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Gertrude Berg and Mary Tyler Moore: Logic Without Losing 

The final two comediennes, Gertrude Berg and Mary Tyler Moore, were both the heart of the show and the voice of reason in their sitcoms without losing to other characters like Fey or constantly having to prove their logic like Poehler. Unlike the other shows, however, The Goldbergs and The Mary Tyler Moore Show lacked a clear winner/loser dynamic. Even though these female characters may have “had it all” – Berg as the mother of a close-knit immigrant family that eventually “makes it” to the suburbs, Moore as the independent young working woman “making it on her own” – they did not continuously “win” or upstage other characters. Instead, they stepped back as non-threatening reasonable females, charming audiences and guiding other characters through their various personal issues for years. Unlike Tina Fey, who actively voiced reason but was ignored and ultimately “lost” at the end of each episode, Berg and Moore balance reason with passivity, embodying grace and intelligence while never threatening the power of male counterparts.

Gertrude Berg’s Molly Goldberg was the heart of The Goldbergs, but also served as the voice of the reason. The show introduced her as “a woman with a place in every heart and a finger in every pie.” Molly was the glue that kept the family together, and in doing so she took on many roles, which allowed her to be the voice of reason at times but illogical at others. Molly’s dual role of reason and foolish comic relief is epitomized in the generational cultural differences in the Goldberg family. Molly’s children, Sammy and Rosie, grew up in America and have a firm grasp on American culture. This knowledge gives the children some power over their parents; Glenn Smith explains that “the program documented the class and cultural struggles of one family and the clash of two generations: the parents, Molly and Jake, trying to make sense of an adopted home, and their children, Rosalie and Sammy, trying to assimilate into American culture.”[1] Sammy and Rosie teach Molly and Jake about America and correct their grammar and pronunciation. Molly, on the other hand, voices the traditions of the Old World and acts as the moral center of the family.

 

A 1942 story arc provides a telling example of Molly’s flexible role in the family. Molly’s daughter Rosie finds out her boyfriend Walter is engaged to someone else, and the family is stunned. The first episode opens with the narrator explaining, “there are very few people with Molly’s patience. Most of us are like Jake... Like Jake we jump in feet first and slash away. Any action seems better than none. And the truth is that this kind of action never helps.” Jake believes that Rosie dating an engaged man is fundamentally wrong, so he tells Walter to never return to the house. Rosie and Molly are unaware of the altercation between Jake and Walter, and Rosie is left confused as to why Walter left.

 

Problem-solving is not left solely to the older generation, and Sammy and Rosie are unafraid to voice their opinions and question their parents’ actions. Sammy figures out what Jake did, and gets very angry at his father’s unreasonable response to the problem. Sammy explains his anger to Molly:

[Listen below]

SAMMY: It’s not alright, Ma. Papa insulted Walter. And he insulted Rosie too if you can only understand what he’s doing. The one way to make Rosie and Walter twice as interested in each other as they are now is to forbid them to see each other.

MOLLY: Alright, Sammily, please

SAMMY: Gee, I don’t understand you, Ma. Can’t you see how wrong it is?

MOLLY: Papa was excited. Papa was worried.

SAMMY: Yeah, but he’s twice as old as Rosie. He ought to know. He’s acting like a child, Ma. He’s making everything worse. Ma, I wish you’d talk to him. I wish you’d make him sit down and have him understand that he’s doing everything in his power to make a bad situation worse.

Sammy recognizes that his parents make incorrect, even “insulting” decisions, and he also understands the important role Molly plays in the family, as he believes only Molly can solve this intricate problem. Sammy’s criticism of his father’s action and insistence on his mother’s specific response suggests an atypical inner-family power dynamic. Sammy believes his opinion is as important, if not more correct, than his parents’. Sammy also frames Molly as reasonable compared to Jake, and able to mend the situation by talking to her husband.

 

Before Jake comes home, Molly directly confronts Rosie to address the situation. Rosie begins complaining about the situation and asks her mother why the family is so distressed. Molly gets upset and lectures Rosie:

[Listen below]




MOLLY: Because do onto others as you would wish to be done onto you. That’s still something to live by, Rosalie. That’s still something to be included in your daily living, not only on holidays. Especially, Rosalie, when you reach the stage when your mind is filled only with what you feel. And more than, more than ever you must remember to do onto others. It’s too easy to forget that there are not only one who has feelings [sic]. You are not the only one. But you feel others’ feel. Other people have hearts that hurt and hearts that are joyous.

