On a soggy gray November afternoon just before Thanksgiving I sat in Louise Lasser’s modest one-bedroom on the Upper East Side, interviewing her. The occasion was the release of the complete box set of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a short-lived seventies TV show produced by Norman Lear that was supremely weird and meta and critical of American consumer culture in a way that still is shocking.
It was set in a small town in Ohio, and Lasser played the titular protagonist who flounders around this bizarro Norman Rockwell world with a bewildered “how did I get here” air that will be familiar (and thus slightly reassuring) to anyone who has ever experienced even the slightest existential drift or wondered why suddenly everyone around you seems to look and dress exactly alike and why all the stores carry the same products and why any sign of difference or texture is being slowly sanded down into an enduring, relentless marmoreal sameness…but I digress, sort of. Because the brilliance of Mary Hartman was in many ways its scathing critique of the way TV sneakily delivered capitalistic messages straight into our unsuspecting minds via commercials, convincing all of us that everything would turn out alright if we just buy the right kind of floor wax.
The season climaxed with Mary suffering a nervous breakdown as she is about to be launched on national television as “America’s Number One Consumer Housewife.” Lasser was perfectly cast in the role, with her New York accent and slightly stunned air, not to mention the doll-like dress in which she was incongruously attired.
Today Lasser is still a babe, with wispy blonde bangs that keep falling into her blue eyes. She still has the same husky voice and daffy vulnerability that brought the character of Mary to life. During our chat Lasser openly discussed her relationship with Woody, what it was like working with Lena, and why the world never got to see the genius pairing of her and Gilda Radner in an SNL skit.
The conversation was so wide-ranging that we decided to divide it into sections for readability. —Ed.
LL: I spent three years in college. Then I got pretty depressed. These things were flirting with me all of my growing up.
CB: Did acting help with depression? Did it give you an outlet for those emotions?
LL: When you’re depressed you’re not thinking this will help me…it’s so part of the fabric of everything. I remember sometimes with Mary Hartman . . . I was gradually morphing into her. There was no her without me. I don’t think acting helped me deal with it. It helped me in that I felt free and comfortable to express my worst needs and thoughts. Thoughts that, I would think, in life I might get rejected for having. Pretty fast it came to me that she [Mary] was a bipolar character, that she swung around, and I was aware that came from me, that I knew how to do that. They’d write a script and I would add riffs to it. In the original scripts, there were a lot of changing keys without modulating.
CB: Have you ever played a character before or since that you had that kind of relationship to, where it was an extension of yourself?
LL: I think there’s a need in every character I’ve ever played, without having thought about it, that’s completely that—that’s all my weak, not-being-able-to-get-on-top-of-it thing. In other words, in this, they give her such an unusual situation that a girl like her, a church-going little Mary, only would try her best to do everything, and be kind to people, and to be good. And yet, Tom, that I’m so attracted to, Tom, he’s the husband, and he’s so mean to me, he’s alcoholic, and I think he’s the best thing. I think he’s the best person that ever lived and no person could be better to me. And I have a daughter who simply hates me.
CB: That character is so loveable and she’s trying so hard.
LL: She’s trying so hard. And she can’t admit that it’s not working, so she eventually, the two collide and she falls apart. [When Norman Lear approached me about the role] I would say, I just can’t do it, I don’t know who she is. I would explain to him, I had five meetings with him [before taking the role.] There’s these characters, and then where Mary is just is this big hole of blankness. Now I realize I didn’t get who she was because I was in there and I couldn’t see myself in there. If you stand out here you can see what fills it in. It’s disturbing, that project.
On Woody Allen
CB: You were married to Woody Allen. Can you talk about that?
LL: Yeah, but ask me questions. Because it’s so much, you know.
CB: Well, what happened, how did he romance you? How old were you?
LL: I was twenty-one. I’d just taken my leave of absence from school. In those last few years of college I’d started to fill up with the dark side. I’d wake up in the morning and I didn’t know what was wrong, I didn’t know what the word depression was, I knew the word depression, and I knew I could say that my mother was really depressed, but I didn’t know that’s what I was feeling. I didn’t make that connection. Now that I think about it, I think Mary . . . she couldn’t identify what it was, it was just happening to her, on her, that she was a victim. But I don’t think I knew that first. The revelations there came from within the story, doing the story. The nervous breakdown was pretty well thought out, in that, when it came, it came.
