The Artistic Influences in Television: From Mary Tyler Moore to Tina Fey

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Having never watched a single episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show previously (I ended up watching way too much of it subsequently), I was really struck by its similarities to 30 Rock.  While we briefly mentioned that Tina Fey was indeed influenced by the MTMS, it was shocking to see the extent of that influence, which can be best seen through “Toulouse-Lautrec is My Favorite Artist” and the characters’ roles within their prospective shows.

First, let’s examine the similarities between Mary and her long lost stepsister, Liz Lemon.  Both Mary and Liz are in their 30s working on a television program, a job they both seem to have a love/hate relationship with.  The characters also encounter difficulties in dating, which can be seen through Liz’s relationship with Dennis Duffy and Mary’s with the doctor, and they both seem to have amicable relationships with their sarcastic supervisors.

Additionally there are many parallels between Ted Baxter and Tracy Jordan.  Tracy comes onto the Girlie Show in order to use his big, celebrity name to improve ratings; however, his slapstick and improvisation-based humor is problematic in many instances particularly when Tracy refuses to read his cue cards.  Similarly Baxter too has difficulty reading his cue cards providing many problems for those working on the show.  Finally Rhoda Morgenstern and Pete Hornberger serve as the Jewish sidekick/best friend role providing islands of sanity in their prospective seas of craziness.

As mentioned previous, there are some instances of overlap, such as Tracy pretending not to know how to read his cue cards, but in 30 Rock’s “Senor Macho Solo,” Tina Fey seems to be tipping her hat directly to the Mary Tyler Moore Show’s episode “Toulouse-Lautrec is My Favorite Artist.”  In “Senor Macho Solo,” Liz’s biological clock is ticking, and as a result, she gives a little boy on the street a pat on the head.  Of course, this isn’t a little boy, but a midget that Liz Lemon ends up dating.  However, her anxieties about saying something inappropriate in front of him take over, and Liz asks her co-workers questions like, “What if I say something stupid, like ‘Order a tall coffee,’ or talk about my Nintendo Wii?”  While Mary is merely dating a short guy opposed to a legal midget, she too worries about saying insulting things to Eric, and then makes her anxiety apparent by actually saying them out loud.  For example, Mary declares that Toulouse-Lautrec, an artist that suffered from dwarfism, is her favorite artist, she introduces him to Rhoda as Eric Shrimp, and declares that Eric is “short” when he accidentally misses a shot thrown at the garbage can.

Clearly there are many similarities between the MTMS and 30 Rock, for the characters and certain episodic occurrences are extremely similar.  Like great art, great television also tends to be influenced by the works that preceded it.  Just as Manet, Degas, and classical Japanese woodprints influenced Toulouse-Lautrec, Tina Fey was deeply influenced by the works of the Mary Tyler Moore Show.  However, due to stigmas against television people tend to see tradition and influence in this medium as “knock offs” and mild forms of plagerism.

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2 Responses to “The Artistic Influences in Television: From Mary Tyler Moore to Tina Fey”

  1. aspeele Says:

    One thing that’s important to note is that, while Tina Fey was obviously influenced by the Mary Tyler Moore Show, she is also the writer and creator of 30 Rock, while Mary Tyler Moore was just the star of the show (and one-time producer). This, I think, allows Liz Lemon to be a more flawed character than Mary Richards. Tina Fey has less to prove. When the show got picked up, she was already a successful writer. And she feels comfortable writing Liz as loser in her personal life because she is happily married and has a child. So in some ways, 30 Rock is more progressive than MTM, because of its strong behind the scenes female influence, and in some ways less so, because of Tina’s willingness to undermine herself as a female character.

  2. amandahymson Says:

    I had a very similar reaction to the Mary Tyler Moore Show — I ended up watching way too many episodes and I couldn’t help but be reminded of 30 Rock, specifically Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon character. Though as aspelle points out, Mary is definitely the portrait of a generally perfect woman who gets herself into wacky situations. Liz, on the other hand, constantly harps on her flaws (and is harped on). She is far from the perfect everywoman. I don’t know how much that has to do with Fey’s personal life or, perhaps more so, the progress we’ve seen in female-driven comedy. When it came to Mary, making her a single, career-driven woman was enough to be groundbreaking. But as we know, being a single, career-driven woman isn’t easy, and Fey uses these difficulties for comedic effect. I would also argue that 30 Rock, despite its use of absurd humor, is more realistic when it comes to job success. Mary comes to interview for an assistant position and becomes a producer; Liz, though only seen through flashbacks (and from what we know of Fey’s career), suffered through long and difficult years of acting, improv, and writing to get to where she is on the show.

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