Saturday night is date night. Everyone knows that; it was always that way. I freely admit that during my dating years I was at home on Saturday night watching Bob, Mary, and Carol. It was the hottest line-up at that pre-cable, pre-SNL time: Bob Newhart, Mary Tyler Moore, and Carol Burnett. I was thankful for such edgy programming in those post-Gilligan’s Island and I Dream of Jeannie days. Saturday was so good I gave up my date night for it. Well, I wasn’t actually giving anything up, I simply had nothing better to do than stay home and watch TV. Still, it was a pretty hot line-up.
Those shows, of course, are tame by today’s standards. But back then, we had morals, dad gummit, and our tv was a reflection of that. Bob, Mary, and Carol pushed the moral landscape of television pretty dang hard.
Bob made fun of psychiatric patients. Ooh naughty. Bad taste. But deep down inside we all know crazy people are funny. Bob was just capitalizing on that universal truth. He made fun of that one looney-tune family member we all have and want to laugh at but can’t because it’s not nice.
MTM (Mary) was a single girl making it on her own and only a scant 50% of the jokes had to do with finding the right man. That was pretty risqué for back in the day when all we girls wanted out of life was to get married. Now we’re all liberated. Now we don’t just want a man. Oh no. Now we want a rich man, because we’ve come such a long way, baby.
The edgiest part of MTM was Rhoda Morgenstern. She was funny and ethnic. She had two jokes: “I need a man” for the traditionalists in the audience, and “I’m fat” for the forward-looking audience members that knew some day we’d have to confront body issues head on. Okay so the writers didn’t give her much to work with, but her delivery was spot on. Today we watch and see a stereotype, but Rhoda was fun and maybe even groundbreaking in her own little man-chasing way. By the way when I watched MTM back then, I never thought Rhoda was fat. She had a strikingly thin face, and I lived in the Midwest where everybody has big thighs. Only in New York are women pencil thin. It’s all that walking. In Michigan no one walks and big thighs are a sign of affluence. Got a big butt? Must have a car. Very sexy.
Carol Burnett was unique in that she took questions from the audience at the beginning of her variety hour. That takes guts because you never know when a fan has an ax to grind. You open yourself up to the kind of dialog that we see now on the Internet with its flame wars and trolls and people just looking to trip somebody up for “good one” points. Of course audiences in the 70s were polite, not like today’s hip, harsh, and un-shy spectators. We’re all just waiting for a chance to rank out on the man on the stage. But Carol had no fear. She was the originator of social media if you think about it: engaging her audience and making herself approachable.
She was also unladylike. She’d belt out her signature Tarzan yell at the drop of a hat. I read somewhere that the original Tarzan yell was made up of three or four sounds: car horns, elephant calls, whoopee cushions, maybe even a trumpet or tuba. The sound guys mixed them all together to get that characteristic roar that carries through the jungle and lets the natives know that no one, but no one, is to touch Jane. It’s a formidable call and Carol Burnett did it all by herself without elephants and trumpets. Her audience members asked for it often. I dare say today, even with the bodily fluids and flatulence so prevalent in our entertainment, few handlers would allow their female stars to yell like a wild animal. It would not be good for their ladylike image. Carol Burnett was ahead of her time and had no shame.
I got to thinking about the old Saturday night line-up and decided to do a little binge-watching. So far I’ve only sampled MTM. And only five episodes at that. That’s as much as I could take. TV has so moved on. The old morality laws are gone and there are damn few things you can’t discuss in the open now. As a result TV writing has gotten much better. People like to say things were simpler back then, but they weren’t. They were just as sticky and smelly and boxed in as they are today, but TV was definitely simpler. The jokes were bland, we knew all the punchlines they were so overused. Everything was pretty vanilla. Today’s audience is sophisticated. We demand and get civil rights; we demand and get answers to questions; we demand and get cable TV.
Those old half-hour plots don’t age well. I remember idolizing Mary Richards. She had a cool apartment, cool clothes,* and a cool best friend. I now know what an apartment in a trendy town costs, even if it’s a studio. Clothes are no longer the route to happiness they once were, and best friends move away and become best friends of others. Those shows were shallow. The half-hour formula just doesn’t allow for a full-bodied script. I know now why I stopped watching television after highschool: it just wasn’t any good.
So no nostaligic binge-watching for me. I’ll stick to Mad Men and The Wire.
But then again, I see Netflix has a couple of Ernie Kovacs DVDs. Maybe when I’m in the mood for content before my time I’ll check it out. I hear he was the edge in the 50s.
Stay tuned; we’ll be right back after this commercial break.