The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
A few years ago, who would have expected that Michael Keaton would be a Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee? After a few years of dormancy, Keaton has emerged from the ashes in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dark comedy Birdman, surprising many with his nuanced, emotionally charged, and funny performance. Best known as both Batman and Beetlejuice, Keaton has always been able to play dramatic characters that have that comedic energy bubbling just beneath the surface, and the reason he’s able to do that so effortlessly is because he started out as a stand-up. Longtime readers of From the Archives (they refer to themselves with the unwieldy moniker “From the Archivists”) remember that we previously saw Keaton on Mary Tyler Moore’s follow-up to her famous sitcom, Mary, along with fellow cast member and then-standup, David Letterman. That particular show was cancelled after three episodes. So, then came the follow-up, The Mary Tyler Moore Hour, which blended Mary with The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Letterman was gone, doing his tour of game shows and talk shows that would lead to his own morning show on NBC, but his co-worker Michael Keaton, stuck around.
Keaton’s career in show business began not to far from his hometown when he got a job on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as a production assistant. From there, based on his filmography, he was off to Hollywood where he appeared on a string of TV shows, some you may know, (Maude, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) and some you don’t (All’s Fair, Klein Time). Eventually he found his way into the Mary Tyler Moore camp, bouncing from Mary to The Mary Tyler Moore Hour, where we join him today.
Like The David Steinberg Show that we looked at last week, The Mary Tyler Moore Hour was another show about somebody putting on a show. Moore plays Mary McKinnon who is the star of her own variety show. She is surrounded by a group of coworkers, including her producer Harry, played by Michael Lombard, her head writer Mort, played by Bobby Ramsen, her assistant Iris played by Joyce Van Patten, and Michael Keaton’s character, with a rather familiar name, was Kenneth the page (Okay. He’s “Kenny” in the credits, but still. Weird, right?).
Based on air dates, the episode I watched at the Paley center was the fourth out of the eleven that would air, and it features special guest star Dick Van Dyke, who had previously worked with Ms. Moore on The Dick Van Dyke Show 13 years prior. This episode follows two different storylines that are happening concurrently, one of which gets intensely meta. It’s evening at Mary’s house and she and her assistant Iris are watching the latest episode of The Mary McKinnon Show when her bumbling maid (that’s code for “stupid”) Ruby enters, interrupting to talk about the pimento loaf she brought out. Ignoring Mary’s shushing, she continues to prattle on, eventually picking up the TV Guide and suggesting that they switch to channel 5 because they’re showing the movie Love Story. Oh, the 70s! The broadcast is cut off when it’s announced that a wildfire is making it’s way towards Mary’s house.
The following morning, Mary and the gang begin packing up sentimental belongings. There’s a C-story in which Iris realizes she’s let Mary’s fire insurance lapse, but story-wise, that’s a real dead end. In the midst of all this chaos, Kenny brings over his new girlfriend. He’s promised her an audition with Mary, but when a firefighter enters to inform them that the fire is heading their way, panic strikes the house. The material Keaton has to work with here isn’t amazing, but I will say that he’s the only supporting character that manages to play their character with humor while not becoming a cartoon character. When he tries to convince Mary that his Boy Scout training has prepared him for this fire, and suggests they use baking soda, he draws out the punchline, embracing the stupidity of the character. “Yeah, 2…3 tons of baking soda should do it…”
Meanwhile, on the other set that they had built, the head writer, Mort, is pitching the show’s producer, Harry, some clammy old ideas for the upcoming Dick Van Dyke episode. Harry hates them, but they don’t have a chance to come up with anything better before Dick arrives. Then they flip the meta switch. “Don’t you think Mary looks a little like the girl who played Laura Petrie on your old show?” Dick doesn’t necessarily agree, but he listens to their pitch for a sketch in which we see what Rob and Laura are up to today. Then, through the magic of television, we see the very sketch they were talking about.
Rob, with a bit of a potbelly, receives a call telling him that the star of the show he once wrote for, Alan Brady, has passed away. He breaks the news to Laura, telling her that Alan “has been cancelled… This time forever.” Unfortunately Laura can’t go to the funeral because she has psychotherapy tomorrow, and they’re about to figure out why a few years back her only response during a crisis was “Oh… Rob.” Rob begins to panic about having to give the eulogy for Brady, and how he’s going to have to lie about how nice a guy he was, before Laura gives the advice that he just tell the truth and talk about his talent. Then, as a way to end the sketch, I guess, Rob takes this opportunity to break some other news to Laura. Their son Ritiche has sent a letter explaining that he’s living with someone, and he think’s it’s the one. Laura is a bit surprised, but accepts it, admitting that cohabitation is part of the modern age. She asks for her name, and when Rob tells her it’s Harold, she collapses in his arms, grief-stricken, and let’s out an “Oh… Rob.” Thanks for the gay panic jokes, the 70s.
Back in the writer’s room, Dick isn’t so sure about that angle. But what if we jump into the future and we see Rob and Laura 50 years from now so Dick can do his old man character? We go back to the Petrie’s living room (and to indicate it’s the future it now has crazy dining room chairs, and a clear plastic coffee table?!) on the day of their 68th wedding anniversary. Rob enters, and bending down to fix his hearing aid, very slowly trips over an ottoman, in a pretty impressive bit of physical comedy. This sketch ends with the suggestion of ninety year olds having sex as a punchline.
The final “imagined” pitch for the variety show is an elaborate song and dance number that goes on for about five minutes. That’s really all I have to say about that. Meanwhile, over at Mary’s, they’ve been given their final warning by the fire department. They’ve loaded up the car with Mary’s stuff. Then, after a commercial break, they carry it all back in, clearly having walked through a tsunami. A fortuitous rainstorm has put out the wildfire. Everything’s fine. Mary goes into work where the two storylines collide. She meets Dick Van Dyke, who has decided he doesn’t want to do her show since they can’t come up with any ideas they can agree on. Mary then reveals that she auditioned for The Dick Van Dyke Show back in the day, but instead the role went to Rose Marie (Rob Petrie’s female coworker). In response, Dick makes a ridiculous face for them freezeframe and roll credits over.
The Mary Tyler Moore Hour lasted for 11 episodes, beating out Mary in longevity, but not by much. By merging the successful Mary Tyler Moore Show with the variety show format, Moore got closer to the show audiences loved, but the broad humor, the shoehorned in sketches and songs just feel awkward, and no doubt audiences of the seventies felt the same. Keaton bounced back quickly, though, scoring a role on the Jim Belushi sitcom Working Stiffs, which premiered literally a few months later, which then directly led to his breakthrough role in Ron Howard’s Night Shift. Mary took this opportunity to leave TV for a little while and make some movies and head to Broadway. And thankfully, the character of Kenneth the page became immortal.