U.S. Situation Comedy

The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered on CBS in September 1970 and during its seven-year run became one of the most acclaimed television programs ever produced. The program represented a significant change in the situation comedy, quickly distinguishing itself from typical plot-driven storylines filled with narrative predictability and unchanging characters. As created by the team of James Brooks and Allan Burns, The Mary Tyler Moore Show presented the audience with fully-realized characters who evolved and became more complex throughout their life on the show. Storylines were character-based and the ensemble cast used this approach to develop relationships which changed over time.

The program starred Mary Tyler Moore who had previously achieved success as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. As Mary Richards, a single woman in her thirties, Moore presented a character different from other single TV women of the time. She was not widowed or divorced or seeking a man to support her. Rather, the character had just emerged from a live-in situation with a man whom she had helped through medical school. He left her upon receiving his degree and she relocated to Minneapolis determined to "make it on her own." This now-common concept was rarely depicted on television in the early 1970s, despite some visible successes of the women's movement.

Mary Richards found a job in the newsroom of fictional television station WJM, the lowest rated station in its market, and there she began her life as an independent woman. She found a "family" among her co-workers and her neighbors. Among these were Lou Grant (Ed Asner), the crusty news director, Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod), the cynical news writer, Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), the supercilious anchorman, and, later, Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White), the man-hungry "Happy Homemaker." Sharing her apartment house were Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), Mary's best friend, and Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman), their shallow landlady. This ensemble pushed the situation comedy genre in new directions and provided the show with a fresh feel and look.

The "workplace family," while not new to television sitcoms (Our Miss Brooks and The Gale Storm Show were among earlier incarnations of this sub-genre), was redefined in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Here were characters easily defined by traditional familial qualities--Lou as the father figure, Ted as the problem child, Rhoda as the family confidante, and Mary as the mother/daughter around whom the entire situation revolved. But the special nature of these relationships gave the show its depth and humor. Never static, each character changed in ways previously unseen in the genre. One of the best examples occurred when Lou divorced his wife of many years. His adjustment to the transition from married to divorced middle-aged man provided rich comic moments but also allowed viewers see new depths in the character, to see behind the gruff facade into Lou's vulnerability, to grow closer to him. This type of evolution occurred with all the cast members, providing writers with constantly shifting perspective on the characters. From those perspectives new story lines could be developed and these fresh approaches helped renew a genre grown weary with repetition and familiar techniques.

Similarly, the program set the standard for a new sub-genre of situation comedy: the working woman sitcom. Beginning as a determined but uncertain independent woman, Mary Richards came to represent what has since become a convention in this type of comedy. Unattached and not reliant upon a man, Mary never rejected men as romantic objects or denied her hopes to one day be married. But unlike Rhoda, Mary did not define her life through her search for "Mr. Right." Rather, she dated several men and even spent the night with a few of them (another new development in TV sitcoms). Working-woman sitcoms since, including Kate & Allie and Murphy Brown, owe a debt to Mary Richards.

The program became an anchor of CBS' Saturday night schedule and, along with All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show, was part of one of the strongest nights of programming ever presented by a network. From September 1970 until its final airing in September 1977, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was normally among the top 20 shows. It garnered three Emmy Awards as "Outstanding Comedy Series" (in 1975, 1976 and 1977). Moore, Asner, Harper, Knight and White all won Emmy's for their performances and the show's writing and directing were similarly honored several times.

The show was the first from MTM Productions, the company formed by Moore and her husband, Grant Tinker. MTM went on the produce an impressive list of landmark situation comedies and dramas including The Bob Newhart Show, Newhart, The White Shadow, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and L.A. Law. The characters from The Mary Tyler Moore Show provided the focus for several successful spin-offs in the 1970s: Rhoda, Phyllis and Lou Grant. The latter was significant in that it represented the successful continuation and transformation of a character across genre lines. In the new show Asner played Grant as a newspaper editor in a serious, hour-long, issue-oriented drama. MTM Productions developed a reputation, begun in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for creating what became known as "quality television," television readily identifiable by its textured, humane and contemporary themes and characters.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Traits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show have become standard elements of many situation comedies since its airing. Because numerous writers and directors worked at MTM and on this show, then moved on to develop their own productions, its influence is notable in sitcoms such as Taxi, Cheers and Night Court.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was also one of the first sitcoms to bring closure to its story. In its last episode in 1977, the entire WJM news staff, with the exception of the very expendable Ted Baxter, was fired. Mary's neighbors, Rhoda and Phyllis, had departed previously for their own programs. Now the rest of her "family" was being broken up. Ironically, television brought them together and now the vagaries of television were separating them--in the "real" world as well as in their own fictional context. In the final moments Mary, Lou, Murray, Ted, his wife, Georgette, and Sue Ann mass together in a teary group hug and exit. Then Mary turns out the lights in the newsroom for the last time. It was a fitting conclusion to a program which had become very comfortable and very real in ways few other programs ever had.

-Geoff Hammill


Mary Richards..................................... Mary Tyler Moore Lou Grant ................................................Edward Asner Ted Baxter ...................................................Ted Knight Murray Slaughter.................................... Gavin MacLeod Rhoda Morgenstern (1970-1974)................ Valerie Harper Phyllis Lindstrom (1970-1975)............... Cloris Leachman Bess Lindstrom (1970-1974)..................... Lisa Gerritsen Gordon (Gordy) Howard (1970-1973)............... John Amos Georgette Franklin Baxter (1973-1977)....... Georgia Engel Sue Ann Nivens (1973-1977) ........................Betty White Marie Slaughter (1971-1977) ......................Joyce Bulifant Edie Grant (1973-1974) ............................Priscilla Morrill David Baxter (1976-1977)............................. Robbie Rist

PRODUCERS     James L. Brooks, Alan Burns, Stan Daniels, Ed Weinberger


September 1970-December 1971       Saturday 9:30-10:00 December 1971-September 1972        Saturday 8:30-9:00 September 1972-October 1976            Saturday 9:00-9:30 November 1976-September 1977         Saturday 8:00-3:30


Alley, Robert S., and Irby B. Brown. Love Is All Around: The Making of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Foreword by Grant A. Tinker. New York: Delta, 1989.

Bathrick, Serifina. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show: Women at Home and at Work." In Feuer, Jane, Paul Kerr, and Tise Vahimagi, editors. MTM Quality Television. (London: British Film Institute, 1984).

Dow, Bonnie. "Hegemony, Feminist Criticsm, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Critical Studies in Mass Communication (Annandale, Virginia), September 1990.

"Mary Tyler Moore Show." Newsweek (New York), 29 January 1973.

"Mary Tyler Moore Show." Good Housekeeping (New York), February 1974.

"Mary Tyler Moore Show." Time (New York), 28 October 1974.

Rabinovitz, Lauren. "Sitcoms and Single Moms: Representations of Feminism on American TV." Cinema Journal (Champagne, Illinois), Fall 1989.


See also Asner, Ed; Brooks, James L.; Burns, Allan; Comedy, Domestic Settings; Comedy, Workplace; Family on Television; Gender and Television; Moore, Mary Tyler; Tinker, Grant; Workplace Programs