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tv   Tavis Smiley  PBS  September 5, 2014 11:30pm-12:01am EDT

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until it was perfect. she said to the cameraman, literally, "harry, that looks like it's 2 1/2 inches off." and he says, "lucy, lucy, it's just where it was." and she said -- she's tough -- "measure it! it's 2 1/2 inches off." it was about 2 1/2 -- she knew! she doesn't stop at anything! a new doctor moved into the neighborhood, right? mama found out he was single and an orthopedic surgeon. you know what she did? closed the piano lid right on my fingers. sure, easy for you to laugh, you're lucky, you're a widow! seacrest: perhaps lucille ball's greatest strength was her comic fearlessness. she was all-in on every bit and always willing to take the pie. like lucy says, you got to take the pie in the face at some point. she always played the wacky, crazy thing, and she took the pie -- literally. i let 'em have it!
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drop it! drop it! on the floor? no, let me have it. okay. seacrest: on her first sitcom, lucy's husband, desi arnaz, managed the production, staff, and scripts, so lucy could focus on performing. but when the couple divorced, lucy, reluctantly, had to take a larger role. so one morning, when a script wasn't right, lucy had to take action. burnett: lucy did go back after lunch and told them in no uncertain terms how they had to fix that script and it better be done by tomorrow morning or you're out -- she was strong. and she took a sip of her drink and she said, "and, kid, that's when they put the s on the end of my name." [chuckles] seacrest: the only woman on television whose physical comedy skills compared to lucille ball
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was carol burnett. after 7 years on garry moore's show, cbs offered carol a sitcom, but she declined. she wanted to do a variety show. burnett: this is what i do best. this is what i love. i love music, i love sketches. i love having guest stars and i wanted a rep company like sid caesar had. "the money would then go to my equally disgusting nephew, theo grubber, in the event of bosco's death." [bang!] i'm sure there wasn't much there in the first place. seacrest: carol's secret to 11 years of success was letting others shine. one of the most important things that i learned from carol is that you are as good as the people that surround you. and she just was very much,
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"fly, baby, fly," and very proud of you. she accepted every contribution of a line or a thought or a thing, from everybody. bob mackie, i got an idea for a dress. we'll put this curtain rod in here, and you'll say, "i saw it in the window and i just couldn't refuse it." scarlett, i love you. that -- that gown is gorgeous. thank you. i saw it in the window and i just couldn't resist it. seacrest: because it was taped as if it was live, the carol burnett show had a unique sense of spontaneity. tim conway especially took advantage of that opportunity. i knew what i was going to say. but they didn't know what i was going to say. i would write a script, and i would put in my lines as one thing. when we did the show, i did something totally different, which kind of, i imagine, threw them from time to time.
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not so much carol, very tough to break her up, but harvey, being a poor performer, was very easy to destroy. i'll just give you a little shot here. we'll be right with you. and the audience was looking forward to that each week, too. they can't wait till tim was going to make harvey laugh. imagine being harvey -- "he's not gonna make me laugh tonight." [snickers] [fly buzzing] [buzzing stops]
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a lot of people thought those were staged breakups. they weren't. harvey just had such a weak spot for tim's humor. tim would never do it to the ink. you know, he was always doing something else. you know, throwing a line out. trying to get me to laugh. uh, dear mr. delmar. in the regards to your letter of the 25th... you'd see me as mrs. wiggins sometimes doing this a lot. looking at the nail. i was biting my finger to keep from laughing. i feel that the original reply is in keeping with the policy. the director was winging it, and the audience knew, and it was gold, what he did. he was just brilliant. when i first did the old man, they had never seen that old man before.
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they just said, "you'll come through the door as an old man." okay, so i just walked naturally kind of, but when we taped it, i walked that slowly. i'll take it with me. [tape tearing] [mumbling] [knock on door] man: 4 minutes! i'll be right there. will you hurry up?! [mumbling] ...get all excited all the time! you yell at me... and as i was walking, people were laughing. but i said, if they don't cut this, this is going to go about a half-hour. i'll get a bead on you now. oh, really? mm-hmm. [mumbling] is that so? i see. okay.
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[mumbling] seacrest: adding to the sense of spontaneity was the show's unique opening segment -- carol answering questions from the audience. at first, carol wasn't sure about the idea. i said, "i can't do that." first of all, i'd be scared that nobody would ask anything. second, i'd be scared they would. how old am i? that's all the time we have now. how old do you think i am? and be careful. 26, you're right. right up here. and i'll never forget that first taping. i was just all over the place. gawky, scared, everything. then once the show started to air... i started having fun with it. how do you get to the ladies' room? do you have to go? come on up here.
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sure, come on. yeah. [applause] seacrest: in the series' most enduring sketch, vicki lawrence played the stern mama character, with carol as the more emotional eunice, characters that echoed burnett's difficult childhood. i'm an old woman with a few short years left. the mama character was written for her, but it was eunice that spoke to her. go on, go on, just tell her what happened that night. that i went with you, and then later on, we had to get married! i get your drift, eunice. welcome to the club. audience: oooh!
