The Most Audacious Soap Opera in History

Mary Hartman was mopping her kitchen floor, staring intently at the TV, when outside, sirens began to wail. Her neighbor Loretta barged through the door with terrible news: The family around the corner—along with their two pet goats and eight chickens—had been murdered. And that’s just the beginning of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, one of the most inventive and funny—yes, funny—television programs to grace the small screen.

The short-lived ’70s sitcom is remembered as a soap opera parody. But it was more than that: It was a sardonic take on modern life. The titular character, a sexually unfulfilled blue-collar suburban housewife from Fernwood, Ohio, played by Louise Lasser, is consumed by television, to the point of being numb to the world. She swallows advertising as wholesale truth, firmly believing TV commercials are there to improve her life. She’s so focused on finding the right homemaking products that when her neighbors are shot and killed, Mary is preoccupied instead with the “waxy yellow buildup” on her kitchen floor.

The show is populated with equally peculiar characters—Mary’s mother talks to plants, while her grandfather is a serial flasher. Her neighbor Loretta is a God-obsessed country-western singer. And the storylines are typical soap opera tropes—adultery, murder, intrigue—dressed in oddball black humor: At one point, a high school basketball coach drowns in a bowl of chicken soup; an 8-year-old evangelist is electrocuted when a television wire falls into the bathtub. The line between funny and dark is cheerfully blurry.

And at a time when television was in practically every home, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was doing something revolutionary: It was using television to criticize the medium itself.

It had been decades since June Cleaver entrenched herself as the archetypal TV homemaker. But by Mary Hartman’s time, things were different from the black-and-white 1950s. The mid-’70s overlapped with feminism’s second wave. A decade earlier, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique had spoken to just how unfulfilled many housewives were. Since then, the women’s rights movement had made topics like reproductive rights, violence against women, and workplace inequalities part of everyday conversation. By 1975, TIME would name “American Women” its People of the Year.

In Hollywood, women were slowly getting more screen time and more diverse. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, about an unmarried career woman, was groundbreaking. But the state of affairs behind the camera was less progressive; female directors and writers were just north of a novelty.

At the time, producer Norman Lear was enjoying a blessed decade, creating All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, and Sanford and Son, all of which scorched a path up the Nielsen ratings. Unlike the squeaky-clean sitcoms of the ’50s and ’60s, these new comedies didn’t shy away from addressing social issues like race and class inequality.

Now Lear was percolating on a project that would acknowledge women’s changing place in society. He’d been stewing for years on an idea for a late-night Monday-through-Friday soap opera. “I wanted to do a show about a woman who had been affected by the media, whose mind was shattered by television, magazines, radio—especially television,” he told the Archive of American Television in a video interview. “And I wanted it to be wild.” He wrote down a few ideas, including kicking off the series with a mass murder.

Oh, and he wanted it to be a comedy.

Lear approached a dozen writers, men and women alike, including the masterminds behind I Love Lucy. Most were appalled by the premise. “How are you going to get laughs from the slaughter of a family?” they asked. Finally, one of them understood the dark humor. Ann Marcus, who had credits with Dennis the Menace and Lassie, would become the show’s lead writer, helping to pen the first two pilots.

For the director, Lear tapped Joan Darling, a writer who’d been pitching a biopic about Israel’s first female prime minister. Darling was surprised to be asked. She had never directed before. But Lear handed her the two pilot scripts and told her to think about it. The writing was unlike anything Darling had ever read. “I don’t know what this is,” she recalled thinking in a recent interview with John D’Amico. “This is neither fish nor fowl.” Still, she took the job.

Darling spent the next eight weeks assembling a cast. At the center of it was 36-year-old Louise Lasser. The product of an upper-middle-class household in New York City, Lasser had racked up appearances on Mary Tyler Moore and The Bob Newhart Show and in Woody Allen’s Bananas. When she read for the part, Lear was elated. “I supplied the character,” Lear wrote in his autobiography, Even This I Get to Experience, “but Louise brought with her the persona that fit Mary Hartman like a corset.”

The finished pilot was utterly fresh. The show had all the hallmarks of a soap opera—cheesy organ music, extreme close-ups—but the tone was distinct. There was no laugh track. And it wasn’t melodramatic either. The humor was bone dry. When Mary learns about the murder down the street, she asks, “What kind of a madman would shoot two goats and eight chickens?” She pauses, looking away blankly. “And the people. The people, of course.”

When the networks saw it, they immediately turned it down.