So about Woody. When we met, I was seeing a friend of his. It was one of those things, well if you think you’re complicated, you should meet so-and-so. And it was Woody.
We immediately, immediately, just were meant to be in the same playpen. Immediately we just connected. He was with somebody . . . oh, he was married, that’s right. And I was with his friend. And we went out like once or twice. And I don’t know who I am or where I am, I don’t know. So, I met him, and it was so clear the whole night the four of us were there, and neither of us are talking to anyone else, do you know what I mean? We know what’s going on and it’s like you feel nervous about it because it’s like you can get into trouble for this. It’s not the right thing to do. I’m twenty-one years old, or twenty, I’d just started therapy, and I don’t know who I am or what’s important, but I do know what makes me laugh. And I do know that I can be really funny, but I don’t associate that with doing comedy or anything. We used to joke. I never wanted to do comedy, I was just a young actress, living with my parents, just started therapy. And was probably pretty depressed in my life by then. So he would call me and he would say do you want to buy some music, I think there were records at the time, and we would go in his car and we just got along really great.
We really understood what the other was saying. Like I’d barely heard the word “existentialism,” but when he and I talked it was like I already knew about it. Do you know what I’m saying? We’d go downtown, and we’d go jumping over benches, what people do, you just do it because you seem so free. This was the time when it was very fashionable to be Zelda Fitzgerald and Scott Fitzgerald. You’re familiar with them?
These were our references in some strange way. Then it just developed, and then he got divorced. In a very short period of time, this happened. We got married five or six years later. For me he was . . . it’s interesting because for me he was safety and the opposite. I’d never met anyone in show business. And he was writing jokes; he’d just done the Sid Caesar show. But I had no interest.
He would show me everything he knew. We’d go to the theater, these little out-of-the-way joints, and we’d have a drink, and by the second drink I was drunk, but he was that way too. He was a really bad drinker. It was as if we just got drunk much too fast, it’s not worth the price. I can remember this—he was the only person who had ever entered my life that I knew something got in there [Lasser taps her forehead] and was moving things around and I didn’t want to go as fast as he did. He was sure from the beginning and I was afraid I’d feel closed in…what turned out to be my usual things for men. He was always really nice. He had more information than I did in a way?
CB: How much older was he?
LL: Three years older. So I was 21, he was 24.
CB: He hadn’t started directing yet, but it still seems he would have introduced you to this whole world of show business…
LL: But he did, he did. I wasn’t so comfortable with it; do you know what I mean? When it came to acting, I always thought well that’s the thing I’m going to do, and I don’t know that he loved that idea.
LL: Well he was very possessive, and he . . . it’s all some mish-mosh, because you’re at those ages that you don’t know what’s going on anyway. You don’t string it together yet. We’d break up. We lived right around the corner from each other. I think I would break up, and then within a very short period of time we’d bump into each other on the street, and I’d start to cry, like why did we do that, break up. We were very inextricably tied at that time. It was adolescent, things seem so exciting and great and then at the same time you don’t know what’s going on.
CB: It sounds very passionate and romantic.
LL: It was very passionate, and it was very romantic, and yet, I could say, “I don’t know,” do you know what I mean? What’s wrong, I don’t know what’s wrong. It’s just like the breakup scene in Bananas. It’s sort of like that, even though that’s scaled over the top.
CB: Was that modeled on one of your own . . . ?
LL: I don’t know, it could have been, I don’t know. We finally ended up improvising it, but it could have been that I was the girl then that things were based on.
CB: So how long were you together?
LL: Before we got married we lived together for periods of time, and then I didn’t know if I wanted to get married, and he ended up giving me his apartment, and he took another one.
CB: So you got married and he moved out?
LL: No. We didn’t get married until I was twenty-six. And during that time my parents broke up. A lot happened. And my mother committed suicide.
CB: I’m so sorry.
LL: It was a very strange time, and you’re always amazed by how much you skip over.
CB: That must have been incredibly traumatic.
