A Conversation with Norman Lear
Mike Ragogna: Norman, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is now available as a complete series in a DVD box set. To me, this was an amazing show and it's the crowning jewel for the Norman Lear dynasty. Other than Twin Peaks it was probably the most unusual show on television.
Norman Lear: I feel the same way about it. Actually, I feel the same way about both of them.
MR: And we can't forget its offshoot series, Fernwood 2-Night, starring Martin Mull with sidekick Fred Willard. How did you and your creative staff this cast of particularly eccentric, exotic characters in this overly bizarre town?
NL: I wanted to do a soap opera that concentrated on the effect of the medium on an American household, starting with the housewife, who, at the time, was reported to be watching more television than any other member of the house. I had a pretty good idea what that effect was; it resulted in the death of five people and their goats and chickens around the corner and her interest in how the advertising was promising her something, because she believed what she read because that's what we did in America. Nobody was going to lie to us in print! We were that naïve. So I had, for a couple of years, the highlights of what I wanted that first episode to be. The situation with the murder around the corner and a "Fernwood Flasher" who turns out to be her father, that she was having a marital sex problem with her husband, and more. But all of those things were happening and I talked to any number of writers who said, "But how do you make that funny?" If you have to ask the question, you don't know how to make it funny.
A long time went by when I couldn't find anybody who thought it was funny until Ann Marcus. She was the first to come along who really got it. She brought in Daniel Browne and Gail Parent and so forth. Then in terms of directors, I was going through a bit of that, too, when I met a young woman who was there to see me about a script she'd written, and that was Joan Darling. She was writing and teaching, and after spending a little time with her, I said, "You might think about directing, and I have a project you can direct," because she had that off-beat sense of humor. So this was her first directing job, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.
MR: What a nice shot you gave her. I love that the show wasn't self-consciously intellectual. This was not side-splitting humor, you had no laugh track, and people were left to actually examine what the comedy and content was for themselves.
NL: You know, I'm listening to you; you don't need me for this. You've got it.
MR: Sorry, I'm such a fan, I do this kind of thing. Norman, one of my favorite subtleties in the show was how you deflated the concept of the televangelist with Dabney Coleman.
NL: Oh yes. You remember the death of that little televangelist?
MR: Oh yeah, in the bathtub.
NL: He was watching the television in the bathtub and fighting with his dad and the set fell in. It was Mary Kay Place who was standing there and heard the flash and looks in the tub and says, "Killed by the Seven O'clock News."
MR: [laughs] So classic. How did you cast the actors for the show? How did you know who those exactly right people were?
NL: A very good friend of Louise Lasser's, he was here manager, and I showed him the script and it was he who said, "There's only one person to play this and it's Louise. You have got to meet Louise." And then he said, "And she probably won't do it!" He said that because she'd be nervous, but that she'd love it, and he was right about that too. The fact about Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is the words were there, and I don't know what it would have been with another actress, but it wouldn't have been this. Louise was so unique.
MR: You refer to the nervousness. It was like a reaction to her life, Fernwood and all of its characters, and she needed to comfort herself in those products to get through.
NL: There was also something about her that reflected--and she knew this--the foolishness of the human condition. She had that profound sensibility.
MR: Beautiful, really. Now, this was a soap opera that ran at night, the exact opposite time of when you'd run a soap opera. What was behind that programming idea?
NL: We understood that it would play as a soap opera for lots and lots of people, but there would also be lots and lots of people who could see that though we were doing a soap opera, they really got the humor and they got the cynicism.
MR: Yeah, it was a hybrid, and it never had been done before. Not only that, but look at all the characters on this show! Mary Kay Place had hits on the country charts with "Baby Boy" and "Vitamin L," so the show's success even invaded other media.
NL: Mary Kay Place was a writers' assistant in the company on other shows. Because of her accent, I cast her as a friend of Gloria on All In The Family and it was clear, the camera loved her, and the audience loved the sound of her and she became an actress.
MR: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman presented to the world Martin Mull and Dabney Coleman; we ended up with Fernwood 2 Night, that even Tom Waits appeared on. You really created a fully fleshed out alternate reality with these shows that we all easily accepted.
NL: Yeah, that alternate reality was as much the reality as anything else.
MR: I wanted to ask you about that. If you take the soap opera aspect out and apply the bigger concept of life being a soap opera, it almost doesn't lose a lot of its relevance in 2013.
NL: Because we still see the impact of the media and--I love this expression--the foolishness of the human condition continues. Its impact is overwhelming now. Overwhelming.
