. I wanted to take my chances with the real version of comedy, the eloquent approach to the funny aspects of what a person is in real life.
ALLAN BURNS, co-creator I remember having a meeting with the vice president of CBS in Hollywood, and when he read our first script, he called us up and said, “Guys, does she have to be 30? Do we have to say she’s 30?” We said, “Yeah. Yeah, she clearly is . . . we’ve got to come to this with some degree of reality here and we think it’s interesting.”
MARILYN SUZANNE MILLER, writer They looked at every kind of woman on that show. Every kind of woman except a happily married woman, which was great. That was the first time that ever happened.
VALERIE HARPER, actress Even just the Jewishness of Rhoda was a step forward. Other than the Goldbergs, which was way back in the fifties, was there any other leading Jewish character? Rhoda was more New Yorker than Jewish, but Morgenstern, there’s no question about it. It’s funny, I knew a lot of Yiddish and they didn’t want to use it at all. They said, “Absolutely not.” They said, “We don’t wanna get into some ghettoized cartoon.”
ALLAN BURNS I remember going down to see the first run-through [of Betty White’s debut “Happy Homemaker” episode]. We get to the soundstage and Mary meets us at the door and she says, “Guys, you don’t realize just how funny this woman is,” and, “We’ve got to figure out a way to get her on the show every week.” We saw this run-through and we were on the floor laughing. It was just wonderful. She brought so much stuff to it. Physical business. There was a scene where she was trying to get a soufflé or something out of the oven, and both hands were busy, so she just took her knee and whacked the oven shut. Betty just did that on her own, and it’s one of the bigger laughs in the show. Just the way she did it—it was so unladylike for this prissy woman who was “the Happy Homemaker.” It was the perfect way to tell you who Sue Ann Nivens really was, that she wasn’t going to let the fact that her two hands were busy stop her from closing that damn oven. And we realized Mary was right.
Excerpted from We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen, published in October 2012 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright ©2012 by Yael Kohen. All rights reserved.