Splitsider

Monday, June 10th, 2013

'My Mother the Car' Tried Too Hard To Not Be 'My Mother the Car'

Sometimes TV shows drag their unfunny, uninteresting, yet highly rated feet across our living rooms for years. “Who let this happen?” we cry in vain. Other times, the powers that be get things right. That’s where Brilliantly Canceled comes in, looking at the shows that didn’t make it past their first season and saved us all a ton of grief.

It was only a matter of time before My Mother the Car made its way to Brilliantly Canceled: TV Guide in 2002 printed a rundown of what they determined to be the fifty worst television shows ever made, long before the internet would make such lists daily. Despite it being a few years after the apex of its cultural significance, The Jerry Springer Show managed the top spot. Number two on the list – and number one when it came to comedies – was My Mother the Car. Many contemporary shows including The Simpsons and Arrested Development – viewed by many as the polar opposite of quality on the comedic spectrum – have used Mother as the butt of a joke, viewing it as the epitome of dated, stupid, campy, embarrassing, lowest common denominator television. And they were not wrong to do so.

The premise of My Mother the Car was exactly what you would assume it was based on its title: attorney David Crabtree drives a car that is both a vehicle and his deceased mother Gladys. Her voice comes through the radio, which she can turn on and off regardless of whether the engine is running or not. She can actually drive without any help; honk the horn to signal discomfort or a need; and strangest of all, watch television. She does not however wish to speak to anyone but her son, which complicates everything and drives a fair amount of marital strife between David and his wife Barbara. When the hybrid car-woman says to an exasperated David "I came back to help you, not to get you into fights with your wife," it is probably the funniest line of the entire series, and it was not funny intentionally.

What is surprising about the sitcom that NBC put on the air for one thirty episode season from September 1965-April 1966 is how successful the men behind the scenes would later become in the television business. Co-creator Allan Burns ended up as the co-creator of Rhoda, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Lou Grant; Chris Hayward, the other gentleman labeled responsible for inventing Mother, found himself producing and writing on Get Smart and Barney Miller. James L. Brooks wrote two episodes in his first job on a sitcom, and now has his name on virtually every great comedy program that ever existed, including executive producing Taxi and the aforementioned animated series from The Tracey Ullman Show. Another surprise? The prime example of hackneyed, brainless situation comedy did not have a laugh track for most of their episodes. This helped result in a lot of really tonally confusing work. Look at this Rod Amateau-directed scene from the first episode "Come Honk Your Horn," where dramatic close ups and other cinematic techniques are used to document the moment when Jerry Van Dyke tries to tell his family why the piece of shit car he just purchased is something special:

That wasn't funny, as much as it was completely and utterly heartbreaking. The patriarch of this wholesome family has gone insane, and has made his wife cry and his children and dog embarrassed. The only two aspects of that scene that betrayed the alleged genre of the show was the composed and conducted music of Ralph Carmichael and Dick Van Dyke's brother's direct-to-camera moment. What were Burns and Heyward going for? If they were attempting to undercut and mock the utter absurdity of the show's concept with the serious visual cues, why the unsubtle breaking of the fourth wall? If they wanted to let the emotional heft that would be inherit in the actual situation reveal itself and give the seemingly ridiculous show some multidimensionality and gravitas, why the "isn't this guy a Wacky Mcwackerson?" horn section?

Another confusing and kind of cool scene that is worth watching comes from "TV or Not TV." A seemingly successful attempt to connect a television remote to a car battery and a rogue toy of little Cindy's led to this David Lynchian moment:

It did not seem to make a difference if everybody involved ever agreed on what they were going for or not, because any blatant attempts at comedy were not successful. The transgressions however can mostly be rationalized by the time period in which all of these episodes were taped and aired. In "The De-Fenders"1, there was a running gag where David repeatedly stepped on a rake2. However, there was some restraint shown for such physical humor: David only stepped on it and hit his head twice, and when he failed to do so for a third time, Barbara joked that he had forgotten to do it. I wonder though if it would had been so bad if he had kept doing it, because a recurring character on Mother was a villainous car collector by the name of Captain Bernard Manzini who only existed to convince and trick Van Dyke into selling the 1928 Porter car to him. The character, played by Avery Schreiber, can be best described as ridiculous, someone who had somehow escaped a Wacky Races cartoon in three dimensional form3. "The Captain Manzini Grand Prix" was a particular lowlight, which concluded with Manzini's masterplan (that he didn't even think up on his own!) failing on account of the invisible ink pen being used on the wrong contract. Even in that installment, there was no laugh track, not letting audiences completely let go of any possibly pretensions and enjoy something silly.

