My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.
When Mary Tyler Moore died recently at 80, she was mourned and eulogized as one of television’s biggest winners. Moore scored two shows that helped define their era: The Dick Van Dyke Show, where she was the perfect adorable wife and comic foil to Dick Van Dyke. That led to her even greater triumph as the star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It’s tempting to write that Moore was lucky enough to be an essential component of two sitcoms held up as apogees of the form. But that would imply that luck was a dominant factor in the historic success of The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show rather than Moore’s talent, magnetism, and likability.
Unfortunately, Moore followed two of television’s biggest, most beloved and influential hits with two of the biggest failures of the late 1970s. Moore returned to television in 1978 as the star of Mary, a variety show taken off the air after a mere three episodes despite a supporting cast that included the great Swoosie Kurtz, and a pair of shaggy young comedians who would go on to do pretty well for themselves: Michael Keaton and David Letterman.
After Mary crashed and burned, Moore returned to prime time, again with Keaton in tow, for 1979’s The Mary Tyler Moore Hour. Moore was still perversely intent on singing and hoofing her way through primetime at a time when variety shows were on their way out. This time her vehicle was a sitcom/variety show mutation that combined baggy-pants variety-show shenanigans with an inside-television workplace sitcom like her previous successful series.
The show chronicled the behind-the-scenes antics and in front of camera entertainment of The Mary McKinnon Show, a variety-show vehicle for McKinnon (Moore), alternating between Mary and her staff dealing with an endless series of crises and flashy production numbers featuring McKinnon and guest stars like Lucille Ball, Gene Kelly, and, most auspiciously, Dick Van Dyke.
This allowed Moore to return to her comfort zone of television-centric sitcoms while providing a sturdy template for guest stars like Bea Arthur, Bonnie Franklin, and Hal Linden to perform beloved chestnuts from the great American songbook. The American public proved shockingly uninterested in hearing Arthur emote her way through “Everything Happens To Me,” however, and The Mary Tyler Moore Hour was canceled after a mere 11 episodes.
Moore’s MTM production company further dominated the 1970s with shows like The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, Phyllis, Lou Grant (the last three all spin-offs of The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and WKRP In Cincinnati. Yet The Mary Tyler Moore Hour was at once a product of its time and a hokey anachronism. In two of the first three episodes, Mary and her coworkers struggle to keep hammy old vaudevillians from completely dominating Mary’s show. First, Benny Baxter (Howard Morris) is psychotically intent on upstaging Mary. Next, Henny Youngman is the comedy dinosaur intent on making The Mary McKinnon Show his own through sheer chutzpah.
Hour pretends that these relics from comedy’s ancient past are too old-fashioned for Mary’s show, but the truth is they fit in just fine. The Mary Tyler Moore Hour sometimes seems better-suited to Henny Youngman than it is to a woman who once embodied the liberated 1970s single woman, yet found herself performing a disco-themed “Mother Goose Medley” in 1979. Still, the elegant, sexy, and dynamic Moore proves herself to be a far more compelling and entertaining variety show performer than either Japanese superstar Pink Lady, who starred in an English-language variety show despite not speaking English, or Chewbacca’s relatives, who similarly inexplicably starred in an English-language variety special despite also not speaking English. In some ways, the old-fashioned nature of Hour works in its favor. The production numbers, for example, occasionally tilt contemporary, but more often than not favor beloved standards performed and executed with a level of taste and restraint rare for 1970s television, particularly for variety shows.
As a variety show/sitcom hybrid, The Mary Tyler Moore Hour is an odd construct. After all, sitcoms generally do not last an hour and feature multiple song and dance numbers (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s unique style of comedy notwithstanding) or hoary old one-liners from Henny Youngman. And variety shows generally aren’t indebted to the cozy conventions of sitcoms the way The Mary Tyler Moore Hour is. Sitcoms typically aim to be likable and relatable; variety shows aspire to old Hollywood glamour and vaudevillian comedy.
