A Cute Tomato,
A Couple of Slices of Baloney,
Some Sour Grapes,
A Few Nuts...
Mix well, add big profits for 101 local stations, and you’ve got the year's most-talked-about TV show “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”
By Bill O'Hallaren
In Chicago the Daily News recently ran pictures of six of the most prominent TV news anchors across the top of its front page, along with the question, “What woman strikes terror into the hearts of these people?” The answer, for anyone who has been in seclusion lately, is “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” The Norman Lear serial, carried weekday nights at 10 on humble WFLD-TV, UHF Ch. 32, has recently been winning a rating of 11 against long-established local news shows.
“MH, MH” actually beats NBC’s WMAQ-TV and independent WGN-TV, closely tails CBS’s WBBM-TV, and only loses badly to the Happy News on ABC’s WLS-TV, which is currently registering a 20. Before “MH, MH,” WFLD-TV felt lucky on the nights it could surge up to a 2 in that slot.
But “MH, MH” probably strikes even more terror into the hearts of the anchormen and women on the network-owned stations in New York and Los Angeles, because the serial is running even with and frequently ahead of the 11 P.M. news on the network stations in both cities. In Los Angeles the “MH, MH” numbers have sometimes been double of those of CBS-owned KNXT, a station whose news ratings once dominated the Southern California market.
Nearly half the 101 stations that carry “MH, MH” do so late at night, often opposite well-established local news shows, and the Lear people say their show almost invariably equals or surpasses the opposition. The hurt for the news outlets is all the worse because the station carrying “MH, MH” is “often the weakest station in town,” according to the show's creative supervisor, Al Burton. “When we started, they were the only ones who would have us.”
In New York the Village Voice has proclaimed “MH, MH” “the most disconcertingly funny show ever on TV…it’s not only more entertaining than ‘Scenes from a Marriage,’ it’s better art.” The New York Times replied that “MH, MH” isn’t really better than Ingmar Berman’s notable film but is “the most interesting development on commercial television in years.”
Not everyone agrees. In Boston, “MH, MH” drew as many as 500 phone calls a day during its first week – “95 per cent negative,” according to Robert Bennett, vice president and general manager of WCVB-TV, which carries the show at 3:30 P.M. One day he called the Lear offices in Hollywood and cheerfully reported, “I've got 75 people marching on my station this afternoon to protest ‘Mary Hartman.’ I love it.”
The first week's mail across the country was also heavily negative. “I've watched your show every day,” a typical letter proclaimed, “and it’s garbage.” Most of the complaints zeroed in on subjects handled. “They didn't object to the way we handled them,” according to Burton. “They objected to the fact we mentioned them at all.” Which may be understandable, since the first week's scripts went looking for laughs in mass murder, exhibitionism, masturbation, and impotence. “Norman wanted to start strong,” according to head writer Ann Marcus. “They had already decided on the other subjects, and I add impotence.”
By the end of the first week WTVR-TV, Richmond, VA, canceled; WDCA-TV, Washington (which carries the show during Family Viewing Time), censored some of the steamier scenes; and it was nervous time for many of the stations that had gambled on Lear. Local critics proclaimed “MH, MH” outrageous, hilarious, pornographic, liberating, demeaning, exhilarating, and trashy, and the first viewers seemed just as confused.
By the second week “MH, MH” was embraced by the best salesman in show biz – word of mouth – and within a month anyone with any claim to being trendy had to be able to discuss the Fernwood Flasher and Loretta’s chances of becoming a country-and-western star.
In Evanston, IL, Rev. T. Webster Brenner, Jr. delivered a sermon on Mary Hartman, extolling her because “she faces life's problems with a basic goodness and childlike simplicity.”
In Nashville, TN, the prisoners in the state penitentiary bang cups on the bars to warn the guards to have the TV tuned to “MH, MH” at the start of their 1:30 recreation period.
Sexual Medicine Today, a publication for physicians, told its readers: “‘Mary Hartman’ is legitimizing talk about sexual problems previously draped in double-entendres, double looks, and double talk. The physician can find many of his experiences with patients reflected in "Mary Hartman – and it can be an instrument that will help him and his patients discuss sexual problems.”
Lear's T.A.T. Communications operates from a new two-story building in Hollywood (which you enter from Fernwood Avenue), and currently it has much the air of the election headquarters of a winning candidate. There are constant phone calls from across the country reporting ratings victories; dozens of fresh press inquiries every day; tables piled with clippings and reviews; continual pleas from most of the 101 stations that Louise Lasser and company, including the Flasher, drop in immediately for personal appearances; and bundles of mail at every delivery – but now the mail is running about 90 per cent favorable. “Hey,” somebody shouts, “this says Southern Illinois U. is giving a course that includes ‘MH, MH.’” “So is Yale,” comes an echo.
There is plenty of action, too, on the “MH, MH” set across the street. Lasser and Greg Mullavey, who plays her husband, Tom, are working over an exit line with a new director, and they revise and revamp, but the line doesn't satisfy. Finally there are sighs all around, and it's time for a break.
Lasser explains, “I'm exhausted. It’s not physical fatigue; I'm emotionally exhausted. The strain is unbelievable. Thank God for makeup.” They produce a half-hour show every working day and there's a backlog of only two weeks. She hadn’t read today's script until she went into makeup this morning. There's a new plan to shoot segments each day, rather than a complete show, so actors can have occasional days off. But Lasser, who is in almost every scene, won't get many days off.
