If you’ve ever thrown your cap in the air after buying the perfect pair of shoes on Nicollet Mall, confessed to hating spunk or come down with a bad case of the giggles during a funeral, you’ll want to pick up “Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted,” an inside look at a classic TV show that just happened to be based in Minneapolis.
Author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong talked to us by phone last week about her obsession with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and how the sitcom still resonates today.
Q: What inspired you to commit so much time to this show?
A: I was a writer at Entertainment Weekly, mostly writing about television and women’s issues. It was during the great rise of Tina Fey and she and several other women in comedy, including Julia Louis-Dreyfus, all talked about being inspired by that show. Once I started looking into it, I discovered Treva Silverman, one of the show’s early female writers, and kept hearing these fabulous stories that have never been told before.
Q: Why do you call Mary Tyler Moore the original sexy feminist?
A: She was allowed to fly under the radar a little bit because she didn’t announce herself as a feminist. That would have been a scary thing to do on a prime-time show during the ’70s.
She seduced people by playing a really sweet good girl, doing everything she was supposed to be doing, being nice to everyone. By the time the show got racier and edgier — Mary was on the pill and staying up all night — it was OK because she was already accepted. She was also pretty and funny. I think she’s underrated as a physical comic.
Q: Didn’t it kind of smack of sexism that Mary Richards was the only character not to refer to Lou Grant by his first name?
A: Absolutely, of course. She’s not perfect. One of my favorite things that I learned is that feminists at the time weren’t big fans. The writers didn’t set out to make a socially important show. They were being realistic about the times they were in.
Q: What’s your favorite episode?
A: It’s actually not “Chuckles the Clown Bites the Dust.” The power of that episode is deflated when you know the trick behind it. It’s not as hilarious on multiple viewings. The pilot is one of the greatest of all time, but I think I’d pick “Rhoda the Beautiful.”
I’m a Rhoda girl. She gets cajoled into entering a beauty contest. It’s really weird and uncomfortable how she keeps debasing herself as stupid and fat. She ends up winning and keeps it a secret for a while because she can’t quite deal with it.
Treva, who is one of my all-time favorite idols, wrote it. She told me this story that brought it all home for me. Valerie [Harper, who played Rhoda] ended up winning the Emmy that year and, in her speech, she thanked Treva, who was watching from a weight-loss camp.
Q: It’s interesting that you mention Tina Fey, because the series finale of “30 Rock” seemed to have a lot of references to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
A: I thought so, too. It’s like that show was a “Bizarro World” version of Mary’s show. It was really clear to me, but maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time thinking about the show. It’s like Stockholm syndrome. I find myself thinking, Isn’t this pancake shaped like “MTM”?