1970s Fun Flops: “The Associates”

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By Jaime Weinman

In our last exciting, breathless installment, we learned that Fred Silverman’s attempt to bring MTM over to ABC (with the first season of The Tony Randall Show) didn’t work out so well. But there was a backup plan: bring the key asset of MTM, its brilliant writer-producers, over to ABC’s main supplier of product. That was Paramount TV, the producer of Happy Days and its countless spinoffs, and in 1978, Paramount made a deal with several of MTM’s key people, including James L. Brooks, creator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and the team of Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels, who produced Mary and created Phyllis and The Betty White Show. Though the fin-syn rules prevented networks from owning their own shows, ABC and Paramount had a near-incestuous relationship: Paramount’s top executives, Michael Eisner and Barry Diller, were former ABC executives, and ABC pretty much seemed to have first crack at anything Paramount produced. Under the deal with the ex-MTM people, as described by David Shaw of TV Guide, ABC promised Brooks and his team that they could “create, write, and produce three specials and two series—without having to make a single pilot.”

In a way, this deal may have spelled the end for independent TV companies like MTM, even though independents would continue to have some success throughout the ’80s. Independents didn’t have movie studios or a lot of other multimedia operations attached, meaning that once a James L. Brooks had created a TV show for MTM, there was nothing else for him to do but create more TV shows. Paramount was able to offer Brooks the chance to write and produce feature films, and maybe eventually direct them, and he told Shaw that that was his main reason for signing with the studio. Most of Brooks’s associates had some ambition to get into features, not just because they were more prestigious and paid more, but because there’s only so many TV episodes you can write before you want to do something different.

But Brooks’s first order of business at his newly-formed Paramount company John Charles Walters productions (the famous logo of the grumpy man going home at night and being a complete ass to his secretary) was TV work, and after an undistinguished special—an all-black version of Cinderella starring Charlayne Woodard—they gave Paramount and ABC their first series, Taxi. You may have heard of that one. Winning the Emmy for outstanding comedy in its first year, Taxi proved that the MTM/CBS style could be transferred intact to a big studio and to ABC. It seemed to suggest that there could be a whole MTM-style oasis of sophisticated comedy at Paramount, traditionally the studio most associated with goofy family comedy.

So hopes were high for The Associates, John Charles Walters’s second show. This premiered on ABC in September 1979, a year after Taxi. It was based on a novel by the author of The Paper Chase, John Jay Osborn Jr., which was an unofficial sequel to that novel. Brooks, Weinberger, and Daniels dropped most of the source material except the basic premise of following a young man trying to keep his soul as a first-year associate at a big law firm, though they did nod to the original material by having Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman) appear in one episode. Charlie Hauck, a former staff writer for Norman Lear, was their co-creator on the project, but the work of developing it, writing the pilot, and running the series went to one of the team’s favorite writers, Michael Leeson, who had won a Humanitas prize for the “Angela” episode of Taxi, and who had a penchant for dark humor (he wrote a Phyllis episode about suicide, and later wrote The War of the Roses for Brooks). There were also a few young staff writers, but they didn’t get to write much, because seven of the 13 episodes were written by David Lloyd, the almost inhumanly prolific MTM writer who had finally been lured away to Paramount.

The Associates is easy to describe in a single sentence: it’s a white-collar Taxi. That’s what it looks like, that’s what it feels like, and that’s what it was probably conceived as. Taxi was the John Charles Walters team’s attempt to do a blue-collar show after years of doing white-collar shows (and also to do a male-dominated show after producing mostly vehicles for female stars). Now The Associates would go back to the white-collar world, but in a higher-stakes environment than the newsroom of Mary Tyler Moore or the photography studio of Phyllis. The theme song, written by Brooks’s friend and frequent colleague—but, strangely, not relative—Albert Brooks, sums up the premise of the show: it’s about young lawyers on Wall Street who are making good money, dress well, have bright futures, but just find that “something is not quite working” in their high-pressure jobs and screwed-up lives.

