Defying Stereotypes, Inspiring Laughter: A Tribute to Rose Marie

Full disclosure: I am only twenty-three years old and the most exciting thing I have done in recent memory is attend a special screening of—and Q&A session for—the new Rose Marie documentary Wait for Your Laugh. I know some would find this more than a little surprising, and I completely understand why; I was, after all, the youngest person in the theater. Still, if you follow this blog or know me personally (perhaps noticing my Dick York desktop background or Sinatra posters), this really is not that surprising.

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Of course, this post is not really about my affinity for classic Hollywood stars; it’s about Rose Marie herself and, more specifically, why her career (spanning roughly 90+ years) is worth knowing. Though she is most famous for portraying sassy television writer Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Rose Marie has been dancing, singing, and acting for stage and screen since the tender age of three.

I honestly knew very little of her fascinating childhood years prior to seeing the documentary, but I was definitely familiar with Sally. It’s no small exaggeration for me to say that, as a writer, I have consistently found Sally inspiring ever since I first watched Dick Van Dyke reruns as a young girl. A true equal next to her male counterparts, Rob (Van Dyke) and Buddy (Morey Amsterdam), Sally worked hard, voiced her opinions confidently, and could more than hold her on against any joke with a clever wisecrack of her own.

In addition to inspiring me that women can and, in many ways, should tell their own stories through writing, the fact that Sally never quite fits into a pre-designated “box” as to how a woman “should behave” (especially by ‘60s standards) is equally inspiring. Whether in the ‘60s (when the series originally aired) or during the present day, she is a reminder that women should never feel confined by societal expectations and should instead live their lives as they themselves see fit: laugh, cry, embrace traditional feminine roles, reject those same roles, talk, listen—or, yes, maybe even write for a television show.

It’s only fitting then that, in real life, Rose Marie has also been someone who defies expectations and stereotypes. Of course, she will forever be associated with Sally Rogers, but—as Wait for Your Laugh proves—it would be unfair and limiting to let this completely define her, as it would downplay everything else she has accomplished as a true trailblazer in the industry. So, let’s not try to define her at all; let’s simply laugh with her.

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Seinfeld: Making it Happen (Or, Well, The Opposite)

George Costanza has always been my favorite Seinfeld character. The George-centric episodes have consistently been my favorite, I recognize Festivus each year, and once had the infamous “Believe it or not, George isn’t at home…” tune as my ringtone (though it probably would’ve worked better as my outgoing message). In other words, it was inevitable that my first Seinfeld post would revolve heavily around him.

Still, I have to briefly touch upon Seinfeld itself first. There are a few key points that usually come up when discussing or analyzing the series. First, there’s the fact that the sitcom has found its way into the American lexicon in a way that, arguably, no other one has. Then, there’s the discussion of how Seinfeld has come to be nicknamed “the show about nothing” (though Jerry himself would say it’s more about “how a comedian gets his material”, while the idea of it being about “nothing” is just a joke). Of course, let’s also not forget the series’ infamous “no hugging, no learning” rule (aka no positive growth for the primary four characters).

Aside from this, I find it fascinating how, for all the show’s relatability in so much as it frequently tackles everyday occurrences, no one ever seems to want to admit to actually identifying with the characters themselves. With Friends, the conversation is very much people debating whether they are “a Phoebe” or “a Chandler”, but no one’s ever really claiming (or longing) to be “an Elaine” or “a Kramer.”

In many ways, this makes sense. After all, Seinfeld is a darker, more cynical sitcom than most others. The entire series finale was even focused on the simple fact that the years had done nothing but make Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer even more selfish than they originally were.

Sitcom Study: Seinfeld’s “The Opposite” (5×21)
Relevant Episode Information: George convinces himself that his bad luck will turn around if he does the exact opposite of his normal instincts; it works. Meanwhile, Jerry realizes that everything always balances out perfectly for him.

