By Jaime Weinman
The news that NBC had rejected the planned spinoff of The Office starring Rainn Wilson was another indication that the golden age of comedy spinoffs isn’t coming back. That golden age, of course, was the ’70s: television has never seen more sitcom spinoffs, and I doubt it ever will again. But with relatively few exceptions, these spinoffs tended to be of very minor characters, often ones who were just one-shot guests on the parent show (like Maude or Laverne and Shirley). Important characters didn’t usually get spinoffs unless, like Valerie Harper or Abe Vigoda, the actors were getting so many other offers that the producers had to choose between giving them a spinoff or losing them altogether.
And then there was Phyllis, a spinoff somewhere in between those two types. It’s now known as the most obscure answer to a trivia question about Mary Tyler Moore spinoffs, and for its campy theme song. But if TV shows were like baseball teams, it would also be known as the show with a curse on it.
The decision to spin Cloris Leachman’s Phyllis off into her own show was not exactly a high-minded artistic one. Leachman was never a regular on Mary Tyler Moore, and starting in the third season, after she won her Oscar for The Last Picture Show, she cut back her involvement in the show even farther, appearing in only three or four episodes per season. She was such a forceful performer, and her showcase episodes were often so memorable (most notably “The Lars Affair,” Mary‘s spectacular fourth-season premiere), that people thought she was on a lot more than she actually was. When the opportunity came to work with her full-time on a series, both MTM and CBS naturally wanted to be in business with this recent Oscar and Emmy winner, and they had a choice: spin off the character from Mary, or create a new show for her.
It seems, from what I’ve read, that there were very strong doubts about whether Phyllis was an appropriate lead character; she mostly existed to antagonize people, and how can you turn that kind of person into a lead? But that hadn’t been a problem for Maude or George Jefferson. And the lure of a spinoff—the instant brand recognition, the potential for crossovers—was just too great to resist. So Leachman’s show was called Phyllis, created by Mary showrunners Ed. Weinberger (no one knows why he added the period) and Stan Daniels.
The first problem with spinning off this character was that Phyllis had a husband. We never saw Lars—he was the inspiration for invisible spouses to come like Vera Peterson and Maris Crane—and he did cheat on her with Betty White’s Sue Ann Nivens, but she was still married, and you can’t build a show around a lead character with an invisible husband. So the pilot episode begins with Phyllis’s husband having suddenly dropped dead and left her penniless, with no insurance and no relatives of her own to turn to. (She had a brother in one episode of Mary, but forget him; he’s in Sitcom Heaven with Chuck Cunningham.) Her only option is to move to San Francisco to be with Lars’s mother, who has just gotten remarried to a wealthy judge.
This is a dark way to get into a show, and the opening of the pilot* helps explain why so many of us find the sitcoms of the ’70s to be a bit tougher and more daring than the sitcoms of other decades: instead of trying to laugh off this premise or write around it, Weinberger and Daniels hit it directly, and try to get comedy directly from being honest about how bad this is for their main character. The first scene ends with a favorite Stan Daniels device, having a long, dead-serious speech followed by a punchline (“Geez, you got me”) which breaks the tension but doesn’t actually make the speech any less depressing.
*The pilot is available on DailyMotion but can’t be embedded; Part 2 can be found here.
But apart from the downbeat premise, everyone was aware that they were in danger of either creating a totally unsympathetic lead or watering her down completely. Phyllis is a delusional woman who thinks she is great—a great woman, a great liberal, the kind of person everyone naturally envies—when she is nothing of the kind. (A brilliant line in the pilot sums up her character beautifully: “What a wonderful child you are, Bess. I must be a wonderful mother.”) This was funny when she was a supporting character, trying to flaunt her advantages over Mary and Rhoda (while secretly envying their freedom and opportunities). But how will it be funny when she’s the person you have to root for?
What the producers relied on to give structure and depth to the show was Barbara Colby, an actress Weinberger and Daniels had been very impressed by in the fifth season premiere of Mary Tyler Moore. Colby, a distinctively unconventional-looking actress with an amazing throaty voice, had played a hooker Mary befriends in jail; the producers liked her so much that they brought her back in another episode. For Phyllis, she played a key role, probably the key role in the conception of the series: Phyllis’s boss, the only person in the world who is willing to give a job to someone so massively unqualified, and—incidentally—the woman Lars originally wanted to marry. Every Mary Tyler Moore rip-off had given the heroine a crusty Lou Grant type of boss; with Colby’s Julie Erskine, Weinberger and Daniels hit on a new approach to the obligatory lovable-boss character. She would talk sense to Phyllis, she’d provide a down-to-earth perspective on things, and we would have to like Phyllis because such a likable person thought she was worth helping.