Moore worked on every level: She was likable and relatable, at once an idealized everywoman and America’s sitcom sweetheart. But she was also movie-star glamorous and a peerless physical comedienne. That, oddly enough, may have been a problem. Moore may have been too glamorous for her new audience. Despite the show’s surprisingly tasteful song selection, it is weird, and a little problematic, to see Moore in the series finale done up to look unnervingly like Ike-era Tina Turner as she bumps and grinds and sweats her way through “Proud Mary.”
Still, Moore pulled out all the stops here. Dick Van Dyke doesn’t just guest star; he also reprises his Dick Van Dyke Show character Rob Petrie opposite Moore’s Laura for a pair of non-canonical sketches. The first is a surprisingly dark, restrained piece about the death of Alan Brady, Rob’s longtime boss, that ends on a bum note with an, “Oh no, our son is gay!” capper. The next flashes forward decades into the future to allow Van Dyke to do an old-man routine that’s hokey even by variety-show standards. But even though Moore and Van Dyke do not do their finest work on The Mary Tyler Moore Hour, it’s obvious that these two consummate pros take palpable joy from being in each other’s presence. The smiles of variety show performers often look plastered on and forced, but Moore and her guests genuinely seem to be enjoying themselves, and that makes a huge difference.
The sitcom elements of The Mary Tyler Moore Hour initially feel a little arbitrary and broad. The show’s central comic conceit is that despite her wealth, fame, and stardom, Moore’s character is a soft touch for a kooky assortment of coworkers, employees and friends who are forever testing her will. The sitcom antics may be Mary Tyler Moore Show lite, but even that has an awful lot of appeal.
The supporting cast is fun, particularly Keaton as a horny usher who is perpetually on the make. Either he’s trying to get laid, or he’s executing some manner of low-level scam of dubious legality and morality despite being a raging airhead who seems to live in a world of his own. It takes a little while for Keaton to develop the character beyond “horny scumbag” (an archetype 1970s TV had a much higher tolerance for) but by the time he’s trying to impress guest star Paul Williams (who he hopes will become his songwriting mentor) with a hastily composed composition combining the five most famous songs he knows, he’s nailed the character and established himself as a standout.
Speaking of standouts, Hour features a hilarious guest appearance from a young David Letterman as Linda Lavin’s smug, overly cocky press agent, truly a role he was born to play. He played a much bigger role on Mary, Moore’s short-lived variety show, where he cut an incongruously handsome, dapper figure as the show’s requisite Chevy Chase type, a tall guy with an ingratiatingly glib delivery. A lot of Letterman’s persona was firmly established even in this embryonic form, but he hadn’t yet developed his cantankerous-uncle crustiness. Watching Letterman here, it’s possible to imagine an alternate path for him where he might have taken over the “Weekend Update” desk on Saturday Night Live or starred in a movie like Airplane (he was up for the lead), instead of changing late-night comedy forever with his talk shows.
Hour hedged its bets by changing the template of Mary so that it felt more like Moore’s previous hits. Yet the show nevertheless fell into the strange, unpalatable position of feeling at once too much and too little like the shows that made Moore a superstar. For example, The Mary Tyler Moore Hour recycled the iconic theme song to The Mary Tyler Moore Show with a schmaltzy instrumental version. It was as if Ted Danson decided to make the theme song to Becker a disco version of the Cheers theme, then hoping people didn’t compare his new show unfavorably to his Reagan-era smash.
Hour was at least wise enough to scrub the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme of its lyrics, because in this context, lyrics like, “You’re going to make it after all” couldn’t help but ring bitterly ironic. The Mary Tyler Moore Hour rather egregiously did not make it. In fact, it was a crushing failure. Hour was doomed die in the shadow of The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Yet when taken on its own terms, The Mary Tyler Moore Hour is, if not an overlooked treasure, then at least a surprisingly entertaining lark. It’s a fun extended goof from a consummate entertainer who is a delight even when stepping out of her comfort zone and into the big, brash, weirdly unforgiving world of old-school show-business at the worst possible time.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success