The lead character was Tucker, played by a young Martin Short—so young that he was still pronouncing “about” as “aboot,” proving all the Canadian stereotypes to be shamefully true. In the first episode, Tucker is drafted out of Harvard Law School to be an associate at a major law firm. On the first day, he meets the other new associates, the gorgeous blonde blueblood Sara (Shelley Smith) and Leslie (Alley Mills) a Hollywood homely working class woman with a ton of student loans to pay off. (This sets up a classic Betty and Veronica situation throughout the show: Short pursues the unattainable Sara while mostly ignoring Leslie’s crush on him.) And he meets Mr. Marshall (Wilfrid Hyde-Whyte), the elderly, dotty, rambling, but unexpectedly sharp senior partner, who is sort of like Latka and Reverend Jim combined and turned into an old British man—whenever a scene is slow, bring on Whyte to deliver a funny line or a rambling monologue. The role of Louie DePalma-esque creep is filled by the unctuous Elliot Streeter (Joe Regalbuto), who believes unconditionally in all the evil lawyer stuff that the other characters have moral qualms about. And as the token blue-collar guy, there’s Johnny Danko (Tim Thomerson), the disco-suited gofer and office stud.

The pilot also contains a surprise that’s a bit like a nonviolent predecessor of the Jesse character in the pilot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It sets up a character played by John Getz as the likely lead of the show, a wisecracking nice guy with an edge. Since Getz had starred in the short-lived series Rafferty and no one had ever heard of Martin Short, it should have been a big surprise to the studio audience that Getz leaves the firm in Act Two: Mr. Marshall chooses the unpleasant Elliot as the new partner instead. (As with Buffy, the effect is somewhat spoiled for the home viewer by the fact that Getz is not in the opening credits, so we know he’s not going to stick around.) It’s a moment that instantly distinguishes this not only from all the other workplace comedies, where no one ever loses their job unless it’s the finale, but from other lawyer shows, where the nice lawyers usually triumph over the evil ones. By promoting Elliot and firing the ethical, charming lawyer, The Associates tells us that that workplace life isn’t so simple, and at the end of the pilot, Mr. Marshall gets an opportunity to explain that the heroic guy isn’t always the best person for the job. That’s something you don’t usually hear in television, which specializes in moral absolutes.

Brooks later said something to the effect that the show was ahead of its time in portraying the “yuppie” phenomenon. They weren’t called yuppies in 1979, but that’s definitely what The Associates is about. If Taxi was about people trying to build the best lives they can around an unfulfilling job, then The Associates is about people whose lives are completely dominated by their work. Many of the episodes are about the effects of working such long hours that you never meet anyone outside the office, or the fact that your job sometimes forces you to make choices you don’t like personally. In the second episode produced, written by Earl Pomerantz (a specialist in second episodes, the ones that prove the concept can work beyond the pilot: he also wrote the second episodes of Taxi, Cheers, and The Cosby Show), Leslie has a new boyfriend, a left-wing activist, who breaks up with her because he can’t deal with the fact that she’s working for the bad guys. In another episode, Tucker is horrified when Mr. Marshall moves into his condominium complex, even though he likes the old guy, simply because he has so few hours away from the office that his downtime is so precious to him.

The show did not do well. And by that I mean it appears to have bombed. It lasted five episodes in fall 1979 before ABC pulled it. ABC brought it back in March 1980 in a new time slot, which seems to have been done mostly to pacify Brooks. (“ABC doesn’t necessarily think The Associates will do better,” the Boston Globe explained. “But the network wants to keep writer-producer Jim Brooks happy.”) It lasted four more episodes and then was once again pulled before sweeps. Four of the 13 episodes never aired on ABC. After that, Brooks didn’t do much television work for a few years, choosing to concentrate on developing movie projects; except for continued production on Taxi, this was the end of John Charles Walters productions, and the end of the Brooks-Weinberger-Daniels team.

The easiest explanation for the collapse of this show was that it aired during a generally disastrous season for ABC. Airing after Mork and Mindy, a huge hit the year before, was supposed to do for this show what the time slot after Three’s Company did for Taxi. Except that this was the year Mork was retooled to find a young, hip audience, and tanked in the ratings against a show it should easily have beaten (Archie Bunker’s Place). In 1978-9, there was a sense that networks and audiences wanted smart ensemble comedies; in 1979-80, comedy started an overall ratings slide that would make the early ’80s into an era when “the sitcom was dead.”

