‘Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted’ Excerpt: Comedy and the Single Girl

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of my book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, which tells the story of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its relationship to the Women’s Movement.

paperback coverTreva Silverman had always wanted to be the beautiful, funny, smart heroine of a 1930s screwball comedy. In that world, the woman bantered with the man; the woman was independent, sexy, desirable, witty. Idiosyncratic actresses like Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, and Margaret Sullavan were the leading ladies there. Unfortunately, when Treva was a twelve-year-old in Cedarhurst, Long Island—the time when this desire took hold of her—the movie world had moved on from fast-talking comediennes to man-pleasing models of femininity like Doris Day, who seemed to have endless hangups about being good and pure, and Marilyn Monroe, who was the quintessential dumb blonde. The idea of an equal partnership between equally bright men and women trading quips had all but disappeared. And TV was even worse: Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show featured “dialogue” in which the woman’s only role was to say, “Yes, dear.” The most popular TV comedy heroine was Lucy, who wanted to be in show business but had to hide it from Ricky, who didn’t approve. The central joke of the show hinged on the fact that male approval ruled.

Magazines bombarded Treva with advice to young women—talk about his interests, don’t be competitive, learn how to make his favorite meals. To get the guy, she learned, she had to be all about him. At her grammar school, PS #3, her girlfriends chastised her for winning a spelling bee over Jerry Yaeger, the very boy she had a crush on. She’d never have a chance with him now, they lamented.

So Treva would settle for sitting next to her older sister, Corinne, in the moth-eaten seats of her neighborhood’s only revival movie house, watching and listening to her idols, Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard. Jean Arthur, in her day, made a name for herself as a funny leading lady in the Frank Capra films Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and You Can’t Take It with You. Lombard was once described by Graham Greene as “platinum blonde, with a heart-shaped face, delicate, impish features, and a figure made to be swathed in silver lamé, [who] wriggled expressively through such classics of hysteria as Twentieth Century and My Man Godfrey.” When Treva watched Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard, she wanted to soak up every last bit of them, the way her movie-house popcorn soaked up melted butter.

Treva had one other escape route from suburban ennui: Every week, she took the train from her family’s home in Cedarhurst for more than an hour to get to New York City. It was where she belonged, she was sure. For now, though, she’d settle for going there weekly for her piano lessons at Columbia University. Two officials at the Juilliard School had declared her a “genius” at age five. She had perfect pitch and could play almost any piece by ear after hearing it once; she could transpose into any key. A unique talent, to be sure. But besides her music, something else was becoming a passion.

After her piano lesson every week, she’d race down to the New York Public Library in midtown Manhattan to read her way through the vast stacks of the humor section, in alphabetical order: Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, S. J. Perelman, James Thurber. There, at the Forty-Second Street library, she had found her people: the humor writers for the New Yorker. Along with some journalists, critics, and actors, they had met daily throughout the ’20s for lunches at the Algonquin Hotel, forming a loose camaraderie called the Algonquin Round Table. They were known for their sharp witticisms and one-liners, which were quoted all over the newspaper columns. More importantly, the Algonquin Round Table consisted of men and—yes!—women. Not only Dorothy Parker, one of the wittiest of them all, but also Edna Ferber, Tallulah Bankhead, and Beatrice Kaufman.

Treva read on and on, as afternoon turned into dusk, the shadows cast by the library’s stone lions growing longer until they dissolved. She wished she could travel back to the days of the Algonquin Round Table, overhearing them from a neighboring table, or, even better, somehow getting a seat at that table.

 

When Silverman graduated from Bennington College nearly a decade later, even though the joke of the day was to try to graduate with an “M.R.S. degree,” she had nestled nicely into a Manhattan creative life on her own. She had broken into comedy writing and rejoiced when, one by one, a sketch or song of hers was accepted for an off-Broadway show or for Upstairs at the Downstairs, a topical revue nightclub that featured future stars like Lily Tomlin and Madeline Kahn. The rest of her evenings were spent using her musical talent: She played and sang show tunes—Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Gershwin—anywhere around town that had a piano and offered the chance to make a few bucks.

She played at bars, bowling alleys, Japanese restaurants. She got to meet people she never would have met otherwise, who lived the kinds of lives she’d only read about. There was the guy who pulled up his jacket sleeve to reveal five men’s watches and whispered to her, “You got a boyfriend who needs a Patek-Philippe timepiece?” There was the guy in the strip joint who wore a black eye patch—he had lost his left eye in a knife fight —who asked her, “Are you a sport, or are you a good girl?” She had only a hazy idea of what a sport was, but she knew she didn’t want to be one, and replied that she was a good girl. He gave her a twenty anyway. This piano-playing stint wasn’t exactly the way to find a husband, but at least it left her days free to write her songs and sketches, and she was making enough money to survive.