This kick in the teeth made headlines. Lear was a regular Emmy winner. If anyone could get away with something edgy, it would be him. But the Big Three— ABC, CBS, and NBC—wanted nothing to do with Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. CBS, the very network that had fronted Lear $100,000 to make the pilots, thought the five-day-a-week format was a bad idea: “It’s tough enough to come up with 20 [episodes] a year for a prime-time series,” head of daytime programming Bud Grant told the Associated Press. “To come up with 260 is almost an impossible task.”

Today, Lear still doesn’t buy that excuse. “They were all doing well with the Jack Paars and the Johnny Carsons and so forth,” he says. “They didn’t get it. Or they didn’t think the American public would get it.”

Lear and Al Burton, who helped develop the show, believed that network executives were afraid of the program’s subversive tone and topics. After getting rebuked by the big guys, they hatched a plan to sneak it onto the air: They would take Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman to the little guys.

Lear hit the road, traveling city by city to visit individual TV stations. Syndication had been around for years, but for someone of Lear’s stature to employ this tactic was unusual. Lear also flew people from 23 independent TV stations to his home in Brentwood in an effort to convince them to broadcast the show. The executives— attracted, perhaps, by the show’s inexpensive price tag combined with Lear’s clout—ate it up.

The unorthodox moves paid off. When it premiered in January 1976, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was on more than 50 stations. By season’s end, that number had ballooned to 100. In its first six months, the show was on the covers of Newsweek, Rolling Stone, People, and The New York Times Magazine. The pilot earned Marcus and her cowriters an Emmy. Mary, the Times said, had become “the country’s most talked-about housewife,” and the viewers loved her.

In many ways, Mary Hartman was a caricature. Lasser’s homemade costume—a frumpy mini dress with puffy sleeves, topped with a wig of tightly braided pigtails—made her look like a life-size Raggedy Ann. But she also perfectly embodied a particular mid-’70s moment. As the old expectations for women started to fray, in their place was a vacuum, which Mary filled with TV. Mary has internalized commercials so fully that her emotions are muted. When she’s asked by police to communicate with the neighborhood murderer, she becomes obsessed with dissecting the flaws in the brand of walkie-talkie they hand her. The show, Lear says, was “mirroring the confused American housewife getting battered on all sides by the commerciality of our time. She was witness and subject to citizens becoming consumers.”

Underneath the psychodrama and dark humor, the show touched on a laundry list of taboo topics: exhibitionism, masturbation, menstruation, homosexuality, and anti-Semitism. But foremost it provided a withering commentary on the role TV had started to play in American lives. As Darling put it, Mary showed how “television would make us a nation of empty dead people.” And as Robert Craft wrote in the New York Review of Books, “No program has gone so far as this one in ridiculing the medium, as well as in warning of its power to reduce its habitués to followers of herd philosophies.”

The point was driven home when, at the end of the first season, Mary has a nervous breakdown and winds up in a psychiatric institution. There, as she and her fellow patients crowd around a television, Mary notices a small mechanism above the box: It’s the device used by Nielsen to measure television ratings. Even locked away, she can’t escape it.

As the show progressed, some of the networks’ concerns crystallized. To deliver five episodes a week, Mary Hartman was produced at a breakneck pace. The team shot a new episode nearly every day, and this quickly took its toll. There was so little free time that Lasser often couldn’t change out of her costume before her thrice-weekly psychiatrist visits. “So I have to walk down the street in Beverly Hills in my little Mary Hartman outfit, with the sleeves all puffed out and the gingham dress, and I think that everybody’s staring at me,” she told The New York Times.

As time wore on, Lasser found it more difficult to step away from her character. “I was gradually morphing into her,” she later said. The second season was brutal and dark, on and off screen. Mary spends two months in a psychiatric hospital, while Lasser, by her own admission, was also depressed and exhausted. So, after filming 325 episodes, she quit.

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman lasted only two seasons, but the effects of its boundary pushing— on screen and behind the camera—still resonate. Soap operas have a long history of addressing social concerns—an All My Children character was an antiwar protestor during Vietnam; in the 1990s, General Hospital had an AIDS storyline. But in its critique of the medium itself, Mary Hartman went even further, raising questions that wouldn’t enter the mainstream for years to come. What is television doing to our brains? And to our culture? “I think it’s still ahead of its time,” Lasser says. “If you look at people’s top 10 lists, we’re never mentioned. It never bothered me. I think of it as a badge of honor.”

That doesn’t mean it didn’t influence later shows. If you squint, you can see shades of Mary Hartman in the oddball soapiness of Twin Peaks; it’s in the uncomfortably funny DNA of Girls (on which Lasser has appeared three times). And you could argue that in a sense, its depiction of the blue-collar household paved the way for Roseanne.