LL: I guess so but it’s more traumatic now then it was then. I guess you’re not thinking then, do you know what I mean?
CB: So you’d been picking up on some kind of depression.
LL: For all my life, but I just had no idea. I was brought up by a woman who was incredibly interesting and had very profound depression. It was kind of what I knew. I didn’t know other people’s parents. When I’d get to see them, I thought, they’re so different. But I didn’t want those. I actually liked mine. I thought mine were more interesting.
CB: So you and Woody Allen finally got married, and moved in together?
LL: We always did both [houses.] We had the house we lived in when we were married but we also lived in it before we got married. I don’t know how it didn’t work out or did, but I know that when we separated, and we’d somehow end up in the same place, we’d always end up huddled up in the corner. We were so established then. That girl that he portrays, many of his characters, it was not like that, we just were that. I think that was the original, the source for the others. And then his career started to take off, after we got divorced, but they were so close these moments. They were so close. The relationship didn’t fully dissipate until a couple of years after we got divorced.
CB: Are you still in touch?
LL: We speak not that often, but he usually invites me to come at Thanksgiving. They live a block away. And I’ve gone a few times. But it’s all different. And your life goes different ways. It was such a strong part of my life, so public, in a sense, that you don’t just put it away, like, “oh, when I went out with so-and-so.” I think he talks about this relationship as the crazy relationship too.
CB: Crazy isn’t the word I would use.
LL: He would think I would do things that just totally came out of nowhere. Well, now I’m not quite that way, I was that way more then. It’s very strange when you’re that close to someone and then you’re not. But you speak, but you don’t know which part of you is having that conversation. And yet you do have an affection for that person.
On Being Jewish
LL: I was one of those Jews who sort of denied her heritage because I didn’t look it, no one thought I was Jewish, and only really recently in the last year or so have I found myself incorporating, feeling lucky I had that background. I thought it was a pretty hip background, do you know what I mean?
CB: What changed do you think?
LL: As I get older, I had a major operation, and after that, I wouldn’t say Jewish words, I wouldn’t say bagel—I’d spell it, but I wouldn’t say it—there were all these hang-ups about it, because on my mother’s side of the family, she was not, my parents were like, there was not a Jewish thing in our house, so of course I was brought up to think…but I did, I thought it was inferior. I thought the way typical American Jews tend to think. And then after this operation, something happened with the anesthesia, and it took me months to wake up from it, to where I didn’t mix everything up, and my humor started to come out in a more aggressive way, more Jewish oriented, you know it’s hard to have humor without having that tilt but it was different and I could hear it was more different. When I started teaching, I noticed it creeping into the classroom, and I liked it, do you know what I mean? I didn’t have time for the hiding and the pretending it wasn’t there.
On Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman
CB: That show has such devout fans.
CB: You don’t think so?
LL: Too hard to watch I think. To me. I watch a lot of them at once and then put them down. After a while it’s like, yeah, so? They’re only good in their immediacy.
CB: Maybe also after you have time to talk about them and digest them.
LL: They’re good for a class.
CB: But people watched it every night, religiously. A friend of mine who is gay said he really identified with it growing up because it was about this outsider, and he always felt like an outsider.
LL: But he felt bad for feeling like an outsider.
LL: I don’t know that she did.
CB: What do you mean?
LL: She really just plunked down in the circumstances.
CB: But she has a New York accent, and she’s living in the middle of Ohio. How do you explain that?
LL: You don’t. That’s the thing about all of this. There’s nothing to explain. So it’s a paradox in itself to try to make sense of it. It’s a typical existential dilemma to try to make sense of something that has no sense. I think that’s what makes it work. Yeah. You know it was Norman’s idea, to take commercial television and mix in the two. Was it that we were living what commercials were telling us to do? That was what…I never understood any of that while I was doing it. I just did it. I guess it’s that existential thing where everything is equal. Whether it’s the people being murdered or the chickens or the goats. That was the best stuff was the earlier stuff.
CB: I agree, not that I’ve seen all of it, because it hasn’t been available until now.