ROSIE: You mean, Ma, because Walter’s engaged?

MOLLY: Yes. Yes. It’s not just 1, 2, 3, because Walter is engaged. Am I not your mother? Yes, because Walter is engaged. Yes indeed… And that means he’s engaged to someone. Not to no one. And that someone has heard a promise from Walter. And that someone has a heart that’s involved. And feelings. [2]

Unlike Jake, who acted rashly and without clear reason, Molly uses Old World morals, specifically the Golden Rule to “do onto others as you would wish to be done onto you,” to reason with her daughter. Molly’s role as voice of reason is hidden in her fumbling over the English language, but her insistence on moral good and her understanding of the importance of personal discussion with her daughter allow her to manage a complex situation and take the feelings of all family members into account.

 

[The entire episode is available below]

 

The issue persists for multiple episodes, but this introduction of the situation and the family’s varying responses highlight Molly’s flexible and unique role within the family. Sammy sees himself as more reasonable than his parents, feeling the need to criticize his father’s actions and suggest specific actions from his mother. Molly defends her husband, but also follows her son’s advice, talking to her husband about his actions and choosing to talk to Rosie instead of responding rashly like her husband. The show posits her sense of reason as coming from the Old World and Jewish tradition, while Sammy’s idea of “insulting” Rosie and her boyfriend Walter suggests a better understanding of American culture and social norms. The generational divide allows for various characters to voice both reason and illogic.

 

The family works the situation out as one unit, with every member involved and voicing their opinion. Molly is an integral part of the solution, as she can both talk to her husband about his actions and use her Old World morals to counsel Rosie through a difficult situation. She voices reason to Rosie, but still listens to her son’s opinions. She talks to her husband about his actions, but defends them to their children. Finally, her fumbling over the English language gives her a somewhat foolish tone, even when trying to impart reason to her daughter. Sammy and Rosie clearly have a better grasp on the English language, giving them some power over their parents.

 

Yet no character holds all the power, rather, they all have flaws and are capable of reason. Molly is certainly the heart of the show; other characters go to her for their issues with other family members. She is able to voice reason, but is not a regular “winner,” and indeed sometimes looks foolish because of her accent and linguistic foibles. Still, the fact that Molly could be reasonable and not automatically be outsmarted like Liz Lemon is significant.

 

 

Much like Berg’s Molly Goldberg, Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary Richards somehow balances being both the heart of the show and the voice of reason on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary’s charm is most apparent in her interactions with the show’s other female characters. Marilyn Suzanne Miller, a writer for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and several other successful sitcoms, noted that Mary Tyler Moore “looked at every kind of woman… Every kind of woman except a happily married woman, which was great. That was the first time that ever happened.”[3] These women were Mary’s friends and confidants, and they ended up looking up to Mary as their personal voice of reason.

 

In addition to Mary, the other main female character in the show is Rhoda, Mary’s best friend. Moore notes in her memoir that the producers found Valerie Harper, who portrayed Rhoda, too beautiful during her tryouts. According to Moore, Harper was a great fit for the Rhoda character, but “the only problem was that Rhoda was written to be a self-made loser – not good with hair and makeup, overweight, and self-deprecating. Valerie, to [our] anguish, was the perfect actress except for one thing: she was beautiful.” The creators were forced to rethink the character, and ultimately decided, “so what if she was attractive, the important thing was that, like so many women, Rhoda didn’t think she was. As such, that great self-deprecating aspect of her humor was preserved no matter what she looked like.”[4] As a result, Harper’s beauty was hidden by Rhoda’s personal insecurity, much like Lucille Ball’s glamour was downplayed for I Love Lucy. Rhoda had an antagonistic relationship with Phyllis Lindstrom, the other central female character and the landlady for Mary and Rhoda’s building. Portrayed by Cloris Leachman, Phyllis Lindstrom’s main character trait is that she is unhappily married to Dr. Lars Lindstrom. Though snobbish and rather unlikable, Phyllis develops a friendly relationship with Mary, even seeking her advice with parental and relationship issues.