 

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I’m a big fan of “fate versus free will” debates and, in many ways, “The Opposite” is a good case study on how and when one can win out over the other. While certain events are ultimately out of anyone’s control, I do tend to believe in the importance of hard work and perseverance (especially in striving to achieve personal goals). I believe in “making it happen”, to the best of one’s abilities, and that there’s no such thing as being “too busy.” I frequently remind myself that if a hobby, goal, or friendship is really important, I will make time.

Similarly, if I find myself in a rut, I reflect on the choices I’ve recently made and consider what I can do differently to be more productive. While I’ve never worried that “every decision…in my entire life has been wrong”, as George does during the beginning of “The Opposite”, I can appreciate and agree with the basic philosophy behind his realization that he needs to do something different in order to move his life forward. George’s life was not going the way he had hoped, so he ultimately had two choices: deal with it or make a change.

By the episode’s conclusion, George has landed a date, moved out of his parents’ house, and started a new job with the New York Yankees. On the other hand, there’s Jerry. As previously mentioned, it’s during “The Opposite” that he finally realizes what’s obvious to anyone who watches Seinfeld; everything always seems to work out for him:

Jerry: “… like yesterday I lost a job, and then I got another one, and then I missed a TV show, and later on they re-ran it. And then today I missed a train, went outside and caught a bus. It never fails! I always even out!”

We all probably know a few people like Jerry, individuals who seem to have good fortune regardless of the amount of effort they put into something. This can inevitably be infuriating but, when all is said and done, it should never discourage anyone from achieving his or her own goals (something I must frequently remind myself). In George’s case, since this is still Seinfeld after all, his growth does not last beyond this episode.

Though, if anything, the fact that this is only temporary can serve as a warning against becoming complacent or eager for the easy way (as George tends to do in nearly every other episode). In other words, don’t be a George. Also, try not to be discouraged by someone who’s a Jerry.

One of the Best Decisions Friends Made

        Friends has consistently been one of my favorite sitcoms for well over a decade. Even if I go a few weeks without watching it (which has happened at least once or twice, I think), I still know each episode by heart and reference scenes on a daily basis.

But if you’ve read this blog before, you already know I’m a Friends fan. You also know that I have some relatively unpopular opinions about the series, including the fact that I’m not a fan of Ross and Rachel as a couple (but love the similar on again/off again Sam and Diane on Cheers) and consider Monica my favorite female character.

This post is about an aspect of the show that, while probably not as unpopular as the others, is nonetheless one that is often debated by fans: Should Joey and Phoebe have gotten together (however briefly) or were the creators right to keep them as just friends?

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Sitcom Study: The Friends creators were not only right to keep Joey and Phoebe just friends, but this was also one of their best and most important decisions.

For those of you who are fans of the Joey/Phoebe pairing, I can imagine at least a couple counterarguments you’re probably thinking right now:

  1. But Matt LeBlanc and Lisa Kudrow had such amazing chemistry!!

I agree. I’d also argue that one of the reasons Friends was successful in the first place is because ALL main cast members had amazing chemistry and so ANY combinations among the six worked well.

  1. Joey and Phoebe always had such sweet moments.

True. Still, I stand by the fact that all six characters had sweet moments with the others. Plus, if Joey fell for Phoebe, you’d have all six partnered off with each other (and no Paul Rudd). This would have been too unrealistic, even for a show with infamously unrealistic apartments.

Joey and Phoebe undoubtedly love each other, but this does not mean that this is a romantic love. I strongly believe in the notion that there are different types of love and that one is not necessarily more important than another. Many still believe that even if two people insist they are “just friends”, they will eventually fall for each other (or will harbor feelings until the “time is right” like The Office’s Jim and Pam).

