Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

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Today is the birthday of Louise Lasser (b. 1939). Some may know her as Woody Allen’s first wife and the co-star of his early films through 1972. (Very few) others of you may know her as the mom in Frankenhooker (1990). But most probably know her as the twice-repeated lead character in the show Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. 

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-1977) just may get my vote for the best (or my favorite) television series of the 1970s. Earlier I wrote how Hot L Baltimore was Norman Lear’s most extreme show, but I’d forgotten that he’d produced this: a deader-than-deadpan, “serious” as cancer parody of soap operas and a satire of contemporary America. It’s strong stuff, uncompromising. It actually aired on daytime tv, daily, just like a real soap opera. Its thunder was stolen largely by the highly derivative ABC sit-com Soap (which I never liked as much) the following year. Compared to Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Soap is weak tea. MH2 comes without a soothing laugh track, to tell idiots when to laugh. You’re either smart enough to engage with it, or you flip the channel. Take it or leave it.

Lasser played the heroine like a cross between Pippi Longstocking and Lizzie Borden on horse tranquilizers. What this Jewish woman with the Brooklyn accent is doing amongst all these small town midwesterners is anybody’s guess. Surrounding her was an amazing cast of character comedians: Greg Mullavey, Mary Kay Place, Graham Jarvis, Debralee Scott, Dody Goodman, Phil Bruns, Victor Kilian, Bruce Solomon, Martin Mull and Dabney Coleman, among many others. After Lasser left the show, it continued in other guises as what are technically other shows: Forever Fernwood, and then Fernwood 2-Night and America 2-Night (with Martin Mull and Fred Willard).

To my delight, the whole show seems to be on Youtube. I watched the first episode this morning and was howling. I’m liable to watch the rest in short order.

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