Martin Mull, Martin Mull: If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Beat Someone Else
Sherman Oaks, CA—It’s almost a scientific fact that the continental United States is tilted 30 degrees to the west. Ergo, anybody who isn’t tied down eventually rolls to Southern California, there to doze in a Chevy van, or man the intercom at a Jack in the Box, or otherwise insinuate himself into the engine room of Hollywoodism and thus shape mass culture.
In the Land of the Unsettling Sun, all things seem possible; it has become the principal laboratory/stomping grounds for What You’d Rather Be Doing. For example, it was here that television producer Norman Lear became a video savant, delobotomizing the Burbank Mentality with such salty sitcoms as “All in the Family,” “Maude,” and the new theater of the perturbed—“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” And it is from here that soft-rock humorist Martin Mull, the almost annoyingly clever conscience of the Pop Life, hopes finally to distinguish himself. For even in the make-believe environs of KTLA-TV, where the clumsy dreams of the good people of Fernwood, USA, are nightly shattered, there still are a few who believe in new beginnings…
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If a little-known actress like Mary Kay Place can use a silly soap opera as a springboard to a singing career, why can’t a little-known singer like Martin Mull use his silly soap opera to achieve the same sudsy star status?
Or, as Mull anxiously puts it, “Do you, will you follow me?”
For nearly ten years, the singer/songwriter in question has been struggling just to get the world to listen to him. While a recording artist with Vanguard (as lead guitarist in a weird group called Soup) and then Capricorn (four lps with such bizarre titles as Days of Wine and Neuroses), Mull was unable to garner more than a cult following. Obviously, most record buyers weren’t ready for output like a Christmas single called “Santa Doesn’t Cop Out on Dope” or a multi-leveled C&W health food ballad featuring “a trucker who likes to pick up fruit.”
Martin Mull was sorely in need of a fresh start and it arrived in the form of a talent scout for the wildly successful “Mary Hartman, etc.”
“I had been out in L.A. performing my regular music at the Roxy Theater, and Al Burton, who is one of Norman Lear’s creative supervisors, came and saw me,” explains the blond, mustachioed Mull, relaxing in his modest new apartment. “He (Burton) suggested I go speak with Norman and so I went and met with him for an hour or so. About four months later, the “Hartman” people called up and said, ‘We want you to come read for this part.’
Mull’s new role as an actor offers no Loretta Haggers-like opportunities to sell his strange songs to the viewers, but as crack public relations man Garth Gimble he intends to perform with the same conviction he brought to such concert favorites as “Show Me Yours (I’ll Show You Mine).”
“He’s your Madison Avenue PR type,” says Mull, outlining his part. “Garth is never at a loss for words—never. His style is very, very high-pressure, and he uses as many dated clichés as possible.
“In the show I’m married to a nurse named Pat and we have a 14-year-old son at military school who wets his bed, so he’s being sent home.”
Sounds tame for late-night television—but what about those rumors that Garth Gimble is a wife-beater?
“Let’s put it this way: I’m not the model husband.” Rules Mull AKA Gimble. “My wife is almost always badly injured; arm in a sling, with bad bruises, fingers in splints, and so on. The general explanation is that she is ‘accident prone.’
“However, as of the last episode we’ve taped, some screams were heard from our house which, of course, can be easily explained by the fact that we were watching “The New Treasure Hunt” and we got very caught up in it.
“That’s the reason we screamed, Officer,” Gimble/Mull deadpans. “‘Honest.’”
There’s no hard evidence that Gimble is roughing up the little woman?
“None whatsoever!” he says, feigning innocent bewilderment. “I can’t imagine how anyone could begin to think that…”
On-camera difficulties aside, has Mull’s transition from music to melodrama been a trying one?
“I’ve done seven shows now and it’s going well, but the first day I was so nervous. You see the script with all the revisions the night before and learn it as best as you can. Then you get to the set and it changes all over the place people adding and subtracting and improvising.
“You’re there from nine o’clock and that afternoon it’s on tape—that’s it; there’s a rehearsal and a taping, so you only get two pops at it!
“I was talking to Mary Kay Place the other day,” Mull confides. “She recently had an opening at the Palomino Club and she was saying she would have given anything not to be out in front of people with just one shot at getting it right. She feels more comfortable in front of the TV cameras. Well, at my first day on the “Hartman” set, I would have given anything to be onstage at a club. I sweated clean through a three-piece suit!”
As far as a television career is concerned, Mull’s chance to appear on “Mary Hartman” may prove a mixed blessing. This past summer, he signed a contract with NBC that included the possibility of his own series. As a result, Mull had to get special permission to appear in the late-night serial for the required 13 weeks. When that time is up, a renewal could depend on his success in giving NBC what they want.
“NBC gave me money to develop a script for a show,” Mull reveals. “I had a couple of ideas, neither of which they liked, apparently. The first was a series called “Frontier Gyno,” about the first gynecologist in the Old West; he comes riding into town with his stirrups sticking straight up. The other show was an idea whereby the Queen of England remarries to an urban ghetto black from the United States. The program would be called “Elizabeth and Andy.”
Careful not to put all his golden eggs in one basket, Mull is completing work on an 11th lp, this one for ABC Records.