This line of thinking is deeply problematic. Namely, it implies that a friendship’s only value is to serve as a stepping-stone for a romantic relationship. It also suggests that, if you do have romantic feelings for a friend, the best thing to do is keep this to yourself and wait for the stars to align. Let me get on my soapbox for just a second: do not ever wait for the stars to align. I believe everything happens for a reason and people can come into your life at the most unexpected times. Still, if someone truly wants to be with you, excuses such as “too busy” or “maybe it’s the wrong time” won’t matter in at least trying to make a relationship work.

The Joey/Phoebe relationship is perfect just the way it is; it serves as a reminder that the love between friends is beautiful in and of itself and should not be seen as merely the means to an end. Actually, in a way, I guess Friends did partner off all the main characters: the on-again/off-again couple (Ross and Rachel), the friends who do fall in love and get married (Monica and Chandler), and the pair who loves each other deeply as friends and share a special bond (Joey and Phoebe).

Female Sitcom Characters Who Changed My Life

In honor of Women’s History Month (and because a new post is definitely overdue), I’ve comprised a carefully considered list of the female sitcom characters I have cared about most over the years. Listed in no particular order, these characters have resonated with me more than others; I’ve come to personally identify with some, while others inspire me, and others still are just hilarious and well-written (or all of the above). My main rules in deciding the list: I could not choose more than one female character from the same series and I had to limit the list to three or four key characters. Now, onto the list!

  1. Monica Geller (Courteney Cox on Friends)

Memorable Lines: “Fine! Judge all you want to but, married a lesbian, left a man at the altar, fell in love with a gay ice dancer, threw a girl’s wooden leg in a fire, livin’ in a box!!! and, of course, “SEVEN!”

As far as the Friends universe is concerned, I’m definitely a Monica-type. In addition to having this listed on pretty much all of my social media accounts (plus the About Me page of this very blog), Monica is my go-to “Starbucks name” (mainly because I know from experience that they won’t spell my real first name correctly anyway). While I’m not a “neat freak” to the level that Monica is (but I’m not sure if anyone really could be), I consider myself very ambitious, competitive, and organized; I’ve also been called either “the planner” or the “mom friend” by myself and others too many times to count.

For these personal reasons, Monica clearly holds a special place in my heart, but that’s not the only reason she matters to me. She’s also incredibly inspiring, arguably the most inspiring of the six Friends. Sure, it’s admirable how Rachel goes from the stereotypical “spoiled rich girl” and Phoebe is undeniably a strong woman who has overcome a great deal, but let’s not ignore the amazing journey Monica undergoes.

The product of an emotionally abusive household where she struggled with her weight and had a mother who constantly criticized her, Monica nonetheless overcomes this to become a strong, confident woman who goes after what she wants and never settles. In Season Two, she memorably dates the older and sophisticated Dr. Richard Burke. Even though she comes to love him deeply and, at the time, sees him as the probable love of her life, she musters the strength to let him go when she realizes a key difference between them: unlike her, he doesn’t want children (well, in his case, he doesn’t want children again.

Her personality was also never confined by any gender stereotypes. She excelled at football and was repeatedly proven to be one of the physically strongest Friends, but also relished in planning her wedding and took pride in cleaning. She was the glue that held the Friends group together and made them feel more like a family (and was probably the funniest drunk out of the six).

  1. Samantha Stephens (Elizabeth Montgomery on Bewitched)

A Couple Memorable Lines: “I am a witch. A real broom riding, house haunting, cauldron stirring witch!” and “Oh my stars!”

In an earlier blog post, I credited Bewitched as the first sitcom I ever cared about enough to watch religiously (not to mention it was the first one I enjoyed analyzing closely). Even in my college thesis (which dealt with sitcom relationships), Sam and Darrin were the first couple I chose to analyze. Basically, there was never any doubt in my mind of whether or not Sam would make this list.