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carol burnett pointed out that there are no jokes in those sketches. it is all just this brittle behavior, and all the laughs come from the kind of tension and the painfulness of the way they treat each other, which is just really good writing. one of these days they're going to lock you up. oh, lay off of me, will ya? you ain't playin' with a full deck, eunice. i think somebody blew your pilot light out. seacrest: good writing, great casting, and a beloved funny lady at the center. those were the ingredients that made "the carol burnett show" succeed for more than a decade. and the same formula worked for "the mary tyler moore show." cbs came to me and said, "we would like you to do a situation comedy of your own." ♪ you might just make it after all ♪
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seacrest: mary tyler moore occupied a special place in the american mind. she was the all-american girl, the sister, daughter, or friend everyone wished for. carroll: she was their mary. they wanted to shield her from life's mighty arrows. and that's a wonderful quality for any performer to get from an audience, their wanting to take care of you because they love you. i was kind of that woman. you know, i was that person. i grew up in a very conservative household, and i went to a private girls school, and you behaved in a certain way, and it was second nature to me, so i didn't feel that separate from the character i was playing. seacrest: the producers encircled mary with a group of supporting players who rank among the best television has ever seen -- ed asner, valerie harper,
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ted knight, betty white, gavin mccloud, john amos, and cloris leachman. the show... [chuckles] where valerie has lost her job as a window dresser. and she's in mary's apartment day and night, night and day, 24/7, i'm just sick of it. i'm just sick of it! mary, you're not doing her any favors encouraging her in this life of sloth! oh, come on, phyllis, she's not slothy! mary, as her friends, we owe it to her to straighten her out. we have to force her to take a good, hard look at herself. we have to shake her up, we have to slap some sense into her! and there she has a big hair dryer on her head, a big, inflatable hair dryer and a big long hose. rhoda... and i pick up the hose and i say, "rhoda!" i scream. rhoda! and she goes, "ohhh!"
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[chuckles] what? what? what? everybody loved that show and so did i, it was fun. seacrest: "the mary tyler moore show's" most acclaimed episode involved the death of chuckles the clown. what happened, lou? who died, will you tell us? chuckles. chuckles the clown is dead. it was a freak accident. he went to the parade dressed as peter peanut. and a rogue elephant tried to shell him. seacrest: on paper, the chuckles episode ran 5 minutes short, but once the story was performed for a live audience, the show came out the right length, thanks to laughter. so i went out there, where the first scene was with murray, and he starts telling one-liners
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about "born in a trunk, died in a trunk." lucky more people weren't hurt. lucky that elephant didn't go after somebody else. that's right. after all, you know how hard it is to stop after just one peanut. [chuckles] and with each one, i laughed, belly laughed, like i had never laughed on camera before. that's not funny, murray... [laughter] and it infected the audience. and we added a minute in that scene. and that same process just kept going, adding minutes throughout the show. what did chuckles ask in return? not much. [giggling softly] in his own words, "a little song, a little dance..." a little seltzer down his pants. [laughs]
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by the end of the performance, we had amassed our missing 5 minutes. seacrest: because her character was the most popular career woman in america, mary tyler moore was pressured to join the 1970s feminist movement. but when activist gloria steinem tried to recruit mary tyler moore, the actress resisted. i believed that women, and still do, have a very major role to play as mothers. it's very necessary for mothers to be involved with their children. and that's not what gloria steinem was saying. gloria was saying, "oh, you can do everything. and you owe it to yourself to have a career." and, uh... i didn't really believe in that. seacrest: rather than give public speeches, mary tyler moore moved the culture in more subtle ways,
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through her show. her character was an independent woman working in a traditionally male field. mary richards hoped to find a husband, but that quest didn't define her. she was a new kind of woman for american television, an important role model for a new generation. what religion are you? uh, mr. grant, i don't quite know how to say this, but you're not allowed to ask that when someone's applying for a job. it's against the law. wanna call a cop? no. good. would you think i was violating your civil rights if i asked if you're married? presbyterian. fey: there was a night of tv that was mary tyler moore, and it was sacred night, and that would be the thing that, if i ever did get in trouble, that would be what was withheld from me. like, "you're not going to be able to watch mary tyler moore." "what?!" i think that only happened maybe once. i don't know what i did.
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but no, that show was big, big deal, yeah. when she came on, it changed america. so many women have told me it changed their lives, made it possible for them to work themselves. seacrest: over the show's 7-year run, mary tyler moore solidified her place as america's sweetheart. her polite, mannered persona made her the perfect foil for a wide range of eccentric characters. leachman: phyllis, when i first read the script, was neurotic. eventually it turned out, i think, that i was "the sure, firm touch on the wrong note." [chuckles] confident. proud of all the things you shouldn't be proud of. did you know the male bee is nothing but the slave of the queen, and once the male bee, how should i say, has serviced the queen... the male dies? all in all, not a bad system.