Her colorful life was radically out of step with those of her girlfriends from high school and college. Not only did they have respectable jobs in publishing and in advertising where nobody asked them to buy stolen watches, but most of them were gradually being whisked away to the magical never-never land called married life. You had to get there by age twenty-five or else—or else . . . well, nobody knew exactly what the else was, but it wasn’t anything a good girl wanted. Treva did want a long-term relationship, but in the meantime she wanted everyone who asked her why she wasn’t married to shut up.

Her parents thoroughly believed in her talent but were nervous for her. They saw her life as all promise and hope, with no guarantee of a stable future. “Treva,” her mother suggested one day, “why don’t you take a shorthand course? Just as a fallback, honey.”

Treva rolled her eyes. “Mom, I don’t want to learn shorthand so that I can take down some man’s ideas. I want someone taking down my ideas.”

Once she was playing at a restaurant on Fifth Avenue, a place high-priced and elegant enough that, finally, she could invite her parents to see her perform. Seated at a flower-laden table listening to her play and sing, her parents watched while a man came up to the piano, spoke a few words to her, and put a ten-dollar bill in her glass piggy bank. Her father rushed to his daughter. “What did that man want?” he demanded.

“‘My Funny Valentine,’ Dad,” she sighed.

The good news was that the women’s lib movement was starting to percolate. The Pill had been introduced in 1960, freeing women from pregnancy fears. And Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 bestseller, Sex and the Single Girl, had recently scandalized the nation, making women like Silverman feel a little less alone in their singlehood while emboldening them to wear shorter skirts and sleep with any man they pleased. Not every woman had to be Jackie Kennedy, for Chrissake. Brown rallied the single-girl troops to pursue their sexual desires, even giving them advice on the art of pleasuring men. “Theoretically a ‘nice’ single woman has no sex life,” she wrote. “What nonsense!”

Brown saw the single woman as a “glamour girl,” contrary to many other contemporary writers, who seemed to pity and fear any unmarried women who displayed both sex drive and career drive. Unmarried women were characterized as spinsters, unmarried men characterized as bachelors-around-town. Brown would soon revamp the magazine Cosmopolitan as a haven for sexually liberated women. Her proposal for the makeover said that her Cosmopolitan would tell an aspiring actress “not to stay back home in Lima, Ohio, like most articles on the subject do, [but would offer] practical advice. Where to live. How much money to save up first.” Treva was beyond the Cosmo girl already—she had loads of practical advice she could give such a creature—but it was comforting to know there were girls who dreamed of the exact kind of life she already had.

 

One night in 1964, Silverman was playing at a piano bar in Manhattan’s theater district—it was another one of those dark, smoky places, but this one had a well-tuned baby grand. She took her requisite set break, listening to the glasses clink and the patrons murmur in the absence of her playing. Still energized from her performance, she struck up a conversation with an intense, bearded, hippie-ish guy and his girlfriend sitting near her at the bar. Soon they were chatting about their mutual love of F. Scott Fitzgerald and J. D. Salinger. Beards were only just on the brink of acceptable mainstream grooming at the time, a signal of a certain kind of rebelliousness that endeared this guy to Silverman. Guys with beards tended to smoke weed, be creative, listen to cool music. They were Silverman’s people. Even more so when they could talk Fitzgerald and Salinger. It figured that he was there with a woman, though. Those guys were always taken.

The guy, Jim Brooks, worked at CBS as an assistant in the newsroom. Treva and Jim talked about their mutual ambition to write for television. Brooks was intrigued with the sketch comedy work she was doing; his admiration for her was instant. He knew Upstairs at the Downstairs and its reputation for sharp, topical work. She was attracted to the way his mind worked, his quick, easy, funny conversation, his split-second responses. Something clicked between them: that feeling that says, We’re going to matter in each other’s lives.

She stayed in touch with Jim as she got more and more of her comedy sketches and songs performed in New York cabarets. Then came the day she received word that not one, not two, but five sketches of hers were going to be featured at Upstairs at the Downstairs. Five! She had been elevated to being the only sketch writer in the show. She was glowing with success when she ran into the mother of her best friend from high school. What luck, Treva thought—someone with whom to share her excitement. “Mrs. Bernstein, I just found out!” she said. “I have five sketches in the new Upstairs at the Downstairs!”