LL: To me, I didn’t like the second year. It’s all writing. It’s all ideas and concepts. The first year was the heart, which was the kitchen. It’s so silly and it’s not so idea-y, when the coach dies in the chicken soup. I said we shouldn’t just drop it here after we filmed it. I said we have to have a funeral, and I said don’t do it formally, do it where we’d normally have it—and we’d have it in the kitchen! So much of the quality of that show was because it was so last second. And to me that was one of the funniest scenes we ever did. We could not get through that afternoon without getting hysterical. It’s a wonderful scene. I’m talking to the urn . . . it was so crazy, and silly, yet honest for them.
CB: It’s a parody, but it works because there’s such sincerity on the part of the characters.
CB: Do you have a favorite scene?
LL: I loved the bedroom scenes. There was just something so sad and poignant about them [Mary and Tom Hartman], that they couldn’t connect, that she wanted to and I think he did too. They did have that fond feeling for each other.
CB: There’s such good chemistry between you and Greg Mulleavy [the actor who played Tom Hartman].
LL: We’re still friends. I knew the show was going downhill the second year, but no one was listening to me. And they had opinions and . . . then they got rid of the head writer, Ann Marcus.
On “The Dollhouse Incident”
Toward the end of the first season, Louise had what can only be called a breakdown, and the fallout was very public. It involved an attempt to buy a dollhouse, an incident that she describes to me in detail. Rather brilliantly, the Mary Hartman writers and Louise decided to incorporate the experience into the show’s plot, creating a scene in which Mary Hartman refuses to leave a shop until the store owners let her buy a dollhouse for her daughter.
CB: Tell me about the dollhouse incident.
LL: That happened in the first season.
CB: You were feeling the pressure, even though you enjoyed it.
LL: I loved it, but I was too tired. We never had vacations. Most shows, they do three weeks and then get a week off. One show a week. We did five shows a week, eight weeks, and then a week off. I remember once I lost my voice, where I really couldn’t phonate, I couldn’t make any sound, so I had to have ten-day voice rest. My dad came out and he was with me, and that was when the nervous breakdown idea came up, actually. He said to me, even though I couldn’t talk, it’s really hard not to talk, you can’t whisper, there’s nothing you can do. It was actually a great experience toward the end, right about day seven. He said, Louise, you have hubris. I was sort of falling apart. I did think I was always right. Everything got tarnished for me and I couldn’t find my way, and I didn’t enjoy acting anymore.
CB: So what happened with the dollhouse?
LL: You remember America’s Typical Consumer Housewife? [Louise is referring to a moment in the show when Mary is designated America’s Typical Consumer Housewife and is flown to New York to appear on a nationally televised talk show.] This is the day or night before I’ve packed, and I’m leaving, so I’m on my way to be America’s consumer housewife. Exhausted as Mary, exhausted as Louise, already over the top. And on the way I stop into this shop—and in real life—did you want to talk about in real life?
CB: Yes, in real life.
LL: Do you know about that? What do you know?
CB: I know that you were trying to buy a dollhouse at an antique store and it wasn’t for sale, or you didn’t have money, and you wanted to pay with a card or something…
LL: The real story.
CB: Yeah. And then you got caught with a little bit of cocaine.
LL: Yeah. Six dollars worth. You couldn’t even fit it up one nostril. To boot, that was not my cocaine.
CB: I’m not surprised, you don’t strike me…
LL: No, I had taken cocaine. And especially that year, but I know what you mean. But it seemed like a fun high, because I was so down, but it never worked that great for me. Yeah I’d want it again, but not like an addict. It wasn’t like it transported me or anything. So a fan, which they do, had taken it and gave it to my secretary at the time. I would never take anything a stranger gave me. Especially then. It was this little vial, and she put it in my bag, and I had one of those big bags you could fit this whole table in? One of those big leather bags. Norman even went on television to defend me—well, he would do that, Norman—and he said, “You should see her bag!” She put it in my bag and I never took any of it. Even grass then was laced if they know who they’re giving it to. That coke had been in there for months and months and months.
And so they pulled it out and I didn’t know what to do except say oh, yeah, that’s cocaine. And they booked and arrested me for it and I was on probation for six months. It’s all fused together. I know which is real but I have to honestly stop and think about it. It was my wardrobe person’s birthday, and I decided I’m going to give her a birthday party at my house. I woke up with a hundred and four fever, flu, so I go, I have to do this anyway, and I go to this boutique store. I have a hundred dollars cash—I was that disorganized. I didn’t lead a glamorous life. I led my life how everyone does I think. I always wonder how these people from today who clearly live such glamorous lives, how do they do that?
