The Mary Tyler Moore Show didn’t shy away from controversial topics, though it didn’t tackle them with nearly the same frequency as its contemporary, All in the Family. It took a while for the producers to figure out exactly how to approach hot issues in a way that felt right for them — not like an All in the Family rip-off. Two key episodes illustrate the differences: One, called “Some of My Best Friends Are Rhoda,” hammered away a little too much at the central issue, Rhoda being excluded from a country club because she’s Jewish; the other nailed the issue of Phyllis’ gay brother beautifully, subtly, and very Mary Tyler Moore-ly.
“Some of My Best Friends Are Rhoda” does boast one of the best episode titles on a show with lots of great episode titles. (“Toulouse Lautrec Is One of My Favorite Artists,” about Mary dating a super-short guy? Yes!) But aside from that, the second-season episode ranked as one of the show’s worst. The producers themselves are the first to admit this. The half-hour guest-starred Mary Frann (later Dick Loudon’s beautiful wife on Newhart) as a new friend of Mary’s who belongs to the country club in question. All the plot did, though, was give Mary the chance to speechify against the ills of bigotry, then grandly dismiss Frann’s character from her life. “That was just not our MO,” creator-exec producer Allan Burns says. “There were maybe two or three times in the history of the show when we did something a little preachy, and it didn’t really work.”
A year later, however, they got gay rights right. The entire half-hour focuses on the growing relationship between Rhoda and Phyllis’ visiting brother, Ben. Phyllis worries the two will get married, and she’ll end up with her nemesis as her sister-in-law. Even the audience starts to think this could be it. Then in a beautifully played final scene, Rhoda disabuses Phyllis of this notion: “He’s not my type!” she says with a conviction that confuses all of us.
Phyllis: “What do you mean, not your type? He’s attractive. He’s successful. He’s single.”
Rhoda: “He’s gay.”
Phyllis: “I’m so relieved.”
Perhaps the writers approached the topic so subtly — and thus hilariously — because they didn’t set out to. The script originally called for the Rhoda-Ben liaison to worry Phyllis, but to be a heterosexual encounter. But guest star Bob Moore, who was playing Ben, was gay, so director Jay Sandrich and producers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns saw an opportunity to change things up.
It worked, with the humor coming from the characters, as well as the delivery. Harper insisted on delivering the “he’s gay” line with a shrug. “I think it should be factual,” she told Sandrich, “like he’s a priest or he’s married or he’s going to Tibet for ten years.”
It got one of the longest studio-audience laughs in the show’s history, and brought the idea of laughing at people’s reactions to gayness — rather than at gay people — to mainstream TV’s millions of viewers.