It may have been both wholly of its time and somehow ahead of it, but Mary Hartman could not seem more relevant right now. The ubiquitous but quaintly stationary television has been eclipsed by a multiplying array of portable digital screens. Our dependence on technological distractions has surged accordingly. Mary Hartman asks us to take a pointedly critical—but at the same time not too serious—look at our relationship with media. There’s a lesson to be learned from a show that loved to hate television but created a cult of viewers who, night after night, couldn’t turn away.

15 Facts About Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure on Its 30th Anniversary

MGM
MGM

In 1989, a couple of slackers from San Dimas, California hopped inside a time-traveling phone booth and gathered a gaggle of key figures from the past so they wouldn’t fail their high school history class. In 1991, they were at it again. Now, 30 years after Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter first cemented their place in sci-fi history as the lovable duo, the long-awaited threequel—Bill & Ted Face the Music—has been officially confirmed. Here are 15 things you might not know about the most excellent original film.

1. Bill and Ted were born in an improv class.

The idea for the characters of Bill and Ted came about in 1983, when UCLA classmates Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson formed a student improv workshop with a few of their peers. “One day, we decided to do a couple of guys who knew nothing about history, talking about history,” Solomon recalled to Cinemafantastique in a 1991 interview. “The initial improv was them studying history, while Ted’s father kept coming up to ask them to turn their music down.” (Solomon played Ted, Matheson was Bill.)

2. Originally, it was Bill & Ted & Bob.

When the skit originated, there was a third character, Bob. But “Bob” wasn’t as into it as Solomon and Matheson, so the trio became a duo.

3. Bill wanted to be Ted and Ted wanted to be Bill.

It’s hard to imagine anyone but Keanu Reeves playing Ted Logan, or another actor besides Alex Winter in the role of Bill S. Preston, Esq., but each actor actually auditioned for the opposite role. But when Solomon and Matheson saw their audition tapes, they thought the opposite would work better. In an online chat with Moviefone, Reeves claimed that he didn’t even know their roles had been switched until after he had been cast. “I got a call saying that I got the part,” Reeves recalled. “So I went to the wardrobe fitting… assuming I was playing Bill, and I get there and Alex Winter, who eventually played Bill, went to the wardrobe fitting thinking he was playing Ted. Then we were informed that that wasn't the case.”

4. Pauly Shore also wanted to be Ted.


Getty Images

Pauly Shore was among the hundreds of actors who auditioned for the role of Ted. In 1991, Shore hosted an MTV special, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Premiere Party, in which Shore corners Reeves in a back room to talk about his failed audition. Lucky for America, Shore did go on to find fame apart from Bill & Ted, and bring the phrase, “Hey, Bu-ddy!” into the popular lexicon.

5. No, Bio-Dome is not Bill & Ted's threequel.

Speaking of Pauly Shore ... For years, rumors circulated that the script for 1996’s Bio-Dome—starring Shore and Stephen Baldwin—was actually written as the third film in the Bill & Ted franchise. In 2011, Winter laid this rumor to rest when he told /Film that the story is “total urban legend as far as I know. No one involved in that movie had anything to do with Bill & Ted. So unless they were just going to try and reboot the franchise with that concept and different actors, I can’t see a connection.”

6. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter weren't quite nerdy enough.

The casting of Reeves and Winter posed a problem for the script. “Bill and Ted were conceived in our minds as these 14-year-old skinny guys, with low-rider bellbottoms and heavy metal T-shirts,” Solomon told Cinefantastique. “We actually had a scene that was even shot, with Bill and Ted walking past a group of popular kids who hate them. But once you cast Alex and Keanu, who look like pretty cool guys, that was hard to believe.”

7. George Carlin was a happy accident.


Getty Images

In a 2013 Reddit AMA, Alex Winter called the casting of George Carlin (as Rufus, Bill and Ted’s mentor) “a very happy accident. They were going after serious people first. Like Sean Connery. And someone had the idea, way after we started shooting, of George. That whole movie was a happy accident. No one thought it would ever see the light of day.”

8. The time machine was originally a van.

In Solomon and Matheson’s original script, it was a 1969 Chevy van that served as Bill and Ted’s time machine. But in the course of rewriting the script for Warner Bros., who showed early interest in producing the project, there was concern that a motor vehicle as time machine would ring too closely as a rip-off of Back to the Future, which arrived in theaters in 1985. It was director Stephen Herek who suggested a phone booth, as he thought it could lend itself to something akin to a roller coaster in the visuals. (The phone booth’s similarity to Doctor Who’s TARDIS was apparently not a big concern to the studio.)

