If you’re old enough you’ll remember the MTM Enterprises logo, with a tiny kitten meowing inside a gold circle like the MGM lion. Formed by Mary Tyler Moore and Grant Tinker in 1969, the production company went on to create some of the most successful and acclaimed shows in TV history. MTM’s true forte was the sitcom, though, and, along with Norman Lear’s socially conscious shows, MTM was the most important creative force in widening the sitcom’s horizons beyond the live action cartoons of the 50s and 60s. MTM created a tradition of smart, grown-up comedies for adults that has influenced dozens of iconic shows since and boosted the careers of some of our most respected actors, writers and directors. MTM Enterprises produced almost 30 sitcoms between 1970 and 1997 before gradually disappearing after various sales and mergers, and inspired countless more, including shows from former MTM vets like Taxi and Cheers. Its heyday was the 1970s, though, and four of their five best sitcoms come from that decade.
Bob Newhart’s second MTM sitcom lasted longer than the first and came close to matching its comic brilliance. It took a couple of seasons to fully find its footing, with an unusual amount of cast turnover early on, but the concept was always sound: Newhart plays Dick Loudon, a successful writer who leaves New York City to run a hotel in a small town in Vermont with his wife (who’s played by Mary Frann). It’s not hard to see Richard and Emily Hartley from The Bob Newhart Show ditching Chicago for the rural countryside, and although Frann brings a very different energy than Suzanne Pleshette, Newhart’s basically playing the same character he always plays here. Dick Loudon treats the rustic small-town misfits that congregate in the Stratford Inn like he’s Hartley dealing with his psychology patients back in Chicago. When the cast finally settled down in the third season it quickly turned into one of the best on TV, with Tom Poston, Julia Duffy and Peter Scolari acting as perfect sounding posts for Newhart’s straight man act. Of course it also gave the culture one of the most memorable breakout sitcom characters with William Sanderson’s Larry, always introducing his brother Darryl and his other brother Darryl. Along with the MTM drama St. Elsewhere, Newhart has perhaps the most celebrated ending in TV history, with Newhart and Pleshette waking up in bed as their Bob Newhart Show characters, revealing the entire eight season run of Newhart was Richard Hartley’s dream.
Sitcoms aren’t supposed to change that much. They usually reset at the end of every half-hour, and if they don’t you can expect them to eventually return to the status quo after the current storyline ends. Rhoda bucked that trend, riding to unparalleled ratings success before suffering a sudden crash. Valerie Harper’s perpetually single neighbor left The Mary Tyler Moore Show after the fourth season for her own spinoff in 1974; that premiere remains the only TV show to ever hit number one for the week with its very first episode. The show introduced Rhoda’s sister (played by Julie Kavner) and parents (Nancy Walker and Harold Gould) and focused on her whirlwind romance with a single father named Joe Gerard (David Groh). Rhoda, a serial dater who could never find a guy she’d settle down with on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, got married in the eighth episode of her own show, resulting in one of the highest rated episodes of any TV show ever. Seriously, until Roots came along, that episode was the highest rated show of the 1970s. Rhoda was a perfect example of how to launch a spinoff: take a beloved character played by a charismatic actor, place them in a new situation that makes sense and fits the character, build a great cast around them, and then make sure the scripts are good. Crucially, though, the creators of Rhoda weren’t just interested in a love story—they wanted to follow the rise and fall of Rhoda and Joe’s marriage. They wanted to track Rhoda’s trajectory from single to married to divorced and newly single again, something almost unheard of for a sitcom at the time. By the third season Rhoda and Joe’s relationship was crumbling; they separated and entered counseling and as a result the ratings collapsed. Viewers weren’t interested in a realistic depiction of a marriage falling apart at a time when divorce was growing more and more normal in America. Eventually the two divorced and Joe left the show for good; Rhoda’s parents also left for a season before returning, with various neighbors and boyfriends arriving as late additions to the cast. It’s a realistic approach to life that’s rarely seen in sitcoms—people enter and leave our lives, friends and family move, and even the firmest partnerships sometimes crumble. The show remained funny despite all this upheaval, but this kind of chaos is fundamentally opposed to the sitcom tradition, especially in the 1970s, and it drove viewers away from Rhoda after the second season.
WKRP in Cincinnati might have the most classic sitcom characters of any MTM show. It’s a murderer’s row of outsized comic archetypes that are grounded just enough in the typical MTM style. There’s manic DJ Dr. Johnny Fever, tacky salesman Herb Tarlek, news nebbish Les Nessman, the smooth late night DJ Venus Flytrap, and naïve manchild Arthur Carlson, each one clearly and directly inspiring characters on later sitcoms. Add in perhaps the only good role ever written for Loni Anderson and it’s a great mix of characters and personalities, with storylines that focus on their personal relationships and on the weird role radio stations play in their communities. The only knock against WKRP is that it’s a little bit more of a cartoon than MTM’s other greatest shows, in part because the straightmen who are the nominal leads are nowhere near as charismatic or interesting as the more absurd characters like Dr. Johnny Fever, Arthur Carlson or Les Nessman. Also music rights issues have made WKRP almost impossible to watch on DVD; Shout Factory put out the best DVD set yet last year, with most of the original music intact, but some notable ones still missing.
This is a hard decision to make. Ask me again tomorrow and this could be number one. Obviously the flagship show for MTM Enterprises, The Mary Tyler Moore Show created the template for how to produce smart, mature comedy, with an excellent cast, a strong setting and characters that were both recognizably human and exaggerated enough to work on a sitcom. It also helped usher in the era of the culturally relevant sitcom, focusing on a single woman in her 30s who prioritizes her career over her love life, and dealing openly with divorce, equal rights for women, homosexuality and other issues rarely addressed on TV at the time. And yes, it’s hilarious, with some of the sharpest, smartest dialogue in sitcom history, and fantastic performances from Moore, Harper, Ted Knight, Ed Asner, Betty White and more. The list of beloved sitcoms indebted to this show is long, from almost every MTM sitcom, to programs from ex-MTM staffers like Taxi and Cheers, to later workplace sitcoms Newsradio, The Office, 30 Rock and more.
It’s kind of impossible to pick between these top two, but in the end we have to go with The Bob Newhart Show, and not just because it introduced us to the concept of drinking games. Bob Newhart might be the greatest comedian of all time—who else could build such a legendary career almost entirely off of reactions? He recorded one of the best-selling stand-up albums of all time as a straight man with no partner. He’s brilliant, is what I’m saying. It’d be tough to do a weekly sitcom all by yourself (although I’m sure Newhart could’ve found a way to make it work), so MTM Enterprises (in this case, show creators David Davis and Lorenzo Music) devised a set-up that made perfect use of Newhart’s skills. He played a psychologist who had to patiently tolerate the various idiosyncrasies of his patients and his staff. As great as the 1980s Newhart was, this show was Newhart at his best, his deadpan stammer constantly deflating what could’ve turned into stereotypical sitcom shenanigans on lesser shows. It’s also a little different than the typical MTM show: although it had an amazing cast, including Marcia Wallace, Bill Daily, Peter Bonerz and recurring appearances from Jack Riley and John Fiedler, it feels like more of a star-driven vehicle than an ensemble show. Yes, even when surrounded by great comedic performers playing unforgettable characters, even though he’s still basically a straight man, Bob Newhart and his sensibility dominate this show. Only his on-screen wife Suzanne Pleshette is his equal, both as a performer and as a character—theirs is the rare TV marriage between mature adults who treat each other as equals and don’t care about starting a family.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.