Remembering three really big shows


February 15, 1991|By Michael HIll

LAST WEEKEND it was Lucy and Ricky. This weekend, it's Archie Bunker, Ed Sullivan and Mary Richards. No wonder they used to call CBS the Tiffany's of the networks.

Unable to generate many destined-to-be-classic shows these days -- "Murphy Brown," maybe "Designing Women," but can you really see "Murder, She Wrote" getting enough votes for the Hall of Fame? -- CBS is dipping into its impressive past in search of viewers.

Two are 20th anniversary specials, marking two decades since a pair of CBS' best comedies went on the air. Tomorrow night at 8 o'clock, it's 90 minutes of "All in the Family." Monday night at 9:30, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" gets similar treatment.

In between, on Sunday night at 9 o'clock, "The Very Best of the Ed Sullivan Show" is a clip-filled montage from that institution's 23 years on the air. All are on Channel 11 (WBAL).

Looking at these two comedies is like a national session on the psychiatric couch, dredging up memories and feelings that might have been long ago tucked away and assumed forgotten.

Going in, one would think that "All in the Family" would suffer the worst from the ravages of time simply because it was so much a product of its time, a comedic catharsis for so many of the divisions that rent the nation in the late '60s and early '70s.

But, in fact, "All in the Family" looks better in retrospect than does "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Indeed, removing "All in the Family" from its time helps you look at it free from the passionate excess baggage that we all brought to the sets on Saturday nights during the six years of its run.

And what you see is much more than a temporal document worthy of sociological study, you see one great television show. Archie was more than the foul-mouthed bigot, but was a genuine tragic character who, in retrospect, had Lear-like dimensions. And Edith, in the unbelievably capable hands of Jean Stapleton, was a remarkably complex character.

Indeed, you might have the same sort of reaction that Rob Reiner, who played Mike "Meathead" Stivic, had when he viewed the clips for this show.

"I hadn't seen it in years and I couldn't believe what I was seeing," he said in a recent interview in Los Angeles. "I was really moved and you don't get moved by television. You don't laugh out loud by yourself at television. I'm looking at this stuff and I'm thinking, 'Did we do some great stuff.'

"There was 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' which was a great show, but this was way beyond that. It was in another stratosphere that we worked. I sat there and I cried and I thought, 'Gee, I was a part of this.'"

Though Reiner's comparison may be self-serving, it makes sense when you see Monday's remembrance of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." It just doesn't have the same immediacy. The "All In the Family" characters seem real, but those from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" come off as comic inventions, brilliant comic inventions though they were. And you do understand that it filled an important role as "All in the Family" was a male-dominated show, focusing on the division between father and son, while "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" gave voice to the silent feminist majority.

"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was not well-served by its reunion format which has the cast members -- minus the late Ted Knight -- sitting on a sofa pretending to have a conversation about the show as they watch the clips. Clearly, scripted, it sounds about as spontaneous as those guys in the Sports Illustrated sneaker phone commercial.

By contrast, the "All in the Family" special, hosted by creator Norman Lear, has interviews not only with the cast members, but with a potpourri of viewers who wrote letters to CBS about the show when it was on. Their memory of it and opinions about it provide an insightful commentary on its place in the country's collective consciousness.

Of course, for the first generation to grow up with television, the impresario of the country's consciousness was a stiff, clumsy, awkward man who hosted a show every Sunday night. His name was Ed Sullivan and his weekly hour defined entertainment.

Sunday night's two hours is hosted by Carol Burnett, who does a good job of making you realize the importance of an appearance on Sullivan to an entertainer. The show features interviews with everyone from Carol Lawrence to the Doors' Ray Manzarek to Jackie Mason -- who explains the finger feud he had with Sullivan -- and it goes down like a big bag of delicious popcorn.

Great acts show up one after another, from Barbra Streisand to Flip Wilson, the Doors to Joan Sutherland, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley and Johnnie Ray, James Brown and George Burns, Louis Armstrong and George Carlin, the plate spinners and the Broadway stars.

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