Golden Words — “The Lou and Edie Story”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

lou edie

The Emmy Awards are known for a consistency that occasionally lapses into pure redundancy. The act of rewarding yearly excellence in a cultural field of ongoing endeavor will naturally lead to a certain amount of encore winners. A show that’s great one year is likely to still be at a similar enough quality level the next to merit similar accolades. Even so, a record of constant dominance in a category is impressive. Recent sitcoms have had their own strong runs, but few reached the peaks of adulation enjoyed by The Mary Tyler Moore Show across its seven season run. Among its many feats, The Mary Tyler Moore Show holds the title for most consecutive wins in the comedy series writing category, collecting the trophy in each of its final four years.

In that four year run, the first winner achieved its own odd place in the Emmy annals. Because the Television Academy kept restlessly rejiggering its awards in the nineteen-sixties and -seventies, the array of categories for the 1973-1974 season included a general series writing category in addition to the prizes delineated between drama and comedy, part of a strange initiative of so-called Super Emmys. And so Treva Silverman, credited writer of the Mary Tyler Moore episode “The Lou and Edie Story” won two Emmys for the same script.

“The Lou and Edie Story” was the fourth episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s fourth season. Like a lot of the comedy series Emmy victors over the years, the episode likely prevailed in the three nominee category (against two M*A*S*H episodes) because its skewed in the direction of drama. By this point in the run of the series, there was a certainty to the characters that actually made the comedy fairly easy to develop. Just the simplest reaction from, say, Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) could get laughs because it carried with it an detailed background knowledge of the character’s traits and foibles. And the episode is structured around that strength expertly, crafting strong punchlines out of little more than the discomforted inability of television news staffer Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) to refer to her supervisor as anything other than Mr. Grant (Ed Asner).

What most distinguishes “The Lou and Edie Story,” though, genuinely setting it apart from the era’s norm, is the rather lengthy stretch in the last act in which the performers largely play it straight. The plot revolves around the relationship woes of Lou and his wife, Edie (Priscilla Morrill). Initially, the episode develops gentle jokes from the embarrassment Lou feels about seeing a marriage counselor and his awkwardness in sharing the information with workplace confidantes. As it moves on, it actually starts to examine the underlying concerns within the partnership, notably Edie’s yearning to figure out who she is as a person apart from the defining role of spouse, a reflection of the time’s women’s liberation movement that comes across as genuine and empathetic rather flagrant grasping at topicality that many shows tried in emulation of Norman Lear, the television creative titan of the day.

Just as the comedy became more secure as the characters locked, in, it was easier for a well-established series like The Mary Tyler Moore Show to provide the breathing room needed for a creative departure such as “The and Edie Story.” And the episode arguably provided the earliest proof that the character of Lou Grant — and the acting acumen of Asner — could prosper in a distinctly different genre if given the chance.

Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.

From the Archive — All in the Family

bunkerchair

Developed for U.S. television by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, All in the Family debuted on CBS on this date in 1971. I wrote this a few years ago, as part of the Flashback Fridays feature that ran for a time at my former online home. Except for the unfortunate citation of a current resident of State Correctional Institution – Phoenix, I think this all holds up. In the grimness of current presidential politics, reflections on the effect of televised bigotry are perhaps even more pertinent now.   

In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been watching All in the Family when I was a little kid. But by the time I was old enough to be paying attention, it was already an institution.

Norman Lear had been kicking around Hollywood for awhile when he bought the American remake rights to a BBC sitcom called Till Death Us Do Part. Lear took a couple of unsuccessful swings at reworking the material before he discovered the proper formula, recasting the pivotal supporting roles, and, in a small but important detail, changing the last name of his bigoted protagonist from Justice to Bunker. He went from a word that calls to mind egalitarianism and honor to one with connotations of concrete obstinacy. Irony was shed in favor of truer representation, and it just felt right, in the way of the strongest fictional names.

