7/7/09

The Boob Tube #12: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman


Those of you who haven’t seen or have long forgotten the TV show Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976), it’s time for a wake up call. This peculiar little show was the talk of the town back in the day, and for good reason. It constantly dealt with controversial and taboo subjects which inspired the ire of both liberal and conservative minded viewers. But beyond that, the show was just plain STRANGE. Picture Days of Our Lives directed by David Lynch, and you have pretty good idea what this show is like.

I’ll spare you the detailed synopsis (that’s what Wikipedia is for) and break down a few topics from the first season to give you a taste.

The very first episode starts out with a bang when there’s a mass murder in the neighborhood – and the killer is still at large. There’s a sort of morbid tone set by the incident and the characters express more concern for the pets killed than the humans. There’s no laugh track, so I didn’t know whether to be amused or disturbed – so I was both. I think Norman Lear and the writers wanted the audiences to feel uncomfortable.

Before I go any further, let me state that you would have to swallow a handful of quaaludes, and chase it with an entire bottle of Ny-Quil to appear half as drugged as Mary Hartman. Her speech is mumbled and slurred, and she always seems to be in a haze. Add to that, she dresses like someone with psychiatric problems (in fact, she is institutionalized in Louis Lasser’s last season). And this is the main character!

Loretta, Mary’s best friend, is an aspiring country singer and racist with hair extensions. She basically spends all day in her filthy house pretending to be famous. Picture Laura Dern in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.

Her husband is a 43 year old balding man that simply could not look more nerdy… and when he removes his shirt to make love to his wife, audiences are treated to a pale white body covered in a thick mange. Back hair never looked so repulsive. At least he’s got his shotgun to protect his pretty lady from any mass murderers!

The bedroom scenes between Loretta and her spouse are intimate to a fault. The camera closes in close, zeroing in on blemishes, cellulite, beads of sweat, hairy armpits, etc. I felt like I was in bed with them… and a tad squeamish.

In the scene depicted in the next screen shot, Mary’s daughter is feeling uncomfortable because she was a witness to a mass murder. Not only that, she is complaining of menstrual cramps and so slides under the table. It’s times like this that I was wishing there was a laugh track so I would know when something was supposed to be funny or not.

Then there’s grandpa who likes to expose himself in public. In this episode, gramps is arrested for flashing at a school playground. Granted, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman modeled itself after soap operas, and soaps often cover illicit topics. However, adultery and murder plots are one thing… mass murders and a 90 year old man exposing himself at a playground is another thing entirely!

But it wasn’t just the risqué subject matter that made this show so off putting for most audiences that it had to be shown late at night, it was the element of the bizarre that was injected into each episode. There are no menacing midgets like in Lynch’s films, but there’s plenty of nihilistic dirty strangeness to go around: impalement on an aluminum Christmas tree, wife beating, kidnapping, and bathtub electrocution – all played with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

There were over 300 episodes of this show produced, and yet only about 25 are currently available on DVD. I guess I should be glad they were made at all - if it weren't for a letter of support from Ben Stein (who was then an aid to President Nixon), it would've probably been cancelled very early on. I guess a good question is: If the entire run was made available, would I even watch them? I think I would. Certainly, it takes a while to acclimate yourself to such a unique brand of television, but once you “get it”, you won’t be able to stop. There’s a pleasure in being shocked, repulsed, and disturbed one minute, and then laughing the next.

I'll end this essay with a beautiful quote from Mary Hartman:

"I must have been born under an unlucky star. You know I have filled out entry blanks for every single drawing in the supermarket for the last twelve years, and the only thing I ever won was a coupon for a small little jar of tomato paste. But they were out of tomato paste, and by the time they got more in, my coupon had expired. And now I have venereal disease.".... classic.

26 comments:

  1. I love Mary Hartman! Such a great ensemble of actors--Louise Lasser, Mary Kay Place, Dody Goodman, Debralee Scott, etc. I hope they release more episodes on DVD.

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  2. I first got into this when they started rerunning episodes on PBS on Saturday nights. That was when I was in middle school in the early 80s. When it came out on DVD I scooped it up and have since only been able to get through the first disc. Great viewing but a lot to take in at once.

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  3. What do Mary Hartman and Rosemary's Baby have in common you ask? Woody Allen

    Louise Lasser was married to him from 1966-69

    Mia Farrow "partnered" with him from 1980-92 (until she found out he was sleeping with her adopted daughter Soon Yi, 34 years his junior)


    I guess it really is a small world after all.

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  4. I had heard of this show. But I've never seen it before. Cool post. I liked the pics.

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  5. I remember that I was absolutely forbidden from watching this show. I don't think my folks watched it either. I'm sure my mom would have been disgusted at it. My dad liked Maude, so I don't know if he would have liked this or not.

    Sounds pretty out-there. Heavy topics and bizarre non-sequiturs. I'm not sure what the point of an old man flashing a school ground is. That doesn't seem funny to me.

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  6. They sure don't make television like that anymore.

    One interesting note, in the Cleveland area....the long running late night show Big Chuck & Lil' John did a great parody of that show titled "Mary Hartski, Mary Hartski"...they're up on YouTube if you wanna ever check them out!

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  7. Well, the elderly man flashing at a school ground certainly isn't funny, and either is mass murder. That's exactly what's so unsettling about this show - the uncomfortable mixture of comedy with seriously disturbing elements.

    I'd love for them to put more episoded on DVD, and I'd also like to see the Mary Hartman spin-off "Fernwood 2 Nite" on DVD as well.

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  8. I'd heard of it, but you made me want to watch it. Great review.

