Even if Todd VanDerWerff hadn’t mentioned me in his AV Club primer on the 1970s situation comedy, I’d say it was one of the best pieces I’ve read in that very important period in television history — a period that set down durable, still-existing rules for not just one kind of comedy but several, and also had a lot of impact on television drama. (Larry Gelbart once said something to the effect that he saw M*A*S*H as an opportunity to do actual drama on TV, as opposed to shows about mysteries or medical procedures. Shows that are about doctors or cops, but aren’t procedurals, owe more to M*A*S*H or Barney Miller than they do to the same era’s hour-long dramas, even the good ones like Police Story.) But mostly it was about the three big producers of comedy — MTM, Lear and the Miller/Milkis/Boyett/Garry Marshall team at Paramount — and their competing philosophies of how a comedy should be written, what it should be about, what kind of jokes it should have, even how old the writers should be. The philosophies were different enough that when Mary Tyler Moore’s old Dick Van Dyke director Jerry Paris came over from Paramount to direct a couple of episodes of her show, he spent two weeks asking “where are the jokes?” and insisting that the episodes were going to bomb on audience night because there weren’t enough punchlines. He was now part of one school and Moore had helped to found another.
Speaking of Mary Tyler Moore’s show, Earl Pomerantz has a post where he breaks down the structure of an episode he wrote, to show us how it moved quickly despite the limited number of sets. It’s also, of course, an episode that deals with a situation that could just as easily be played for drama, yet doesn’t play it as a “very special episode” — a key part of the MTM style. (Lear shows would go dramatic if the subject matter was serious. Paramount shows, until the MTM people got there, were mostly escapist. And MTM-style shows are the ones that take stories that could be drama, play them as comedy, but try not tot trivialize the stories. Of course there’s overlap between all three styles.) That episode will be released in a few weeks as part of the final season of Mary Tyler Moore — and since All in the Family‘s DVD releases have also been re-started, the DVD situation for this era of TV isn’t quite as bad as it was.