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God’ll Get You For That, Wagstaff November 20, 2012

Posted by Jim Berkin in 1970s, Television.
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Thanks to the absence of baseball & a reshuffling of the Antenna TV schedule, my dinner-preparing 5pm hour is now populated by reruns of Maude. The only other programming choice at that time is Bill O’Reilly, and I guess if I want someone spouting polemics interspersed with one-liners, I’ll go with Bea Arthur since she has more hair.

Maude was regularly watched by my family back in the day, along with most of the other forward ‘n’ edgy sitcoms of the ’70s, like All In The Family, M*A*S*H, as well as the ones that hold up far better artistically to the present day, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Odd Couple, The Bob Newhart Show, and Barney Miller.

Well, the first several seasons of M*A*S*H hold up. But that’s a l o n g blog post for a later time.

Along with possible musings on how well WKRP & Soap have held up. Antenna TV is a marvelous fountain of time travel.

Anyway, I’d forgotten how much shouting took place on Maude. It seems every episode features people arguing & fighting, and not over politics or issues of the day like we got on All In The Family during its first few seasons, until along came baby Joey & Meathead moved next door and what was essentially a late 1960s show became a mid 1970s one on a cultural level. Same deal with M*A*S*H, really.

Maude’s arguments & shoutfests, however, reflect interestingly on the changing morality of the ’70s much more than All In The Family or other Norman Lear polemicoms of the era ever did, except perhaps for One Day At A Time, which depicted permissive parenting at an entirely new & maudlin level. Maude & Walter’s affluent upper-middle class existence features very lax, open-minded attitudes towards adultery and divorce in numerous episodes, and pushed the envelope the furthest in the first-season “Maude’s Dilemma” two parter where, pre Roe v. Wade, Maude discovers she’s pregnant at age 47 and decides to get an abortion (thankfully off-camera, although the prospect of casting someone like Foster Brooks or Professor Irwin Corey as the wacky abortionist was clearly a wasted opportunity).

You can’t really top that one, but Maude would try – Walter’s alcoholism would lead to an episode where he confronts his drinking problem after punching Maude in the face (with HILARIOUS consequences! Well… maybe not) or if you want something REALLY funny, there’s Walter’s suicide attempt after his business goes bad. Or his near-fatal heart attack. Or the series of episodes opening Season 4 where Maude & Walter’s marriage nearly breaks up over her decision to run for State Senate against Walter’s wishes.

That’s right… I grew up in an era when this was considered comedy. Jack Benny, George Burns, Phil Silvers, Don Adams…. PIKERS! None of them ever got abortions or attempted suicide, although Frank Nelson as the cop trying to talk Jack Benny off a window ledge would have been hysterical, as well as Gracie Allen forgetting why she went to the abortionist once the operation got going.

Listen to my comedy gold!!! Someone, give me a series!!! Network people must be reading this blog! C’mon!

Anyway, I’m fascinated daily as I refresh my memory with the run of Maude. A lot of episodes I remembered as very funny as a kid are so-so upon recent viewings, although as the series goes, they stand out. I categorize these as the “farce” episodes, the ones without the messages and with plotlines built purely around the characters’ foibles and interactions, as well as some ridiculous situation. (In other words, what sitcoms ought to be instead of lectures or morality plays).  I remembered episodes like “Speed Trap” and “Arthur’s Medical Convention,” both stories where Walter & Arthur find themselves in trouble & hijinks while out of town, as being a lot funnier than they were upon a recent viewing. “Walter’s Stigma” was another I remembered fondly, where Walter is mistakenly arrested for flashing, but only the first half of it still had any solid laughs. On the other hand, the 6th season premiere, “Maude’s Guilt Trip,” still my favorite episode of the series, holds up very well – a wonderful back &  forth of selfishness and false morality as Maude secretly & guiltily delights over the prospect of her hateful Aunt Tinky getting killed in a plane crash while on her way to visit. Another episode that held up was the “Rashomon” style “The Case Of The Broken Punch Bowl,” especially since it gave the cast so many different comic ways to play the same scenes. And I still like “Maude Meets The Duke” even if it doesn’t give guest star John Wayne enough to do.

What makes the show watchable to me? Easily the performers – Bea Arthur & Bill Macy are both great. The line delivery & timing is always sharp, and their sense of stage presence is clear – Arthur’s broadway manner in carrying herself and Macy’s burlesque comedian vibe. (Evidently he had this in real life, according to a great story from Artie Lange – in the late ’90s, Macy did a guest shot on the Norm McDonald show and when introduced to costar Nikki Cox said “Nikki COX? Well I’m Bill Pussy!” and evidently she was not amused. I still am.) Conrad Bain & Rue McClanahan are both good – McClanahan plays the innocent well (it’s the reason she got to play the slut later on Golden Girls), and Bain delivers his self-effacing material along the lines of Larry Linville on M*A*S*H, only not as silly.

And Adrienne Barbeau has the best body in the history of television. No contest.

AHA! THAT’S why I’m watching! “Adrienne Barbeau? Well, I’m Professor Pussy!”

Yeah, I know. God’ll get me for that.

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