"Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's deft weave of social history and sharp entertainment reporting explains how [The Mary Tyler Moore Show] made the world safe for Lena Dunham" (Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls)—the making of a classic and groundbreaking TV show, as experienced by its producers, writers, and cast.
When writer-producers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns dreamed up an edgy show about a divorced woman with a career, the CBS executives they pitched replied: “American audiences won’t tolerate divorce in a series’ lead any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with mustaches, and people who live in New York.”
Forty years later, The Mary Tyler Moore Show is one of the most beloved and recognizable television shows of all time. It was an inspiration to a generation of women who wanted to have it all in an era when everything seemed possible.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted tells the stories behind the making of this popular classic, introducing the groundbreaking female writers who lent real-life stories to their TV scripts; the men who created the indelible characters; the lone woman network executive who cast the legendary ensemble—and advocated for this provocative show—and the colorful cast of actors who made it all work. James L. Brooks, Grant Tinker, Allan Burns, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Betty White, Gavin MacLeod, Ed Asner, Ted Knight, Georgia Engel—they all came together to make a show that changed women’s lives and television itself. Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted is the tale of how they did it.
This reading group guide forMary and Lou and Rhoda and Tedincludes discussion questions and a Q&A with author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. How does this book fit into the history of the 1970s overall?
2. How does it fit into the history of Hollywood?
3. What do you think it says about women on television?
4. Who was your favorite “character”?
5. What surprised you the most?
6. How has reading this book changed the way you think of The Mary Tyler Moore Show?
7. Mary Richards: Feminist or not?
8. Which episodes did it make you want to watch (again, or for the first time)?
9. Discuss women’s role in the workplace and in Hollywood during the 1970s. How has life changed for women since the beginning of The Mary Tyler Moore Show? How has it stayed the same?
10. How do you think Treva Silverman felt back when she was the only woman in the comedy writers’ rooms where she worked?
11. Do you think the female writers in the book would ever have made it in the TV business without James L. Brooks and Allan Burns?
12. Do you think Mary Tyler Moore should have taken a more active role in creating her show and running her production company? Why or why not?
13. What do you think of Mary Tyler Moore as a woman, an actress, a producer, and a businesswoman?
14. Why do you think the influence of The Mary Tyler Moore Show has endured?
15. Which modern TV characters would you compare with Mary Richards?
A Conversation with Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
1. You’ve said that Mary Tyler Moore is one of your role models. How has Moore influenced your own decisions, goals or life path?
Specifically, I think Mary Richards — that is, her character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show — had quite a large effect on me throughout my life in different ways. When I was a little girl watching the show, I thought she was the epitome of glamorous, grown-up womanhood. She was fashionable, beautiful, smart, nice, and ultimately successful, and I wanted a life like hers. I don’t know that she was the main reason I went into journalism, but her influence certainly helped plant the idea in my head very early. I dipped back into the show in reruns on cable a few years ago and couldn’t believe how true it still rang. I was also shocked to be reminded that in the pilot, she had left a long-term boyfriend at the age of thirty — the same age at which I left my college-sweetheart-turned-fiancé. I found her strength and dignity throughout her dating adventures to be a new source of inspiration then.
2. The story has many female key players behind the scenes, such as Treva Silverman and Pat Nardo. Their stories and struggles served as inspiration when sitting down to write for television. How much did you know about the women behind the scenes before beginning this project? Were you surprised to learn anything?
Treva actually inspired this book in a lot of ways. I was originally researching ‘70s TV in general when I stumbled upon a great blog post by TV writer Ken Levine, in which he interviewed her about being one of the few women writing comedy at the time. I got in touch with her, and she told such wonderful stories that I envisioned her life as a sort of Sex and the City of the ‘70s. She was beautiful, funny, successful, a pioneer, and dating up a storm. She was, in essence, the real-life Mary Richards. When she told me that the show hired more women than any show before it, I saw that there was a behind-the-scenes story that hadn’t quite been told about this monumental show. The only thing that kept shocking me was how amazing these women were. I came away from every interview with a new role model for living a full life. These women were all rock stars, and still are.
3. You did an immense amount of research for this project, including many interviews with the central people involved. We definitely hear some great stories from both the actors and creators of the show. Do you have any favorite stories or tidbits that did not make it into the final book?
