Marriage was making 'Rhoda'a bore, so Joe had to
There was an air of electric tension on the
Rhoda set as the first run-through of the first
show of this season was about to get under way.
Executive producer Allan Burns came down to the
sound stage from his plush CBS Studio Center
office and said, "Why is it so quiet in here?
We've always had fun sets." David Groh, who
plays Rhoda's husband, Joe Gerard, replied,
"What do you expect? It's like we're doing a
pilot for a whofe new show."
undoubtedly are aware by now, that's pretty much
what has happened to Rhoda. Nancy Walker and
Harold Gould, Momma and Poppa Morgenstern, are
gone (off to tour America in a camper). Julie
Kavner has lost 25 pounds in all the right
places (just as Valerie Harper did after the
second year of The Mary Tyler Moore Show), so
there are no more fat jokes for the writers to
fall back on when all else fails. Two new
characters, played by Anne Meara and Ron Silver,
have been called in to beef up the Rhoda
entourage. And-most important of all-Joe and
Rhoda Gerard, who attracted a weepy audience of
almost 50 million people when they got married
on television two years ago, have separated.
think the split-up is a temporary come-on to
sustain your viewing patronage until, like Ozzie
and Harriet of yore, they reunite even more
blissfully, don't count on it. The Joe-Rhoda
marriage is on the rocks. It will remain there
through all of this season's 24 scripts. It may
even end up in divorce.
Revolutionary for TV situation comedy? Bet your
tutu. Is it a gamble to exchange sure
Sadie-married-lady laughs for an experimental
admixture of Poignance and comedy? The same bet
holds. Will it work? Nobody knows.
only thing that's certain at this point is that
the show's executives-Grant Tinker, Allan Burns,
Jim Brooks, Dave Davis and Charlotte Brown-have
embarked on an unprecedented and courageous
procedure. They have totally changed the concept
of a successful series-one that was in the top
20 in the Nielsen ratings throughout most of
last year, and which probably could have gone on
as it was for some time. Such format adjustments
have occurred before, in desperate attempts to
save failing shows, but it's not customary to
tinker with an acknowledged hit. So the
metamorphosis of Rhoda be-comes a fascinating
behind-the-scenes chronicle of
began in the middle of last season," says
producer Charlotte Brown, who describes herself
as a real-life prototype of Rhoda Morgenstern.
"We all suddenly realized we were getting bored
with our show. Maybe the audience wasn't bored
yet-but we figured that at some time in the
future it was inevitable the way we were going.
Everything was so nice for our Rhoda in her
happily married life. She had no vulnerability;
she wasn't the under-dog any more. We kept
ending up with plots that featured the funny
in-securities of poor sister Brenda. It got so
that we'd say, 'When in doubt, go to Brenda.' It
was scary. Sometimes we'd sit around for days to
think up a single story with some conflict that
could focus on Rhoda."
It was a strange problem because even as
Charlotte discussed it with Davis, Brooks and
Burns, the ratings continued to soar. Davis
says, "The ratings didn't lull us, because we
all had the same nagging doubt, which none of us
wanted to express openly at first. Instead, we
had meeting after meeting to come up with
something to spice up Rhoda's placid existence.
We thought of having Joe lose his business and
just hang around the house while Rhoda supported
him. We had Rhoda go back to work, as she had in
Minneapolis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. For a
few minutes, we even considered someone's
suggestion that Rhoda get pregnant and have a
multiple birth. None of this worked and we
finally had to face up to the problem that maybe
what we always thought was our biggest triumph
actually was our biggest mistake."
mistake, as they began to acknowledge it, was
marrying off Rhoda at all in that
audience-grabbing wedding early in the 1974-1975
season. "I guess we had the conceit,"
admits executive producer Jim Brooks, "that we
could do a show about marriage that was
different. We couldn't. We just succeeded in
making Rhoda dull."
the four producers reached this conclusion,
their next step was to figure out what to do
about it. The breakup of the marriage was the
logical solution, but it posed as many questions
as it answered. Rhoda is a situation comedy,
after all, and could you count on getting
laughs out of a semi-tragic circumstance? Also,
how about the audience, which had been watching
the evolution of Rhoda Morgenstern for six
years, since her debut as Mary Richards' best
friend on The Mary Tyler Moore Show? Would
Valerie Harper's fans feel outraged and even
threatened by the fact that their idol's TV
marriage had failed? They might not like the
idea that if it could happen to Rhoda, it could
happen to them.
"We thought about all this for maybe six
months," Allan Burns told me, "and the answer
came out of the questions we had posed to
ourselves. In essence, who was the original
Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show?