MR: Norman, you were one of the lone voices giving a more open-minded commentary to what was going on politically, in the culture and the world. This is kind of an odd question, but if you were to set up another kind of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman these days, what would your angle be? How would it differ?
NL: I would be challenging the one percent versus ninety-nine percent society we live in. And also age! In television terms, one Betty White covers the entire demographic of seventy to a hundred and three. I think funny is funny and interesting is interesting. I wrote a show a couple years ago that everybody loved, but the script, no one would go near because it's all about that demographic, which is the largest growing demographic, the one with the largest expendable income. We're reading about how quickly it's growing constantly because of extended life and all of that stuff, and yet they will not go near anything but eighteen to thirty-nine.
MR: Well, sadly, it's the same thing in music, where the proprietors and Kingmakers of music have all but abandoned everyone over the age of twenty-two. I think our pop culture loves its youth and beauty more than not.
NL: Right. They're in all kinds of ways trying to tell us something they know better than we do.
MR: Norman, I loved when you brought up the one percent. Being that you are deeply entrenched in a lot of the viewpoints and philosophies you present on your TV shows, how do you feel about what's going on? It's got to bug you a little, no?
NL: I'm a product of World War II. I flew fifty-two missions with the fifteenth air force and I came home to an America who had just won an impossible war. The country really collected; what they called Rosie The Riveter, that equivalent was in every aspect of American life. This country worked like it never worked before or since and we won that war. Then we were decent enough and smart enough, saw the future well enough to invest in The Marshall Plan to help the world get back on its feet. But then we started to believe our press and we became quite inflated and too much in love with ourselves. Suddenly, America was God's gift to the world and we lost track of who we were and didn't see ourselves realistically. I saw that first when the American motorcar was--I love this expression--"the standard of the world." You go to a movie on a Saturday in those years and whenever you saw a leader of a country stepping out of an automobile, he was stepping out of a Cadillac or a Chrysler or a Lincoln, an American product. In those years, we were hosing down and waxing the car in the driveway. The romance with the American motorcar was just immense; it was the symbol of who we were. Then suddenly, there's the Volkswagen, the little car company from Germany, and then suddenly, there's a little company coming from Japan and it's clear that we've got to go smaller in order to keep up. But we don't. We go bigger. In comes the SUV and everything else. There were some young people, I among them, who saw Detroit destroying itself.
When I came into television a few years after that, I started to realize that the broadcasters were now network executives. When we talked about broadcasters, the news was becoming a profit center. Tchaikovsky was never again going to play, there was an NBC orchestra. Things were changing, and after the news became a profit center, so did every aspect of the tube. The name of the game suddenly changed to "a hit Tuesday night" at the expense of every other value. Along with that, you can't point to anybody who invented this, but we morphed into a capitalist culture where every corporation had to do better this quarter than the last. There's nothing in life that suggests anything can grow forever, but that's not the way we are seeing it today. If you're a corporation, you're going to make more money this quarter than the last. But that's always short term, and I think that whole culture became a short term. Just to carry the television metaphor further, there were like twenty-two or twenty-six shows when we first started, and they didn't do reruns, they had summer shows. Summer replacements is how Jack Carter got started, that's how a number of things got started. Then they found tape and now they can sell the stuff they already did but maybe you haven't seen or it's the summer so you'll see it again. Everything changed that way. We think so much in the short term today there is no sense of the long term.
MR: Is there any shot of the long term coming back? Not to be a pessimist, but some say it would take a disaster.
NL: I don't like to talk about disaster. I wake up in the morning and I have hope. We have to find our way out. We have to start seeing some of this and grope our way out of it. We've certainly got to start thinking in the long term, because it's clear we're losing great ground.
MR: When Norman Lear jumped into the mix with your brand of series, you offered All In The Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times, et cetera, and even though it all was profitable entertainment, it also was both deflating and a bit of a mirror.
NL: That's what it was all about. We were just dealing with things. At the beginning, I heard a lot of, "Hey, wait a second; if you want to send a message, we have Western Union." I used to say, "Wait a minute, we're not sending messages, we're just dealing with the truth as we see it." I began to realize over time, if you deal with the truth as you see it, other people who disagree will see it as some message. So then I realized for all of the years that preceded All In The Family, in every situation comedy, maybe the biggest problem was that the roast is ruined and the boss is coming to dinner, or mom dented the car and we've got to get it fixed before dad sees it. "Wait a second," I thought, "Is that a message?" According to these shows and family life, as it was portrayed, nobody's out of work, there are no health problems, there are no diseases, there are no racial issues. Is that a pretty strong message or what?
MR: And sort of getting back to Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, many Baby Boomers were stuck in front of a television that also served as babysitter, so a lot of them have a lot in common with Mary Hartman to this day.