And then Barbara Colby was murdered.
The murder of Barbara Colby has never been solved, and it’s such a tragic and senseless story that it makes an article like this seem even more trivial than it already is. But briefly, she and another actor were shot in a parking lot by two men they had never met; the police pronounced it a drive-by shooting and never found the men who did it. Colby was only 36.
Colby had already shot two episodes and the pilot. Leachman and the writers, stunned and demoralized, conferred about how to handle the show after her death. They decided that the part would have to be re-cast. Leachman also recorded a special message explaining what had happened, but in the first of what would be several publicized conflicts between the show and CBS, the network refused to air the message, leaving the re-casting completely unaddressed in the show. Weinberger or somebody leaked the text of the message to TV Guide; it would have gone like this:
“As some of you may know, shortly after we filmed tonight’s episode last July, Barbara Colby, who has played the part of Julie, was tragically killed. She was a superb actress and one of the most joyful and giving people I have ever known. The loss of Barbara left those of us involved in the production of Phyllis a number of alternatives. We could have redone the episodes in which she appeared without her. But to those of us who knew and loved Barbara, this was unthinkable. We could have written out the character, but this would not have fooled you, and more important, it would not have fooled us. And so beginning next week, the part of Julie will be played by another actress. This will mean that some episodes will be shown out of their logical sequence, but we hope you will bear with us. It was not easy to replace Barbara Colby as an actress, and it is impossible to replace her as a person.”
CBS’s refusal to let the show remember Colby probably had the effect of souring their relations with the producers, though Weinberger chose his words carefully in telling TV Guide what he thought of the decision: “It’s a delicate, sensitive issue and the network does have its prerogative. We objected but we were all so disconsolate about Barbara that we had no stomach to fight for what we thought was just and proper.”
The replacement Julie was Liz Torres, a good actress but without the personality to match Leachman. The writers didn’t emphasize the character as much as they were probably intending, and their scenes together lacked the spark that Leachman and Colby displayed in the first three episodes. Now, even though the ratings were good (following the successful Rhoda) and the show was often very funny, there was a big hole in it: the cast was much weaker than it would have been had Colby lived. Henry Jones and Jane Rose as the eccentric old couple—both of whom, in different ways, treated Phyllis with contempt—were okay, nothing great. (Rose’s Audrey was a ditz character; so was Julie’s assistant played by Richard Schaal, and two ditzes is probably too many for one show.) Lisa Gerritsen was, as usual, very charming and real, but it wasn’t enough.
Earl Pomerantz, a new writer for MTM who freelanced many scripts for this show, says that Phyllis as it developed was “not structurally sound and always needed serious pumping up. Normally, as with an episode where Phyllis forces herself to perform at a piano recital to atone for an childhood recital trauma, there was invariably a very funny, “block comedy” scene at the end, but the other five scenes building up to it felt like gauze-thin filler.” That’s partly a result of the way these ’70s multi-camera shows are written—always building towards the big block comedy scene, audiences can get impatient even in the good episodes as the stories plod along to the six big minutes. (Shows do sometimes need to pump up the first part of the show with subplots and extra jokes, just to keep us from getting bored.) But it’s also a result of having the producers’ plan for the show blown apart. Who can Phyllis turn to for guidance in navigating the world on her own as a working woman and a mother? Nobody really. Most of the characters, with the exception of Bess, are now people who don’t care or aren’t smart enough to help.
The next part of the Phyllis curse was that it premiered just as full-fledged panic about broadcast standards was breaking out all over America. This was the “Family Hour” freakout, where the FCC designated the 8 p.m. hour as a place where families should be able to watch together, free from sex and violence. Apart from wrecking the CBS Saturday night lineup by forcing All in the Family to be moved from its traditional spot at 8 o’clock, the new FCC rules—which would eventually be overturned in court as unconstitutional—caused almost every 8 p.m. show to be scrutinized by networks’ Standards and Practices, fearful both of the FCC and of pressure-group boycotts. Phyllis aired at 8:30, and the Family Hour severely restricted the type of material the writers could deal with. The battles with the network went public when CBS first refused to air, then censored, the second episode, “Bess, Is You a Woman Now?” Phyllis thinks her daughter Bess has finally “become a woman,” but having been brought up in an era when women weren’t supposed to talk about such things (“We thought they were wrong,” Colby’s character remarks, “We did them, but we thought they were wrong”), she can’t ask her daughter what happened, and the climax of the episode comes when they finally sit down to talk about it.