9. Some Nintendo lover has that phone booth.

As part of a promotion for 1991’s Bill & Ted's Excellent Video Game Adventure, Nintendo Power magazine gave away Bill & Ted’s phone booth as a contest prize. The lucky winner was one Kenneth Grayson, who Reddit tracked down for an AMA in 2011. Grayson spent much of the chat answering questions about whether or not any X-rated activities had ever taken place in the phone booth.

10. The script was written in four days. By hand.

In 1984, Solomon and Matheson wrote the script over the course of just four days. They wrote it by hand, on note paper, during a series of meetings at a couple of local coffee shops. The 2005 box set, Bill & Ted’s Most Excellent Collection, features some of their handwritten notes.

11. Sci-fi wasn't part of the plan.

Keanu Reeves, Dan Shor, and Alex Winter in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)
MGM

Though Matheson is the son of legendary sci-fi writer Richard Matheson, author of I Am Legend, he didn’t intend for Bill & Ted to be a science-fiction movie. “I try to consciously fight it, out of a desire to break away, but maybe I have a predilection toward that because of my dad,” Matheson told Starlog Magazine of the inevitable fantasy elements that emerged. “He’s a great writer and craftsman, and always has suggestions.” In fact, it was the elder Matheson’s idea that the time travel story be its own movie. “We were going to write a sketch film, with this as one of the skits, but my dad said, ‘That sounds like a whole movie,’” Matheson recalled, “And he was right!”

12. Bill and Ted almost traveled straight to television.

Shortly after principal photography on the film was completed in 1987, the film’s financiers, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, went bankrupt. A straight-to-cable release was the most likely path for the time-traveling comedy until Orion Pictures and Nelson Entertainment bought the rights in 1988 for a 1989 release. Because of the delay to theaters, references to the year—which had been filmed as “1987”—had to be dubbed for 1988, resulting in a few scenes where the actors’ lips don’t quite match the sound.

13. Their journeys continued in a variety of media.

In addition to the 1991 sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, the Bill & Ted franchise includes 1990’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures, an animated series for which Reeves, Winter, and Carlin provided the voices. It lasted for one season. The title was revived as a live-action series in 1992, which included none of the original cast and ran for just seven episodes. In 1991, Marvel Comics launched Bill and Ted’s Excellent Comic Book, written by Evan Dorkin.

14. Back in the late 1980s, you could eat Bill and Ted.

As a tie-in to the animated series, you could—for a short while—actually start your morning with a bowl of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Cereal, which was touted as “A Most Awesome Breakfast Adventure.”

15. Bill and Ted will ride again.

Over the past several years there has been a lot of buzz about a third Bill & Ted movie coming to theaters. In 2011, Winter tweeted that the script had been completed and that he was getting ready to read it. When asked about the possibility of a threequel in 2013, Reeves told the Today Show, “I'm open to the idea of that. I think it’s pretty surreal, playing Bill and Ted at 50. But we have a good story in that. You can see the life and joy in those characters, and I think the world can always use some life and joy.” Several references to the possible project have been made since then, and it's now been confirmed that the third film, Bill and Ted Face the Music, is currently in pre-production.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, via a report from the Cannes Film Festival, Matheson and Solomon co-wrote the script and Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest) is attached to direct. Reeves and Winter will, of course, be reprising their roles, which "will see the duo long past their days as time-traveling teenagers and now weighed down by middle age and the responsibilities of family. They’ve written thousands of tunes, but they have yet to write a good one, much less the greatest song ever written." Excellent!

6 Times There Were Ties at the Oscars

getty images (March and Beery)/ istock (oscar)
getty images (March and Beery)/ istock (oscar)

Only six ties have ever occurred during the Academy Awards's more than 90-year history. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) members vote for nominees in their corresponding categories; here are the six times they have come to a split decision.

1. Best Actor // 1932

Back in 1932, at the fifth annual Oscars ceremony, the voting rules were different than they are today. If a nominee received an achievement that came within three votes of the winner, then that achievement (or person) would also receive an award. Actor Fredric March had one more vote than competitor Wallace Beery, but because the votes were so close, the Academy honored both of them. (They beat the category’s only other nominee, Alfred Lunt.) March won for his performance in horror film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Beery won for The Champ (writer Frances Marion won Best Screenplay for the film), which was remade in 1979 with Ricky Schroder and Jon Voight. Both Beery and March were previous nominees: Beery was nominated for The Big House and March for The Royal Family of Broadway. March won another Oscar in 1947 for The Best Years of Our Lives, also a Best Picture winner. Fun fact: March was the first actor to win an Oscar for a horror film.

