"There are plenty of times in life when you do the competent, responsible thing. But every once in awhile we need to be damn sweet. If we're lucky, we'll never have to regret it."
Lou Grant (Ed Asner)
Mary Tyler Moore, who died a few days ago, wasn't always the focus of her own show. That was part of what made The Mary Tyler Moore Show so great. There were many talented people involved with that show. The cast was first rate, and so was the writing.
Mary often had to take a backseat to others — and it always worked.
And on this night in 1977, in the episode "Sue Ann Gets the Ax," the sexually insatiable Sue Ann Nivens (played by Betty White, who won two Emmys for her work) lost her job. Her program, The Happy Homemaker, had been canceled due to low ratings.
Sue Ann tried to put up a brave front. She had been offered work doing odd jobs at WJM so she wasn't exactly being thrown out in the street, and she indicated to the folks in the newsroom that she wasn't going to be beaten by what was clearly a demotion. In the privacy of Mr. Grant's (Ed Asner) office, though, she confessed that her show had been the best thing that had ever happened to her and that she no longer wanted to live.
She asked Mr. Grant for a job in the newsroom, and he tried to wriggle out, claiming that the task of hiring and firing in the newsroom was Mary's. So Sue Ann asked him to ask Mary to give her a job. With a decided lack of enthusiasm, he agreed to do so.
At that point, it wasn't actually one of Mary's responsibilities to hire and fire people, though, so Mr. Grant had to do something about that. His solution was to tell Mary that he had decided to give her more authority in the newsroom. At first, Mary was elated. Mr. Grant made it sound like she was going to play a more significant role in how things were done in the newsroom, and she was pleased.
Until she found out that Sue Ann wanted a job in the newsroom — and concluded (correctly) that she had been given this new authority only because Mr. Grant couldn't say no to Sue Ann. But Mary could — and did.
So Sue Ann began recording "house ads" — a few seconds of voice–overs promoting upcoming programs on WJM recorded in a tiny booth with Sam (Louis Guss) the engineer and under–the–table groper.
Things went from bad to worse for Sue Ann. She left the voice–over work to be Aunt Daisy on a program called the Uncle Bucky Show — presumably WJM's replacement for Chuckles the Clown, who, as show aficionados know, died in an episode that aired a couple of years earlier. I don't recall Uncle Bucky ever being mentioned again. Chuckles, on the other hand, had been a frequently mentioned but almost never seen presence at the station.
In that part of the episode, Sue Ann got told off by two rabbit hand puppets and was ordered off the set. She went to the newsroom and told Mr. Grant and Mary that she had resigned, calling her experience with the puppets "the final humiliation."
Mary felt bad for Sue Ann, but she insisted that she believed she had made the right decision. Sue Ann begged Mr. Grant to ask Mary to change her mind, and he tried to convince her, but he couldn't make her budge.
What did make her budge, though, was Sue Ann, who was dissolving into tears. Mary could resist no longer and gave Sue Ann a job. Sue Ann thanked her profusely and promised never to let her down.
After she left, Mr. Grant told Mary, "That was a nice thing you did."
"That was a terrible thing I did," Mary replied. "I hired someone for all the wrong reasons — not on the basis of merit or qualifications but simply because I felt sorry for her."
"That's not such a terrible reason," Mr. Grant insisted. "What's wrong with that?"
"There are people who went to journalism school who worked long hard hours to get a chance at a job in this newsroom," she said. "And they deserved it. And now they won't get that chance because I weakened, because I felt guilty, because I had pity for someone."
"It's not the first time it's happened," Mr. Grant replied.
"Well, a good news executive wouldn't have done that," Mary said.
"I did," Mr. Grant said.
"When?" Mary asked.
"Seven years ago," Mr. Grant said, "a young girl walked into my office, and even though she had never been in a newsroom before, she had the audacity to sputter out a request for a job as an associate producer. Know who I'm talking about?"
Mary nodded. "I didn't have very many qualifications, did I?"
"And you noticed that?"
"It's hard not to notice something with two hands, a pocketbook and a leg over it," he replied. "I thought to myself, 'What kind of a girl is this who is so afraid of a thing like that?' Do you think that was a bad reason to hire you?"
"It was kind of sweet."
"It was damn sweet," Mr. Grant replied. "There are plenty of times in life when you do the competent, responsible thing. But every once in awhile we need to be damn sweet. If we're lucky, we'll never have to regret it."
That was a good lesson, one that is worth an occasional reminder because people do tend to forget it. It's a timeless message, really, that has been expressed in many different ways. I suppose it is a variation on the wisdom from the Bible, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
After all, as John Donne wrote, "No man is an island."
But then, in typical Mary Tyler Moore Show fashion, came the punch line.
As Mr. Grant walked toward his office, Mary asked him, "Mr. Grant, have you ever regretted hiring me? I've done a pretty good job, haven't I?"
It took courage to ask that. After all, no matter how well you think you have done your job, you can never be sure what an employer will say when asked those questions. Mary was really putting her self–image on the line, and initially Mr. Grant was reassuring.
"Pretty good?" Mr. Grant asked. "You kidding? You've done a whale of a job. You've been just great."
Then came the punch line.
"Until you went and hired Sue Ann."