The Tony Randall Show
After Grant Tinker successfully convinced CBS to renew The Tony Randall Show for a second season, some media outlets made snide remarks, insinuating that the network was essentially taking Fred Silverman’s cast-offs.
In addition to The Tony Randall Show, CBS also took on another show that had been rejected by ABC: Wonder Woman. However, it’s noteworthy that MTM Productions has always found a comfortable home at CBS.
The network’s executives were acutely aware of their reputation for upholding a tradition of quality programming despite occasional missteps like Petticoat Junction.
Consequently, they were more than content to allow Tinker the creative freedom he needed as long as he delivered a high-quality product.
Initially, the CBS executives had one significant request – they wanted MTM to replace Devon Scott, the actress playing the teenage daughter, with someone they considered more attractive.
They eventually selected Penny Peyser, a highly talented and charming actress who earned the approval of both the network and the show’s producers.
It was a consensus among everyone involved in the production that, being an MTM creation, the series truly belonged on CBS and had a more promising future there.
During the 1977-78 upfronts, Tarses shared his desire with Bill Carter, a young TV critic from the Baltimore Sun, to bring a CBS-style comedy to ABC.
However, he expressed frustration with ABC’s penchant for futuristic, technology-focused shows with robots, contrasting it with Silverman’s vision of incorporating a Fonzie-type character into The Tony Randall Show.
The characters on the show were meant to maintain their sophistication, avoiding any descent into cheap or sensational content.
Tarses highlighted the difference in approach, with ABC primarily focusing on chasing high ratings while CBS allowed them creative freedom.
Staying on CBS, Patchett and Tarses had not only The Tony Randall Show but also a new production called We’ve Got Each Other, featuring Oliver Clark from The Bob Newhart Show.
Tarses held an optimistic outlook for the future of MTM comedy, expressing satisfaction with their experience at CBS, where they were permitted to pursue their creative vision without interference.
Tarses may not have initially realized that CBS was undergoing a significant transformation of its own. William Paley, the founder of CBS, was becoming increasingly frustrated by the fact that ABC had overtaken CBS as the number-one network.
He was dismayed by what he perceived as a lack of aggressive competitiveness among the executives succeeding Fred Silverman.
He found their insular corporate culture and their reluctance to take bold measures to attract viewers exasperating.
According to TV Guide reporter Sally Bedell, Paley once sought the opinions of two of his executives regarding the show Charlie’s Angels.
They dismissed it as trashy and were adamant about not allowing such a program to tarnish CBS’s sophisticated image.
In response, Paley expressed his desire for CBS to produce precisely that kind of show, declaring, “We don’t have any attractive women on this network!” His statement reflected his determination to shake things up and regain the network’s competitive edge.
The focus on producing sophisticated, critically acclaimed, and morally upright content had been advantageous for CBS in the earlier part of the decade. However, by the time the 1970s progressed, this approach had become a hindrance.
It allowed ABC to capture the broad mass audience while CBS remained rooted in its commitment to highbrow programming.
A series like Patchett and Tarses’s We’ve Got Each Other, centered around what Tarses himself characterized as “two unassuming, ordinary individuals,” was ill-suited to thrive in this changing television landscape.
Regrettably, the show was canceled after just 13 episodes. Tarses candidly admitted to TV Guide that he wouldn’t have been inclined to watch it either if he were a viewer, stating, “I have more worthwhile ways to spend my time.”
The 1977-78 season proved to be a challenging one for MTM comedy as a whole, primarily because Mary Tyler Moore had concluded her iconic show the preceding year.
Her absence triggered a domino effect within MTM Productions: Bob Newhart experienced a final season that disappointed fans, and both Rhoda and Phyllis saw significant declines in their viewership.
To compound matters, the company’s major comedy endeavor for the season, The Betty White Show, was abruptly pulled from the airwaves by CBS after just 13 episodes, reflecting the network’s impatience.
Recognizing the shifting landscape, Grant Tinker began to steer MTM Productions more toward drama, culminating in the launch of Lou Grant.
Consequently, when The Tony Randall Show made its way to CBS, it entered a network where refined, understated comedy was struggling, and the network’s leadership was keen on pursuing more assertive, youthful, and alluring programming.
The second season of “The Tony Randall Show” on CBS exhibited improvements in certain aspects while displaying weaknesses in others, leading to a less consistent tone. During this period, Patchett and Tarses were heavily occupied with their other project.
