Mary Tyler Moore: She Made it After All

The pioneering sitcom great, who died Wednesday at age 80, not only turned the world on with her smile, but made us laugh until we cried

In the greatest episode of her classic 1970s sitcom, Mary Tyler Moore expertly ran a comic gamut of emotions unparalleled in TV history – all during a funeral service.

Mary Richards scolds her newsroom colleagues for spouting gallows humor over the death of Chuckles the Clown, a children's TV entertainer killed by a “rogue elephant” while dressed as a peanut.

But as the service starts, Mary gets the giggles before bursting into uncontrollable laughter as the minister recites the clown's catchphrase: "A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants." When the kindly minister tells her to stand up and let her joy ring out, Mary breaks down in tears.

Moore, who died Wednesday at age 80, shined as a performer who not only could turn the world on with her smile, but make us laugh until we cried.

She became ingrained in the national consciousness in 1961 as Laura Petrie on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Moore transcended her role as a young suburban housewife and mom, by brandishing her own sense of fashion -- Capri pants instead of housedresses – and comic timing that rivaled her more seasoned co-stars, among them veteran wisecrackers Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie.

Moore balanced a Jackie Kennedy-influenced style and spirit with weepy tinges of insecurity – all conveyed via an endlessly expressive face and equally versatile voice. She made "Oh, Rob!" an all-purpose punch line that hit in different ways, depending on her tone and the situation.

If “The Dick Van Dyke Show” began to redefine the family sitcom during its five-year run, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” kicked off a TV comedy revolution in 1970 – four months before the debut of “All in the Family,” its eventual teammate in CBS’ powerhouse Saturday night lineup.

Moore’s Mary Richards was a single career woman, over 30, happy to date – frequently – and in no apparent rush to marry. Her life revolved around her all-encompassing job as a producer for the nightly news broadcast at a dysfunctional Minneapolis TV station.

But despite the bracing show of independence, Mary Richards – and Mary Tyler Moore – couldn’t do it all by herself. Moore, who got lead billing, rooted TV's strongest ensemble cast on the best workplace comedy of them all. 

While she earned her share of laughs, Moore played straight woman to the likes of Ed Asner (gruff newsroom boss Lou Grant), Gavin MacLeod (quick-witted newswriter Murray Slaughter) and Ted Knight (dim-witted anchorman Ted Baxter). Moore’s female co-stars broke molds of their own: Valerie Harper (sarcastic best friend Rhoda Morgenstern), Betty White (proto-cougar and TV “Happy Homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens) and Cloris Leachman (bourgeois liberal landlady Phyllis Lindstrom).

But Mary always landed at the center of the action, whether in the WJM newsroom or in her studio apartment with the big “M” on the wall. She juggled being a rock for her friends/surrogate family with her own anxieties as a woman swimming in uncharted waters.

Mary’s friends stuck together to the last bow in the 1977 finale, with their mobile group hug goodbye, which shuffled across the newsroom to a sing-along of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”  

Tears and laughter, albeit far subtler than Mary’s outburst at Chuckles’ funeral, capped a show that spawned not only multiple spinoffs (“Rhoda,” “Lou Grant,” “Phyllis”), but lent its DNA to the likes of “Cheers,” “The Office” and “30 Rock.”

Tears and laughter seem an appropriate way to mourn and celebrate Mary Tyler Moore, a feminist and comedy icon who, as the theme song to her show reminded us, both turned the world on with her smile and made it after all. 

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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