By Colin McEnroe
The Hartford Courant
In the mid-1970s, the coolest person I knew was Jimmy Walz, who had cool suits and a cool car (Peugeot 504 Diesel with a sunroof), a lucrative job that did not encumber his days and a restless, popping energy that powered his nights.
Jimmy loved going to bars and listening to bands, so much that at one point he bought a bar and at another he started a band.
What he did not do, in those days, was go out on Saturday nights. “Saturday night is for amateurs,” he would explain. He stayed home and watched the comedy lineup on CBS because it was too good to miss. (This was back when, if you didn’t see a TV show, you missed it.)
That says it all. Mary Tyler Moore was not cool. The character she played was not cool. The comedy lineup she anchored – which included “The Bob Newhart Show,” which she also produced – was not cool. But somehow, Moore and Co. stood the whole idea of watching TV on Saturday night on its head, so it became cool.
Moore, who died last week at 80, played a classic type that we need more of right now. She was part of a long parade of decent do-rights that has also included Alex Reiger (“Taxi”), Jimmy Stewart as Jeff Smith, Newhart’s nebbishes, Leslie Knope, Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, and, right now, Kimmy Schmidt, who might as well be Mary Richards’s loopy granddaughter, right down to the adorable overbite.
These characters live in the middle, where we live. They’re not the smartest, the funniest or the hottest. They might not even be the most virtuous, although they generally are surrounded by knaves.
As Laura Petrie of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” Moore was a sweetheart, not a siren. She told “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross that “women liked me. They were not envious of the fact that their husbands had a crush on me. . And this was an odd thing because they were also able to identify with me as a friend, as a girlfriend.”
Moore’s ex-husband and producer Grant Tinker, who died two months ago, said the initial audience testing of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” reported back that Mary Richards was “a loser.”
Not a loser. Just one of us. Mike Nichols said there are two reasons for a joke: “because it’s funny and because it’s you.” Comedy works when we see ourselves.
Moore as Richards got an astonishing amount of mileage out of the pure struggle to be a halfway decent person in a world not entirely set up for that. Her most famous performance came in the “Death of Chuckles” episode, when – at the funeral of a clown – she chastises her snarky co-workers for making dead clown jokes.
But during the eulogy, she gets the giggles. And what follows is three hilarious minutes of eruptions and stiflings. Finally the eulogist tells her it’s OK to laugh, at which point she wails with grief. And writ large across this legendary performance is the message, “This is how hard it is to be good, to be nice! Most people don’t even try! I’m trying, and this happens!”
They don’t fill this job anymore.
Every so often, when I think our radio show was pretty good – maybe not our best, but pretty good – I borrow the motto of Chuckles the Clown.
I walk out of the studio and into the newsroom and say, “That was ‘a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.’”
Not the coolest thing to say. But who needs to be cool? Right, Mary?
Colin McEnroe is a columnist for the Hartford Courant and a radio host on Connecticut Public Radio.