Gale Encyclopedia of Popular Culture
“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”
by Rick Moody
The parody of a soap opera “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” debuted in January of 1976, to become the “Bicentennial Soap” – much like Rocky became the Bicentennial movie. But while Rocky hearkened back to a simpler type of hero, Mary Hartman was at once simple—the long-suffering successor to radio’s “Mary Noble” – yet complex, for her struggles involved dealing with outlandish crises such as a neighborhood mass murder, the “exposure” of her grandfather as the notorious “Fernwood Flasher,” and the basketball coach’s drowning in a bowl of her chicken soup.
Also, like Rocky, this was the underdog which initially no major network would touch, until producer Norman Lear sold the show to independent stations and produced an unexpected hit which became a cultural phenomenon. The Wall Street Journal deigned it “the funniest show in the history of television.”
“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” originated in the mind of sitcom producer Norman Lear, who was riding the wave of success with both “All in the Family,” and its spin-off, “Maude,” when he bought the rights to an old radio serial, “The Bickersons,” intending to update and adapt it into a TV sitcom. In the process of development, Lear determined that he wanted to create an unusual hybrid: a straight soap with continuing characters and situations – but one which would simultaneously satirize the medium.
Lear hired a series of veteran comedy writers to develop this concept. The setting would be fictional small town Fernwood, Ohio. The central family would be the Hartmans: blue-collar auto-worker husband Tom, his wife Mary, and their teenage daughter, Heather. Other characters would include Mary’s parents and younger sister, the Shumways, as well as neighbors the Haggers, consisting of would-be country singer Loretta, and her husband Charlie.
While this setup was quite workable, Lear wanted to open the show with a series of plot developments which would establish its offbeat nature – but also quite possibly alienate the audience through its breaking of taboos. In the opening episodes, the Hartmans would deal with the mass murder of a neighborhood family – including their goats and chickens, the exposure of Mary’s grandfather as an exhibitionist, and a frank bedroom discussion between Tom and Mary regarding his long-term impotence.
While Lear, along with head writers Ann Marcus, Daniel Gregory Browne, and others struggled to make these crises amusing and avoid censorship, the offensive subject matter still worried prospective networks, who contended that either the show needed a live studio audience or a laugh track to point up the humor. Yet Lear resisted, finally selling the show personally, based on his reputation to approximately ninety independent stations across the country. During this interim the producers went on with the process of casting the project.
According to writer Ann Marcus, the central character of Mary had been written for actress Louise Lasser – ex-wife of Woody Allen and co-star in his films such as Bananas, and Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know about Sex. While Lasser was hesitant about the bizarre nature of the project, the producers soon convinced her of her fit, and Lasser is credited with bringing Mary to life through her deliberate and measured delivery, and her creation of Mary's “look” – the wig of braided hair and bangs, and the puffy-sleeved housewife mini-dresses. Lasser seemed to have intuitively captured the unfinished, adolescent/woman nature of Mary, who had not fully integrated as an adult, and actually dressed younger than her thirteen-year-old daughter.
“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” premiered on January 6, 1976. The first episode established the anachronistic style which hearkened to soap operas of the 1950’s – complete with corny organ music and the voice of Dody Goodman (who played Mary’s mother) calling out “Mary Hartman... Mary Hartman!” The opening scenes took place in Mary’s kitchen, where much of the action of the series focused, as she watched soap operas and lamented the “waxy, yellow buildup” on her own floors (resulting in her climbing underneath the sink and closing the cabinet in depression). Then, upon hearing the report of the death of “the Lombardis, their three kids, two goats, and eight chickens,” from neighbor Loretta Haggers (Mary Kay Place), Mary responds – in her now-classic deadpan fashion, “What kind of madman would kill two goats and eight chickens?”
Such black humor, in such questionable taste drew an immediate response – both positive and negative. The show was the subject of endless articles in tabloids and highbrow magazines as critics debated its merits. While Newsweek praised it, Time magazine found it “silly, stupid, silly, stupid.” Factions of the public found it boring, while others were shocked and revolted, mounting letter-writing campaigns and picketing stations to stop the show which was broadcast in the afternoon, when their innocent children could be corrupted. Still others found it wildly original and fan clubs rose as Mary Hartman t-shirts, bumper stickers, and other merchandise began circulating.
For many, the show was just plain hysterically funny. The quintessential episode concerned the funeral held for Leroy Fedders, the coach of the Fernwood High basketball team. Ill with a cold, Coach Fedders had been downing shots of bourbon as well as cold medicine when Mary Hartman arrived with a bowl of her chicken soup. As Mary and the coach’s wife talk obliviously in the kitchen, Coach Fedders deliriously slumps forward in the bowl of chicken soup, and quietly drowns.
Mary, sick with guilt, offers the Fedders family her kitchen for the funeral. Few mourners gather for, as widow Blanche Fedders concludes, “That’s how much people care about you when you never win a game.” In delivering the eulogy, Mary pleads, “I do not want any of my friends and neighbors or relatives ever to eat anything I offer them again,” then – moments later – invites the mourners to refreshments she’s prepared. Then Loretta Haggers – wheelchair-bound due to an accident involving her car and a carload full of nuns en route to Nashville – comes forward to sing the coach’s favorite song, “That Old Black Magic,” in her typically upbeat, inappropriately jazzy country style.
Reportedly, Lear himself improvised the Coach’s death and took delight in figuring out equally bizarre ways for characters to be eliminated, such as the bizarre – and somewhat controversial – death of eight-year-old evangelist Jimmy Joe Jeeter, who was electrocuted when a TV set fell into his bathtub. Likewise, partway through the show’s run, Martin Mull (later Roseanne’s boss on her sitcom) was introduced as Garth Gimble, a wife-beater who was killed by his wife when she knocks him into a closet and he was impaled by the Christmas tree stored within. Then there was the near-death of Charlie Haggers, who, when in defending his wife from the lecherous advances of Jimmy Joe's slimy promoter/father Merle (Dabney Coleman), is accidentally shot in the groin. He subsequently receives a transplant testicle from a German Shepherd.
Despite its immense success, the daily grind was taking its toll on star Louise Lasser. While most soap opera leads appeared in two to three episodes per week, Lasser insisted on being in every one, especially difficult because the parodic nature of the show required extensive rehearsal to achieve the right comedic timing, and Lasser was burning out as the 26 weeks of the first season wore on. Lasser’s stress was also exacerbated by an incident in her private life involving an arrest for possession of a small amount of cocaine, and non-payment of traffic tickets.
Lasser suggested this incident, culminating in her nervous breakdown, to be written into the show as the season finale. The writers agreed, contriving a scenario in which Mary is chosen as “America's Typical Consumer Housewife,” and a film crew is sent to document a week in her life. Subsequently, Mary is flown to New York to appear before a panel of experts on the “David Susskind Show.” These pressures, in addition to Tom’s job loss and descent into alcoholism, her sister Cathy’s illicit affair with a Catholic priest, Mary’s own being held hostage at a Chinese laundry, and her doomed affair with police Sgt. Dennis Foley – who has a heart attack the first time they make love – causes Mary to crack on national TV under scrutiny by experts who are analyzing her life. She eventually ends up in a mental hospital, and subsequently, upon release, runs off with Sgt. Foley. Though the show attempted to go on for the next season as “Forever Fernwood” without Lasser, its popularity declined, leading to cancellation.
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2002 Gale Group.