HomeReview1970s Fun Flops: "The Tony Randall Show" (Part 1)

1970s Fun Flops: “The Tony Randall Show” (Part 1)

The Tony Randall Show
ABC, 1976-1977

“In all MTM productions, humor takes a back seat. The success or failure hinges on the dynamics between supporting characters.

I believe it falls short… This sitcom yearns for humor. Even a classic prop like a squirting flower or an exploding cigar could inject life into it.” — David Handler, critiquing The Tony Randall Show for Newspaper Enterprise Association, March 14, 1978

MTM Enterprises was once synonymous with the idea of “Quality Television” to the extent that it inspired the title of an academic book (albeit not a very good one) about the company.

Founded by Grant Tinker in 1970, MTM maintained this reputation until 1985 when Tinker’s successors damaged it by firing Steven Bochco.

During this period, MTM stood for a particular ideal of what scripted television could represent: refined, intelligent without being pretentious, and it offered well-rounded characters who were admirable without becoming overly idealized.

In some respects, this definition of quality differs from today’s standards in TV. Today, quality television is primarily associated with HBO, which doesn’t place as much emphasis on taste and decorum.

However, the MTM concept of quality still endures in the form of industry darlings like Modern Family and the body of work created by Aaron Sorkin.

These are the kinds of shows that network executives can use to balance out the crudev”The Tony Randall Show” follows the life and career of Dr. Tony Phillips, a New York City judge, and the various cases and situations he encounters. comedies and brutal dramas that often dominate their programming.

Back in 1976, when MTM was flourishing as a comedy producer, the company was known for its refusal to conform to the conventions of other TV production companies.

Grant Tinker and Mary Tyler Moore established MTM Enterprises at precisely the right moment and on the perfect network.

By 1970, audiences had grown weary of zany, exaggerated, outlandish single-camera sitcoms in the style of Screen Gems.

Simultaneously, Fred Silverman, a promising young executive at CBS, was seeking to attract a young, affluent, urban demographic.

Under Silverman’s guidance, CBS brought MTM on board as one of its key suppliers, ordering two spin-offs from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as well as The Bob Newhart Show, and the customary mix of flops and unsold pilot episodes.

Therefore, it was only natural that when Silverman departed CBS to take the helm at ABC, he wanted to secure shows from Tinker’s already legendary stable of writers.

The ideal opportunity presented itself in 1976 when Silverman and his team, which included a promising ABC executive named Michael Eisner, decided they wanted a star vehicle for Tony Randall.

Randall’s previous hit, The Odd Couple, had achieved syndication success after ABC canceled it two years earlier.

70s The Tony Randall Show
Tony Randall played the titular character, Judge Tony Phillips, who is depicted as an idealistic and compassionate judge. (Source: IMDB)

ABC was not the typical home for the type of sophisticated television MTM was known for.

As the network that played a pivotal role in convincing advertisers of the significance of the 18–49 demographic, its programming was oriented toward the youngest audience among the three major networks.

Silverman recognized that mature, issue-driven content in the style of CBS was not part of ABC’s brand identity, and he propelled ABC to the top of the ratings with shows like Three’s Company and Charlie’s Angels.

These shows offered adult-oriented titillation and vibrant scenarios for the younger viewers.

(In an interview with TV Guide, Tinker later dismissed such shows as “mindless” programs replete with “short skirts and tight leotards.”)

Nevertheless, quality programming was not unheard of at Silverman’s ABC.

It was at this network that Roots was produced, and producer Danny Arnold was given considerable creative freedom to develop the mature and low-key Barney Miller.

A Tony Randall Show from MTM appeared to be a natural addition to the ABC lineup after Barney Miller, particularly as MTM excelled in producing refined, sophisticated comedy that suited Randall’s preferences.

ABC, after selecting MTM to produce the pilot, essentially allowed the company to proceed with their approach, a principle Tinker consistently upheld.

This approach earned him immense respect among young writers—some of whom willingly accepted reduced salaries to work for MTM.

Tinker’s value lay in his role as a protective barrier between writers and the networks, ensuring that his writers were shielded from the demands of network executives.

For the creation of The Tony Randall Show, Tinker enlisted the services of two of his most accomplished hires: Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses.

These individuals, both former stand-up comedians who had begun their careers as staff writers on The Bob Newhart Show, had risen through the ranks to become the showrunners for the show’s fourth and fifth seasons, widely considered the program’s finest years.

Randall’s preference for the premise involved portraying a character that was the complete opposite of Felix Unger, and he considered options such as a football coach or a minister.

Patchett and Tarses, on the other hand, leaned towards a character that aligned with Randall’s well-established persona and proposed roles like a lawyer.

Tinker ultimately proposed the idea they decided to use: Randall would take on the role of a judge.

(The Los Angeles Times noted that Randall initially had concerns that this character might come across as too passive, but he was eventually convinced that judges could have various personalities.)

The character they crafted would exhibit more authority and a contemporary style compared to Felix, possessing the ability to engage in witty banter with friends and colleagues.

