1970s Fun Flops: “The Tony Randall Show” (Part 1)

By Jaime Weinman

The Tony Randall Show
ABC, 1976-1977

“As in all MTM entries, the show doesn’t go for gags. It sinks or swims on the interaction of its subsidiary characters. I think it sinks… This sitcom cries out for gags. Even a squirting flower or exploding cigar would help.” —David Handler, reviewing The Tony Randall Show for Newspaper Enterprise Association, March 14, 1978

MTM Enterprises used to be so synonymous with the concept of “Quality Television” that that’s the title of a not-very-good academic book on the company. From 1970, when Grant Tinker founded it, to 1985, when Tinker’s successors wrecked the company’s reputation by firing Steven Bochco, MTM stood for a certain ideal of what scripted television could be: tasteful, intelligent without being smart-ass, and providing characters who are good role models without being too idealized. In some ways it’s a different definition of quality than we see in TV today, because today’s standard-bearer of quality TV is HBO, which doesn’t worry so much about taste and manners. But the MTM ideal of quality still exists in the form of industry favorites like Modern Family and the collected works of Aaron Sorkin—shows that network executives can point to as counterweights to the tasteless comedies and sadistic dramas where they make most of their money. In 1976, when MTM was at its peak as a comedy factory, the company was defined in part by its refusal to do the things other TV companies did.

Tinker and Mary Tyler Moore came up with MTM Enterprises at just the right time and on just the right network. In 1970, audiences were getting tired of goofy, over-the-top, outlandishly-plotted single-camera sitcoms of the Screen Gems school, and a hot-shot young CBS executive, Fred Silverman, was looking to attract a young, affluent, urban audience. Under Silverman’s leadership, CBS took on MTM as one of its key clients, ordering two Mary Tyler Moore spin-offs, plus The Bob Newhart Show and the usual sprinkling of flops and unsold pilots. So it made sense that when Silverman left CBS to run ABC, he wanted to get some shows from Tinker’s already-legendary stable of writers. The perfect opportunity arose in 1976 when Silverman and his lieutenants—including a hot-shot young ABC executive named Michael Eisner—decided they wanted a star vehicle for Tony Randall, whose previous show, The Odd Couple, had become huge in syndication after being canceled by ABC two years earlier.

ABC wasn’t the natural home for Tinker’s type of mature television: as the network that was instrumental in convincing advertisers of the importance of the 18–49 demo, its shows went for the youngest audience of any of the three networks. Silverman understood that mature, issue-oriented CBS-type programming was not ABC’s brand, and he turned ABC into the #1 network with shows like Three’s Company and Charlie’s Angels: shows with titillation for the grown-ups and colourful situations for the kids. (In an interview with TV Guide, Tinker later dismissed shows like these as “witless” shows full of “short skirts and tight leotards.”) Still, quality programming wasn’t unknown at Silverman’s ABC, which came up with Roots and left producer Danny Arnold more or less alone to do the very mature, very low-key Barney Miller. A Tony Randall Show from MTM seemed like a natural fit after Barney, and MTM specialized in the kind of literate, classy comedy that Randall preferred.

Having chosen MTM to make the pilot, ABC mostly left the company alone to do it their way, something that Tinker always insisted on: one of the reasons he was worshipped by young writers—some of whom took pay cuts to work for MTM—was that he acted as a buffer between the writers and the networks, protecting his writers from network notes. To create The Tony Randall Show, Tinker chose two of his best hires: Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses, two former standup comics who had started on The Bob Newhart Show as staff writers, becoming the showrunners for the fourth and fifth seasons (probably the show’s best).

For the premise, Randall wanted to play someone as different from Felix Unger as possible: a football coach, he suggested, or a minister. Patchett and Tarses naturally wanted to write for Randall’s established persona, and pushed for him to be something suitably stuffy, like a lawyer. Tinker came up with the idea they finally used: Randall would play a judge. (“Randall was first worried that this would make him too passive,” the Los Angeles Times reported, “but finally was persuaded that there were all sorts of judges.”) The character they developed would be more authoritative and with-it than Felix, less stuffy and better able to snark at his friends and employees—a character not unlike Bob Newhart’s Dr. Bob Hartley, but with lines tailored for a star who spoke more floridly and theatrically than Newhart.

Part of the MTM formula, established with Mary Tyler Moore and followed through with every comedy they did for the next eight years, was that the protagonist had to have what Patchett and Tarses described as “two lives”: a home life and a work life, with two separate sets of characters for him or her to interact with in each setting. (This formula was established by The Dick Van Dyke Show, and is sort of a natural outgrowth of the limitations of the multi-camera sitcom format: for many years, it allowed only for two main sets, so the obvious choice is to have one set be a house and the other an office.) Another part of the formula was that every sitcom had to have its own distinct setting, even though MTM did studio-audience shows, where we never go outside to see the city except in the opening titles. For this show, they chose Philadelphia, and they were kind of lucky in the choice, because Rocky came out soon after this show premiered and suddenly made Philadelphia cool again.

