Question: A long time ago there was a sitcom set in New York (I think). It involved a Jewish boy and a Catholic girl who got married. (I might have their religions reversed.) Of course, the usual problems developed. I want to say it was called Beth and Bernie. Am I right? Thanks.
Answer: Close, A.C. Actually, you're thinking of Bridget Loves Bernie, a sitcom that debuted on CBS in September 1972 in a cushy slot between All in the Family and Mary Tyler Moore. David Birney (St. Elsewhere, the TV version of Serpico) played Jewish cabbie Bernie Steinberg, while Meredith Baxter (Family Ties) costarred as wealthy Irish-Catholic gal Bridget Fitzgerald.
Ethnic humor was all the rage, and one couldn't argue with the advantages of the scheduling, but Birney didn't necessarily see it that way. "If they ran mouse races after All in the Family, people would leave their sets on. That means the pressure of a large audience is on us, behooving us to be good."
Alas, pressure was not enough, as Bridget relied on hit-you-over-the-head humor inspired by doting parents who had a hard time relating to their kids' choices. For instance, take the example Baxter gave when explaining to TV Guide why audiences who were getting tired of ethnic gags wouldn't get sick of her show. "We are hoping that as the series continues, the ethnic angles won't be as belabored," she said. "Besides, the prejudice of our characters is more subtle than Archie Bunker's. In one scene, for instance, Mrs. Steinberg feels I am undernourished. She encourages me to eat her matzo-ball soup. I don't like the soup but try to be polite. I get sick. She says to her family wistfully, 'Why couldn't that wonderful girl throwing up in the bathroom be Jewish?"
Not the kind of thing that would keep you tuning in, huh? Me neither, but perhaps that's because, having grown up in a kosher household myself, I know no Jewish mom would call anyone vomiting up her homemade soup "wonderful." Lots of other choice words, perhaps, but not that.
Birney, of course, wouldn't have known about such things, necessarily, since he was a Protestant from Cleveland playing a New York Jew. "Brando played the Godfather," he said in 1972, "and he isn't Italian. Besides, living in New York five years, I became street-oriented to the city. There's a certain rhythm to ethnic New York. Once you learn it, you can play almost any part. All I've had to do is brush up on Yiddish pronunciation."
For their part, the critics didn't like the series much more than Bridget liked her mother-in-law's knaidlach. TV Guide's Cleveland Amory called it "pretty awful."
And even Birney himself wasn't too crazy about it. When asked if he was upset about it being canceled just a year after its launch, he wasn't all that heartbroken. "Not terribly," he said. "It relieves me of having to play the same character endlessly and it frees me to do a great variety of other things. And I'm actually relieved to be finished with those Bridget Loves Bernie scripts, which were full of bad writing and things that violated artistic reality. For example, a guy who drives a fleet cab doesn't use it as his own personal car; and people who own a successful delicatessen don't live behind it [as Bernie's parents did on the show]; that's right out of the '40s."