Mr. Cher Scholar and I gave up cable a month or so ago. We were being overcharged and getting fewer and fewer channels from Direct TV. Meanwhile, they've been calling me twice and day and leaving blank messages on my phone. Not cool dying-TV-service, not cool.
Without cable, I decided to watch all my 7 seasons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. At the same time, Mr. Cher Scholar (formerly a French scholar) and I were finishing up reading Proust's seven installments of In Search of Lost Time. I started to think about those amazing women of 1970s TV on CBS: Cher, Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett. In a Proustian-like effort of obsession, I came up with a list of interesting connections and comparisons.
It Was the Decade of the TV Woman
These three women couldn't seem more different physically or characteristically.
Their presences as TV women:
- The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour ran from August 1, 1971 to May 29, 1973
The Cher Show ran from February 16, 1975 to January 4, 1976 (1 season);
The Sonny & Cher Show ran from February 2, 1976 to March 11, 1977 (1 season).
Cher was on for a total of 5 seasons.
- The Mary Tyler Moore Show ran from September 19, 1970 to March 19, 1977 (7 seasons).
- The Carol Burnett Show ran from September 11, 1967 to March 29, 1978 (11 seasons!)
All their shows ended around 1977 or 1978.
There Were Men Behind These Women
All these women were receiving significant support from their husbands behind the scenes, more support than the public probably knew.
Cher has described Sonny as her Svengali; he controlled the Sonny & Cher shows. Mary Tyler Moore's husband, CBS executive Grant Tinker, created and controlled her show and ran the production company bearing her name. Carol Burnett's husband was her variety show's producer, Joe Hamilton. According to her biographies, she might have been the most independent of the three. Mary Tyler Moore and Cher both describe their time with their husbands as a period of stunted growth where they willingly allowed themselves to be "taken care of" by their business-savvy husbands. Both of their husbands had assertive, if not dominating, personalities and Cher and Mary Tyler Moore have both described themselves as obedient. Both Cher and Mary Tyler Moore also described themselves as having a low level of confidence.
All women eventually divorced their husbands but remained, more or less, friendly with them. Mary Tyler Moore and Cher often give credit to their ex-husbands for their prominent success in the 1970s.
Ironically, they went on to become the independent single women the public assumed they already were.
They Had Enterprises
Both Cher and Mary Tyler Moore had husbands who started enterprises in their names (MTM Enterprises, Cher Enterprises). Both Cher and Mary Tyler Moore had little to do with their respective enterprises (Cher didn't even know about hers). Neither of them benefited much from their enterprises professionally after they left their shows and their marriages.
They Come From Dysfunctional Families
All thee women grew up in dysfunctional families with an alcoholic or drug-addicted parent who was either rarely present, never present or otherwise emotionally unavailable. Carol Burnett and Mary Tyler Moore describe feeling abandoned either physically or emotionally by one or both of of their parents due to their parents' addictions.
- Mary Tyler Moore's father was emotionally distant and her mother was an alcoholic.
- Cher's mother suffered from depression and her father was a heroin addict who was never involved in her early life. His involvement in her adult life was problematic.
- Both of Carol Burnett's parents were severe alcoholics unable to take care of her.
They Were All First Borns
- Mary Tyler Moore was the oldest of three.
- Cher is the oldest of two girls. She has a half-sister, Georganne, who she looked after as a child and as a teenager.
- Carol Burnett is also the oldest of two girls. She also has a step-sister, Chrissy, who she looked after as a child and as a teenager.
Both Cher and Carol Burnett helped raise their half-sisters and they remained close to their sisters as adults.
They Grew Up in Hollywood
- Mary Tyler Moore was born in 1936 in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 8 years old.
- Cher was born in 1946 in El Centro, California. She was raised in Los Angeles.
- Carol Burnett was born in 1933 in San Antonio, Texas. She was raised in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles by her grandmother.
All three women went to high school in Los Angeles.Not All of Them Experienced Poverty
Mary Tyler Moore went to private school. Cher experienced a seesaw of poverty and wealth, but it was poverty that most affected her. Carol Burnett experienced severe poverty. Mary Tyler Moore often describes herself as a moderate politically but seems to be more strongly conservative. Cher is staunchly liberal. Carol Burnett rarely speaks about her political beliefs but was the only one of the three to overtly support Women's Rights and the Equal Rights Amendment.They Could Have Been Convicts
Mary Tyler Moore's grandfather told her she’d either end up on stage or in jail. Cher says if she hadn't been an entertainer, she would have been in jail.
Fred Silverman Had A Feeling About Their TV Shows
- All their shows were on CBS.
- Both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour benefited from CBS Head of Programming Fred Silverman’s lone support and his desire to drive youth-oriented programming in the early 1970s.
- Both Carol Burnett & Mary Tyler Moore had Paul Sand (my first TV crush) on their shows.
- Mary Tyler Moore and Cher were both given personal votes of confidence by Lucille Ball.
- Both Cher and Mary Tyler Moore did dance classes on their show's lunch hours.
Nobody Slept with Elvis
Mary Tyler Moore and Cher both express regret for not “taking Elvis up on it.” Elvis called Cher for a date in the 1970s and she was too shy to go through with it; Mary Tyler Moore was the only leading lady Elvis had whom he didn’t sleep with. On Oprah, Mary Tyler Moore joked, “what was I thinking?”
But Were They Friends?
- Cher and Carol Burnett were on each other’s shows and did friendly spoofs of one another.
- Carol Burnett's daughter Erin and Cher's then-daughter Chastity were childhood playmates.
- Carol Burnett was fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and provided a nice blurb for the recent book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted.
- Cher and Mary Tyler Moore were often described as “very nice.”
Did They Influence Each Other's TV Specials?
After watching Mary’s Incredible Dream (1976), I believe this bizarre special (in its entirety) had a direct influence on Cher's segment, "Musical Battle to Save Cher's Soul Medley," from Cher...Special (1978). There are obvious similarities in the depictions of heaven and hell, both using similarly funky photographic techniques. As Jamie L. Weinnan commented on Mary Tyler Moore's special (but which could also be said about the Cher special): “TV could be pleasantly insane in the 70s.”
Mary's Incredible Dream was allegedly the first to feature Ben Vereen as a guest in 1976. He apparently became the ubiquitous guest. You can draw a line directly from that fact to his ironic portrayal in Bob Fosse's All That Jazz in 1979.
Compare Mary's performance (7:47 mark) of “Because I’m a Woman” with Cher and Raquel Welch doing the song a year earlier in 1975. Mary Tyler Moore also sings "Let the Good Times Roll" and "Aflie" in her special.
Mary Tyler Moore, in my mind, is a very talented comedienne, more on the comedy mark than Cher. Carol Burnett is probably the broadest talent of the three. But neither Carol or Mary can "sparkle in the center" like Cher does (whether Cher's dancing, singing or in a skit). Cher has that sparkle of coolness the other two don't have.
Would someone please (Oprah maybe) get these three women in an room for an interview about what it was like to be perceived (and so influential) as independent women of the early and mid-1970s, in the midst of "women's lib" (feminism's second wave), particularly since at least two of them (maybe all three) didn't always feel so independent and/or feminist.
Can we make that happen? Anyone?