Before the series began, Patchett and Tarses wrote a syndicated newspaper article about their approach to creating Walter’s two lives:

Since he was to be a widower we needed the strong influence of a woman in the home to take care of the judge and (“How about children?”) his son and daughter. How about the noted English actress, Rachel Roberts, as a slightly mod Welsh housekeeper, Devon Scott as a teenage daughter and Brad Savage as a worldy wise prepubescent son? Perfect!! Now what about the “office life?” A domineering legal secretary-cum-mother and a devoted court stenographer, with a memory longer than his belt, became Allyn Ann McLerie and Barney Martin, respectively. Hey, and why not make Judge Franklin a little eccentric—like the kind of person who would ride a bike to the courthouse? Why not—Randall can play it straight. And that’s style!

So there’s the solid MTM-style premise, which depends on gentle, relatable, and related problems that the protagonist deals with in his two lives. (In a technique that dramas would later make their own, the case Walter is dealing with in court is often thematically related to his personal problems at home.) At work, he’s dealing with a new job, trying to be a good judge even though he’s too eccentric and playful to fit the usual description of a judge. At home, two years after the death of his wife, he’s making a similar adjustment to an unfamiliar role, taking on the job of raising his kids on his own. In both lives, his little triumphs come when he learns how to be the best authority figure he can be. And in both lives, he’s dealing with a strong middle-aged woman who represents the two extremes he could (but doesn’t) go to. His housekeeper, Mrs. MacClellan (Roberts) is a wacky, flaky, free-spirited drunk who is sort of what he would be if he just let his eccentric side show all the time. And his legal secretary, the prim spinster Miss Reubner (McLerie) is fiercely by-the-book and stuffy, always pushing him to be less eccentric and on the receiving end of put-downs from Randall; the writers used her the way Frasier would later use Niles, to make the priggish, entitled Walter seem more down-to-earth by comparison.

It all comes together in the pilot episode, written by Patchett and Tarses and directed by MTM’s chief sitcom director, Jay Sandrich: the protagonist’s work and home lives come together when he meets a pretty woman during a court case, and decides to ask her out for his first date since his wife’s death. Simple, quiet, classy, very MTM—above all, nothing like the ABC hits MTM people despised.

As usual with MTM, the writing staff was like a who’s who of future sitcom showrunners. Patchett and Tarses staffed the show with Hugh Wilson, an Atlanta advertising man and old friend of theirs, Gary David Goldberg, an ex-hippie trying to make some money and still keep his integrity, and a young team of writers named Ken Levine and David Isaacs, who the following year would be hired away as the head writers of M*A*S*H. Each of these writers (along with MTM’s prolific freelancers, David Lloyd and Earl Pomerantz) contributed funny scripts.

Patchett and Tarses even managed to come up with a happy accident of casting, the kind of thing that turns your Fonzies and your Dean Peltons into more popular characters than anyone anticipated. In the second episode, a young off-Broadway actor named Zane Lasky turned up as an annoying guest character who had basically one joke: his name was “Mario Lanza,” and he wasn’t aware that there was a popular tenor with the same name. But Lasky’s eager, whiny idiocy made the studio audience laugh uproariously; the producers recognized that they had a good thing and brought him back several more times, eventually making him a regular. He even got his own catchphrase: every time he came into the scene, he would say “Judge Franklin? Mario Lanza!” (sort of like the ancestor of “Hi, I’m Larry, this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl,” but with just one guy and no annoying audience applause).

But though the show got good reviews and respectable ratings, it had two fundamental problems. One, which Tinker eventually copped to when speaking to TV Guide, was that the MTM “two lives” formula led to a show where one half was much stronger than the other. “We probably should have stayed in the courthouse more and not gone home with him so much,” Tinker admitted. “That deflated the show, slowed it down.” The standout stories usually focused on Walter Franklin’s life as a judge. That was where Miss Reubner was, and with McLerie’s mix of bite and vulnerability—younger and more attractive than the character Patchett and Tarses had in mind, she became that rare thing, a mean sitcom character with genuinely touching subtext—she gave one of the outstanding TV performances of the era. That was where Mario Lanza was; that was where the instantly lovable Barney Martin was, even though his character rarely had a lot to do (he mainly existed to provide exposition). That was where guest characters could walk in, à la Barney Miller, and steal the show: “The DeNecki Debacle” is a showcase for character actor Stephen Elliott as the ultimate obstructionist lawyer, and Gary David Goldberg wrote “Mario Strikes Again,” a showcase for all the ways Mario could get on Randall’s nerves in court.