CB: I always assume they have a million people helping them.
LL: I guess so. But I wouldn’t like that either. I did have secretaries, but for this and that. Not for frivolous things, not for, would you go out and get me a dress. OK, so it’s her birthday. I find this little store in Beverly Hills, and I find this doll’s house, and I think oh this is great. The only problem is that there are these little mice in the doll’s house, and I think it’s a little grotesque, even though it’s meant to be charming. So they say it’s a hundred and five dollars for the dolls house, but I have to go buy birthday cake now. And I said, I only have a hundred dollars. Meanwhile, I’m wearing a woolen hat, like a knit cap as a disguise and nobody recognized me, and I have a 104 degree fever—it’s funny I didn’t ask anyone to help me—so I said I have a hundred dollars.
At that point if I’d pulled off half my hat, they would have recognized me. Now I’m getting angry. And I’m sitting on a children’s stool. I said I swear I’ll bring it back later. And they said, no, no, no. And I said I’m not leaving until I get my doll’s house. The next thing I know the police come. And I explained to them about the birthday party. So they go to their car and come back and they said we have two outstanding warrants for traffic tickets. And they said I’m sorry, you have to come with us. And we get in the car, and I take off my hat, and they said, “Why didn’t you tell us it was you! Now it’s written up.” and they take me to jail. It’s on the news every four minutes.
The conversation moves on to Louise’s appearance as a guest star on Saturday Night Live, where she recounts her arrest in a strange monologue with musical interludes during which she sings a chorus “But then there was Mary, Mary. . . ”
CB: The Saturday Night Live incident—it seems like you’re having a breakdown.
LL: Oh, well that was on purpose.
CB: So you planned that? But I thought Lorne Michaels hated that. He had that show struck from the record.
LL: But he knew what it was. No, you can get that show. I have it. He struck it because my manager said strike it. He didn’t like the whole episode. He didn’t like me sitting there talking about it, cross-legged, on the floor, talking about getting arrested. He hated the show. About six months later we were at Elaine’s with some people, and he [Michaels] said you know it’s only now occurring to me how much pressure you were under at that time, which is interesting, because it was true. It’s like everything came up at once.
They wrote sketches for me and I didn’t want to do them, because they were salacious—you know how Saturday Night Live is. And it was so not my kind of show and it took me forever to commit to do it. And if you look at it, it’s two separate shows; it’s my stuff, and their stuff. The people were nice, they were okay. I know Gilda [Radner] was mad at me for not doing . . . there was a sketch, you know, about the size of guys’ organs, and I didn’t want to do it. And you know she’ll do anything, I mean I love her, she’s loveable. Not because of her, I just didn’t like those kinds of sketches. Everything they presented to me, they’d do spoofs on psychiatry, and things I just didn’t believe were true, so it was, I don’t know. It was really weird. They had a lot of meetings in my house in California, and they told me I’d be allowed to write, and none of that was true.
CB: They didn’t end up using your material, is that what you’re saying?
LL: Right. And the only thing I held firm about was that particular sketch.
CB: The monologue?
LL: No, that was fine with me; it was just a sweet thing. I performed it as it was written. I just didn’t want to do the men’s cocks sketch. I just couldn’t imagine performing it in front of my parents; do you know what I mean? And times were different; it was what, thirty years ago? So what happened was it became important enough to me and no one was there to work and everyone was drugged all the time. And everyone could do what they want as long as they work. Chevy Chase came in, and you know we both kind of hit at the same time, and the only thing I can think was that it was just sort of threatening to him, to have a girl, and he was so mean to me, really mean, like-a-bully mean. And I didn’t understand it. I was seeing the guy who was the script supervisor. He couldn’t believe what was going on there. So I’d say could we meet Lorne, could we meet about the Gilda sketch? And no matter what they won’t drop the sketch. They were so resentful because of the notoriety around me I think, or because I wouldn’t do the sketch.
