“Mary” (1978)

Even if she hadn’t passed away earlier this year, I would not say anything bad about Mary Tyler Moore. A feminist pop culture icon, she played perhaps the mother of all hardworking single women who put up with the follies of men with humor, dignity, and spunk, no matter how much Lou Grant hated it. I get why, despite ending The Mary Tyler Moore Show on top, Moore felt she had to return to television barely a year later. She was 40 by then, and we know how Hollywood treated (and continues to treat) actresses that age and older–that’s when the “mom” roles start coming in. That’s when you stop getting considered for characters who get to be sexy, or whom someone may find physically appealing. That’s when you’re forgotten, pushed to the side, written out of the script in favor of someone younger, fresher, better.

Mary Tyler Moore couldn’t risk being forgotten, so after mere months of relaxing after seven years of starring on an award winning sitcom, she was back and trying something a little different–a variety show format. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know there’s been a whole month dedicated to variety shows, a genre that peaked in the 1960s, and died a hard, ugly, unlamented death by the early 80s. Variety shows existed for one purpose–to prove that the star (or stars, if you were Donny and Marie Osmond) was multi-talented. They weren’t just actors, they were great singers! They could dance! They could do slapstick comedy! They could grimace their way through scripted banter with a guest star they never met until three minutes before taping began!

The trouble was, of course, that they couldn’t do all those things. Sometimes it was so apparent they couldn’t do all those things that it made watching the show an endurance test, a challenge to see how much secondhand embarrassment one could take before switching over to a soothing, more entertaining test pattern. Mary Tyler Moore actually comes pretty close, but it still doesn’t save 1978’s Mary, which lasted a regrettable three episodes, from the stink of desperation. The only thing that keeps it from sinking into obscurity is that it features David Letterman and Michael Keaton very early in their respective careers, both of whom are clearly workshopping personas they would use in later performances.


Although one can assume that Moore was hoping audiences would see her as something other than Mary Richards, it’s not even three minutes into the episode before there’s a gag involving her returning to the old Mary Tyler Moore Show set, where extras are sitting covered in cobwebs, evidently awaiting her arrival. She looks around wistfully, and though it was likely unintentional, it puts a bummer edge on the show, as if she’s acknowledging that it’s a dud, and wants to be back in a familiar setting as much as her fans do.

But she does try her best, God knows she does. Mary is really more of a sketch comedy show than a variety show, and the first sketch features Dick Shawn (LSD in The Producers) as a pushy date who thinks he should be able to spend the night with Mary after spending the princely sum of $11 on her. Given what we know about the scourge of date rape and “nice guys” at this point, the sketch starts out unfunny and gradually becomes excruciating, particularly when Shawn apologizes for his behavior and then slyly reveals that it’s another ploy to get Mary into bed. She eventually chases him off by having a neighbor pretend to be her father, who–doh ho ho!–also asks to spend the night.

In the next sketch, David Letterman plays a newscaster, and you can see the seeds of his own TV show being planted three years in advance, particularly in a later sketch, when he brings in some Midwestern tourists for a peek inside Mary’s house. Here, it’s the lead-in to another not particularly funny from a modern standpoint gag about the local police being so strapped for funds that civilians have to help bring down a sniper. After that, we get the inevitable Saturday Night Fever parody, because from 1978 to 1980 it was required by law that every television program mine that lighthearted romp involving broken dreams, gang rape, and an accidental death for comedy gold.


Plodding on for nearly ten minutes, the sketch exists mostly to prove to the audience that Mary Tyler Moore is still young, sexy, and knows how to boogie! Which, fine, I don’t know if anybody was asking if Mary Tyler Moore knew how to boogie, but either way I’m glad we got that sorted out. 54 year-old Dick Shawn knew how to boogie too, and they do it together, wearing matching John Travolta white suits. Though it comes off like watching someone’s parents at a wedding reception, it feels like it’s meant to taken straight, a serious moment of showmanship and showing the kids how it’s done.

It’s more than a half hour into the proceedings before Michael Keaton finally shows up, already exhibiting the jittery energy he would bring to playing Bill “Blaze” Blazejowski four years later in Night Shift. His sketch is decidedly odd and out of place, evidently playing a character named “Michael Keaton,” a ladies’ man who stands alone on stage and answers letters asking for advice on dating and romance. Regrettably, given the joke about dating an underage girl (“I thought she was 30 or 32, and she turned out to be nine!”) and Keaton later suggesting that if a woman turns a man down for a date “she’s probably gay anyway,” it’s the low moment of an overwhelmingly mediocre program, and could have easily been cut for five more minutes of Mary Tyler Moore doing the Hustle.


Mary never really recovers from that, limping through Dick Shawn singing “Send in the Clowns” as white clad mimes assault him with paint, seltzer water, and a pie to the face, the previously mentioned “David Letterman brings Midwestern tourists into Mary’s house” bit, and then concluding with an overlong sketch about Mary and her co-stars participating in the Battle of the Network Stars. Michael Keaton appears again, speaks approximately two lines, does a handstand, and then stands in the background doing nothing for the last five minutes. Faced with the intimidating process of running a hurdles race against Morley Safer, all of Mary’s co-stars bow out of the competition. Thankfully, Mary’s breathy, torch song version of the Yale fight song reinvigorates them.

The show closes with “whatever happened to” cards for each of the actors (even though the program would return the following week). In a gag that, even 24 hours after I watched it, I still don’t understand, Michael Keaton’s is left blank.

To say you don’t like Mary Tyler Moore is to say you don’t like cupcakes, or puppies. It is impossible. She was a beacon of pure goodness even in the most middling dreck. In Mary she gives 110% every minute she’s on screen, even during that godawful date rape sketch. It’s not her fault that it lands with such a meaty thud. Mary runs into the same problem that every variety show, particularly those made in the late 70s, ran into, in that there was no clear audience for a show that references both Saturday Night Fever and a song that was written in 1900. The days of the entire family gathering around the magic box had long passed, and no amount of vaudeville squirting flower humor crossed with dancers wearing satin hot pants was going to bring it back.
While David Letterman just seems to be doing his own thing, regardless of what’s happening in the sketch, Michael Keaton is way out of his depth here, and seems to be well aware of it. Initially a TV bit player put up against seasoned stage performers, he comes off like someone’s nephew who was forced to intern at a summer stock theater. Unlike the rest of the cast, he plays no other character besides himself (or at least, a macho lunkhead version of himself), and seems ill at ease on stage, an understudy who never thought he’d actually be called up to perform. Mary Tyler Moore must have seen something she liked about him, though, because when she again attempted to revive the variety show format less than six months later with a fictionalized version called The Mary Tyler Moore Hour, Keaton was the sole member of the original cast who went with her. Ever a consummate professional, perhaps she could see his potential for playing pimps, stay at home dads, and bio-exorcists years before anyone else could.
Original airdate: September 24, 1978
Watch it here

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