1970s Fun Flops: “The Tony Randall Show” (Part 2)

TonyRandall03

By Jaime Weinman

The Tony Randall Show
CBS, 1977-1978

Check out part 1 of Jaime’s look at The Tony Randall Show.

Once Grant Tinker talked CBS into picking up The Tony Randall Show for a second season, there were some snarky comments in the media that the network was now picking up Fred Silverman’s leftovers; they also picked up another ABC reject, Wonder Woman, at the same time. But MTM had always been at home on CBS, a network whose executives were acutely aware of what they saw as the network’s tradition of quality (Petticoat Junction notwithstanding) and were happy to leave Tinker alone as long as he delivered a good product.

The CBS executives’ only major demand at first was that MTM re-cast the part of the teenaged daughter with someone better looking than Devon Scott. They found Penny Peyser, a very cute and very talented actress who pleased the network and the producers. Everyone involved with the show seemed to feel that as an MTM production, it really belonged on CBS and would have a better chance there. At the 1977-8 upfronts, Tarses told a young Baltimore Sun TV critic named Bill Carter that he wanted to “take a CBS-type comedy to ABC,” but that “ABC was more interested in bionic things with robots.” He said that Silverman wanted “some sort of Fonzie on the Randall Show… the characters were sophisticated, and we didn’t want to make it schlocky. ABC is going for the numbers all the time, the ratings.” At home on CBS, Patchett and Tarses had Randall as well as a new show called We’ve Got Each Other, a vehicle for Oliver Clark from The Bob Newhart Show. Tarses was feeling good about the future of MTM comedy: “Our experience with CBS has been that they have allowed us to be creative and do the things we wanted.”

What Tarses may not have realized at first was that CBS was going through a transition of its own. Appalled that ABC had surpassed it as the #1 network, CBS founder William Paley was getting frustrated with the lack of jugular instinct among Silverman’s successors, their insular culture and stuffed-shirt refusal to do what it takes to get the viewers. According to TV Guide reporter Sally Bedell, Paley asked two of his executives what they thought of Charlie’s Angels. They said it was trashy and that they wouldn’t have something like that befouling the classy CBS. Paley replied that that was exactly the sort of show he wanted them to do: “We don’t have any pretty girls on this network!” he exclaimed.

The emphasis on classy, critic-friendly, good-role-model programming had helped CBS earlier in the decade; now it was holding them back, allowing ABC to walk off with the mass audience. Something like Patchett and Tarses’s We’ve Got Each Other, built around what Tarses himself described as “two plain, homely people,” was not going to succeed in this atmosphere, and it died after 13 episodes, with Tarses telling TV Guide that he wouldn’t have watched it if he’d been a viewer: “I have better things to do with my time.”

But the 1977-8 season was a tough one for MTM comedy overall, because Mary Tyler Moore had ended her show the previous year. Without her, it was like all the MTM dominoes fell: Bob Newhart went through one last, disappointing season; Rhoda and Phyllis both plunged in the ratings. The company’s big new comedy production for the season, The Betty White Show, was yanked by an impatient CBS after only 13 episodes. Tinker, convinced that there was no longer a place for his kind of high-class comedy, was already taking steps toward turning MTM into more of a drama company, launching the drama Lou Grant. So instead of going to MTM’s natural home at CBS, Tony Randall was coming into a network where classy, quiet comedy was under-performing, and where the head of the network wanted more aggressive, younger, sexier shows.

The CBS season of Tony Randall was better than the first in some ways, worse in others, and definitely less assured in tone. Patchett and Tarses were busy on their other show, and according to Gary David Goldberg, they weren’t getting along with Randall, who disliked their unwillingness to listen to his ideas. Hugh Wilson and Gary David Goldberg were jointly promoted to producers, which at that time really meant something close to what “showrunner” means today. Wilson and Goldberg were both preoccupied with generation-gap issues, and that was a way to try and attract more young people to the show, so there were a lot more episodes focusing on the teenaged daughter, who moved in with her boyfriend, broke up with him, protested her father’s decisions, and even dated a gangster played by a young Brian Dennehy. (Who, even when he was young, looked middle-aged.) And Zane Lasky’s wacky Mario Lanza got a bigger part in the show, becoming perhaps the most pathetic butt monkey in TV history.

Goldberg and Wilson also brought in a new character, Walter’s free-spirited elderly father (Hans Conried), who could insult his son freely in a way that the other characters couldn’t, and argue with him over how to raise the kids. As the season went on, the stories were bigger than in the first season and the humor was broader and more topical, and I think the show benefited from that, even though it led to some weak and un-MTM-like episodes (like a show about Walter inheriting an apparently haunted mountain cabin, which plays for all the world like a live-action Scooby-Doo episode). MTM, like Walter, really was a little stuffy and needed to let loose a little more.

On the other hand, Goldberg and Wilson’s inexperience seemed to show through in some of the plotting. There are at least two episodes that end with that most disliked of all sitcom moments: a completely unearned hug following a completely implausible revelation. (One episode ends like this: Randall and Conreid have been fighting for 23 minutes. Conreid makes a heartwarming confession that changes everything we’ve seen up to this point. Randall says “I wish I’d known this before,” and they hug. The entire reconciliation takes about 50 seconds, and you can practically hear Wilson and Goldberg staying up late at night trying to find an ending as fast as possible.) And with all the generation-gap humor and insults directed at his stuffiness, Randall began to slip back into his standard schtick, until he was really just Felix Unger as a judge. And not a very good judge at that, since the writers increasingly had him violate his duty as a judge for the sake of the plot. If the first season turned people off because he had no problems, the second season may have turned people off because he was becoming kind of a jerk.

