Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Alongside the next seven weeks’ coverage of MTM’s Newhart, I’ve got several of the company’s forgotten short-lived comedies queued for discussion (mostly in a single post coming in late October — stay tuned). For this entry, we’re going back to the time of Newhart’s first sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978, CBS), to highlight one of the single-year flop comedies that MTM premiered (and wrapped) during the 1974-’75 season: Paul Sand In Friends And Lovers (1974-1975, CBS). But, before you get too excited, I’m not actually able to analyze the series. Of the 15 produced episodes (not including the sold pilot that aired in May), I’ve only seen one. However, I’ve always wanted to highlight the show here — for several reasons. For starters, this was one of MTM’s first bombs (along with that same season’s The Texas Wheelers). Second, it was created by Jim Brooks and Allan Burns, who helmed The Mary Tyler Moore Show — and Rhoda. And third, I’ll always be interested in a show from the sitcom’s Camelot, where character-driven comedy was a practiced principle.
Scheduled in a delicious, but tricky slot between All In The Family and Moore’s show, on which star Paul Sand had guested in a memorable (but, I think, perhaps overrated) early installment, Friends & Lovers was originally built around the idea of a man having a platonic relationship with one of his ex-girlfriends. But it moved away from this concept after the pilot. The broadcast series’ premise had Sand as a double bass player in the Boston Symphony Orchestra; his co-workers were Dick Wesson, Steve Landesberg, and Craig Richard Nelson, while at home he palled around with his brother, Michael Pataki, and the brother’s wife, played by Penny Marshall, post The Odd Couple but pre Laverne & Shirley. Recurring players included the aforementioned ex-girlfriend, Lynne Lipton, and the brothers’ parents, Jack Gilford and Jan Miner. On staff were MTM regulars like producer Steve Pritzker (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Silver Spoons), Michael Zinberg (Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show), and Monica McGowan Johnson (Mary Tyler Moore, Laverne & Shirley), along with future notables Steve Gordon (The Practice, Good Time Harry) and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (Designing Women, Evening Shade), who wrote with actress Mary Kay Place. Other scribes included Bud Wiser (One Day At A Time, Who’s The Boss?), Phil Mishkin (All In The Family, The Odd Couple), Allan Leicht (Kate & Allie, Ryan’s Hope), Gordon Farr & Arnold Kane (Bob Newhart, We’ve Got It Made), Mark Rothman & Lowell Ganz (The Odd Couple, Laverne & Shirley), Coleman Mitchell & Geoffrey Neigher (Rhoda, Gimme A Break!), and David Pollock & Elias Davis (Mary Tyler Moore, New Dick Van Dyke, Carol Burnett, MASH).
Early publicity predicted Friends And Lovers being the year’s hit — after all, it was coming from the same stable as two of CBS’s established classics. But initial reviews (see below) were unenthusiastic, and when it lost too much of All In The Family‘s lead-in (despite ending the year in the Top 30), executives decided that the ready-to-go The Jeffersons would fare better. (They were right.) Now, I’d like to be able to play amateur diagnostician and pinpoint the series’ ills, but I haven’t seen enough to do so accurately. Nevertheless, my hunch is that Sand’s persona, built on the unpredictability of improvisational theatre, wasn’t conducive to the MTM straight-man-anchoring-an-ensemble design. (Allan Burns and others have alluded to holding similar hindsight-based beliefs.) While Moore’s pragmatic vulnerability and Newhart’s nonplussed curiosity informed their shows’ comedic sensibilities and provided perspective, it would have been difficult to supply Sand with material that could have adequately reinforced the spontaneity inherent to his own strengths, especially when positioned as the “logical smart one” around varying degrees of relatable foolishness. Also, perhaps it had the wrong “Producer-Writer”…
But, you can come to your own half-baked conclusions by screening the sole episode I have, the series’ 11th aired, “Maid In The Snow,” which was written by Monica McGowan Johnson, directed by Tim Kiley, and broadcast by CBS on November 23, 1974. Enjoy!
Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for our monthly Musical Theatre post!