The series finale, "Desperate Minutes," is awfully telling of what the writers were feeling at that point in time: the plot of the episode found a jewelry store robber breaking into the Crabtrees' house and holding David and Barbara at gunpoint. Since NBC would have had a heart attack if a comedy during Family Hour4 showed a man walking around with a gun without a laugh track, this episode was one of the ones that featured the phony sound of people chuckling at completely different, more amusing jokes, during far more appropriate moments. Unfortunately, the .1 percent of the time that accompanying piped in laughter was not the right call for Mother was there. Consider the old "not realizing the person you are talking about is right behind you" gag:

Jerry Van Dyke5 and Robert Strauss could have worked on dozens of movies together, building a chemistry while studying countless hours of Abbott and Costello footage in each others' trailers to prepare, but that scene never would have worked as comedy because Bullets Morgan is pointing a gun to David Crabtree's head while his wife is being held hostage in the next room, to the laughter of a bunch of weird strangers.

Because Burns, Heyward, Brooks et al. wanted to continue working in show business, or because they simply still showed some affection for their characters, or because they didn't want to send millions of viewers to lifelong therapy sessions, they didn't go all the way with their frustrations at the dumb concept they committed themselves to and have Bullets Morgan murder the entire family and Moon the dog. One of the final moments of the series was still not without some symbolism: mother — who had very little screen time in "Desperate Minutes" — drove Bullets and his partner in crime around in a circle, over and over and over again, that damn car going absolutely nowhere.

Weirdly, that silly spectacle was one of the few times My Mother the Car wasn't suffering from an identity crisis. It's important to know who you are.


1A somewhat clever play on The Defenders, one of the more popular and critically acclaimed television dramas that had just concluded a four year run in 1965.

2Also parodied on The Simpsons, possibly to bust James L. Brooks' incredibly rich chops.

3If some sort of contemporary reenactment of an episode of this show were ever commissioned, possibly in the style of The Greatest Event in Television History, Paul F. Tompkins would be a natural casting choice for Manzini.

4Specifically, My Mother the Car aired on Tuesdays at 7:30 P.M. Eastern. Yes, 7:30.

5Jerry Van Duke turned down the role of Gilligan and Barney Fife, but he played Luther on Coach for eight years.

  • Arthur F.

    Now this is a tv gem, and great analysis. Thanks.
    Although I can't watch the clips (the valued treasure that apparently MMTC rights are hasn't been negotiated for all the money it can earn in Europe) your descriptions and the keyframe choice made it perfectly clear. That laugh-track situation is eerie. I wonder if the archived version was just without laugh track. I also know it watching old tv shows in Europe, the laugh track is often gone. "Odd Couple" without a laugh track, is borderline drama.
    I actually watched that show (as a kid) as I watched everything. I think what made it initially plausible is that feeling of one shared neighborhood setting, like all the shows lived in this one visual neighborhood then. Even your one screenshot of Jerry on the phone, behind him a door and shuttered serving window to the kitchen is practically Dick Van Dyke's house. So that, plus familiar supporting actors, just made it easier to accept. I mean, it is having something strange to it, as you show. But it had something to the oddness that raises it above, ridiculous, or "bad" for tv, like, the following year's Imogene Coco vehicle "It's About Time" and other short lived shows, were there is no Jerry van Dyke to balance out the mugging, and really lower the bar.
    And cars with distinct personalities (From Route 66 to Munsters, Clampetts etc…) were coming into their own. This just didn't figure it out completely. As a side-character in the Munsters, no problem. In a normal neighborhood… a plea of insanity.
    Finally, I don't get Jerry Van Dyke – did he have a different agent than his brother? He was a known entity, the b-string brother who could, but never seemed to get the right choices to use his talents after his stellar launch within the Dick van Dyke show.