Gilda came and talked to me after, saying ‘I was so hurt because I couldn’t wait to work with you.’ And I said, well, what if my parents saw it, and she understood it, she said ‘no, I thought I did something.’ She’s just the sweetest thing. She’s a doll. So at the last minute my manager said they’re not going to cut it. So I said then I’m going to go. And he said are you serious, you’re going to make an ultimatum out of this? And I said, I think so. I saw it recently, and thought, you know it’s not even that explicit. But it was part of that year to come, what it was going to be, which started with the arrest.
You know it’s on Wikipedia that I was banned from that show, but it’s not true. I was so hurt. He had invited me to come back; he said come back in two weeks and do another show.
CB: It’s so weird how those things get out there.
LL: How they get out and there are sort of vapors around it. Because I can feel that the vapors—I completely forgot about that. But when I saw Wikipedia said that, I said how do I get rid of this, it’s not true. So they said well anyone could change it, you can just change the sentence. But it never got changed, I never changed it. Isn’t that weird that I never changed it?
CB: Well theoretically Wikipedia has all these people checking all the time. But it’s funny because it casts you in this way as being rebellious; I thought you’d gone on and deliberately subverted the show.
LL: It was sad because I believed in people and if they said they were going to do something . . . for me to threaten to walk off the show, I would never do that for spite. Banned—that’s a horrible thing to have said. But I don’t think people think about that very much now.
LL: Lena Dunham, she just called me. Someone said, does anyone know where Louise is, on, which is it, Twitter, I don’t know, on Twitter, and someone said, yeah. I’m going: hey, I know where she is! And we developed so far a really nice relationship and I’ve done two of them. I don’t know if I’m going to do any more.
CB: What do you play?
LL: I think that’s the ridiculous part. You know how she fancies herself to do her shows very close to life. I think that’s why she liked me, because it was like, the thing about Mary Hartman being so Pirandello-esque, the connection to Girls being so auteur. So she called me and we met for like four hours, and I hadn’t read a script or anything. But she gave me a script to read.”
CB: But you’d seen the show.
LL: No. I’d never seen it. But this is what interested me, that people were treating it in kind of an intellectual way, that it meant more than it was saying. But I didn’t even really know that when I went on—she just wanted to meet me. She came in with the idea that Mary Hartman was such a phenomenon and Girls was such a phenomenon so that was the connection. So she wound up asking me a lot of questions, just talk, and this, and another writer was in the room. And it’s just like talking. It was easy. She was interested in the parts of Mary Hartman that corresponded with her, in terms of the fame as something that hit so big. In the back of my mind is what we’ve been talking about, the negative that can arise from that. That it turns another way because you’re just not ready for it. I remember that she said to me, at the end—this is this long meeting—do you have any advice for me? So I said the only advice I could give you is rest. And it’s true. So that when these things come on, and you get mixed up in it . . . maybe I would have . . . I still think about the sketch with Gilda. Maybe I would have called my father . . . I never even thought about it till now.
I play a part, an artist. I hire Jessa to help me with some stuff. Lena, when you talk to her, you will the next day see your exact speech in your character saying it. So after a while you learn, oh, I don’t know if I want to say that. But she’s cute! Last I spoke to her was the day before the Emmys.
CB: What’s it like working on TV now?
LL: What’s different is I’m different. I’m older. More forceful in my work. Maybe I was then and didn’t realize it. It was a really fun experience, it was really fun to be in that atmosphere again, that they feel they have something special going for them.
CB: So it did remind you of Mary Hartman, then.
LL: Oh the externals definitely did. Yeah, and she really takes a lot of time. Which is good. Acting is the same, in that it has to be truthful. You have to buy it whether it’s funny or not funny. I like it if it’s a risk, and it’s…get me over the proscenium; get me through the screen, just for a second. I like to be in the position where you can go for it, because then it’s risk.
Lasser’s TV, which was housed in a giant seventies-style brown cabinet, remained on the entire time we talked, the sing-song voices of college-football announcers burbling in the background. By the end of the afternoon, the Auburn Tigers beat the Georgia Bulldogs, 43-38.
Claire Barliant is a writer based in Brooklyn. She wrote about Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman in 2010 for East of Borneo.