In the tag, Phyllis was supposed to happily reveal that Bess told her nothing happened on that skiing trip… and then her mood would darken as it occurred to her that Bess might have been lying. According to TV Guide—which, in case I’m not making this clear, was a fantastic resource for TV industry reporting in the ’70s—Weinberger flew to New York to discuss the episode with CBS executives, one of whom referred to it as the “Bess gets laid” episode. Finally a compromise was reached that watered down the whole episode: as aired, it ends with Phyllis saying “nothing happened!” and happily jumping in the air. Freeze frame, the end; virtue triumphs. The tussle over this episode may help explain why subsequent episodes of Phyllis mostly didn’t try as hard to deal with contemporary issues of import, and instead went for wackier ideas: Phyllis holds a séance, Phyllis meets the parents of her daughter’s fiancé and discovers they’re midgets, and the like. A lot of these episodes were funny; in fact, I think Phyllis was a more consistently funny show than the more popular Rhoda, thanks to Weinberger and Daniels and a lot of the young writers they had on staff (including two new hires named Glen Charles and Les Charles, who became the most prolific scriptwriters for the show). But it wasn’t exactly about anything.
But wait! A savior arrived. An old, angry savior. In episode four, the first without Colby, writer Earl Pomerantz introduced the character of Mother Dexter, the octogenarian mother of the Henry Jones character. Judith Lowry, the actress who played her, had spent a lot of time playing wacky grandma characters in commercials and the like—old ladies who rode motorcycles or said hilariously “hip” things. Mother Dexter was different. She was a realistic mean old woman: physically realistic (because she was as old as the character she was playing), forgetful, cranky, and the embodiment of a person who is too old and tired to care about being polite. The character was an instant hit. Unlike the other characters, when she treated Phyllis badly, it was funny—maybe because she didn’t have power over Phyllis, the way Audrey and Jonathan did. Anyway, she was an instant hit.
When the show returned for a second season, in a tougher time slot, the workplace half of the show was completely retooled: Phyllis went to work in a politician’s office, and the work material moved closer to Mary Tyler Moore. This part of the show never really worked, but the producers were hopeful that Mother Dexter’s popularity would keep the home stories solid. Ed. Weinberger told an interviewer during the second season that the show was openly building itself around Mother Dexter as the key supporting character: “If things keep up, she could well do for our program what the Fonz character has done for Happy Days,” he said, adding that they had originally signed her for only half the episodes but were using her almost every week, and hyping an upcoming two-part show where she gets married to an even older man. Lowry herself said that the producers “have great faith in my longevity.”
The article ends with an editor’s note that Judith Lowry died after the piece went to press. And if you’re wondering why The Golden Girls cast a similar character with a woman much younger than the character, well, that explains it. It’s dangerous to build your show around someone in her eighties.
Without its breakout supporting character, Phyllis sputtered to the end of its second season and then got canceled. At the end of the second season, some new writers arrived and there was a suggestion that they might be trying to rebuild the show more around Bess, since CBS wanted more young viewers (they were concerned that most of their shows couldn’t compete with ABC’s youth appeal) and Bess was the only young person around. But that probably wouldn’t have worked; Lisa Gerritsen was delightful because she was such a real person who didn’t seem like an actress—in fact, after Phyllis was canceled, she just got out of show business altogether.
Despite its history, Phyllis is a show that would be worth checking out if it ever was made available. (Which, given Fox’s horrendous treatment of the MTM library, seems unlikely.) Any individual episode is likely to have funny moments, because Weinberger and Daniels and their team were at the top of their form as comedy writers. And some episodes have quite striking or even daring ideas: “Leo’s Suicide” is about a character actually trying to kill himself (the pills he takes are placebos, of course, but he doesn’t know that), played for comedy rather than Very Special drama. But the show probably never could have worked, and every time it came close to working, it hit another bad break. A show can be funny and still not really work if the audience doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be about.
Finally, you can’t talk about Phyllis without talking about the theme song. Daniels was, in addition to being a comedy writer, a professional composer-lyricist who took some time off from TV in 1974 to write a flop Broadway musical, So Long 127th Street. Daniels wrote the theme for Phyllis, a parody of the “Big Lady” theme songs from shows like Hello, Dolly! and Mame, the old-school Broadway songs where chorus boys told us how great the star was for five minutes. The twist here is that the person they’re singing about is not Phyllis, though she naturally assumes it is. It’s a nice twist both on Broadway show tunes and the Mary Tyler Moore theme song, which spent a minute telling us how awesome and beloved Mary was. That’s not Phyllis; she’s the person who thinks she’s great and is surprised that she’s not. Which is why she only lasted two seasons and Mary lasted seven. It’s better to build a show around someone awesome.
Previously on 1970s Fun Flops: Bridget Loves Bernie