The straight man, or often straight woman, gets very little credit in comedy. In extreme cases, such as Margaret Dumont, people will go ahead and claim they just don’t have a sense of humour, which is demonstrably untrue in most cases. (Apparently, Wallace Shawn says himself that he doesn’t have one, and he doesn’t understand why Vizzini is funny. But he’s a definite exception.) They also, honestly, run the risk of being essentially forgotten. I grant you that my first thought, when I think of Pam Dawber, is how strangely her name is pronounced on the Spanish dub of Mork & Mindy. But still—can you imagine costarring opposite Robin Williams for nearly a hundred episodes without being allowed to just give up and laugh constantly?
Really, I’m kind of surprised that Pam Dawber hasn’t had a more notable career—and I remain one of the only people who remembers My Sister Sam for anything other than Rebecca Schaeffer’s tragic murder. It was a good show, and Dawber was fun in it. Not that I’ve seen it in a really long time, I admit. But she’s done very little else of note, unless you count twenty episodes as the voice of a dalmatian. This could be by choice; certainly she can afford not to work, as she’s married to Mark Harmon, but there it is.
And Mindy, honestly, is an underrated character. If they’d kept the focus of the series the way it was in the first season, more people might realize that. Initially, the show was about having Mork adjust to Earth and learn about it, and Mindy helped him do it. As the series progressed, Mindy was given little to do, I feel, and that’s a shame. I’m sure Robin Williams was thrilled to work with Jonathan Winters, but adding Mearth just meant that Mindy was pushed aside more. Honestly, it’s often the worst thing for a female character when she becomes a mother, because that defines her much more than her partner’s becoming a father.
At least Robin Williams helped Dawber push back against having the character sexualized. Mindy’s charming wholesomeness was really her appeal; there’s nothing wrong with sex, but there’s a lot wrong with how sexy women are generally portrayed in media, especially ’70s media. Seeing the intelligent, kindly Mindy turned into mere jiggle interest would have been painful. Mindy’s relationship with Mork felt organic—they seemed to grow interested in one another the way people really do, even people so radically different. Having her suddenly running around in tiny shorts and halter tops, drooling over men, would have felt far less so.
I’ve written before, several times, about the skill it takes to be a good straight man to someone really funny. But, as with Williams, Dawber was also given the chance to show other acting abilities on the show. I don’t know that she is a great actress; I haven’t seen enough of her to know one way or another. Honestly, though, I think I’ve seen enough to know she’s more talented than several other women on TV from that era who went on to have longer, more notable careers. I’m not going to name names, because that’s rude, but I’m sure you can list them yourself anyway.