Ask the Televisionary
Question: When I was a kid, I remember my parents liked a controversial show called “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” I was never allowed to stay up that late or watch it. Was it that bad? — Tara B., Owatonna, Minn.
Televisionary: People seemed to think so when it debuted in January 1976, Tara. Matter of fact, the Norman Lear comedy, which was produced from 1975-78 and featured sexual shenanigans and other taste-testing fare, was syndicated because all of the major networks rejected it.
ABC initially put up the money to develop the series, which focused on the lives of Mary and her cohorts in fictional Fernwood, Ohio, but backed away from it. CBS stepped in and paid for a pilot, then turned it down. Then NBC passed on it, and ABC gave it a thumbs-down a second time. So Lear and Co. sold it directly to 101 stations — who weathered a storm of bad reaction from the shocked masses in the series' first week.
In Boston, as many as 500 phone calls, nearly 95 percent of them negative, came into the station carrying it that week. The mail was much the same. “I've watched your show every day and it’s garbage,” said one. Others focused specifically on the topics addressed, such as exhibitionism, mass murder, impotence and masturbation. “They didn’t object to the way we handled them,” “MH, MH” creative supervisor Al Burton told TV Guide in 1976. “They objected to the fact that we mentioned them at all.”
The Richmond, Va., station carrying the show canceled it after one week. The Washington, D.C., station censored it.
But your parents weren’t the only ones who liked it. An Evanston, Ill., reverend delivered a sermon on the show, praising Mary (Louise Lasser) because she “faces life’s problems with a basic goodness and childlike simplicity.” Inmates in the state penitentiary in Nashville, Tenn., banged their cups on the bars of their cells to warn the guards to tune in by the start of their recreation period. Sexual Medicine Today said the show “is legitimizing talk about sexual problems previously draped in double entendres, double looks and double-talk.” And the critics weighed in, too, with The Village Voice calling it “the most disconcertingly funny show ever on TV,” The New York Times describing it as “the most interesting development on commercial television in years” and TV Guide’s Cleveland Amory writing that “at its best, this show is the funniest program on the air this year.”
More important were the ratings. In Chicago, the local UHF station found itself posting competitive numbers against the larger stations’ local news, beating the NBC station, giving the CBS station a run for its money and beating indie WGN. In Los Angeles, the show doubled the CBS station’s news ratings and strong numbers were posted by weak stations in city after city nationwide.
Colleges taught classes on the show. A Hollywood department store even served a Mary Hartman Luncheon Plate at its lunch counter (a cute tomato, a couple of slices of baloney, some sour grapes, a few nuts).
The only one having a tough time of it was Lasser, who found herself appearing in nearly every scene of a show that shot a half-hour episode every working day. “I’m exhausted,” she said. “It’s not physical fatigue; I’m emotionally exhausted. The strain is unbelievable. Thank God for makeup.”
On the set, there was the kind of friction you’d expect from such a hectic schedule, coupled with money problems stemming from the low price Lear had to settle for when initially selling the show to stations. “We found out the hard way that this show cannot be produced for the money the stations are paying,” Lear said. “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.”
Budget concerns made for interesting adjustments. One famous episode had Coach Leroy Fedders drowning in a bowl of chicken soup in Mary’s kitchen, for example, with Mary then deciding it would be appropriate to hold the service for him there. “Actually,” producer Viva Knight admitted, “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 inspired, but they don’t know what inspired it.”
Eventually, the hours and the stress caught up with Lasser, who quit, calling the job a “constant sprint,” adding: “It’s a question of how much you can sprint without hurting the muscles.” (It was replaced by “Fernwood 2-Night,” a talk-show parody in which Martin Mull interviewed the other residents of Fernwood.)
Yet it made an impression, often on unintended audiences. It was written for your parents and not you, Tara. But that didn’t stop the producers from getting fan mail from a 10 1/2-year-old girl, who wrote: “I like it when you talk about the flasher and mass murders.”
And when TV Guide rated the top 50 cult shows in television history (from a June, 2004 issue), “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” ranked at number 21
21. “MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN” (1975-1978) This pre-“SOAP” soap satire featured a pigtailed housewife (Louise Lasser) always on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Impotence, mass murder and death by drowning in chicken soup were among its barrier-busters. Cult-ability: Costar Martin Mull (who played Garth-and twin brother Barth-Gimble), says “MH2” (as fans called it) wasn’t “tailored to one-size-fits-all. Certain people didn’t get it. Too bad. Others did, and they tell me they still miss it.”