As I briefly mentioned in my aforementioned post, I’ve always stood firm in my belief that Bewitched is, indeed, a feminist show. Samantha, expected to live a supernatural life of wonder among the clouds, defies her family by marrying a mortal man and choosing to live (mostly) without witchcraft. Sure, Sam’s choice may seem a bit bizarre, but what matters is that it is her choice and it is one she proudly defends, whether she’s going up against the Queen of the Witches or her own mother. Played by the incredibly talented Elizabeth Montgomery, Sam was intelligent, unwaveringly kind, strong, and funny. She could have anything she wanted with a twitch of her nose, but used her powers for good and only as a last resort, always choosing to solve any problem first and foremost with her mind and heart.

  1. Roz Doyle (Peri Gilpin on Frasier)

Memorable Lines: “I’m smarter than he is, more confident, more articulate, but the stupid little wusses think I’m a hothead!”and “When I die, I want it to be on my hundredth birthday, in my beach house on Maui. And I want my husband to be so upset he has to drop out of college.”

            On countless sitcoms, female characters are generally depicted as “incomplete” until they find “the one”, settle down, and marry. And then there’s Roz Doyle: snarky, career-driven, and unapologetically sexual. She takes pride in her work as a producer and, despite many a verbal jab from Niles and Frasier, she enjoys living an active single life (and can out sass the Crane brothers any day of the week).

Roz’s tough exterior masks a warm, sensitive heart; the times she allows herself to be vulnerable are few but beautiful to watch. She’s been let down and had her heart broken more times than she’d like to admit, but she never gives up on herself. Despite her initial fears when faced with the reality of becoming a single mother, she overcomes these hesitations and successfully balances her career with the demands of motherhood.

More than being unapologetically sexual, Roz was always unapologetically herself. She’s proof that a woman’s happiness does not have to be anchored by one person, but instead can come from within as a result of self-confidence, inner strength, and determination. Frankly, TV is still very much in need of more female characters like her.

  1. Diane Chambers (Shelley Long on Cheers)

Memorable Lines: (in response to Sam noting she’s drunk) “Wow, you’re stupid. I’ll be sober in the morning!” and “Diane has the bar.”

I’m aware that Diane gets a lot of flak for being pretentious and loquacious, but I absolutely love her. One half of my favorite will they/won’t they TV couple of all time, Diane elevates every scene she’s in on Cheers (and later as a guest on Frasier) to new heights (and Sam Malone’s character suffers deeply when she’s no longer around to simultaneously challenge and ground him).

If Roz Doyle guards her vulnerabilities with a mask of snark, Diane Chambers guards hers with one made of steel. Diane is bookish, quick-witted, moralistic, and not so secretly believes she deserves only the finest things in life. For all her book smarts, she often struggles to fit in with the “average Joe’s” at Cheers and in her most vulnerable moments, it’s evident that she longs to be accepted. Diane is frequently mocked by the other characters who don’t take her seriously, while she in turn often takes herself far too seriously. She can become giddy over simple things (such as when she’s given brief control of the bar) and has a treasured stuffed animal collection—proving she’s not as haughty as she’d like to appear. Beneath her pseudo intellectualism, Diane is very much simply a woman in search of her place in life—and she should absolutely be taken seriously (even if Shelley’s performance leaves you in stitches).

Remembering Mary Tyler Moore

January 25th started out as a pretty standard day, great even. Then, I overheard the following at work: “Mary Tyler Moore just died.” I froze. Nooooo. I had known of Mary’s health problems, but I struggled with accepting the fact that the woman I had always viewed as a strong, resilient fighter was really gone.

The real life Mary was always an excellent role model—she was a lifelong animal rights activist and worked intimately with the JDRF to raise awareness of type 1 diabetes (a condition Mary herself had). Still, like countless others, it was through her two most iconic television roles that I came to “know” her: Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. 

In addition to the fact that each sitcom features iconic performances from Mary, both are essential viewing for anyone even slightly interested in comedy writing and strong female sitcom characters. Laura was charming, intelligent, quick-witted, just as funny as Dick Van Dyke’s Rob Petrie, and one heck of a dancer. Also, thanks to Mary’s influence, Laura revolutionized the way women dressed on television by donning her now iconic capris pants.

