Who Is It?

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(Pictured: Rhoda and Mary.)

When you’ve got a winning horse, you ride it. That’s how we ended up with the Marvel and DC Comics universes, a half-dozen CSI and NCIS shows, and Star Wars until you can’t stand it anymore. But this sort of thing has always been a thing. In the 70s, All in the Family begat The Jeffersons and Maude, and Maude begat Good Times. Happy Days begat Laverne and Shirley and somehow, Mork and Mindy.

What’s less well-remembered is that The Mary Tyler Moore Show produced a stable of spinoffs too. Mary’s friend Rhoda, played by Valerie Harper, got her own show in 1974. Rhoda aired for five seasons, although it peaked with its eighth episode, in which Rhoda married the boyfriend she met in the first episode. (The producers’ attempts to save the show after that are the subject of this fascinating AV Club piece from 2013.) Phyllis, in which Mary’s neighbor, played by Cloris Leachman, moved to San Francisco following the death of her husband, lasted two seasons (1975-1977); the most memorable thing about it was probably its theme song, which piles on the Hollywood cheese before a twist ending that seems almost mean. The most successful spinoff was Lou Grant, which ran for five seasons (1977-1982). It won 13 Emmys, including Outstanding Drama Series twice; Ed Asner won two lead actor Emmys too.

(Parenthetical aside #1: how is it that there was no Ted Baxter spinoff? The Ted Knight Show was a midseason replacement in 1978, in which he played—I swear this is true—the owner and manager of a high-class escort service. It lasted seven episodes.)

(Parenthetical aside #2: the first MTM spinoff attempt was in 1972, a backdoor pilot for Bill Daily as a dorky city councilman; it aired in the spring, but by that fall, Daily was on The Bob Newhart Show.)

If you watched Rhoda, you may remember Carlton the Doorman, who worked in the building where Rhoda lived. The character was voiced by Lorenzo Music, who had developed Rhoda with David Davis. (The two had also created The Bob Newhart Show.) Carlton was only heard but never seen, and was often half in the bag, or at least he sounded that way.

With Rhoda a massive hit in its first season even though it aired opposite Monday Night Football, Carlton became the 70s equivalent of a viral sensation. Lorenzo Music and his wife Henrietta wrote two songs for Carlton, “Who Is It” and “The Girl in 510.” They were released on a United Artists single in the spring of 1975 under the name Carlton the Doorman. “Who Is It” wasn’t a hit, although it’s made very well and is even kinda funny: “Who is it? Who is it? / Who’s had a buzz on since ripple began?” It has only two listings at ARSA, although one of them is from WSM in Nashville.

In 1980, MTM Enterprises produced a pilot for Carlton Your Doorman, an animated show that revealed Carlton as a youngish man with shoulder-length blond hair and a mustache—which is not how I pictured him, and I wonder if anyone else did. The pilot wasn’t picked up, although it won an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program after it was broadcast in May 1980. You can watch it here.

Lorenzo and Henrietta Music met while studying theater arts at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. During the 60s they performed as a comedy act. Lorenzo’s break came as a writer and sometime-performer on The Smothers Brothers Show, after which he went to work for MTM. Together, they wrote “Home to Emily,” the Bob Newhart Show theme. In 1976, The Lorenzo and Henrietta Music Show, produced by MTM, aired on the Metromedia group of independent TV stations. It was an ambitious project, a variety hour with an ensemble cast that ran five nights a week. Mary Tyler Moore appeared on the first episode: Happy Days stars Ron Howard and Henry Winkler were on during the first week; Cloris Leachman and Betty White would appear later on. The show didn’t last long, however, canceled after seven weeks. (In the show’s last week on the air, Frank Zappa was a guest.) Lorenzo Music’s greatest role was yet to come, however. In 1982, he was cast as the voice of Garfield the Cat, a part he continued to play in movies, TV shows, and commercials, along with other voiceover work, until his death in 2001.

The list of famous unseen TV characters is long: Maris Crane, Charlie Townsend, Wilson, Phyllis’ husband Lars, Ugly Naked Guy, and more. Carlton the Doorman remains among the greats, even if you have to be somewhat elderly to remember him now.

6 thoughts on “Who Is It?

  1. On a maybe-related topic, I was reading last night (not for the first time) about the Animal House knockoff shows that all three major networks hustled onto the air in early 1979.
    Your line about riding a winning horse made me wonder why we never saw an Animal House II. The basic formula would have been easy enough to imitate, and a college setting gives you carte blanche to introduce new people.
    I wonder if the dreadful failure of the TV shows (one of which was directly spun off from Animal House) had anything to do with Animal House not becoming an ongoing franchise, just as the disappointing results of Grease 2 supposedly killed additional plans for that property.

    (Important disclaimer: I’m not arguing that an Animal House II would have been any better than Grease 2, or that it should have existed; I’m just saying it seems like it would have been an easy well to go back to.)

    1. Having delivered myself of this useless comment a few days ago, I am just now reading in the NY Times that Paramount+ has a Grease prequel series premiering this week. I guess the “additional plans for that property” just took 40 more years to pan out than they were supposed to.

  2. I kept a copy of “Who Is It?” just to be able to cart up the “Who is it?” and ‘What can I do ferya?” lines as drop-ins on air. Usually used on endorsement spots (“Who is it?” “Hi, this is Ed McMahon” “What can I do ferya?” “This holiday weekend, pick up two six packs of Bud.”)

  3. Wesley

    There was also talk about spinning off Betty White’s character Sue Ann after The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but the relative failure of Phyllis made the producers and CBS doubt that such a strong, occasionally unpleasant character would work as a lead in a sitcom. Betty got her own show in the fall of 1977 that ended on CBS in half a season.

    Speaking of Phyllis, that rather cruel opening song had its lyrics stripped and its tempo brought up in the second season in an attempt to convey to viewers that the producers didn’t think the character was that bad. It proved to be too little too late.

    And one more backstage nugget: Originally they imagined Carlton the Doorman being played by Foster Brooks, then best known for playing a drunk on the Dean Martin roasts. For whatever reason, that plan obviously fell through, probably for the better for all involved.

  4. Guy K

    Disregarding the first half of Season 1 of “Rhoda” leading up to Rhoda & Joe’s wedding, “Phyllis” was actually a better — well, a funnier — show than “Rhoda.” And, yes, the opening theme song to “Phyllis” is an all-time classic.

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