According to Gary David Goldberg, they faced challenges in their working relationship with Tony Randall, who was frustrated by their reluctance to consider his ideas.
In response to the need for change, Hugh Wilson and Gary David Goldberg were jointly elevated to the role of producers, a designation that in those days closely resembled what we now call “showrunners.”
Both Wilson and Goldberg were keen on addressing generational conflicts, aiming to appeal to a younger demographic. As a result, the show featured a more prominent focus on the teenage daughter character.
She moved in with her boyfriend, experienced a breakup, protested against her father’s decisions, and even became involved with a gangster portrayed by a young Brian Dennehy, who, despite his youth, had a somewhat middle-aged appearance.
Furthermore, Zane Lasky’s eccentric Mario Lanza character took on a more substantial role within the series, becoming one of the most pitiable and comically unfortunate characters in the history of television.
Goldberg and Wilson also introduced a fresh character into the mix, Walter’s carefree elderly father, portrayed by Hans Conried.
This character had the liberty to openly mock his son in a manner that the other characters could not, engaging in spirited disagreements with Walter regarding child-rearing. As the season progressed, the episodes featured more expansive storylines compared to the first season.
The humor took on a broader and more timely tone, which, I believe, benefited the show overall. However, this shift also gave rise to some episodes that were weaker and departed from the typical MTM style.
For instance, there was an episode where Walter unexpectedly inherited a supposedly haunted mountain cabin, a plotline that felt reminiscent of a live-action Scooby-Doo episode.
Although this departure from MTM’s usual style occurred, it was perhaps necessary for both MTM Productions and Walter’s character to break free from their somewhat conservative tendencies and embrace a more adventurous approach.
Conversely, it became evident that Goldberg and Wilson’s relative inexperience surfaced in certain aspects of the show’s plot development.
Also Read: 1970s Fun Flops: Blansky’s Beauties
In at least two episodes, they resorted to one of the most disliked clichés in sitcoms: a sudden, unearned hug that follows an entirely implausible revelation.
For instance, in one episode, after a 23-minute-long feud between Randall and Conreid, Conreid makes a heartwarming confession that completely alters the course of the storyline.
Randall responds with a hasty, “I wish I’d known this before,” and they hug abruptly. This reconciliation takes place in a matter of about 50 seconds, leaving the impression that Wilson and Goldberg were scrambling to find the quickest possible ending.
Despite the infusion of generation-gap humor and the barrage of insults directed at Walter’s stuffiness, Tony Randall gradually reverted to his familiar comedic persona, ultimately resembling Felix Unger as a judge.
Moreover, his competence as a judge began to diminish as the writers increasingly had him disregard his judicial duties for the sake of the plot.
If the first season failed to resonate with viewers because of his lack of problems, the second season risked alienating the audience as he transitioned into a somewhat unlikable character.
Nevertheless, while the first season may have appeared as MTM resting on its laurels, the second season reflected the company’s writers actively seeking new avenues and experimenting with different approaches.
This desire for innovation is evident in episodes like “The Taking of Reubner 1-2-3,” written and directed by Wilson. This particular episode takes on a comedic-thriller tone as it revolves around a convict, portrayed by Cleavon Little, who holds Miss Reubner hostage.
Despite its somewhat sentimental conclusion and the abundance of colorful, jive-turkey dialogue, the episode serves as an excellent platform for showcasing the talents of Allyn Ann McLerie and MTM fan-favorite Michael Pataki, who plays a trigger-happy cop.
In another memorable episode, there’s an unexpectedly enjoyable climax where Randall and Peyser confront an unscrupulous corporate tycoon who happens to be a little person.
While this premise could have devolved into a string of cheap jokes (to the point where even the writers acknowledge it by having the character complain about the easy short jokes), the result is surprisingly entertaining.
A pint-sized yet fiercely vindictive man ranting about foreclosing on widows turns out to be more engrossing than one might anticipate.
Additionally, most clips featuring McLerie in her role as Miss Reubner are from the second season. During this season, her connection with Randall gradually evolved, almost becoming the emotional centerpiece of the show.
In fact, the producers openly discussed the possibility of spinning her character off into a separate series if CBS granted them another season. Subsequently, many of the show’s producers engaged McLerie in various capacities on other television projects.
