The recent passing of TV icon Mary Tyler Moore brought back a flood of memories from 1991, when she was the host of a Just For Laughs TV special I Executive Produced for Showtime...most notably a memory of a life lesson she taught simply by sitting, smiling and laughing
To put this into perspective, landing the celebrated Ms. MTM to host your show was quite the coup back then; she just didn’t do this type of stuff. But the careful and respectful manner in which our show dealt with another TV legend host, Bob Newhart, a year before gave his manager Arthur Price the confidence that we could handle ourselves with his other marquee client, namely Mary.
Minimal demands...at least for her.
Mary’s demands were minimal for a mega-star her stature; I think the only one that bordered on diva-ness was her wardrobe, a shimmering gown that cost $10,000 in 20th century dollars. But given her near-goddess image, our creative demands were more outrageous. We wanted her to get out of her comfort zone and embrace the raw edges of comedy that were being shattered and sharpened in the early ‘90s...the polar opposite of her elegant onstage look and persona.
To do that, Producer Bob Kaminsky (who now produces the Kennedy Center Honors) recruited a team of subversive writers who had cut their teeth with the caustic National Lampoon magazine. On that team were his brother Peter, Canadian Sean Kelly and Tom Leopold, who went on to write some of memorable episodes of Cheers and Seinfeld.
So, on a gorgeous late spring afternoon in New York, I sat with this motley, hardened crew in a posh Fifth Avenue bistro, waiting for our initial encounter with the prospective star of our show.
When she walked in, you could feel the air contract.
She was akin to royalty, dressed and bejeweled as if she walked off a page of Vogue. Everyone in the room stared, but did ever so discretely. Given the cultivated assembly, you could read the subtle shock on their faces as she gracefully crossed the room and actually sat down at the only table filled with scruffy, long-haired n’er-do-wells.
We were awestruck and virtually speechless. I led the chorus of polite introductions, oversaw the distribution of menus and order-taking, but then went mute as the six of us sat for a few minutes (but felt like hours) of awkward silence. We had never really planned how to break the ice and open the conversation about leading her down a path of sharp, jagged drollery.
After a few “hmms,” “uhhs,” and throat clearings, Leopold took a sledgehammer to the stillness.
“Mary,” he said, looking at her pendulous diamond earrings. “You get those from Robert?” (Robert Levine was a cardiologist she had married in 1983.)
“Why yes,” she replied.
“How much are they worth? A few mil? Enough for a little palace out in the Hamptons?”
The rest of us froze in shock. Leopold was about to blow it for all of us, big time. Bye-bye show. But Mary, after a moment of incredulousness, just smiled.
“Something like that. But I’m not telling you…”
Leopold pounced again.
“And those bracelets? Worth more than the GDP of some African nations?”
Mary giggled this time.
“And that ring? How can you raise your hand to call for the servants?”
That did it. Mary burst out laughing. Tom didn’t just break the ice, he reverse-engineered it into H20.
We were in. We were one. And now when everyone stared at our table, it was wondering why we were having so much fun.
The TV show did great, Mary was a dream throughout the production, but the real lesson that has stayed with me forever is that in situations like this, where the divide is so vast, the only way to close it is not just to say what you’re thinking, but to say what most others never would.
Worst case scenario is that things blow up, but if so, face it, they would’ve never worked out anyway.
But best case is a super-solid bond based on unexpected surprise, honesty and courage.
Saying a wild anything will always take you to a better place than saying a polite nothing.