Then Randall went home, and to what? To his nice, level-headed teenage daughter, played by George C. Scott’s not notably talented daughter Devon; to his nice, basically polite son; to Roberts’s wisecracking servant, an under-written character played by an actress who was too good for the material she was getting. Most workplace/home hybrid sitcoms do tend to be stronger at work; The Bob Newhart Show was, and Mary Tyler Moore was, and of course Barney Miller dumped the home stuff a few episodes into its first season. The Dick Van Dyke Show is one of the few shows that was equally at home in those two worlds. But on Tony Randall, the imbalance was so strong that it unbalanced the whole show—and probably made it less compatible with Barney Miller than it would have been as a pure courtroom comedy.

The other problem the show had, though, was symptomatic of the problems that were starting to erode MTM’s supremacy in comedy. That MTM classiness and taste was starting to work against it, creating a sense that—except for Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart—its shows weren’t quite as funny as they should have been. As an MTM production, The Tony Randall Show had little slapstick, few sexual jokes, few topical jokes, few cheap jokes. It didn’t recycle standard sitcom plots the way Garry Marshall did for Randall on The Odd Couple. And it wasn’t as funny as The Odd Couple, or for that matter Three’s Company or Happy Days or the ABC hits, because the plots were so low-key and simple that there simply wasn’t much hilarity to be gotten out of them. Walter proposes to his girlfriend and she says yes, but then she changes her mind; Walter’s kids rebel against his authority and stage a mock trial against his tyranny, where he solves everything by pointing out that he’s really a good father who has their best interest at heart; Walter gets an offer to go back into private practice, but after thinking it over, decides to remain a judge.

These are solid stories but they’re not very exciting. Barney Miller didn’t have many “hard” jokes either—fewer, since it didn’t have a studio audience to entertain—but the parade of eccentric guests and ripped-from-the-headlines stories gave it an excitement that Randall’s show didn’t have. As one anonymous insider put it to TV Guide, Randall “had a good job, money, nice kids—no real problems. What kind of TV show is that? Who cares about a guy like that?” Of course, eight years later, another network would take a show called The Cosby Show, about a rich man with nice kids and no real problems, and ride it to the top of the ratings. But these were the ’70s, and audiences gravitated to sitcom stories that might be serious, might be silly, but above all were big. MTM’s flagship show, Mary Tyler Moore, provided big stories: birth, death, divorce, impotence. In tough times, with a lot of comedy competition, it makes sense that audiences would rather watch Fonzie jump a shark than Tony Randall agonize over who to hire as his clerk.

With all that, Tony Randall didn’t do badly in the ratings. But ABC wasn’t completely happy with it, because what no one had really considered was that the show was almost set up to skew very old. The kids didn’t have much to do on the show (and Scott was actually written out by the end of the season) and everyone else was middle-aged. So the decent ratings probably didn’t look so decent when you factored in the advertiser-friendly demos, or whatever they were called then. Silverman offered a second season trial pickup for 13 episodes, but Tinker had other ideas: he convinced CBS to pick the show up for a full 22-episode season. CBS, the home of all MTM’s hit shows, the network that didn’t chase gimmicks and kids as hard as the other two networks. A perfect fit and a happy ending, right? Wrong. But that’s another network and another story.

Read the conclusion of the 2-part look at The Tony Randall Show and MTM Enterprises.

6 Responses to “1970s Fun Flops: “The Tony Randall Show” (Part 1)”

  1. Robert D Sullivan (@RobertDSullivan)

    Great post. This was one of my favorite shows as a kid. Seeing it again, it’s much more uneven than I remember, but the the scenes between Randall and McLerie are consistently great. Too bad the producers couldn’t have time-traveled to see some Frasier episodes. Besides sharing a love for theatrical language and snappy comebacks, Frasier and Walter are both paradoxical characters who are exasperated by the stupidity of the common man but still sincerely want to help people.

  2. Noho

    Yea, I remember loving this as a kid, but having run across a few episodes recently, wasn’t that impressed. You could argue that MTM was spreading themselves pretty thin at this point; how many good writers were there? I think having two middle aged women on the show who looked vaguely alike made it somewhat confusing. And there just wasn’t enough funny characters on it. Great theme music, though.

    • tobiagorrio

      I agree, though I think MTM was somewhat able to avoid the problems that we’d expect when producers spread themselves too thin. You’d think THE BOB NEWHART SHOW would suffer with Patchett and Tarses doing so many projects, but season 5 of BOB NEWHART was done simultaneously with this show and may be the best season (not on DVD, unfortunately).


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