This character bore some resemblance to Bob Newhart’s Dr. Bob Hartley but featured lines tailored for a star known for his more expressive and theatrical delivery.

The MTM formula, as established with Mary Tyler Moore and consistently followed for the next eight years in every comedy they produced, required the protagonist to lead what Patchett and Tarses termed “two lives.”

These two lives consisted of a home life and a work life, each with a distinct set of characters for interactions.

(This formula, rooted in The Dick Van Dyke Show, naturally evolved from the constraints of the multi-camera sitcom format, which traditionally featured only two main sets—typically a home and an office.)

Additionally, part of the MTM formula dictated that each sitcom should possess a unique and specific setting.

Despite being produced as studio-audience shows with no scenes set outside, except for the opening titles, they still aimed to create a distinctive environment for each show.

For The Tony Randall Show, they selected Philadelphia as the setting, and this choice turned out to be fortuitous, as the release of the film Rocky shortly after the series’ premiere suddenly made Philadelphia a trendy and appealing location.

Before the series’ launch, Patchett and Tarses penned a syndicated newspaper article outlining their approach to developing Walter’s two distinct lives:

Considering he was to be portrayed as a widower, it was essential to introduce a strong female influence into the household to take care of the judge, his son, and daughter.

To meet this need, Rachel Roberts, a renowned English actress, was suggested for the role of a slightly modern Welsh housekeeper.

Additionally, Devon Scott was selected for the part of a teenage daughter, and Brad Savage was cast as a worldly-wise prepubescent son.

These choices were deemed perfect. For the “office life,” the creators envisioned a domineering legal secretary, doubling as a mother figure, and a devoted court stenographer with an impressive memory.

Allyn Ann McLerie and Barney Martin were chosen for these respective roles.

Adding an eccentric touch to Judge Franklin’s character, they decided he would be the kind of person who rides a bike to the courthouse.

This choice perfectly suited Tony Randall’s ability to play the role with a straight face, adding a distinct style to the character.

Thus, the solid MTM-style premise was established, hinging on the protagonist’s ability to tackle gentle, relatable issues within his two lives.

His work life involved adjusting to a new job as he aimed to be a good judge, even though his eccentric and playful nature didn’t fit the typical judge mold.

At home, two years after his wife’s passing, he grappled with raising his children as a single parent.

In both realms, his successes stemmed from his ability to embody the best possible authority figure.

He navigated both lives with the help of strong middle-aged women who represented two extremes he could have pursued but didn’t.

His housekeeper, Mrs. MacClellan (Roberts), was a quirky, free-spirited, and somewhat eccentric alcoholic, embodying what he might be if he let his eccentric side shine all the time.

On the other hand, his legal secretary, the prim spinster Miss Reubner (McLerie), was rigidly by-the-book and stuffy, constantly urging him to be less eccentric and often the target of Randall’s witty retorts.

She served a role similar to how Frasier later used Niles, humanizing the prudish and entitled Walter by comparison.

The pilot episode, penned by Patchett and Tarses and directed by Jay Sandrich, successfully fused the protagonist’s professional and personal lives.

His interactions with an attractive woman during a court case led to him asking her out, marking his first date since his wife’s passing.

This episode epitomized simplicity, elegance, and class, capturing the essence of MTM and standing in stark contrast to the ABC hits that MTM’s personnel disapproved of.

As usual with MTM, the writing staff was like a who’s who of future sitcom showrunners.

Patchett and Tarses staffed the show with Hugh Wilson, an Atlanta advertising man and old friend of theirs, Gary David Goldberg, an ex-hippie trying to make some money and still keep his integrity, and a young team of writers named Ken Levine and David Isaacs, who the following year would be hired away as the head writers of M*A*S*H.

Each of these writers (along with MTM’s prolific freelancers, David Lloyd and Earl Pomerantz) contributed funny scripts.

Patchett and Tarses even managed to come up with a happy accident of casting, the kind of thing that turns your Fonzies and your Dean Peltons into more popular characters than anyone anticipated.

In the second episode, a young off-Broadway actor named Zane Lasky turned up as an annoying guest character who had basically one joke: his name was “Mario Lanza,” and he wasn’t aware that there was a popular tenor with the same name.

But Lasky’s eager, whiny idiocy made the studio audience laugh uproariously; the producers recognized that they had a good thing and brought him back several more times, eventually making him a regular.

He even got his own catchphrase: every time he came into the scene, he would say, “Judge Franklin?

Mario Lanza!” (sort of like the ancestor of “Hi, I’m Larry, this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl,” but with just one guy and no annoying audience applause).

As was customary with MTM, the writing staff boasted several future sitcom showrunners.

Patchett and Tarses assembled a team consisting of Hugh Wilson, an Atlanta advertising professional and their old friend, Gary David Goldberg, a former hippie looking to balance profit with integrity, and a young duo named Ken Levine and David Isaacs.

In the following year, Levine and Isaacs would be recruited as the head writers of M*A*S*H.

Together with MTM’s prolific freelance contributors, David Lloyd and Earl Pomerantz, these writers produced humorous scripts for the show.