What is also worth noting about The Dick Van Dyke Show is how loving and mutually respectful the marriage between Rob and Laura was. Unlike many later sitcoms, where one half of the couple is “in charge” while the other half is often portrayed as a submissive buffoon, thus resulting in a somewhat repetitive cycle of “good cop vs bad cop”, Rob and Laura were true equals. They joked together, danced together, and when they argued neither of them ever came off as controlling or condescending. From episode to episode, the two alternated who was the “straight-man”, giving Van Dyke and Moore equal chance to play the fool.

A few years later (1970 to be exact) on her eponymous sitcom, Mary Tyler Moore continued to break ground as a woman whom was not a wife or mother—she was just Mary Richards. Career-driven, independent and funny, she was more than capable of helming her own story as the protagonist.

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In the pilot episode “Love Is All Around” (the same name as the series’ iconic theme song by Sonny Curtis), a newly single thirty-year-old Mary relocates her life to Minneapolis. She settles into a new apartment and quickly makes new friends (notably Valerie Harper’s quick-witted Rhoda Morgenstern). Then, in one of the most memorable scenes of the series, she interviews for a job at WJM-TV with Ed Asner’s gruff yet lovable news director Lou Grant:

Lou: “What religion are you?”

Mary: “Mr. Grant, I don’t quite know how to tell you this, but you’re not allowed to ask that when someone’s applying for a job. It’s against the law.”

It’s a quick exchange, not nearly as iconic as the line anyone probably thinks of when remembering this pilot (referring to, of course, Lou’s “You know what, you’ve got spunk…I hate spunk!”), but it establishes something even more important about Mary’s character. Yes, of course Mary’s spunky; despite Asner’s excellent comic timing and delivery, the audience hardly needs reminding of such an obvious fact—especially when the aforementioned exchange between Mary and Lou so perfectly highlights Mary’s willingness to speak her mind, no matter whom she’s addressing or what the issue at hand may be. As the scene continues, Mary confirms that she will indeed be what the television landscape (and real life) is always in need of: an outspoken, confident woman who is willing and ready to fight for what she wants and knows she deserves. As Lou hired Mary as his Associate Producer, so too did countless women watching choose Mary as someone they not only wished to emulate as countless still saw her in themselves.

Decades later, this legacy continues. Thank you, Mary; thank you for your smile, individuality, independence, and spunk.

Thank you for paving the way.

The Art of Doing Good

A few days ago marked arguably the most significant milestone of my life thus far: I graduated college. I donned my cap and gown (and struggled to adjust my graduation hood), sat amongst my fellow seniors and anxiously awaited my name to finally be called. Afterwards, I nabbed any friends I could find for a quick photo, rode the ram (it’s a Fordham thing, don’t ask) and joined my family for a celebratory dinner.

That night, I could not help but think to myself: “OK, so…now what?” I mean, I technically know what’s ahead. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll wrap up an internship, begin a full time job, continue to unpack everything I brought home from my dorm and enjoy another New York City summer as much as possible. But what I was wondering at the time, I suppose, is what the next lesson for me will prove to be if I’ve officially closed my college textbooks for good. I have always been a big believer in the idea that learning does not need to take place within the confines of a classroom, but this does not make the idea of going out into the “real world” any less daunting.

As I continue to think about what lies ahead for me in my future, I find myself also reflecting on my past: lessons already learned both inside and beyond the classroom, evolving into the person I am now and, of course (you saw where this was going, right?), the television shows that have heavily impacted my youth. So far, I have written about some of these such as Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond (and will continue to write more on those as well as others), but there is another one I love which seems particularly relevant to the transition I am currently undergoing, a show that is itself about a young individual growing and changing, learning to become an adult and applying lessons taught in the classroom to real life (or vice versa): Boy Meets World.