 

In contrast to self-deprecating Rhoda and generally unlikable Phyllis, Mary was an ideal: beautiful, happy, caring, and restrained. Phyllis and Rhoda both envied Mary; Rhoda wished for her body and charm, while Phyllis was jealous of her independence.[5] Mary balanced out their flaws and made them feel better about themselves, as she did for the women at home watching, who could identify with the interpersonal and occupational problems she faced.[6]

 

The men with whom Mary interacts in her office, however, have a more protective, even parental relationship with Mary. Though still a rational member of the office, Mary was no longer a clear voice of reason in the newsroom. Indeed, she often blindly followed her male coworkers’ suggestions. In a season three episode in which a local journalist asks to interview Mary, news writer Murray Slaughter, Mary’s in-office confidant, suggests that she ask their boss before agreeing. Both Murray and their boss, news director Lou Grant, often served as Mary’s own voice of reason. Mary admits that it “never occurred to [her] to ask his permission,” but when Murray suggests it she automatically realizes the error in her ways. Murray does so because he cares about her; when the dimwitted news anchor Ted Baxter asks why anyone would want to interview Mary, Murray chastises him for “insulting” her and tells him to apologize. Murray brings it up again, trying to frame it as a friendly suggestion: “Look, Mary, I don’t want to tell you what to do, but I really think you should mention that interview to Lou.” He suggests she do it fast, before the word gets out about the possible interview, and Mary practically sprints to Lou’s office door. Mary respects and heeds both Murray and Lou’s opinions, and her hurry to ask Lou’s permission also implies her fear of his wrath.

 

Lou makes it clear that he is not a fan of Mark Williams, the television-hating interviewer. Lou quickly goes through various reactions to the news of the interview, and Mary instantly agrees with each one:

LOU: Mary, you’re representing WJM-TV. A man like Mark Williams delights in taking perfectly innocent little things you say and twisting. Cancel him!
MARY: Yeah. I-I better. I’ll cancel.

LOU: Wait a minute. Come here. You call and cancel now, he’ll probably think I told you to.

MARY: Yes.

LOU: We wouldn’t want him to think I’d do a thing like that, would we?

MARY: No.

LOU: You better go to lunch with him.

MARY: Yes.[7]

Mary trusts Lou’s judgment whole-heartedly, even when it is constantly changing. Though perhaps the role model within her groups of female friends, and thus the voice of reason in her apartment building, she still follows the lead of her male coworkers in the office. Though not dominated, she is certainly not dominant in the workplace; she is cared about and rational, but does not “win” or put herself above her counterparts.


["What Is Mary Richards Really Like?" is available on Hulu]


The Mary Tyler Moore Show existed within a specific political context; while a leading independent woman was groundbreaking during the 1970’s Women’s Liberation movement, Mary’s character “was a woman who was starting out and trying to be her own person, but she was never very political or very feminist.” The writers did not shy away from the idea, and insisted that “in its own way, in a very quiet way, [the show] made a statement about the women’s movement and the fact that women are more than housewives and mothers and nurses and they can do anything a man can do. And it made its point comedically. But first and foremost, it was a terrific half-hour comedy show.”[8] The show was certainly more political than this writer made it seem; the historical context necessarily made it so. However, the writers’ intention to not make overt political statements was clear, and political issues were written into the show in a sophisticated, subtle way. Perhaps as a result of this, Mary is independent but incredibly non-threatening. Though the heart of the show and voice of reason within her group of girlfriends (and sometimes her male co-workers too), she was never a “winner” like Gracie Allen or Leslie Knope. So, though the show’s theme song insists that she “made it on her own,” she never upstaged her fellow cast members or “won” at the end of episodes. Indeed, Mary’s character was more passive than anything else, reacting to comic situations made by other actors and embodying the audience’s reasonable responses to unreasonable characters.


[1] Glenn D. Smith, Jr., “Something on My Own:” Gertrude Berg and American Broadcasting, 1929-1956, (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2007), 19.

[2] The Goldbergs, “A Stern Lecture,” aired April 21, 1942 (CBS), as heard on Old Time Radio Catalog, http://www.otrcat.com.

[3] Yael Kohen, We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy (New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2012), 68.

[4] Mary Tyler Moore, After All (New York: Putnam, 1995), 192-193.

[5] For Rhoda’s needs, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “What is Mary Richards Really Like?” season 3, episode 2, aired September 23, 1972 (CBS). For Phyllis’s jealousy, see The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Assistant Wanted, Female,” season 1, episode 10, aired November 21, 1970 (CBS.)

[6] Kohen, We Killed, 62.

[7] The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “What is Mary Richards Really Like?” season 3, episode 2, aired September 23, 1972 (CBS), as seen on Hulu, http://www.hulu.com/the-mary-tyler-moore-show.

[8] Kohen, We Killed, 62.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.