Living in our Golden Age of television, I think we sometimes overlook some of the risk-taking shows of the 1970s. That era may be best remembered for Watergate, polyester and disco, but there were some interesting programs on TV.
Norman Lear definitely has to be credited for transforming the medium, with All in the Family leading the pack of series that mixed comedy with messages about our culture. Some of Lear’s other important programs of the 70s include The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son and Maude, all influential and groundbreaking. Included in that group should be Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, the soap opera parody that aired each weeknight for 325 episodes. Shout! Factory’s massive Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman: The Complete Series compiles every episode of the show for the very first time in a home video release. This huge collection is a must for any fan of Adult Swim, Arrested Development or the type of deadpan sarcasm that is so popular amongst college critics and television aficionados.
Developed by Lear to work on two levels — a comedy to those who got the jokes and a compelling drama for those who didn’t — Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was unique for its time. Despite Lear’s credentials, the three major networks were unwilling to take a risk with a nightly comedy /drama soap opera, one without a laugh track, no less. So Lear and his team sold their show directly to local stations in syndication. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a critical and ratings success and Lear called it, ”as personally fulfilling as anything I’ve ever done in the half-hour form on TV.”
Set in the fictional town of Fernwood, Ohio, the series starred Louise Lasser as Mary Hartman, a simple housewife who seeks the sort of domestic bliss promised by Reader’s Digest and the ads she sees on TV. Mary’s husband, Tom, is played by Greg Mullavey. Mary Kay Place also appears as Mary’s friend, Loretta, for which she won an Emmy and a Grammy. The blue-collar lives of Mary, her friends and family are intertwined with a mass murderer, country music and waxy yellow build-up on her kitchen floor. Among the issues covered in the series are impotence, senility, sexual roles and mental health issues, all told in the same heightened dramatic style of a 70s soap opera.
For a year and a half, the series aired nightly. Then, Lasser walked away, placing the show’s fate in jeopardy. As her character was the core of the series, without Mary and Lasser’s singular performance, it couldn’t continue in the same way. Although it was rebranded Forever Fernwood, without Lasser it wasn’t quite the same and the show ended a half year later. Any question of Lasser’s greatness will be quelled when you watch the episode in which Mary suffers a nervous breakdown. That episode, and Lasser in it, is brilliant. Is every episode of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman a keeper? No, but you try writing meaningful comedy/drama five nights a week. It’s not easy.
The complete series comes in 38-DVDs. It includes a beautifully made booklet that contains the thoughts of Pulitzer-Prize winning TV critic, Tom Shales, two documentaries, and 10 original episodes of Fernwood 2 Night, the spin- off series starring Martin Mull and Fred Ward. As with every Shout! Factory release I’ve reviewed, the picture quality of the show has been presented in the best quality available and the overall production of this release is far and above what you typically get in a TV on DVD release.
Less groundbreaking, yet still pretty risky television from the 70s was The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts. In the early 1970s, as Dean Martin’s Variety Show was winding down on NBC, the show retooled itself to become a weekly roast of a celebrity — mainly one of Dino’s old Hollywood pals. The weekly roasts were filmed in front of a studio audience, lucky fans that got to sit and watch movie stars and athletes smoke and get liquored up, especially Martin.
Star Vista and Time Life video now collect all 54 of these celebrity roasts for the first time. The humor in the roasts is most definitely non-PC. In fact, there’s a warning on each DVD stating that some of the ”off-color” humor aired on TV before such humor was considered in poor-taste.
The best of these roasts are the episodes featuring the old school Hollywood crowd, as opposed to some of the athletes featured during its run. Watching Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr, Johnny Carson, Bob Hope and their like making fun of each other is contagious. Equally funny are the obvious cut-away shots of stars laughing that come from different points in filming. I swear that in one episode the producers cut to the same shot of Phyllis Diller laughing throughout the hour.
This collection contains over 40 hours of comedy and includes plenty of bonus features. 34 former roast participants, production personal, critics and fans were interviewed for the many featurettes on the DVD’s. Some of those people include Don Rickles, Carol Burnett, Rich Little, Tim Conway and Angie Dickinson. The collection comes in a massive 25-disc DVD set, and it includes seven episodes of The Dean Martin Variety Show, four classic Dean Martin TV Specials including Dean’s Place and Red Hot Scandals of 1926, featuring Dean and friends, and a 44-page collector’s book.
For your parents, who may recall watching the Celebrity Roasts when they originally aired, this is a great way to relive the past. For anyone who is a student of television, this collection is a great artifact of a bygone era. And for anyone who just likes to laugh, this collection is a good way to tickle the funny bone.