“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”

February 9, 2009 at 11:19 am (Reviews & Articles)

This May 3, 2007 PopMatters review of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, the Norman Lear mid-70s late-night comedy/soap opera parody (before Soap went on the air), was written by Will Layman.
It was very controversial for its time. It was a show I had only ever heard of over the years, never having seen it until just the past couple of months. You definitely have to watch several episodes to get the dry, subtle, subversive humor of the show. Viewers at the time either loved this show or simply did not “get” it. Some fans of real daytime soap operas were outraged by this and clearly had no sense of humor, as they took anyone parodying their beloved soaps as absolute blasphemy.  
Former wife of Woody Allen, Louise Lasser, played the title roll, and in this article, she briefly talks about her marriage to Mr. Allen. 
So far, only the first 25 episodes have been released on DVD. But considering that the show was on 5 nights a week and ran for about a year, there are a couple of hundred episodes that still need to be released on DVD. Let’s hope they are, and soon…   

 

The recent spate of smarter, smarty-pantsier comedies—Scrubs, Arrested Development, and The Office among others—have made the crummy sitcom competition look silly.  You watch something inane like The War at Home and you think—who needs a laugh track when you can have, well . . . laughs?

But there was a time when TV comedies were even better, perhaps. And that time began in January of 1976, when Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman started to run every weeknight for almost two years. For some folks, this was a period of five-a-week bliss. And when the era ended, after 325 episodes of madly deadpan parody, it was hard to believe that the show had vanished into no-rerun, no-video-cassettes, no-DVD thin air.

Now, to no fanfare and limited acknowledgment, Mary Hartman is back. And it’s rather like watching your old man go in the backyard and throw a baseball again after all those years—and the guy can still pop it in the glove.

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman emerged from the producer Norman Lear, who was riding high on the critical and popular success of All in the Family, Sanford and Son and other shows—shows that used the sitcom form to push the limits of what TV could tackle.  Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, however, was less about controversial subject matter than it was about form. It was an unflinching parody of daytime soap operas, an absurd and bold exaggeration that managed to be finger-on-the-nose accurate, but equally funny utterly on its own.

 

Mary Hartman is a suburban housewife in Fernwood, Ohio. Her daughter is a depressed, kidnapped brat, her husband is an impotent simp, her sister is a tramp, her best friend is a would-be country superstar, her mother passive-aggressively talks to her plants, her grandfather is a flasher, and her neighbors—and their chickens and goats—were mass-murdered. And that merely summarizes the first few episodes. The show was frank enough about topics such as masturbation that it aired on local stations at 11pm in most markets, running against the local news as a strange, private pleasure for viewers. But the dirty bits were never the point. The show was about sending up a ridiculous style of entertainment and, miraculously, doing it perfectly while simultaneously being hilarious.

Watching the show again, 30 years later, it is actually funnier and better crafted than memory suggests.

As a soap parody, the show gets all the details right. The production values are purposely low—sets are used repeatedly and there are few extra actors. The camera moves in for frequent close-ups, and the actors stare across its gaze in rapt silence. The theme song drips with sentimental strings, and the music swells between scenes. The plot is both littered with strands and yet moves at a snail’s pace. And the story—one crisis after another—is somehow never the point. The point is Mary herself: a naïve and yearning mirror on which the show projects its view of the American culture.

 

Mary Hartman is played by Louise Lasser, the quirky comic talent from the great, early Woody Allen movies. On the one hand, Mary is a deluded consumer, obsessed with her kitchen floor’s famous “waxy yellow build-up” and the advice she gleans from Reader’s Digest. On the other hand, she is the only island of clarity in her family’s chaotic life. As the whole group grows more and more agitated while at the police station because of “The Fernwood Flasher,” Mary calms them by exclaiming, “Everything is all right! And afterward we’re going to go the House of Pancakes!”

Lasser commands the show with neurotic focus. In the scene in which she is interviewed by a reporter about the mass murders, Mary insists on telling the “hilarious’ story of the first time her husband Tom spoke to her,” except that the story is completely unremarkable. The laugh is in the story not being funny, and Lasser makes this kind of gag pay off several times in nearly every episode.

As the country singer, Loretta Haggers, the young Mary Kay Place, is central to the show’s complex self-consciousness. Loretta is mostly convinced that she is on her way to stardom in Nashville, though her best gig is singing at the Capri Lounge in the Fernwood Bowling Alley. Her performances—in the lounge but also simply in her living room wearing lingerie—are somehow simultaneously winning and pathetic. She is lovingly cheered on by her older husband, Charlie. She tells him, “Oh, baby boy, I love you more than a hundred million frozen Milky Ways”—a sentiment both absurdly funny and, well, sweet.

