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TV Guide

December 11, 1976

It Wasn't So Nice to Have a Man Around the House

By Bill Davidson

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marriage was making 'Rhoda'a bore, so Joe had to move out

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."

 

As you 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.

 

If you 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.

 

The 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 television-industry thinking.

 

"It 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."

 

The 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."

 

Once 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,"
 

That 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.)
 

One of 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 Morgenstern incarnate."


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."

     

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