Treva waited for that spark of respect to alight in the older woman’s eyes. Instead, she got: “How nice that you’re keeping busy. . . . Are you seeing anyone?” Treva wondered if she would ever go a day again without hearing that question, dripping with passive-aggressive judgment.

But comedian Carol Burnett walked into Upstairs at the Downstairs a few months later with a different attitude toward talented, funny women like herself. Not long after Treva had talked to Jim about wanting to break into TV, Burnett came down to Midtown from her Upper East Side apartment to check out new talent at the revue; it was similar to the one in which Burnett had gotten her own start, the Blue Angel, nearly a decade earlier. Burnett liked Silverman’s sketches so much that she invited her to write for a variety show she was about to star in, CBS’s The Entertainers, along with Bob Newhart and Dom DeLuise. Writing comedy on a network TV show! Treva had arrived.

Silverman’s work there led to a job in Hollywood writing for the television show The Monkees. She moved west in 1966 to craft scripts for the made-for-TV band that was aiming to replace the Beatles in teen girls’ hearts, even as posters for the edgier Who and the Kinks, David Bowie and Jefferson Airplane, vied for the poster space on those same teenagers’ walls. When Silverman got to her new gig, she found she was once again, as she had been on The Entertainers, the only woman writer on staff. The only other women she encountered were secretaries who typed up what the funny guys wrote and mimeographed copies for the producers and cast.

At that point, Treva was one of only two or three women writers in TV comedy who worked without a male partner; she was such an anomaly that Mademoiselle magazine did an article on her. She was part of a sociological phenomenon, a generation of new feminists being profiled in newsmagazines, who prioritized their careers over marriage and were often the only women wherever they went, their miniskirts, high boots, and tent dresses distinguishing them from the cinch-waisted, full-skirted secretaries who came before them. Later, interviewers would always ask Silverman, “How did you survive in such an atmosphere? How did you make it in a profession that had only been men?” The truth, however, was that she just did because she had to if she wanted to do the job she wanted. If the cherubic, soft-spoken Treva Silverman had to sit in rooms full of bearded men to be a comedy writer, then that was what she would do.

 

Then the original bearded guy in Silverman’s life, Jim Brooks, reappeared in the summer of 1969. Treva had written for several sitcoms during the two years since The Monkees went off the air, including a few episodes of Brooks’ groundbreaking high school history class comedy, Room 222. They’d stayed in touch since meeting in New York, and he had even introduced her to his fellow producer on Room 222, the short-haired, clean-cut Allan Burns. Now Brooks was calling her with a rather existential question: “What are you doing right now?”

“Washing my hair.”

“No,” he said, “I mean with your life. Our pilot is going to series—the one I’m doing with Allan Burns—and we want you to come on board. It’s with Mary Tyler Moore.” With the woman from The Dick Van Dyke Show, the one who was pretty and funny? Like Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard? There was nothing Silverman wanted more. That was quite a relief to Brooks and Burns, who needed writers that they felt could understand their kind of show. The fact that Silverman was a woman was a bonus—they could use some estrogen-fueled help with their female lead character. No one knew whether the show would last beyond CBS’s initial thirteen-episode commitment to it, but Brooks offered her all he could: “We want you to write for this series,” he told her, “and we want you to write as many episodes as you want.”

As Brooks, Burns, and Silverman carefully wrote and rewrote the early scripts for The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970, they didn’t dream their show would have any long-lasting effect on the world. They just sat at their typewriters and pounded away, trying to write the best they could and hoping the show didn’t get canceled. At times the series would veer awfully close to ending prematurely. But instead, the writers and producers’ ideas and actions—some smart, some not—piled on top of each other, mixed together, and made history. They pulled star Mary Tyler Moore out of a perilous career slump. They weathered attacks from network executives who said the program was too different to succeed, or just plain rotten. They survived cast members’ insecurities and jealousies, divorces and diets, and screaming matches between producers and directors. Along the way, they made several unlikely stars, changed the fates of a dozen female TV writers who spun their everyday lives into comedy gold, helped usher in a more woman-friendly era in the television industry, elevated the sitcom to an art form, and killed a clown.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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8 comments

  1. Great biographical piece. I have been interested (not slone, probably) in the way seriasl television in the 50s 60s and 70s developed a vocabulary of visual and verbal gesture and an economy of structure that now is basically universally understood, and is the basis for the “classy” shows of today, as well as having a profound impact on narrative in all forms and genres. I would love to see more investigation into this, and people like Treva Silverman and Jim Brooks, along with so many others, would have a great deal to teach us about it.

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