Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.
When the first show to bear her name debuted on CBS, Mary Tyler Moore was only four years removed from her time playing Laura Petrie, the bright, stay-at-home wife of a comedy writer in The Dick Van Dyke Show. She won two Emmys for filling Laura’s capri pants and was so strongly associated with the role that it was considered risky for her to play a single woman wondering how she’ll make it on her own in a world that’s awfully big. The network even overruled original plans to make Moore’s character, Mary Richards, a divorcee, because of worries viewers would reject her for walking away from that nice Dick Van Dyke. She was instead a single woman, recently escaped from a bad relationship, making her way in the big city of Minneapolis with a new job a news producer at WJM-TV.
Watching early episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it’s remarkable how few growing pains there are. The pilot is rightly celebrated as one of the best of the era, locking in characters and the dynamics between them with an impressive economy. But it was the sixth episode that won The Mary Tyler Show the first of its five writing Emmys. First airing in October of 1976, “Support Your Local Mother” took its plot from Mary’s friend and neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern, played by the show’s early MVP, Valerie Harper. Really, though, Rhoda mostly stayed locked away in her upstairs apartment, hiding out from her visiting mother, Ida Morgenstern (Nancy Walker). Spurned by her daughter, Ida instead bonds with Mary, bestowing of her the same combination of smothering generosity and passive aggressive self-sacrifice usually reserved for her offspring.
Written by series co-creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, the episode is a classic sitcom humming motor, every pinion doing its work with efficiency. The episode exploits family comedy tropes — the overbearing Jewish mother might have been perfected by Walker, but it wasn’t invented by her — and demonstrates how to use them for maximum effect, getting laughs out of making the familiar unexpected and vice versa. By the sweet and sentimental ending, built around a physical gag callback, “Support Your Local Mother” makes it clear why The Mary Tyler Moore Show provided a template for so many television comedies to follow. It’s a series that doesn’t everything right and makes the perfection seem effortless.
Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.