Of course, when a show fails, it’s also a reflection on the show. The Associates got excellent reviews—critics, who had been complaining about all the sex-crazed, trashy comedies on the air, were overjoyed to see a classy show—and a lot of its flaws would easily have been fixed if it had been able to do more than 13 episodes. (“Tucker’s Co-Op,” one of the last episodes produced, addresses one of these problems by letting us go to Tucker’s home, setting up the possibility that we might see the characters outside of the office more often.) But it’s hard to deny that the show’s premise is a little depressing. As the theme song says, these are people who are young, not unattractive, and have really good jobs with an opportunity for advancement. But they’re not happy. They don’t whine about their problems (yuppie self-pity would not be a major part of television for a few years yet), but there’s no sense that they’re enjoying their good fortune. In its own way, that’s much more depressing than Taxi. On that show, the characters always lose but make the best of what they’ve got, a classic comedy tradition going all the way back to Charlie Chaplin. On The Associates, the characters have achieved what most people only dream of, but they don’t have a lot of fun. That’s the sort of situation that makes for a cable series, like Mad Men or The Larry Sanders Show. But on a mass-market network comedy, we want to see people either enjoying their success or smiling through failure.

Lloyd’s episode “Is Romance Dead?” was chosen to air second, probably because it calls for Shelley Smith to undress and is therefore perfect for ABC’s famously hyped-up, sexed-up promo department. (You can just imagine Ernie Anderson’s voice saying: “And then onThe Associates, Sara bares her soul to Tucker!” or something like that.) It’s also a fairly good example of the strengths and weaknesses the first 13 episodes had on display. The biggest weakness, apart from the depressing atmosphere, is that the characters are mostly kind of mean: Tucker is mean to Leslie, Sara is mean to Tucker, Mr. Marshall is a crazy idiot with arbitrary power, and Elliot, who’s supposed to be the token evil guy, actually seems kind of reasonable.

On the other hand, the episode has a lot of good bits of typical David Lloyd comedy, like the scene where he subverts the sitcom convention that no one can hear people talking outside a closed door. Lloyd wrote some fine Taxi episodes, but I think he connected better with the world and characters of The Associates, and he was especially good at writing for Whyte, a notoriously difficult actor who would freely change the lines if he didn’t like them (and who, like Andy Kaufman, always sounded like he was making the lines up as he went along, even when he wasn’t).

And the big climactic comedy scene outside Sara’s window is a wonderful showcase for Short’s annoying charm and physical comedy skills, and is rewarded with many loud honking laughs from creator James L. Brooks. The scene also contains one of those moments, so typical of Brooks’s productions, where one unexpected line suddenly gives a sense of reality, or emotional resonance, to a comedy scene. By having Sara call Tucker out on his stalker-ish behaviour, and speak about her experience being harassed by boys “since I was in the eighth grade,” Lloyd and Brooks and the other writers turn the scene inside out, forcing us to look at a typical “harmless” comedy situation (the Nice Guy pursuing the unattainable woman) from the point of view of the woman, for whom it isn’t funny at all. It’s only a brief reversal of our expectations, and then the scene goes back to normal; that’s why it remains a comedy. But that ability to add little flashes of depth, hints of reality, to a comic scene is one of the things that makes a Brooks show stand out.

I feel pretty confident in saying that The Associates would have become a first-rate series if it had gone on. Mostly because I can’t be proved wrong. But the 13 episodes, which were rerun on a few cable channels in the ’80s (the copy above, slightly cut, are from the old, awesome version of USA Network), are worth tracking down as a cultural snapshot of what would eventually become the ’80s yuppie culture, and as a glimpse of what kind of shows the Taxi team might have made if they’d been more successful at Paramount. In the end, the task of carrying on the Taxi legacy—and the really big mainstream success that eluded that show—would fall to a little show called Cheers. Apparently, if we’re going to hang out with depressing people for 11 years, we’d rather they be barflies than lawyers.

Previously on 1970s Fun Flops: The Tony Randall Show Part 1 || Part 2

4 Responses to “1970s Fun Flops: “The Associates””

  1. Rob B

    Based on the second clip, not bad, but not really good either. Just has a real lack of memorable or funny characters. Martin Short really carries the whole thing. And it really doesn’t make sense why the blonde character takes her clothes off, except to get ratings. (I remember vaguely the promos for the show prominently featured a woman’s head getting caught in an elevator.)

    Reply
    • Jaime Weinman

      Oh, I would guess it was primarily to get ratings (kind of like Shelley Long in the ratings-chasing season 2 premiere of CHEERS). ABC at this time had, as I said, the most aggressive promo department in the business and producers knew they needed to put in slapstick and/or sex that could appear in the promos. I mean, there’s a certain justification given in the scene, in that it’s supposed to show how she considers Short “harmless” and that offends him, but that seems like an ex post facto justification.

      Reply
      • Rob B

        She also says in the last scene she was harassed by men her whole life. Making it less likely she would undress in front of one.

        Reply

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