“My new album is called I’m Everyone I’ve Ever Loved. There’s sketches and monologues on it, as well as songs, and I have an awful lot of guest stars. I sing a duet with Melissa Manchester, Alice Playten, Robert Klein, and Rob Reiner—you know, Meathead on “All in the Family”—also appear. And Tom Waits is a bartender in one of the skits, besides doing a long piano solo on the title track:
I’m everyone I’ve ever loved
All rolled into one
I’m all of the women I’ve had in my life
The actress, the waitress, the nun
I’m there when I need me
I’m not when I don’t
Just the same as my sweet Rosa Lee was
And as far as that time in the bus station goes
I’m everything that he was
“I’ve got a new gospel tune on the record called ‘Dammit, Jesus Christ, I Missed Church Again!” Mull adds. “There’s a disco song called ‘Get Up, Get Down’ which is for crowded discos—it’s something you can do right in your chair—and a lovely bossa nova number. And I have a kind of rampant homosexual sea chanty sung by Columbus and his men, simply called ‘Men.’ If I don’t get renewed on “Hartman,” I may support the album with a tour.”
The soap opera can be a most potent burlesque. How will audiences react to Mull when he re-enters the rock world? Does he worry that the public may be hostile toward the aggressive Garth Gimble, rather than laugh along with mild-mannered Martin?
“I’m a little concerned about that, frankly,” he admits, “because my character is so odious and so despicable on so many levels. There are people who don’t know that’s not real. If you were the rapist on “Adam 12,” they don’t think of you as the guy who did a terrific job acting as a rapist—they think of you as a rapist. Some people are crazy enough, if they see you on the street, they’ll probably stick you! Everyone on the show keeps assuring me I’m gonna get some torrid mail.”
Martin Mull says he is striving to approach the hot-tempered Garth Gimble with an ever-open mind and requests that “Mary Hartman” fans do likewise.
“What my character is really like is in the eye of the beholder, not the ‘bedoer,’” he counsels. “I’m certainly not crazy about him; I’d like to kick him right where it hurts.
“But it’s tough to say,” Mull allows slyly, “because he is played by one of my favorite people.”
Mary Kay: If C&W Comes Knockin’…
By Judson Klinger
Los Angeles—The insulated door to KTLA’s “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” sound stage opens like the portal of a freezer vault. Inside, a winding corridor of prop walls and wardrobe racks leads to the dressing room of Mary Kay Place, who plays Loretta Haggers—Mary’s C&W-singing next door neighbor. Showing an ebullience characteristic of the goodhearted Loretta, Mary Kay invites me into her dressing room with a “Come on in, hon’, and sit down.” In jeans, a yellow bowling shirt tied at the waist, and without the beehive wig, this native of Tulsa looks nothing like her TV counterpart.
Place, however, shares her character’s love of singing. “I have constantly sung my whole life,” she says. She got the role of Loretta after Norman Lear had her sing her first composition, “If Communism Comes Knockin’ at Your Door, Don’t Answer It,” on “All in the Family.” Eventually Loretta helped Mary Kay get a record contract with Columbia.
“Baby Boy” is the C&W parody hit single that launched Loretta’s career on the show. She might call it, “Just a toe-tappin’, knee-slappin’, country record, hon’,” but record companies saw it as an exploitation hit, and the offers poured in. Lunching on carrot and celery sticks, Place is not the air-head Haggers: her tone of voice is businesslike.
“I made it quite clear to each of the companies that contracted me,” she says, “that I did not want to make a novelty album, that I was not in the business of making a joke album.” Columbia listened—up to a point. Although the lp is a straightforward effort on Place’s part (containing such country standards as “Setting the Woods on Fire,” “The Get Acquainted Waltz,” and “Country Baptizer” [sic]), the two less-than-serious songs written and popularized by Loretta are the selling points of the new album, entitled Tonight! At the Capri Lounge.
“A lot of people know Loretta Haggers, but they don’t know Mary Kay Place,” she explains. “For people to make that connection, on the first effort I felt that it was okay to do it. The voice is mine, whether I’m in a Loretta wig or an evening gown. What we’ve done is a professional, musically well-done album. It’s not corny or jokey—it’s a legitimate country album. It was my decision to put Loretta on the cover. It was the only intelligent thing to do.”
The album is produced by Brian Ahern (Emmlyou Harris, Anne Murray) with Harris’ Hot Band as the studio musicians, and Dolly Parton, Herb Pedersen, Murray, and Harris on background vocals.
“I was intimidated to death by these people, and had hives the majority of the recording session! They were all just incredible, especially Brian and Emmylou—they were all so patient. It was a great atmosphere for a first album. There was no pressure except what I created for myself.”
To avoid getting “saturated” with just acting, Place balances her career with writing. Before “Mary Hartman,” she co-wrote scripts for nearly three years for “Mary Tyler Moore,” “M*A*S*H,” “Maude,” and “Rhoda,” as well as several pilots. Currently she is working on a screenplay. Averting the Loretta Haggers typecasting, she took the role of a ‘40’s singer with Robert DeNiro’s band in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film musical New York, New York. She also makes a cameo appearance in the Woody Guthrie film biography, Bound for Glory.
A knock at the door and she’s across the room to see who’s there. Accepting a package from a familiar studio mail boy, Mary Kay/Loretta takes a step back and exclaims, “Lookit you all dressed up in new clothes and everything! You goin’ Hollywood on us, hon’?”