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  9. I have never seen or heard of this show but am interested in watching it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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  10. I keep seeing the DVD box for this at Barnes and Noble, and all I can ever think is, "That woman has really weird teeth!"

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  11. This is a great synopsis! And now I know what the deal is with this show. I was aware as a kid that the show existed, but I'm pretty sure my super conservative parents did NOT watch it (I'll have to ask them for kicks). Had no idea until now what it was - besides really weird.

    I could be very wrong, but I think TVLand ran episodes of MHMH *very* late at night (maybe on Friday or Saturday nights) a few years back.

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  12. I barely remember seeing it when it was first on as I was 6 or 7. I am surpised my parents let me see it. I was reminded of it when you mentioned Debralee Scott the other week. I liked her on her all too few episodes of Welcome Back Kotter too.

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  13. Thanks for the positive comments. Yes, Amy, it did run on TV Land... back before the channel began playing stuff like "Extreme Home Makeover" and "The Cougar" (WTF?!?)

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  14. And in the pre-VCR days, this was must see TV. Like SNL in the early days, get togethers of many kinds had the qualifying question of "can I watch MH,MH at 10:30? Don't forget one of Mary's biggest problems: Waxy yellow buildup - on her kitchen floor.

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  15. This WAS a very weird show and very Lynchian...I vaguely remember it growing up in the 70s. A recent article in my local paper compared it to Desperate Housewives, as Mary was the original unsatisfied suburban mom.

    I'll have to check out a few clips on YouTube now.

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  16. Remember when Stan Lee and Frank Springer did their newspaper comic strip version of it? Technically called THE VIRTUE OF VERA VALIENT, it was billed in my paper as VERA VALIENT, VERA VALIENT just in case anyone missed the connection.

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  17. I have vague memories of this show. Carol Burnett did a spoof of it on her show.

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  18. booksteve - I don't recall the Stan Lee comic based on the show - what an odd thing that must have been. I will have to find it.... the creator of Spider Man, making a Mary Hartman comic - wow.

    hairball - I remember that Carol Burnett parody sketch, and I never got that it was spoofing Mary Hartman till I was much older.

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  19. str8buder@yahoo.comDecember 28, 2009

    Your review was accurate and well written...I remember this show and if I'm not mistaken Billy Chrystal (sp) had some appearances on the show..MH was crazy, weird, disturbing and funny as hell and I was glued to every episode!

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  20. I was a big fan of this show back in the 70's. I recently rented a DVD of the first 9 episodes. I was concerned that it would not seem as funny to me watching it now as it did back then. Instead I found it to be as hilarious as ever. This show definitely belongs at the top of my list of Best TV Comedies.

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  21. I remember one episode in particular, Mary and Tom found a joint in Heather's lunchbox ,they had both smoked it and they attended a faith healing stoned out of their minds, the faith healer name was Direlda Diremus played by Doris Roberts 20 years before she was Marie Barone

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  22. I watched nearly every episode of this show in its first run. I was a kid at the time and most of my favorite shows (Good Times, Maude, All In the Family) were Lear products. Since Lear liked to trade in controversy I don't think I got just how over the top this show was, just more VD, racism and domestic angst.

    Looking back at it now, I think what this show was about was the fact that the American middle class was a house built in the 50s that burned in the 60s with its inhabitants still trying to live in it as if nothing had happened in the 70s. The rotting particle board started showing through the formica.

    I think the reason this show remains a "cult classic" and gets so little recycling on cable is that it said something about the way we are as a people that we still don't want to know. this was brilliant TV and it is really incredible that it got aired at all. Musta been the coke that everyone in industry was snorting at the time.

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    1. Excellent Review And Opinion Of Mary Hartman Mary Hartman. Right On Spot. I Couldnt Agree More. Never Missed An Episode. Every Friday Night At 11:30PM My Best Friend And I Sat Glued To The TV Set For That One Show Where Shock & Awe Prevailed And A Twisted Satire Blended Perfectly With The Sublime In Middle Class American Suburbia.

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  23. In Philadelphia PA, channel 48 ran it at 11:30 pm (after their reruns of Dark Shadows). I was 10 years old when it ran. Like a lot of people of my generation, I watched A LOT of TV in my childhood and most of my favorite shows were Norman Lear products. Since a lot of the topics MHx2 dealt with were regular fare for Lear I sort of watched this show uncritically.

    Looking back on it now I see that the American Middle Class of the time was like a house built in the 50s that burned in the 60s with its inhabitants still trying to live in it in the 70s as though nothing had happened. That is what made this show so great, it showed the dark underbelly of American culture starting to bleed through the cracks. I think this is the reason it remains a "cult classic". It tells us things about ourselves that we are still not to comfortable with.

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  24. I couldn't agree with you more on your idea about the show Mary Hartman Mary Hartman.I was in high school at the time it aired originally in the mid seventies.My best friend and I never missed an episode and got together weekly to watch each next one after our first.we even got my mother to watch it and she enjoyed it for its satire.The episode I remember most was the one we got Mom to watch with us and it was the show where the coach had a very serious bad cold so Mary Hartman of course fixed him up with homemade chicken soup which when he passed out and plunged face first into his bowl instead of the benifitimg of the chicken soup and its healing power he promptly drowned and it killed him.Oh my I cant say to this day or them exactly why she began laughing hysterically and got me to laughing along with her both of bus to tear.We laughed and cried for two days afterwards.Epic! And your right this series was genius and bever has there been in my opinion such a piece of work as tv goes other than Mary Hartman Mary Hartman.

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  25. I too remember both the show , and Carol Burnette's spoofing of the series . The old man who played the flasher was horribly murdered later .

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