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They Say This Was The Worst TV Show Ever. Are They Right?

Entertainment | December 8, 2018

'My Mother The Car' title card; Jerry Van Dyke. Source: YouTube

There have been plenty of terrible sitcom ideas in the history of television, but the short-lived series My Mother The Car, a worst-show-ever candidate, was perhaps the most terrible of all. As the name implies, the show’s main character has a car for a mother, sort of. Actually, he had a mother for a mother, but she's dead, and her soul lives in the vehicle and speaks to her son through the radios speaker. Totally realistic, right? This questionable premise, you may be surprised to hear, was created by the same group of television masterminds who gave us the biggest hits of the 1960s and 1970s -- proving that even the best creative minds can have a dud of an idea. 

Was My Mother The Car the worst show ever? Well, if we're talking "shows," we quickly get into questions of genre -- is My Mother The Car worse than Keeping Up With The Kardashians or the show where plastic surgeons completely remake people and everyone feigns enthusiasm? (Those are two different shows, by the way.) Alright, we'll throw out reality TV and talk shows and just compare apples to apples -- is it the worst scripted show ever? On the face of it, maybe a car possessed by a man's mother's ghost is no dumber than a horse that talks to Wilbur, and Mr. Ed ran for six seasons and is a beloved classic. And how is My Mother The Car a stupid premise while Knight Rider is considered clever?

Details and execution, folks. My Mother The Car didn't have to be the worst show ever, plenty of dumb premises have made for watchable TV. But it just was.

Was The Guy’s Mother Really A Car?

Maggie Pierce and Jerry Van Dyke as Barbara and David Crabtree.

Yes, sort of. The car in the show is the reincarnated spirit of owner David Crabtree’s dead mother, Gladys. Gladys can talk to her son through the car’s radio but she cannot, or will not, talk to anyone else or speak when someone else is present. She can also do all kinds of other car-related tricks, like flash her lights and turn on the windshield wipers and honk the horn. 

Jerry Van Dyke Starred In 'My Mother The Car'

Jerry Van Dyke

Playing the role of the grieving son, David Crabtree, was Jerry Van Dyke, brother of Dick Van Dyke. Ann Sothern voiced the automotive mother for My Mother the Car. The role of David Crabtree’s wife, Barbara, went to Maggie Pierce. 

The Show Ran For Only One Season

My Mother The Car only aired for one season, but back then, they were long seasons. Between September of 1965 and April of 1966, NBC produced thirty episodes. While it may seem like a difficult job to keep the plot lines fresh when the title character is a car/mother, the show’s creators were able to keep the unrealistic series going until the end, with somewhat fresh stories each week. That’s probably thanks to the co-creators of this television misstep. 

The Sitcom Made Some Comedic Mistakes

In addition to the ridiculous plotline, the creators of My Mother the Car also often sent confusing and contradicting messages to the viewers by using counterproductive cinematic techniques. The show’s producers, for example, chose not to include canned laugh tracks so many viewers were not sure if some of the lines were meant to be jokes or to be taken seriously. In some scenes, the dialog is comic but the lighting and cinematography are more dramatic and serious, again leading to a confusing message for the viewers. 

If the mother is a car, viewers' brains are already working pretty hard to suspend their disbelief. Camouflaging the jokes is a bad idea.

The Show Made Typical Mother-In-Law Jokes…With An Automotive Twist

Ann Sothern's weirdest role was playing a car.

The main conflict in the show was that David Crabtree felt pulled between his wife, Barbara, and his mother -- a common trope in sitcoms. The writers of My Mother The Car took these meddling mother-in-law storylines and added the unique and bizarre twist of having the mother-in-law be a car. Being a vehicle didn’t stop Gladys from butting into her son’s life, leaving the wife, Barbara, still competing with her mother-in-law, even though Gladys was dead. 

My Mother The Car Is Considered The Worst Show Ever. But By Whom?

Jerry Springer

Critics and many viewers have spoken -- for years -- and My Mother The Car does indeed have the distinction of being the worst scripted show in television history. When TV Guide ranked the worst shows of all time, My Mother The Car came in at #2 -- behind The Jerry Springer Show. My Mother The Car is a kind of punching bag of scripted TV history -- no show that ever fails can possibly be as bad as My Mother The Car is said to have been. "It was bad, but it wasn't My Mother The Car bad."

But what do the critics know? That's the perennial question. Lots of things that are reviled by critics are loved by the people. Thanks to the internet, we get to hear opposing views.

Some People Enjoyed 'My Mother The Car' And Aren't Afraid To Say It

Source: IMDB

If you visit the comments page at IMDB, you will actually find a lot of support for the show. A lot of people liked this show that is so constantly mocked, My Mother The Car. Here's a comment that shares a different perspective:

There's been scores of bad TV sitcoms (due to bad writing, bad acting, bad production values), but this is not really one of them. The premise (a man's mother is rein-CAR-nated) can hardly be considered out of the norm in a world of Jeannie, Samantha, the Flying Nun, Herman Munster, Lost in Space's robot, and Gilligan. Jerry Van Dyke (who chose this role over the Gilligan role) does the same humor he always does and Ann Sothern's voice as "Mother" adds class and talent. Wacky premise, wacky character, wacky car...should have worked.

So while it's fun to say My Mother The Car is the "worst show ever" -- let's just acknowledge that not everyone would agree.

Was The Main Character Clinically Insane?

In later years, critics of My Mother the Car have reexamined it through a mental health lens. Since the spirit of the dead mother only appears to the lead character, David Crabtree, some mental health experts believe that the show was trying to explore grief and grief-driven insanity. Was David Crabtree so distraught over the unexpected loss of his beloved mother that he projected her personality on to his car? It's an interesting angle -- it takes us into Harvey, Donnie Darko, Mr. Snuffleupagus (Big Bird's friend) territory.

Interesting angle -- but it doesn't make the show a laugh riot.

The Creators of My Mother The Car Went On To Create Some Of TV’s Biggest Series

Allan Burns

My Mother The Car was co-created by Allan Burns and Chris Hayward. If these names sound familiar to you, it is because you probably saw them on the credits for other popular shows of the time. Burns, for example, went on to co-create The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant, and Rhoda. His partner on My Mother the Car, Chris Hayward, produced and wrote for Get Smart and Barney Miller. In addition, James L. Brooks, one of the writers of My Mother the Car went on to write for many of the best sitcoms of the groovy era. He even served as the executive producer for Taxi. It seems that these writers and creators cut their teeth on the absurd series. 

Tags: My Mother The Car | The 1960s | The 1970s | TV In The 1960s

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.