Let’s do a little experiment. Go read this column. It’ll only take a few minutes, I’ll wait…
What did you think — might that guy be a pretty good writer? Did you notice who wrote it? Dave Barry, the funniest man in America, the guy who put the booger in booger journalism, the man of a thousand names for a rock band (“Fugitive Squirrel and the Clearly Disturbed Beavers”), the man who wrote columns about setting pop-tarts on fire and setting Barbie’s on fire and North Dakota wanting to change its name (he got a sewage lift named after him for that one).
What most people never understood about Barry is that being consistently funny is hard. The best writers make it look easy, but that’s like watching Aaron Rogers and thinking it’s easy to throw a football fifty yards downfield while you’re running sideways. What those who hadn’t paid attention discovered with “On Hallowed Ground” was that Barry wasn’t just a good funny writer, he was a good writer, period. (For further confirmation, see his article about his son Rob’s bike accident.)
Because good comedians (of either gender, I avoid the female version of that word because I can never remember how to spell it) make it look so easy, and because most of us think we’re funny, we don’t really give comedians their due. Bill Murray wasn’t taken seriously until Sofia Coppola had the brilliant idea of putting him in Lost in Translation, and then suddenly everyone “discovered” he was a great character actor.
Which brings us, in our usual round-a-bout way, to Mary Tyler Moore. For two decades, the show she was in was the funniest show on TV. Both The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show are considered top ten comedies of all time by anyone who knows anything about TV, and they were funny largely because MTM was funny, and they were loved because MTM was absolutely loved.
But I’m not sure anyone took her that seriously as an actress, because, after all, how hard is it to be funny? (Answer: really hard, especially when you’re trying to stand out next to people like Dick Van Dyke.)
So, if there’s any doubt in your mind about how talented MTM was, then you owe it to yourself to (re)watch Ordinary People this week. Robert Redford, another actor people didn’t take that seriously early in his career for a completely different reason, had decided to try his hand at directing. He cast a brand new Timothy Hutton, a brand new Elizabeth McGovern, and a seemingly mis-cast MTM, in a film about the personal destruction wrought by a death in a suburban American family.
Hutton would be hailed as the Next Big Thing, and win an Oscar for his role. McGovern would flash like a comet for a short time, including a memorable performance in Ragtime, and then mostly disappear until Julian Fellowes made her a household name on two continents.
But no one every looked at MTM quite the same. Her Beth Jarrett was devastating, an ice cold mother in name only, a woman for whom the word “unfeeling” denoted too much feeling.
You could hardly find a more sympathetic person on the screen than Laura Petrie or Mary Richards. Beth was a woman who should have commanded oceans of sympathy — her oldest son had died in a boating accident, her youngest son had tried to commit suicide. The combination of the two meant that we should have cried at the sight of her, wrapped her in our figurative arms and held her until everything was better.
We got over that thirty seconds after she hit the screen. She was, frankly, unrecognizable. She might as well have done the movie under an alias; there’s no way you could associate that woman with Mary Tyler Moore. It had to have been an evil twin, a doppelgänger from another dimension, something.
It wasn’t any of those things. It was just MTM showing us what we should have known all along, that she was an immensely talented actress, that it takes as much skill to be funny as it does to be cold, that it takes more work to consistently engender happiness and joy and laughter than it does to play a corporate president or killer or heart-of-gold prostitute. She was showing us that the title of that movie did not apply to her.
She was extraordinary.