I can see the invitations now: Mr. and Mrs. Martin Morgenstern are relieved to announce the marriage of their daughter Rhoda to Douglas Hemple … who’s not nearly good enough for her.
I’d planned on using that joke when I got married, but it didn’t look promising. My longest relationship lasted from dinner to breakfast. So, I gave it to Rhoda, played by Valerie Harper on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” when writing a script. She was fantasizing about a man she’d gone out with once. The studio audience laughed so loud, it drowned out the punchline.
Though neither single, Jewish nor a loser, Harper, who died Aug. 30 at 79, was totally convincing as the desperate, wisecracking second banana. In her colorful shmattas that looked as if they’d come from a thrift shop, she struggled for approval while things came effortlessly to her shiksa best friend. Casting someone vibrant and attractive as Rhoda allowed those of us who identified with her to hope we might not be as mediocre as we believed.
One dateless Saturday night, a girlfriend and I were watching the show when I surprised both of us by blurting out, “Why don’t we try writing an episode?” For five years I’d been working for the comedy legend Carl Reiner. I loved my job and imagined I’d be his secretary forever. But in the early ’70s the women’s movement was insisting we have the same job opportunities as men.
Before my friend could point out that two secretaries had zero chance of breaking into the male-dominated world of comedy writing, I pitched a story. “Rhoda’s crazy about a guy she’s had a few dates with and is trying to get Mary to agree that the feeling is mutual. Mary isn’t coming through. We find out why when she gets to the office and tells her colleague that the guy Rhoda likes asked her out.”
I persuaded her to collaborate by saying, “What have we got to lose?” We were shocked when the script led to our getting assignments. Walking into the MTM office for our first meeting, my partner was greeted by an executive producer exclaiming, “You’re Mary.” Turning to me, he said, “And you’re Rhoda.” None of us wanted to be a Rhoda, but because of her, I had the chutzpah to go after what I wanted, which was a husband and child. We are about to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary and the birth of our first grandchild. Thank you to Valerie Harper.