 

A crucial part of watching Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman in 2007 is realizing that it is both locked in its historical moment and self-mockingly above it. When Tom and Mary go to the Capri Lounge on a date, of course he wears a leisure suit. But it is plain that the show is aware that Tom looks ridiculous. The script makes knowing reference to non-cholesterol “egg substitute” and Mary offers her daughter breakfast this way: “Here, dear, have some cereal—it’s endorsed by Billie Jean King.” In short, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartmant was glibly wise about its own era long before its era passed. This cool distance would seem to be a product of the show’s impeccably smart writing—for which Ann Marcus, Jerry Adelman, and Daniel Gregory Browne won Emmys in 1976. As veteran soap writers with roots in TV’s earliest days, the writers seem always to know what they were making and understood that if it was to mock its time it had stand apart from it just enough. And the show does.

A major difference for many when watching Mary Hartman, Mary Hartmant on DVD will be color. For many of us, those 325 before-bed episodes were enjoyed on a questionable Zenith black-and-white. The show, of course, was filmed in a dense, saturated color. Mary and her mother’s hair is richly red. Mary’s signature gingham blouse and jumper are garishly blue. Tom’s boyish red-blue cap reminds us of Charlie Brown come to Technicolor life.

Volume One of the show on DVD contains the supremely confident and dry—and belly-laugh good—first 25 episodes on three discs. That’s 12-plus hours of media parody and cultural cleverness: a month of leisurely enjoyment or maybe a serious weekend Hartman Festival. For under $30, this has got to be the best value out there today,

But, then again, I would feel that way. Maybe I was always a little in love with Mary, wishing she’d get me a Schlitz out of her ‘70s fridge at the end of each day. In the world of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, the cleverness and irony is somehow dealt out with a good deal of affection. It’s well earned by one the best shows in TV history.

Will Layman
 

 

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Paul Westerberg – “49:00” (2008)

February 9, 2009 at 8:46 am (Paul Westerberg, Reviews & Articles)

Braden Towne’s amusing review of Paul’s ramshackle, homemade internet-only release of last year. Taken from Crawdaddy!, Aug. 6, 2008… 

 

Of all the various ways I could have experienced Paul Westerberg’s new album for the first time, headphones plugged into a PC didn’t even make the list. I stopped around #112: Hearing 49:00 muffled through my neighbor’s wall while trying to extract a rusty fish-hook from my finger. That would have been an experience. That would have been memorable. But for me, as I suspect it was for many others, the first time came pumped directly into my cochleae from the same box to which I am tethered day-in, day-out.

It should be pointed out to those that have been on holiday in Antarctica that the method of my initial exposure was not chosen by me; rather, it was chosen by Paul Westerberg. In an effort to side-step the usual label fiasco that surrounds all new releases, Westerberg has casually made 49:00 available exclusively by download. If it were anyone other than the guy that wrote “Sixteen Blue” and “Bastards of Young,” personally, I wouldn’t have bothered. But the thing that allows Westerberg a pass is the music, and once again Minnesota’s finest has delivered.

As we’ve come to expect, 49:00 is packed full of sweet hooks and thoughtfully simple lyricism shoved uncomfortably up against raunchy instrumental performances and haphazard arrangements. This is rock ‘n’ roll’s DNA, and Paul’s got a license to clone. Each song shuffles in the door just as the last is jumping out the window; a couple even get caught hiding under the bed while one or two others sneak up behind you before running back home to their master tapes. 

Yes, Westerberg took full advantage of the fact that no one was looking when he made this record. It’s easily his most diverse album in years, offering something for fans of every stage of his career, and offering all of it to all of them. The download comes with no separation between tracks so you’ll have to listen to the whole thing to figure out what’s what, a task made more challenging by the fact that some songs play during other songs (yes, it’s exactly how it sounds). There is, of course, the ambling country crooning and Stonesy middle-aged swagger that has marked his more recent output, but 49:00 also showcases the snotty punk edge of Westerberg that never really went away, but certainly sounds a lot more Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash than 14 Songs here. This begins around the 14:30 mark with a song most likely called “Devil Raised a Good Boy” (I don’t think there’s even an official track list), and carries on a little later with what is probably “Everyone’s Stupid.” Even included is a Westerberg’s-former-band-style mélange of cover songs around 40 minutes in, culminating with “I Think I Love You” by the Partridge Family. If that’s not punk, I don’t know what is, and neither do you.

For sure, I would have rather heard this album for the first time playing on a transistor radio while I fixed a flat on Route 20 in Iowa (#37) or on the jukebox of a bar at 3pm after I just got dumped (#1!!), but these days you gotta take what you can get, and we’re all lucky someone is still making rock ‘n’ roll records like this one. So my advice to you is to download this album, re-master it, press it to vinyl, then lose your virginity while listening to it. Damn it, it’s what the music deserves.

Braden Towne

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