NL: Yeah, I can see that. That's why I think Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is applicable, and All In The Family, too. We're all still dealing with the same problems. It isn't Richard E. Nixon, as Archie would say, but the problems are the same. The same thing is true of everything we were talking about with Mary Hartman, but now in spades.
MR: Were you ever pushed back by the network while you were trying to get some of the messages through?
NL: Well, it was a constant fight to do things. There was what they'd euphemistically call "Practices." The censors. They didn't want Maude to have an abortion. They didn't want us to talk about breast cancer. They didn't want Mike and Gloria to talk about sex frankly. [laughs] They didn't want the frankness, which was nothing new to the American people. They were living it.
MR: You were also one of the masterminds behind the movie Cold Turkey, it being a very early commentary on smoking and addiction among other things. Do you see how your shows have contributed to opening the minds of a lot of Americans and perhaps people around the world?
NL: I like the metaphor of throwing a pebble into the middle of a lake, and the lake rises. The physicists could show you how that works, but you're never going to see it. We got letters, so I knew people were talking about the problems we were dealing with. That's the ripple effect.
MR: Are you proud of what you were trying to accomplish through your TV works?
NL: Oh, I couldn't be prouder. Ann had the best time, we all had a good time. Our company was just a group of people having the time of our lives.
MR: You had some financial interest in the Concord jazz labels, right?
NL: Yeah, I had a big interest in the Australian motion picture company, Village Roadshow, that bought Concord. But they didn't cotton to the music, so they separated.
MR: What are you working on now?
NL: The big thing that's occupying me right now is that I'm within a month and a half of finishing a memoir, which I've been writing for six years.
MR: Norman, owning what is arguably the biggest jazz label in the world, what advice do you have for new artists?
NL: My advice for new artists is to continue to believe in yourself. Don't let anybody turn you away from your basics and your instincts.
MR: Is that what you did as a young writer coming up in television?
NL: I think so. I can't remember doing anything I didn't really want to do.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Mary Kay Place
MR: What did Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman mean to you?
MKP: Being on the show was a gift. It was a mind blowing, 360 degree experience. Shooting 35 pages a day, five days a week for 325 episodes was a real education in the creative process. I learned a lot--often the hard way. It was as fun as it gets and at the same time could be very stressful and intense. It was quite a journey and changed my life in many ways. I'm grateful to have been a part of it.
MR: Did it ever get too surreal?
MKP: It may have been for some people. But with the volume of material being produced each week it was inevitable that occasionally things went off the rails. Some scenes and episodes worked better than others but when it was good it was very good.
MR: How closely did you identify with the character you played?
MKP: I don't know if I really identified with Loretta Haggers as much as I felt I understood her and enjoyed imagining how she would perceive certain situations and react. She was a lot of fun to play. I also really loved writing her original songs. Growing up in Oklahoma and spending a lot of time in my grandparent's small towns in Texas I interacted with a lot of folks that influenced the way I played Loretta. The way she pronounced certain words, her faith, her love of country music and Charlie.
MR: Where might your character "be" in 2013?
MKP: I have no idea. Let's see, she'd definitely still be singing and writing country music but instead of the Capri Lounge--which was razed for a Walmart--she now sings at the Indian Casino on the outskirts of town. Since beloved Charlie, Graham Jarvis, has passed away, I guess she'd be a widow and maybe teaching a Sunday school class. Recently, she started dating the new guitar player in the house band at the Casino, a much younger man.
MR: If there were any TV show at the time til now that Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman could have crossed over with, what would it be and what would the plot have involved?
MKP: I don't know about a crossover or a plot, but the first show that popped out after that felt like it could be a relative to our show in that it also shared soap opera elements, was out of the box, and unique in tone and rhythm was Twin Peaks. Even though it was a very different show and we didn't share grandparents, it felt like a second cousin once removed.
MR: Mary Kay, what do you think of your hits "Baby Boy" and "Vitamin L" all these years later?
MKP: Due to our hectic schedule, those songs were written very fast to include in scenes on the show. It never occurred to me at the time that they would ever be out in the world aside from the show, let along on record albums or on the radio. I look back at these songs with great affection. I had fun writing them in the voice of Loretta, from her point of view and I still think these songs did their job of revealing character and telling Loretta's story.
MR: Did you get what Norman was doing with the show's premise or were you just having fun with your role or both?
MKP: Both. I got what we were doing and I had a lot of fun doing it.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
MKP: Follow your instincts. Listen to the wisdom of your body. If your gut alarm is going off, something's wrong. Reassess.
Follow Mike Ragogna on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ragz2008