Still, if the first season seemed like MTM resting on its laurels, the second season suggests the company’s writers reaching for new things to do and new approaches to try. You can see it in episodes like “The Taking of Reubner 1-2-3,” written and directed by Wilson, a comedy-thriller about a convict (Cleavon Little) holding Miss Reubner hostage; despite a maudlin ending and lots of jive-turkey dialogue, it’s a fine showcase for Allyn Ann McLerie and MTM favorite Michael Pataki as a trigger-happy cop. Another episode has a shamefully enjoyable climactic scene where Randall and Peyser go to confront an evil polluting corporate tycoon, who turns out to be a little person. It may be an occasion for cheap jokes (to the point that even the writers hang a lantern on it, having the character complain about all the easy short jokes) but a tiny, vicious man ranting about foreclosing on widows is more entertaining than it has any right to be.

Also, most of these clips of McLerie as Miss Reubner are from the second season, where her relationship with Randall inched closer to becoming the emotional core of the show; the producers even told TV Guide that they were considering trying to spin her off if CBS gave them another season, and all the producers subsequently used McLerie on other shows.

The show’s attempts to attract a younger audience and engage more with the new TV audience was too little too late, though. And it wasn’t helped by the time slot: all the producers felt strongly that they were being screwed by being placed after The Jeffersons. “I defy the network guys to show me the DNA of any individual who might want to sit down and watch both shows,” Goldberg wrote in his autobiography.

At the end of the season, with cancellation imminent, Patchett and Tarses wrote two episodes that essentially served as backdoor pilots for a proposed retool of the series. Now officially youth-obsessed, CBS was asking the creators to add what Tarses described as “a 10-year-old girl and a couple of sweathogs.” Trying to find a compromise that would bring more youth and diversity to the show, Patchett and Tarses had Randall teach at a terrible law school (nicknamed “Ed’s Law School”) where the students include a young stoner played by Michael Keaton, a short-skirted stewardess played by Melanie Chartoff, and—I still can’t believe they thought this would work—a pimp trying to pick up some legal tips on how to run his business. In these episodes, the home set didn’t appear, and the only person from Randall’s family life who appeared at all was the young and pretty Peyser, who got a hint of a possible romance with Keaton. In other words, the cry went up from these two episodes: Give us another year, we’ll give you so many young people you won’t believe it.

The episodes weren’t devoid of promise – they had some of Tarses’s trademark dark humor, and allowed Randall to tone down his performance a bit now that the characters around him were wackier. But they weren’t good enough to convince CBS not to cancel the show. Tarses, who was known as the less “commercial” of the two partners and the the one less comfortable with network sitcom conventions, was left feeling bitter that he’d sold out to network demands: “We shouldn’t have done it. We shouldn’t have compromised,” he told TV Guide. “You lose whatever integrity you have when you start doing that, and it didn’t help the show anyway.”

But awkward as these attempted retools were, they were probably necessary. Something had changed in TV comedy, and though Tinker’s increasingly bitter interviews seemed to imply otherwise, it wasn’t simply that viewers were rejecting quality in favor of crap. A rule of thumb in television is that the mass audience doesn’t always go for the best shows, but it rarely goes for the worst, either, and above all, people want something they’re not getting from every single show on the air. Even in quality television, people will only accept the same basic form for so many years until they start to tire of it, and that was really the problem this show could never shake: MTM had been doing this since 1970, and six years is an eternity in television. In 1984, just before Bill Cosby came along to rescue the dying sitcom form, critic Noel Holston wrote in the Orlando Sentinel that the first sign that sitcoms were in trouble was the failure of The Tony Randall Show: “The problem really,” he wrote, was not the show’s treatment by either ABC or CBS, but “that Randall’s show was so archetypically MTM that it didn’t even seem new.”

Tinker’s response, for the most part, was to build on MTM’s one new success, the drama Lou Grant, and turn MTM into more of a drama company: signing up talented young drama producers like Bruce Paltrow and Steven Bochco and encouraging them to take big risks on school, cop, and hospital shows. During the remainder of Tinker’s time at the company, MTM got two more comedies on the air, Wilson’s WKRP in Cincinnati and Goldberg’s The Last Resort (both aimed at a younger audience, and both taking place entirely in a work setting, abandoning the home/work formula), and Mary Tyler Moore made her ill-fated comeback to TV in a comedy-variety show. But for the most part, MTM elected to bring the Quality TV revolution to a different form, with equally impressive results.

4 Responses to “1970s Fun Flops: “The Tony Randall Show” (Part 2)”

  1. noho

    By 1978, many of the star writers/producers at MTM migrated to Paramount, where they launched Taxi. I don’t think Tarses, Patchett, or Goldberg were among them. I wonder if the company’s declining fortunes had anything to do with that.

    Reply
  2. V.E.G.

    Tony Randall is a Hebrew, and his ancestors came from either Lithuania, Russia, Poland, Belarus, Latvia, Ukraine, or Prussia.

    Reply

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