She was insecure, self-effacing, struggling to
cope with the problems of still being single at
34, the daughter of a destructive and pushy
mother. Then, on our show, this bundle of
doubts marries a man who has been unsuccessfully
married before. In real life, would such a
marriage succeed? Probably not. Would a
separation not be typical of what is happening
to thousands of such impetuously married couples
today? Definitely. Could the separation be used
to generate wry laughs, if not the old joke-type
laughs? We weren't sure."
It was then that Charlotte Brown suggested that
the four producers sit down to see how many
stories could evolve from the possible new
circumstances. "It was incredible," she told me.
"In a single afternoon, we came up with 12
wonderful ideas, whereas it had taken us days to
think up a single story for the happily married
Rhoda. The old wonderful Rhoda was
back-insecure, vulnerable, conflicted, yet
fighting back and mining humor out of her
underdog situation. Also, the new concept added
dimension to the role of David Groh as Joe
Gerard and gave him at least another year in the
series: he and Rhoda go to a marriage counselor,
try to get back together again, date other
people, attend ludicrous seminars, do all the
things a split-up couple would do in real life.
Some of it is sad, but as in real life, a lot of
it is very, very funny,"
clinched it for the four producers. Their next
step was to go to Grant Tinker, who, as head of
MTM Enterprises, makes the big decisions.
Tinker gulped nervously at first, then
enthusiastically embraced the new concept.
Tinker told me, "My reaction from the beginning
was that in the hands of these four people, it
could be really fresh television. In the hands
of ordinary journeymen, I would be considerably
less sanguine about it."
Nevertheless, Tinker took the idea to CBS with
trepidation. He couldn't help remembering how
adamant the network had been six years before
over the slightest intimation that Mary Richards
might be a divorced woman in Tinker's The Mary
Tyler Moore Show. To his immense relief and
surprise, the CBS programmers went along with
the new Burns-Brooks-Davis-Brown concept for
Rhoda. They, too, said, "We can live with it-but
only in the hands of people like that, who have
proved themselves. It's not pure situation
comedy, but it's valid comedy."
The major battles now having been won, the only
thing left for the Rhoda producers to do was to
flesh out their cast. They chose Anne Meara
(late of Kate McShane) to play the part of
Rhoda's new friend, Sally Gallagher, a
39-year-old airline stewardess, who ruefully
says she has been "hit on in seven continents by
men using 16 different languages." A widespread
talent search unearthed Ron Silver to play new
neighbor Gary Levy, an in-effectual swinger who
owns a jeans store "to attract the chicks," but
whose bumbling obnoxiousness usually limits him
to one date per chick.
But the marital breakup of Rhoda and Joe remains
the key to the entire new concept. Valerie
Harper says, "I like it. To tell you the truth,
I never was happy with the marriage idea last
season." Perhaps as a symbol of her new
feelings, she has authorized the removal of the
"CLOSED SET-NO VISITORS" sign that prompted a
counter sign on The Bob Newhart Show sound stage
next door, which read: "WELCOME. OUR SET IS OPEN
TO SUNSHINE, GUESTS, FRIENDS AND GOD."
David Groh is ecstatic. He says, "At first I
thought there would be a divorce and I'd be out
of the show altogether. As it is now, with just
the separation, I'm getting a chance to do some
real acting for a change. There were times last
year when I was reduced to the role of the wife
in the old situation comedies, just walking in
and saying, Hi, babe'."
Producer Dave Davis says, "The bullet is out of
the gun. It remains to be seen if it hits the
target. From the mail we've received so far, it
looks like a 50-50 split between the fans who
love the new concept and the fans who hate it."
(The ratings were shaky at the start but have
been improving recently.)
the toughest letters was from a psychologist who
complained that the show is condoning separation
as an easy answer to marital problems, instead
of facing up to the problems with therapy. Allan
Burns replied, "We are demonstrating that
separation is not an easy answer; it's a very
hard answer. Besides, it is not up to us to
continue fantasyland in TV comedy. How many
young married couples were destroyed by the
idyllic existence of Ozzie and Harriet when they
discovered that such fantasy did not exist in
their own lives?"
Perhaps the most flamboyant reaction so far has
come from Charlotte Brown's mother, Doris,
described by her producer-daughter as "Ida
When Charlotte told Mrs. Brown about the
separation of Rhoda and Joe Gerard, she
responded as if they were people she knew
personally. "Please," Mrs. Brown said, "I don't
want to hear about it. I got enough problems in
my own life. I hope no one watches."
"If no one watches, Mama," said Charlotte, "I'll
lose my job and have to come home."
"In that case," said Mrs. Brown, "I have just
changed my mind. They should watch."