Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Mind Behind Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted - Interview with Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

             Photo courtesy of Jennifer Keishin Armstrong - Photographer: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic is one of the best reads of the last couple of years. As a television executive and long-time TV buff I looked forward to reading a book that dealt with all aspects of one of my all-time favorite television programs, The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is a gifted writer who has worked on staff for Entertainment Weekly and written for several other magazines, including New York and Writer's Digest. She has appeared on CNN, A&E, ABC and VH1 providing commentary on pop culture. She also teaches writing courses.

Jennifer was raised and educated in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. After her success with Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted she will now take on Seinfeld in her follow-up book.   

JT: Jennifer, you were too young to have been an original fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. How did you come to the series?

Jennifer: I was born in 1974, which is about halfway through the show's run, but I watched when I was a kid -- definitely by the time I was 5 or so, which tells me I was watching in syndication (though obviously I didn't know the difference then). I loved Mary and Rhoda even at that age, but of course related to the show a lot more when I came back to it in reruns as an adult.

JT: Jennifer, we are both originally from Chicago. Did your Chicago roots influence your decision to become a writer?

Jennifer: I don't think so, per se. I would have been a writer no matter where I grew up. At the time I thought I wanted to write for the Chicago Tribune, but I'm sure I would have picked a different respected newspaper if I'd lived somewhere else.

JT: What were the inspirations behind what you do? A particular person? Book? Story?

Jennifer: Speaking of Chicago, I spent a strange amount of time in my youth wanting to be Mike Royko, of all people. Not that someone wouldn't want to be a great journalist like him, but it was an odd choice for a cheerleader in the southwest suburbs. I also loved Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert and they obviously had a more direct influence on what I ended up doing.

JT: Obviously, you have an affection for television. What other shows rank high on your list of all-time favorites? Comedy and/or drama?

Jennifer: It's so hard for me to choose at this point! I've been re-watching Friday Night Lights, Freaks and Geeks, and The OC lately, but I do like things other than teen dramas, too. LOST in its early years was mind-blowing, and Seinfeld is the most influential show of our time, as far as I'm concerned (of course, I'm writing a book about it now). The book on Seinfeld will be the follow-up to the MTM book.

JT: Did the character of Mary Richards have a particular impact on your career choice?

Jennifer: It's hard for me to say. I never really thought about it until I returned to watching the show in my adult years, which was long after I'd already become a journalist. I had this weird moment when I started rewatching, right after I'd also ended my engagement to my longtime boyfriend, and I was living in the city by myself for the first time, and I wondered if I'd subconsciously patterned my entire life on Mary Richards.

JT: That sounds like the pilot episode! It's impressive to read all of the accounts by cast members, producers, writers and television executives. What was the process behind the book? Where did the idea of writing this book originally come from? How did one thing lead to another?

Jennifer: I like when people ask me about "process," because it makes it sound so organized! Every time I write a book I feel like it's a disaster and I have no idea what I'm doing, but then it all turns out okay. Basically the process behind talking to people is just contacting anyone who had anything to do with the show and seeing what sticks, though in this case I definitely prioritized the women who worked on the show. I wanted to tell their stories as parallel to the significance of Mary Richards as a feminist icon. I knew I wanted to write about a show, probably from the '70s, which is an interesting time in sitcom history; when I heard that this was the first show to hire lots of female writers, because the creators wanted to mine women's experiences for authentic storylines, I knew there was a story to be told. 

JT: It's a great story - told well. Once the idea was hatched how did you pitch this to your publisher? 

Jennifer: Well, I sold it to Simon & Schuster on proposal in a competitive auction, so I actually got my current publisher through this process. When I say "I," I really mean my awesome agent, Laurie Abkemeier. 

JT: The characters from the series are memorable and distinct.  It was interesting to see how the actors were quite similar to the characters they portrayed with the exception of Betty White. Were you surprised by that?

Jennifer: I had my suspicions! I think it's pretty common on sitcoms, especially, and even more so for those that run for a while, for the characters to take on a lot of the characteristics of the actors. Especially on a show like this, where most of the characters were grounded in reality and within the realm of reason. In contrast to, say, Seinfeld, where the characters are cartoonish and awful people (on purpose, obviously). That is not a show where I see the characters as too similar to the actors, who for the most part seem to be moral and pleasant in real life.

JT: I now look at Seinfeld and realize how selfish every character was, so yes, I certainly can't imagine the actors being a whole lot like their famed characters! How did you gain the confidence of James L. Brooks, Allan Burns, Treva Silverman and the others?

Jennifer: I was lucky, I guess! Some of that comes from finding connections in common, and I think having spent years reporting on the industry for Entertainment Weekly helps. Having a publisher like Simon & Schuster certainly helped. Treva Silverman and I honestly just got along, too. We stay in touch even now. I consider her both a role model and friend at this point. 

JT: Do you personally relate to one character more than any others?

Jennifer: I'll always be a Rhoda girl. I related to Mary growing up, because I actually was a perfectionist type with a pleasant, suburban upbringing who got good grades, ran all the school functions, etc... I always wanted to be Rhoda, which is contrary to what a lot of others felt like. I aspired to be more outspoken and cool and funny like her, and I actually think I got closer to her as an adult.

JT: What is the best career advice you have ever received?

Jennifer: I have oddly few distinct memories of getting career advice, but what pops into my head is a moment while I was writing this book. After my first draft, my editor, Jon Karp -- I was lucky, I got my publisher as my editor, and he's brilliant -- gave me this talk wherein he did nothing but seemingly compliment my draft, but I somehow got off the phone wanting to rewrite the whole thing. The salient point I remember was that he said I'd get respectful reviews for what I'd written so far, but he thought I could do better than respectful. I think of that all the time now when I write, and it was a huge lightbulb moment for me.

JT: Since you are a Chicago native I have to ask. White Sox or Cubs?

Jennifer: White Sox! I'm from the Southside.

JT: Love that. Now from baseball to food. What's the best restaurant in the Chicagoland area?

Jennifer: I always want pizza when I go home, and I like the regular, cheap, thin crust pizza that comes in square slices. You can get it at lots of local places, and I'll take it from any of those. Though Home Run Inn is always reliable. 

JT: I love thick crust and stuffed, but I agree with you. I prefer thin crust. Home Run Inn is definitely one of the best pizzas in Chicago. If someone was telling you they were going to Chicago for a long weekend what would you recommend they do while in town?

Jennifer: I still just love downtown, period. You can do so much in a day just wandering around -- I love the lakefront, I love the museums, I love Michigan Avenue shopping. Just walking along the river is one of my favorite things. It's more exciting to me than New York City, where I live now, simply because I live in the city now. When I was a kid, going into Chicago was such a big deal.

JT: Thank you Jennifer. I look forward to reading your next book on Seinfeld and I'll look forward to reviewing it.  


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