The irony was already plentiful, anyway. Archie Bunker, the blue-collar worker who casually employed every conceivable ethnic slur in his agitated discourse against the supposed sullying of America by the liberal elite, was the lead character in the show, ostensibly the hero. And yet his hateful rhetoric was about as far removed from the viewpoints of Lear as could be. Similarly, Carroll O’Connor couldn’t have been more different from the role that would define the remainder of his career. The show intended to generate its comedy from the satire of the character, demonstrating how his prejudice derived from ignorance and foolishness, but without making him a heartless monster. He was lovable in his way, weirdly charming, and, the show being a comedy, often quite funny. Archie’s lefty son-in-law may have been voicing the same opinions that Lear himself expressed when he was given a podium, a microphone, and an attentive audience, but that didn’t mean the show’s creators intended upon giving that character, or any character, a mere straw man to bat down. The construction of the show was even-handed enough that the first episode was preceded by a warning that explained to viewers the intent of illustrating the absurdity of Archie’s mindset.

So why was it probably a mistake that this show was a staple of my childhood years? Because I undoubtedly didn’t understand all that when I was a little kid. I just saw Archie say terrible things and heard the live studio audience laugh. There was an intricacy to the show that eluded me at the time, that I couldn’t have been expected to know when my age was in the single digits. Still, there I sat, in front of the console TV set the size of a washing machine, and giggled away. I was especially amused when the toilet audibly flushed. It was only much, much later when I watched it that I understood and appreciated the real goals of the show, the daring of its execution.

I’m not saying I was scarred by this, or that I operate today with any confusion about whether or not “Polack” is a nice word. But I am a little curious about how the series was really viewed by all those people who made it the number one rated show for five years running. If a significant number of right-wingers think The Colbert Report is real, then surely there may have been a unsettling percentage of the twenty million people who tuned into All in the Family each week to admire Archie’s straight-talkin’ ways. It’s easy to get paranoid and see the program as a sitcom version of one of Howard W. Campbell, Jr.’s radio essays in Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, the caustic message more impactful than the code it hides.

When Bill Cosby presided over a family sitcom that has its own impressive run atop the Nielsen charts, he notably complained that Archie Bunker never apologized for any of the things he said. Even if he occasionally faced his comeuppance, he never truly had an epiphany about the wrong-headed nature of his views. Though it would have been a betrayal of the artistic vision of the series, potentially undoing its bold honestly with a single line of dialogue, I do see Cosby’s point. I can watch All in the Family now and find it funny, occasionally bordering on brilliant. But when I think of the much younger version of myself watching it, trying to puzzle out its purpose, the laughs sometimes catch in my throat.

This Week’s Model — Sharon Van Etten, “Seventeen”

sharon van.png
(Source)

“Seventeen,” the new single from Sharon Van Etten’s album Remind Me Tomorrow, sneaks up. Gradually growing louder in volume at the beginning, the track is all beautiful tension at first, which is Van Etten’s creative comfort zone.  It holds promise and threat. It could go anywhere. Then Van Etten’s deep, rich voice kicks in and the music — steady beat, light electronic effects — grows warmer, as if a sun-heated breeze was raised. The cut continues to build, adding yet fiercer sonic squalls, a punching guitar part, and vocals that rise to near belt.

The age cited in the song almost cant help but call to mind both Janis Ian and Stevie Nicks. Van Etten owns the comparison, even massaging her vocals with a suggestion of the latter’s trademark tremor. There’s yearning and reflection in her voice, seduction and defiance. Stylistically, it’s maybe a gentle nudge to the likes of Angel Olsen, a reminder that Van Etten treaded this particular territory first.

The lyrics largely stay poised between two different possibilities: that they’re directed at Van Etten’s younger self or simply stand as advice for a spied girl who stirs memories. Likely it’s both, but there are tip offs as to which way the sentiment leans (“Down beneath the ashes and the stone/ Sure of what I’ve lived and have known/ I see you so uncomfortably alone/ I wish I could show you how much you’ve grown”), including the music video, described by Van Etten as “my love letter to NYC,” surveying her important personal locales like treasured keepsakes. With resonant elegance, Van Etten captures the power in looking backward.