Additionally, Patchett and Tarses stumbled upon a happy casting accident, the kind that can turn a character into a fan favorite beyond expectations.

In the second episode, a young off-Broadway actor named Zane Lasky appeared as an annoying guest character with a simple but effective joke: his character’s name was “Mario Lanza,” and he was oblivious to the existence of the famous tenor with the same name.

Lasky’s portrayal of an eager, whiny character generated uproarious laughter from the studio audience.

The producers recognized the potential and brought him back multiple times, eventually making him a regular character.

He even developed his own catchphrase; upon entering a scene, he would announce himself with, “Judge Franklin? Mario Lanza!” It was akin to the precursor of “Hi, I’m Larry. This is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl,” albeit with a single character and no accompanying audience applause.

Despite receiving favorable reviews and achieving respectable ratings, the show encountered two fundamental issues.

The first issue, which Tinker later admitted in an interview with TV Guide, stemmed from the MTM “two lives” formula, creating an imbalance where one half of the show was notably stronger than the other.

Tinker acknowledged, “We probably should have stayed in the courthouse more and not gone home with him so much.

That deflated the show, slowed it down.” The most engaging stories revolved around Walter Franklin’s life as a judge.

It was where Miss Reubner’s character thrived, portrayed by McLerie with a mix of sharpness and vulnerability, giving one of the remarkable TV performances of the era.

It was where Mario Lanza provided comic relief, and the instantly endearing Barney Martin flourished, even though his character primarily served as an exposition provider.

Guest characters could step in and steal the show, reminiscent of Barney Miller. For instance, “The DeNecki Debacle” featured character actor Stephen Elliott as the ultimate obstructionist lawyer, masterfully helmed by Patchett and Tarses, and “Mario Strikes Again,” penned by Gary David Goldberg, showcased various ways Mario could test Randall’s patience in the courtroom.

However, when Randall returned home, it was a different story. The focus shifted to his level-headed teenage daughter, portrayed by Devon Scott (daughter of George C. Scott), and his polite son.

Rachel Roberts played the role of the wisecracking housekeeper, a character that was underdeveloped and not quite up to the caliber of the actress.

In most workplace/home hybrid sitcoms, the workplace aspect tends to be stronger.

For instance, The Bob Newhart Show and Mary Tyler Moore favored the work environment, and Barney Miller eventually abandoned home-related storylines early in its first season.

The Dick Van Dyke show was one of the rare shows that struck a balance between these two worlds.

However, in the case of The Tony Randall Show, the imbalance was quite pronounced, ultimately affecting the overall quality of the show.

The extensive focus on home-related stories made it less compatible with a show like Barney Miller, where the workplace was the primary setting.

The second problem the show faced was indicative of the challenges that MTM’s comedy empire was grappling with at the time.

MTM’s trademark classiness and refinement worked against it, creating a perception that its shows—apart from Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart—lacked the comedic punch they should have delivered.

As an MTM production, The Tony Randall Show featured minimal slapstick, sexual innuendos, topical humor, or cheap laughs.

It eschewed the standard sitcom plots that Garry Marshall had utilized successfully for Tony Randall on The Odd Couple.

The show was not as hilariously funny as The Odd Couple or other ABC hits like Three’s Company and Happy Days.

The plotlines were understated and straightforward, offering limited opportunities for uproarious comedy.

Stories like Walter’s proposal and its subsequent reversal, his children’s rebellion against his authority, or his career decisions lacked the excitement and hilarity that viewers expected from a comedy show.

Even though these were solid stories, they failed to generate the level of excitement that other sitcoms of the era were known for.

Tony Randall’s character led a comfortable life, had a stable job, nice kids, and no significant problems.

In an era when comedy competition was fierce, the audience preferred stories that were either serious or silly but, above all, larger-than-life. MTM’s flagship series, Mary Tyler Moore, tackled big stories, touching on birth, death, divorce, and impotence.

During a challenging period with ample comedy options, viewers were more inclined to watch Fonzie jump a shark than to follow Tony Randall’s character as he grappled with everyday issues.

Nonetheless, The Tony Randall Show achieved decent ratings.

However ABC was not entirely satisfied because it wasn’t considered that the show had the potential to attract a younger audience.

The children in the show had limited roles, with Scott’s character eventually written out by the end of the season, and the remaining characters were middle-aged.

As a result, while the ratings appeared acceptable, they did not meet the network’s expectations for desirable demographics.

Fred Silverman offered a 13-episode trial pickup for the second season, but Grant Tinker had a different plan. He successfully convinced CBS, home to all of MTM’s hit shows, to pick up the show for a full 22-episode season.

CBS, known for its commitment to quality programming and its reluctance to chase gimmicks and younger audiences as aggressively as other networks, seemed like the perfect home for the show, offering a happy ending to its network journey.

However, as events unfolded, it turned out that the situation wasn’t as straightforward as it seemed, leading to a different chapter in the show’s history.

You Might Like To Read: Debate Night: Ford/Carter, 1976

Nirajan Shrestha
Nirajan Shrestha
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