2. Best Documentary Short Subject // 1950

By 1950, the above rule had been changed, but there was still a tie at that year's Oscars. A Chance to Live, an 18-minute movie directed by James L. Shute, tied with animated film So Much for So Little. Shute’s film was a part of Time Inc.’s "The March of Time" newsreel series and chronicles Monsignor John Patrick Carroll-Abbing putting together a Boys’ Home in Italy. Directed by Bugs Bunny’s Chuck Jones, So Much for So Little was a 10-minute animated film about America’s troubling healthcare situation. The films were up against two other movies: a French film named 1848—about the French Revolution of 1848—and a Canadian film entitled The Rising Tide.

3. Best Actress // 1969

Probably the best-known Oscars tie, this was the second and last time an acting award was split. When presenter Ingrid Bergman opened up the envelope, she discovered a tie between newcomer Barbra Streisand and two-time Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn—both received 3030 votes. Streisand, who was 26 years old, tied with the 61-year-old The Lion in Winter star, who had already been nominated 10 times in her lengthy career, and won the Best Actress Oscar the previous year for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Hepburn was not in attendance, so all eyes fell on Funny Girl winner Streisand, who wore a revealing, sequined bell-bottomed-pantsuit and gave an inspired speech. “Hello, gorgeous,” she famously said to the statuette, echoing her first line in Funny Girl.

A few years earlier, Babs had received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Fanny Brice in the Broadway musical Funny Girl, but didn’t win. At this point in her career, she was a Grammy-winning singer, but Funny Girl was her movie debut (and what a debut it was). In 1974, Streisand was nominated again for The Way We Were, and won again in 1977 for her and Paul Williams’s song “Evergreen,” from A Star is Born. Four-time Oscar winner Hepburn won her final Oscar in 1982 for On Golden Pond.

4. Best Documentary Feature // 1987

The March 30, 1987 telecast made history with yet another documentary tie, this time for Documentary Feature. Oprah presented the awards to Brigitte Berman’s film about clarinetist Artie Shaw, Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got, and to Down and Out in America, a film about widespread American poverty in the ‘80s. Former Oscar winner Lee Grant (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1976 for Shampoo) directed Down and Out and won the award for producers Joseph Feury and Milton Justice. “This is for the people who are still down and out in America,” Grant said in her acceptance speech.

5. Best Short Film (Live Action) // 1995

More than 20 years ago—the same year Tom Hanks won for Forrest Gump—the Short Film (Live Action) category saw a tie between two disparate films: the 23-minute British comedy Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and the LGBTQ youth film Trevor. Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi wrote and directed the former, which stars current Oscar nominee Richard E. Grant as Kafka. The BBC Scotland film envisions Kafka stumbling through writing The Metamorphosis.

Trevor is a dramatic film about a gay 13-year-old boy who attempts suicide. Written by James Lecesne and directed by Peggy Rajski, the film inspired the creation of The Trevor Project to help gay youths in crisis. “We made our film for anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider,” Rajski said in her acceptance speech, which came after Capaldi's. “It celebrates all those who make it through difficult times and mourns those who didn’t.” It was yet another short film ahead of its time.

6. Best Sound Editing // 2013

The latest Oscar tie happened in 2013, when Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall beat Argo, Django Unchained, and Life of Pi in sound editing. Mark Wahlberg and his animated co-star Ted presented the award to Zero Dark Thirty’s Paul N.J. Ottosson and Skyfall’s Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers. “No B.S., we have a tie,” Wahlberg told the crowd, assuring them he wasn’t kidding. Ottosson was announced first and gave his speech before Hallberg and Baker Landers found out that they were the other victors.

It wasn’t any of the winners' first trip to the rodeo: Ottosson won two in 2010 for his previous collaboration with Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker (Best Achievement in Sound Editing and Sound Mixing); Hallberg previously won an Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing for Braveheart in 1996, and in 2008 both Hallberg and Baker Landers won Best Achievement in Sound Editing for The Bourne Ultimatum.

Ottosson told The Hollywood Reporter he possibly predicted his win: “Just before our category came up another fellow nominee sat next to me and I said, ‘What if there’s a tie, what would they do?’ and then we got a tie,” Ottosson said. Hallberg also commented to the Reporter on his win. “Any time that you get involved in some kind of history making, that would be good.”

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