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            Fe-Fe-Fe Feeny! Plays with Squirrels. Cory and Topanga. I know I am far from the only person my age to remember Boy Meets World so fondly (or to cry every time I rewatch the series finale):

Sitcom Study: Boy Meets World’s “Brave New World” (7×22 and 7×23)

Relevant Episode Information: In the series finale, Cory, Topanga, Shawn and the rest of the gang face life-altering decisions as they contend with what life may hold in store for them once they are no longer in college—but not without some final words from Mr. Feeny.

One of the greatest aspects of Boy Meets World (aside from the memorable characters and clever, funny writing) was the fact that, despite being a “kids’ show” in many ways, the series never shied away from addressing such heavy topics as death, child abuse, alcohol abuse, sexual harassment and bullying. In fact, it’s because of shows like Boy Meets World that a blog such as this—dedicated to the applicable, deeper themes and ideas explored in sitcoms—even makes sense. Boy Meets World consistently respected its viewers and took them seriously which is why, in turn, viewers could take an episode’s message to heart as a legitimate, worthwhile lesson.

This respect was never more apparent than in the series finale, “Brave New World.” Divided into two parts and full of numerous clips highlighting some of the most iconic moments of the show’s seven year run, “Brave New World” finds Boy Meets World’s protagonist Cory Matthews (Ben Savage) attempting to grapple with the possibility of moving from his native Philadelphia to New York City when his wife Topanga Lawrence (Danielle Fishel) is offered a dream internship in the Big Apple. If you’re even a casual viewer of the show, you will know that Cory does not handle change well. Ever.

Enter George Feeny (William Daniels). The Matthews’ next door neighbor, Cory’s mentor and the gang’s teacher in nearly every class from junior high through college (something the show cleverly and frequently jokes about), Mr. Feeny helps Cory realize that maybe Topanga is also hesitant about the move, since such a big change means there is the possibility she may fail; he warns, however, that staying where they are will also hinder growth. As Cory and Topanga finally commit to moving to New York City, with Cory’s older brother Eric (Will Friedle) and best friend Shawn Hunter (Rider Strong) in tow (the Cory/Shawn bromance is too important to be sidelined in this post and will require its own post in the future), Cory advised his younger brother Joshua:

Cory: “Cory: “You’re gonna learn something from [the world] every day, you’re gonna make mistakes…Mr. Feeny will probably teach every grade you’re ever in…even though it seems like the world’s going out of its way to teach you its hard lessons, you’re going to realize it’s the same world that’s given you your family and your friends…Boy Meets World, now I get it.”

Even more memorably, the episode concludes with Cory, Topanga, Shawn and Eric awaiting Feeny in his classroom, eager for one final lesson (and reluctant to say goodbye):

Mr. Feeny: “Believe in yourselves. Dream. Try. Do good.”

Topanga: “Don’t you mean do well?”

Mr. Feeny: “No, I mean do good.”

While Mr. Feeny’s words should undoubtedly be taken to heart, it is what he does (or, rather, what he does not do) in the following moments that should also be remembered. Despite the group’s request, Mr. Feeny refuses to verbally admit that he loves the four of them, saying he is intent on keeping some boundaries. “You haven’t even talked to another student for seven years,” Cory retorts. Sill, he refuses. One by one, the four of them bid him farewell, thanking him tearfully for things such as being the reason they will be good people and, in Topanga’s case, being more of a father than her biological one. It is only when they finally leave the room that Feeny finally admits: “I love you all. Class dismissed.”

Thus, it’s by looking back on my past (through the lens of my love and appreciation for Boy Meets World) that I have come to two important lessons to help guide my future:

1) Don’t shy away from telling someone they matter. You don’t always know when you will see each other again. In a similar manner, also don’t shy away from admitting what you care about, either.

2) Don’t just do well. Do good.