Faced with the prospect of reviewing cult anti-sitcom Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and The Addams Family on the same weekend I realized that these were two shows that occupied opposite poles of the sitcom format. The one having as its subject oddball misfits living very comfortably within the conventions of the genre — a wolf in sheep’s clothing as it were — the other taking its strikingly mundane characters and setting them adrift. It was like attending a double bill featuring The Carpenters and The New York Dolls.
Mary Hartman appeared in 1976 — the year punk broke commercially, not uncoincidentally — and it exists as a sort of island of experimentation, its ripples of influence not fully engaged with until several decades later when a show like Larry Sanders proposed the very un-American notion of a comedy without a laugh track. Predictably rejected by the networks, this Norman Lear production ran in first-run syndication, five nights a week, usually after the late-night news. Watching its genres collide awkwardly provides a peculiar kind of tension between the sitcom conventions and soap opera satire. It’s a missing link between All In the Family’s genre topicality and The Office’s deadpan silences. Louise Lasser (once Woody Allen’s muse) stars as a put-upon pre-feminist housewife who repeats the secular liturgy of American consumerism in an attempt to stave off a nervous breakdown. Even when the show fails, it gives the glimpse into a parallel universe of American entertainment – which made returning to childhood favorite The Addams Family and its set-up, gag, laugh structure all the more difficult.
Surely the only sitcom based on a New Yorker cartoon, the cast of the Addams Family dutifully portrays the different spokes on the freak wheel: Lurch as Frankenstein, Fester as infantilized misfit and Gomez and Morticia as the married eccentrics whose most outlandish characteristic seems to be their utter devotion to each other. It was part of a larger trend of mid 60s shows that portray outsiders (hillbillies, witches, genies, etc) as various stand-ins for the burgeoning sub-culture that wouldn’t be portrayed on the boob-tube for years. Set against impossibly conservative foils — bank presidents, dowdy neighbors, salesmen and the like —viewers, presumably in the comfortable middle ground, get laughs at the expense of both extremes.
Mary Hartman’s brilliance is in exposing the fraudulence of this middle-American sanity, preoccupied as it is with its waxy yellow floor wax buildup and drip coffee-makers. A year later, Mary Hartman’s faux- soap opera format would be co-opted by Soap, which softened the edges of the satire and became a success. Oh and they added a laugh track too.