 

The Art of the Sell — Nichols and May for GE Refrigerators

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

It was hardly the dawn of broadcast television in 1958, but the medium was still finding its legs in so many ways. In particular, the commercials that provided necessary financial support to entertainment programming (TV was free and delivered over the airwaves, kids) could be delightfully offbeat in a far more understated way that now, when it’s practically a requirement to jar the viewer out of their fast-forwarding. Fiercely creative advertisements still exist, of course, but there’s something distinctly charming about the early, freewheeling days, when an ad agency might simply turn over a major campaign to bright, burgeoning comic voices and simply ask them to do their thing.

Young & Rubicam forged a quick partnership with Mike Nichols and Elaine May. In 1958, the duo of Nichols and May hadn’t yet embarked on their famed Broadway run. Their first comedy album, Improvisations to Music, arrived at the end of the year. Legends later, they were just kids, murmuring out skillfully acted, character-driven comedy sketches. Giving them a couple minutes of television time to peddle General Electric refrigerators, especially in a precisely performed spoof that’s part classic Hollywood melodrama and part Noel Coward comedy of manners may not be the height of audaciousness but it’s daring enough to look exceedingly special all these years later.

The ad is grand and surprising, And it does its basic job admirably. I now sorta want a major appliance with shelves that swing out for easy access.

Laughing Matters — Saturday Night Live, “Colon Blow”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

Due to an earlier social media exchange, this particular vintage Saturday Night Live sketch has been on my mind all day. Since I don’t have time to write much else tonight, let this serve as my humble means of expunging it.

Never forget that any list of the greatest cast members of NBC’s venerable weekend late night comedy show must begin with Phil Hartman to be legitimate.

From the Archive — Friends

friends1994tvga

On the occasion of Netflix sending about seventeen boxcars crammed with small bills in the direction of WarnerMedia to keep streaming rights to Friends, this was my attempt a few years ago at writing about the bygone hit sitcom, as part of the “Flashback Fridays” series at my former digital home. This, I must note, was a precarious task for me, since any assertions I made faced the sure scrutiny of a true expert. I don’t remember what she though of this brief consideration. In truth, I’m a little afraid to ask.

1994: Friends debuts

I was about a year out of college when the TV series Friends made its debut, making me a twenty-something just beginning to figure out my place in the world and leaning on my closest compatriots when things got too challenging and confusing. And that’s exactly what I saw when I looked at this show. Maybe I was projecting a little bit. After all, about half the characters were toiling in occupations that implied a certain amount of settled stature — upscale chef, paleontologist, indeterminate business executive — and they were all subsisting with few indications of strife. They lived in the safest, smallest version of New York City imaginable. It looked more like the clean-scrubbed capital city I lived in than any iteration of the biggest metropolis in the nation I’d ever seen on screen before. They drank coffee and traded jokes and wondered about how their romantic prospects might pan out. Add in a little more beer and a tendency to spend weekend nights watching They Live and it could have been my clan.

As I recall, one of the most common complaints when the show premiered and started racing up to the top of the ratings was that the characters didn’t talk like real people, as if the gag machines on other sitcoms were somehow the height of verisimilitude. Thing was, at the height of their verbal one-upmanship, the characters in Friends sounded exactly like my friends. The happy irony, offbeat absurdism, media savvy, and collegial jabs were the grammar of our banter. Some of the push back against the tone and tenor of Friends was the commonplace animosity my generation voiced anytime a piece of entertainment was said to represent our norms and behaviorsFriends got reflexively dumped into that category for a time, but in short order it transcended that to become a sitcom institution, maybe the last of its kind.

There have been other hit shows since, of course, and even other comedies that captured attention, but I think Friends arguably represents the last gasp of hip, appointment television, the sort of thing that NBC could accurately label “Must See TV.” The show didn’t exactly have an edge to lose, but it certainly got more comfortable in the manner of all long-running shows, playing on the most familiar elements of the characters and their tried and true situations rather than springing the unexpected on the audience. It was reliable, warm, dependable. It was there for us. And we were there for it, too.