However, the show’s efforts to draw in a younger audience and connect more effectively with the evolving TV viewership arrived too late in the game. Unfortunately, these attempts were further hampered by the choice of time slot.
All of the producers held a strong conviction that they were at a disadvantage by being scheduled immediately after The Jeffersons.
Gary David Goldberg, in his autobiography, boldly challenged the network executives, stating, “I challenge the network guys to provide any evidence of an individual who would genuinely want to tune in and watch both shows back-to-back.”
As the season drew to a close, with the looming threat of cancellation, Patchett and Tarses took an unconventional approach by crafting two episodes that essentially served as backdoor pilots for a proposed revamp of the series.
With CBS now fervently fixated on attracting a youthful audience, the creators were asked to incorporate what Tarses referred to as “a 10-year-old girl and a couple of sweathogs” into the show’s dynamics.
In an attempt to strike a balance that would inject more youth and diversity into the series, Patchett and Tarses devised a storyline in which Randall’s character would teach at a notoriously subpar law school humorously dubbed “Ed’s Law School.”
This institution boasted a motley crew of students, including a young stoner portrayed by Michael Keaton, a short-skirted stewardess played by Melanie Chartoff, and, incredibly, a pimp seeking legal insights to enhance his business operations.
During these episodes, the familiar home setting is conspicuously absent, and the sole representative from Randall’s family life is the young and attractive Peyser, who hints at a potential romantic connection with Keaton’s character.
In essence, the message conveyed by these two episodes was clear: Grant us another season, and we’ll deliver an influx of young characters that will defy expectations.
While these episodes showed promise, featuring some of Tarses’s signature dark humor and allowing Randall to dial down his performance a notch as the characters around him took on quirkier roles, they ultimately failed to persuade CBS to spare the show from cancellation.
Tarses, often regarded as the less “commercial” of the two partners and less at ease with the conventions of network sitcoms, couldn’t help but harbor bitterness over what he saw as a compromise to meet network demands.
“We shouldn’t have gone down that path. We shouldn’t have compromised,” Tarses lamented in an interview with TV Guide.
He expressed regret, believing that they had sacrificed a degree of their artistic integrity by acquiescing to network requests, and, to make matters worse, it hadn’t proven beneficial for the show in the end.
As awkward as these attempted retooling efforts may have been, they were likely a necessary response to a changing landscape in TV comedy.
Although Grant Tinker’s increasingly acrimonious interviews might suggest otherwise, the shift wasn’t merely a matter of viewers forsaking quality for mediocrity.
A guiding principle in television is that the mass audience doesn’t consistently gravitate toward the best shows, but it seldom embraces the absolute worst, either.
Above all, people desire something unique that they can’t find in every show on the airwaves.
Even within the realm of high-quality television, audiences have a limited tolerance for the same basic formula over several years before they begin to grow weary of it.
This was the underlying challenge that “The Tony Randall Show” struggled to overcome: MTM Productions had been following a similar formula since 1970, and in the television industry, six years is an exceptionally lengthy period.
In 1984, just before Bill Cosby emerged to reinvigorate the sitcom genre, critic Noel Holston remarked in the Orlando Sentinel that the initial sign of sitcoms facing trouble was the demise of “The Tony Randall Show.”
Holston’s assertion was that the problem didn’t solely lie in how ABC or CBS treated the show; instead, it was rooted in the fact that Randall’s show epitomized the quintessential MTM style to such an extent that it no longer felt fresh or innovative.
In response, Grant Tinker’s strategy largely revolved around capitalizing on MTM’s sole new success, the drama Lou Grant, and steering the company towards a greater focus on drama productions.
He initiated a shift by enlisting promising young drama producers like Bruce Paltrow and Steven Bochco, encouraging them to embark on ambitious ventures in genres like school dramas, police procedurals, and medical shows.
Throughout the remainder of Tinker’s tenure at the company, MTM did manage to launch two more comedies: Hugh Wilson’s WKRP in Cincinnati and Gary David Goldberg’s The Last Resort.
These shows targeted a younger demographic and notably abandoned the traditional home-versus-work setting formula, opting for workplace-centric narratives.
In addition, Mary Tyler Moore attempted a comeback with a comedy-variety show, although it was met with limited success.
However, the overarching strategy at MTM was to channel the spirit of the Quality TV revolution into different forms, primarily within the realm of drama, which yielded impressive results.