Louise Lasser has much of Mary Hartman’s gentleness and at least a bit of her wide-eyed innocence. When told someone compared Hartman to a grown-up Charlie Brown, she asked, in all honesty, “Who is Charlie Brown?” She is the daughter of tax authority S. Jay Lasser, was educated in private schools in New York, and has generally lived a life light-years removed from that of a blue-collar housewife. But she loves “MH, MH” and is irritated by those who believe they see moral flaws in the show. She is asked how ex-husband Woody Allen likes the serial, and there is a thoughtful pause, then, “Woody is totally supportive of everything I do.” Subject closed.
Off the TV screen, Lasser became involved in a real-life drama when – after a disturbance in a Beverly Hills boutique May 1 – she was arrested by police for outstanding traffic violations, then charged with possession of cocaine. On May 7 she appeared in Beverly Hills Municipal Court, where the judge ordered the probation department to determine if she would be eligible for a narcotics rehabilitation program.
Life is not without problems on the set either. There are frictions, but, says Greg Mullavey, “A lot of getting upset is a ritual actors go through. I don't pay attention.” Mullavey began practicing Transcendental Meditation before the series began, and says, “It helps keep me calm under pressure.” He and Lasser haven’t always been satisfied with the scripts. “Louise rewrites in conference, but I rewrite on camera.”
Viva Knight is the young “MH, MH” producer and head worrier. “What we're doing can't be done, of course. You can't turn out a half-hour comedy of prime-time quality every day. I keep expecting people to walk in with nets and take us away.” At the moment she has 15 shows taped but unedited, and 101 stations crying, hey, hurry.
Money is a continuing problem. One of the shows that drew the most attention was the funeral service for Coach Leroy Fedders in Mary Hartman's kitchen. As the faithful will recall, the coach drowned in a bowl of chicken soup from Mary's kitchen, and she decided it would be appropriate to hold the service there. “Actually,” Knight recalls, “it was supposed to be in a mortuary, but we couldn't afford a mortuary set. Then it was moved to Mary’s living room, but at that time we didn't have a Mary’s living room. So, in desperation, it was the kitchen. A lot of people said the choice was uninspired, but they don't know what inspired it.”
Marcus and her two colleagues, Jerry Adelman and Daniel Gregory Browne, are polishing the script for show No. 75 while the cast is taping 69, but they aren’t panicking. “Actually, we gained last week,” Marcus explains, “because Norman was on vacation. You see, he can improve any script, and he does, so he’s a bottleneck.” Marcus and Adelman wrote comedy for a long spell, then spent five years on daytime soaps and are almost immune to pressure. “I can write a half-hour script in five hours,” says Adelman.
He describes Mary Hartman as a woman “going through life following a road map that has no relation to the territory.” The writers admit they have involved Hartman in some outrageous predicaments – but aren’t there limits, subjects even this show wouldn't dare touch? “Name one,” says Marcus, “and we'll put it on next week.”
The freedom of the “MH, MH” format has enabled them to write in some juicy secondary characters, such as Mona, the sex therapist, played with such enticing confidence by Sallie Janes, who is not only an actress but has been a sex therapist.
Lear himself, in casual dress topped by jaunty golf cap, hunches forward at a conference table and admits, “In no way could I guess the kind of reception ‘Mary Hartman’ would receive.” He sold his show at fire-sale prices, but never intended to go into the red. “We found out the hard way that this show cannot be produced for the money the stations are paying. We loved the property and the cast so much it was easy to make ourselves believe we would be able to do it on time and at cost.” The stations bought the show for 26 weeks and after that, “We are going to renegotiate for sums that are reasonable to them and to us.” There’s network interest, but he wouldn’t consider abandoning his original buyers.
ABC put up the money to develop the show and then backed away. Then CBS came up with funds to film a pilot – only to turn it down. Finally, NBC – and ABC for the second time – made no-buy decisions. There's a lively suspicion around the Lear offices that the networks would like to see the “MH, MH” show drown in its own chicken soup. Lear notes, “There are 15 stations owned by the networks. These are probably the most important stations in the country. Not one of them has bought our show. Why?”
Al Burton, a wiry, cheerful little man who has been working on the “MH, MH” project for nearly four years, believes most of the audience starts watching in search of jokes, and winds up caring about the characters. The opposition seems to have weakened. A story on marijuana in March, which had Mary and Tom smoking a joint, then going to a revival meeting, had not, a week later, produced a single angry letter.
In theory, “MH, MH” is shown at times when younger children won't see it – during school hours or late at night – but in practice it doesn't seem to work that way. Knight has a batch of fan letters from children in the 10-to-12 age group. One girl, 10½, wrote, “I like it when you talk about the Flasher and mass murders.”
Burton guesses “MH, MH” will eventually become almost entirely a late-night show. Daytime or night, major trend or trashy tease, “MH, MH” carries on. The lunch courier of a Hollywood department store may have summed it up with its “Mary Hartman Luncheon Plate.” The ingredients: a cute tomato, a couple of slices of baloney, some sour grapes, a few nuts.
It's doing well.