Tickled to Death
It must have seemed a good idea doing a parody soap opera. For the opening minutes of its first episode last week, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” – which Producer Norman Lear is syndicating because, he claims, the networks were afraid of it – still seemed like a good idea. There was the bird-brained heroine in the dreary suburb pouring endless cups of coffee for her girl friends. Their conversation revolved hilariously around the question of whether or not a waxy yellow buildup was forming on Mary’s kitchen floor. The scene was an expert put-on of the soaps’ traditional method of stretching a thin script to full length.
But the art of parody lies in brevity. The trick is to catch and tickle to death a form’s conventions and hastily flee the scene. In a very few minutes any reasonably clever group of comic writers and players can exhaust the rather limited parodistic possibilities inherent in the soaps. Then the problem is what to do next. The only answer, of course, is to do exactly what the soaps do – give the characters some issues to turn over and over in their tiny minds. There is a mass murder down the block, the grandpa who is discovered to be a flasher, the husband suffering from impotence.
These matters do not turn out to be the height of hilarity. In fact, they are depressing. Drawing the characters in the series not from the middle-class world where most soap opera people live, but from the blue-collar class where most of their viewers reside seems, like so many Norman Lear notions, condescending rather than clever. “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” is silly stupid, silly stupid.