Well, I hope I put all the juicy stuff in there! But the good stuff that didn’t make it was everything from the experiences of actually meeting these people who I grew up admiring. I’ve always adored Valerie Harper as Rhoda — I used to wear a little headscarf when I was five or so to be like her — and she was even better in real life than on the screen. She patiently helped me with research, reaching out to her fellow cast members on my behalf. We talked about feminism. She asked me about my own life. Just beyond an amazing person. Ed Asner is the most riveting storyteller, and needs little prompting to give great details. I will never forget meeting him at his home, where he sat at a desk with a nameplate that said, “Edward Asner.” Gavin MacLeod, who played Murray and later the captain of the Love Boat, was a doll, and Cloris Leachman was reliably kooky. (To a fan who approached her in a Los Angeles Pain Quotidien: “You have fantastic tits.”)
4. If you had to choose a favorite episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which would it be and why?
The pilot episode is perfect, a rarity in TV, and so is the finale — an even more rare feat. But I really love “Rhoda the Beautiful,” a season three episode, because it’s about Rhoda’s metamorphosis. She started out as the “dumpy and frumpy” character who they dressed in baggy sweatshirts so she could complain about her lack of a love life. But Valerie was beautiful to begin with, and then she lost thirty pounds in real life, and stumbled upon the idea of dressing in that artsy way that became her signature — the headscarves and flowy tops. (Mary’s stand-in on the show, Mimi Kirk, originated the look, which Val then appropriated for Rhoda.) In this episode, Rhoda is coerced into entering a beauty pageant at the department store where she works, and she wins! But at first she tells Mary and Phyllis that she came in third because she can’t quite deal with it. Val won an Emmy for the episode, and Treva wrote it about her own struggles with weight and looks. It just encompasses every reason I wanted to write this book.
5. The people involved in the show have witnessed the lasting influence their show had (and continues to have) on television culture. Did you speak to any of them about how they feel about current comedies starring single women? For example, does Mary Tyler Moore watch 30 Rock? Does Valerie Harper like Girls?
I did talk to some of the stars and writers about current TV and was surprised to learn, first of all, that many of them do not like Sex and the City, which seemed like a natural heir to me. They seem to appreciate more traditional, strong sitcom craft — over and over they mentioned Modern Family to me. And writer Pat Nardo told me she loves the raunchy 2 Broke Girls, one of my guilty-ish pleasures as well. She told me: "It's cringe-making in terms of how they speak, how they think. But they remind me of Mary and Rhoda. Their relationship itself is darling."
6. Brooks, Burns and the other creators had infinite hurdles to jump throughout the story, especially in the beginning; between censorship from the network and criticism from the media, it is a wonder the show ever made it to air. What has been a difficult hurdle in your career? How were you able to overcome it?
I think the biggest hurdle in my career was my entire twenties! I did some serious dues-paying as a local daily newspaper reporter, covering city councils and police reports, writing something like four stories a day and making barely a livable wage. I racked up some major credit card debt and had pretty much every stress-related ailment known to humans. But I was a scarily driven young woman, and though I don’t even know if I had any idea what I was working toward, I’ve arrived at a point where I always wanted to be. I feel really lucky, and the newspaper thing was incredibly good training — I’m sad that more journalism grads don’t have that option anymore with so many small papers closing.
7. Mary Tyler Moore did not define herself as a feminist during the show (nor did the producers and Mary Richards). And in the beginning the central audience for the show was “women who embraced liberation in their everyday lives without necessarily identifying as feminists.” (p. 132) Why do you think Moore and the producers of the show decided against taking on a feminist identity?
It was — and frankly, to many, still is — a scary word. I believe that it may have been a smart marketing move, even though I always encourage women to identify with the label now. Making Mary seem like just a nice, regular woman — and traditionally “feminine” — helped move feminist ideas toward mainstream acceptability. There was a feeling of: If Mary can stay out all night with a man, or take birth control, or ask for equal pay, it must not be that radical.
8. Even without a feminist label, Moore inspired millions of women—including many future feminists—with her show. Looking back, do you see Mary Richards as a feminist? Why or why not?
I do see Mary Richards as a feminist. She never openly denied the label, either, which is key. And I always imagine her becoming more radicalized as she got older. Presuming she got a job at another TV station and moved up to a position of power, I think she would have embodied feminist principles: Mary Richards helps other women, expects equal treatment, and understands the importance of birth control. I can imagine her mentoring younger women and campaigning for Hillary Clinton.
9. When you watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show as a kid, how did you identify with the characters? Do you see the show and the characters in a different light when you watch it as an adult? How has your perspective changed?