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i was playing a very mean character. it was a hospital scene where she was having her tonsils out, and i was a very crusty lady, and i took mary on and i dished it out to her. i was horrible to her. listen, i was just wondering which bed you'd like. either one is fine with me. you know, if there is anything i love, it is long debates concerning bed assignments when i am standing here on crutches! right, yes, well, i'll take this bed. unless you'd rather -- what difference does it make? you're right, yes. i'm, uh, mary richards. wonderful. can i help you? i can do it myself. i got hate mail from that show. i received -- "hey, how dare you treat our mary in that manner?" i wanted to say, "folks, i'm paid to say those words. i think mary is wonderful. i'm with you!" seacrest: "the mary tyler moore show" wasn't the first sitcom to feature an independent career woman.
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four years earlier, marlo thomas starred in "that girl," playing an aspiring single actress in new york. you have just won the privilege of being turned down after you audition for me. oh, i have? oh, mr. benedict! you mean i'm going to audition for you? i mean, after i'm turned down after the audition! i'm so [bangs table] excited -- you remind me of a windup toy. now take this script with you and study the scene on page 18 -- the phone conversation between florence and albert. you want me to play florence? of course you want me to play florence, i'll be florence. i was expressing how i felt and what i thought young women would want to see, because that's what i would want to see. we were the first. then the shows that came after it built beautifully on it. ann marie never really got a good job, and mary richards was a successful reporter at a news station. seacrest: arguably, tv's very first funny lady was gertrude berg, who produced, wrote and starred in "the goldbergs." in 1951, gertrude won the very first emmy award
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for best actress, beating out fellow nominee betty white. betty was nominated for a project called "life with elizabeth." nobody remembers "life with elizabeth." they weren't born when "life with elizabeth" was on. i'm helping? yes, you're helping. hold this, please. cup your hands. there you are. put your hands together. um... like this. pose them in there like that. tighten up. you got it? how's that? all right? uh-huh. good. [chuckles] what are you going to call this one? i think i shall call that, ahem... i shall leave you at this point, elizabeth. that's a funny name for... oh, no. alvin, you wouldn't! good night, elizabeth. alvin, you couldn't do a thing like this! alvin! seacrest: of all the funny ladies on television, no one has had a longer career playing a wider variety of roles than betty white. she's hosted talk shows and game shows, even reality shows.
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acted in soaps, dramas, and sketch comedy shows. and starred in a half-dozen sitcoms. [chuckles] somebody forgot to plug in the oven. well, i guess that just goes to show that anybody can make a mistake, even your happy homemaker. now, don't you go away. we'll be right back after this commercial message. man: all clear. all right, who the hell is responsible for this? there were several "betty white shows," and finally, the last one, i wanted to call "yet another betty white show," but they wouldn't hold still for that. seacrest: every time her career seemed to wane, betty would recapture that national spotlight, on mary tyler moore's show in the '70s, the "golden girls" in the '80s, and "saturday night live" in 2010. fey: i love betty.
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we got to do a week at snl with betty. and it was inspiring just to see, one, that her timing was just rock solid still. her ability to work. she would go home every night to the hotel, and i'd say, "how was your night last night, betty?" she was like, "good, i went back to the hotel. i had vodka and a cold hotdog." like that, that's the secret, i guess. seacrest: every funny lady of television has her own unique secret formula, a dash of comedy, a measure of likability, and an extra portion of personality. television for women has always been a better place. we knew it was something very good and something innovative. i am so happy when i'm performing. i am truly happy when i'm -- that's it. i thought acting was just fun, i still think it's just fun. i'm the luckiest old broad on two feet. this is where i belong. done.
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i'd like to be remembered as being funny and making people laugh and feel better. i truly believe that laughter is the best medicine. seacrest: together, they rank among the most beloved women in history. they are the pioneers of television. she says, "always hang up your costumes, and know your lines, and stay reasonably sober." well, i did two of them. i think i was somewhat responsible for the shoulder pads. i think it was the first time that knock-down, drag-out fights between two women had been seen on television.
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through programs like this, made available for everyone through contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. in things like this. and i think the people who are standups remember that they're always supposed to be funny. um, and i'll just, blah-blah-blah... i think the people who have faced the audience alone so often, toured as standups, just know like, "i gotta kill every time. i gotta kill every time." um... and that's burdensome. for more insider features about your favorite tv stars, stories you won't hear anywhere else, visit to order this program, visit us online at
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or call us at 1-800-play-pbs. at one tremendous thing about pbs is that it makes art accessible by putting it on a platform where millions of people can access it for free. and we need it. we need music, we need dance, we need great theater for our soul, for joy in our lives. a lot of people flip on pbs and hear or see something that wakes up that integral part of being a human being which is enjoying the arts of other human beings. so i'm grateful for pbs as an artist and as a viewer.
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>> charlie: welcome to the program. we begin this evening with the former ambassador to syria, robert ford. >> i would tell the president that, for sure, the options in front of him all are difficult and there's no easy choice but that he should take heart and his administration should take heart that they have had some success in iraq in terms of finding friends on the ground, iraqi militia fighters -- peshmerga -- iraqi fighters, special operations forces, people on the ground we can help, and with a judicious use of american airstrikes, those friendly forces on the ground have been able to blunt the islamic state's advances in iraq. so at the same time the president said there must be a new government in iraq to replace the government of nouri al-maliki, and if they want more ic


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