I really did want to be Mary and Rhoda, which is a funny thing for a little tiny kid. I liked to play “office” and imagine myself at Mary’s desk, which shows you what my idea of fun is, I guess. Now when I watch it, I’m always surprised by how progressive it feels. The episode in which we learn Phyllis’ brother is gay plays well even by modern standards; the sexual references, especially Betty White’s as Sue Ann Nivens, hold up even in our post-Sex and the City world.
10. Your previous book, Why? Because We Still Like You, also told the history of an influential television series. How was writing about the Mickey Mouse Club different from this project?
The biggest difference, of course, is that the people on The Mickey Mouse Club were kids, so their struggles within the context of the book are markedly different. The Mary Tyler Moore Show dealt with network censors and major social trends like feminism; The Mickey Mouse Club had rowdy cast members and puberty. Also, I must admit: The Mary Tyler Moore Show is way more fun to watch. I’m still not sick of it.
11. What is your advice for aspiring female writers?
Keep writing until someone pays attention. Also, get yourself mentors, male and female. They’re invaluable, especially in such a solitary line of work.
12. Tell us a little bit about your upcoming book, Sexy Feminism. How did The Mary Tyler Moore Show contribute to making a conversation about sexy, empowered women possible?
Sexy Feminism is based on the website (SexyFeminist.com) that I run with my coauthor, Heather Wood Rudulph. We were tired of reading the endless self-improvement guides foisted upon women, bossing them around about how to look, date, and act without having their own best interest at heart. So we wrote a how-to guide for bringing feminism into everyday life, from makeup and fashion to work and sex. And there are lots of The Mary Tyler Moore Show references, I can assure you! I think Mary Richards and the women who wrote her are the ultimate sexy feminists.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the author of Sex and the City and Us, Seinfeldia, and Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. She writes about pop culture for several publications, including The New York Times Book Review, Fast Company, Vulture, BBC Culture, Entertainment Weekly, and several others. She grew up in Homer Glen, Illinois, and now lives in New York City. Visit her online at JenniferKArmstrong.com.
“A delightfully thorough history of the show, evoking in detail the making of a piece of pop-culture history and telling sweet tales about the colorful cast. But what really jumps from the page is the story of the women in the writers’ room.”
– New York Daily News
“A superb, highly entertaining history of one of television's most beloved sitcoms… A terrific pop culture history--well-written, lovingly researched and chock full of great stories from the Mary Tyler Moore Show set.”
– Shelf Awareness for Readers
“Compelling and highly readable, this book is as informative as it is charming…As enjoyable as reruns of the classic show.”
"Armstrong takes us back to a golden age of comedy."
– Washington Post
“Delicious… For any fan of the show or TV history in general, this book is pure pleasure.”
– Kirkus (starred review)
“Fast-paced and charming…Armstrong’s absorbing cultural history offers the first in-depth look at a series that changed television.”
– Publishers Weekly
"Poor dead Chuckles the Clown might be squirting seltzer water down the angels’ robes, but as long as intelligent comedy has a role in our lives, the chuckles and change that “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” wrought will never die. And Armstrong, in this smart and charming history, shows us why."
– Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Goes behind the scenes to reveal the often-bumpy creation of the show whose influence appears in contemporary TV comedies almost every night of the week. In telling the tale, Armstrong, a former Entertainment Weekly reporter, offers a breezy tour of the way things used to be in television.”
– Portland Oregonian
"A perfect microhistory of television and feminism and writing and money and pressure and the joy of creativity and those capri pants she wore."
– The Hairpin
"This is a wonderful book. It takes us backstage with a keen insight on the writing, directing and casting of one of the best television shows, ever. I didn't want it to end, any more than I wanted The Mary Tyler Moore Show to end."
– Carol Burnett, author of Carrie and Me
"I tried to skim this book, but failed miserably, finding I couldn't put it down. In case you're wondering how we got from I Love Lucy to Girls, the answer is: "The Mary Tyler Moore Show, stupid!" Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's deft weave of social history and sharp entertainment reporting explains how this revolutionary show made the world safe for Lena Dunham."
– Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted hurt my face. Jennifer Armstrong brought back memories and laughs from one of the best eras in television. She made me stay up all night and by the morning my face hurt from smiling. I forgive her because I enjoyed the book so much.
– Gail Parent, author of Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York
"Pop-culture gold: a can't-put-it-down history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the misfit genius women (and men) who made it. Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted is essential reading if you love The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or TV comedy wizards, or things that are awesome."
– Gavin Edwards, author of 'Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy