This post is part of The Fifth Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon, hosted by Terry at A Shroud of Thoughts. Read the rest of the posts in this event HERE!
Many years ago I took a seminar on story structure. The teacher briefly discussed sitcom story structure, summing it up this way:
“Act I: they get into trouble. Act II: they get out of trouble.”
Sitcoms have come a long way since then, but I think The Mary Tyler Moore Show tweaked that structure long before that style of sitcom writing mostly went out of fashion.
The show concerns single career woman Mary Richards, who is smart, beautiful, and well liked by her friends and colleagues. It would be so easy to dislike her, except for one thing: many situations she’s in that we assume she can handle well end in disaster.
These situations include her infamous terrible dinner parties and awful dates. The day she wins an award for her work she has messed up hair, an ugly dress and is limping from a twisted ankle. She’s almost perfect in her imperfections.
So the show is more “Mary isn’t in trouble yet, but will surely end up in trouble before the credits roll.”
Undoubtedly, the best example of this is the sixth season episode “Chuckles Bites the Dust.” In fact, Mary Tyler Moore won a well deserved Emmy for her performance in this episode.
Anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) announces to his newsroom coworkers at WJM that he has been named Grand Marshall by the circus that is hitting town. Boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner) decides that is not befitting for a news anchorman and refuses to allow him to do it. Ted is resentful when he finds out Chuckles the Clown, who has a show at the same TV station, has been chosen to replace him.
During a news broadcast, Lou bursts into the office and announces Chuckles is dead. He was dressed as his character Peter Peanut. A rogue elephant took him for a real one.
The entire station, including The Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White) and news writer Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod) are devastated by the news. But the bizarre circumstances of Chuckles’ death also leads to some gallows humor, as Murray, Sue Ann, and Lou can’t seem to stop laughing about it.
Mary is appalled by their callousness and berates them for their behavior. They can’t seem to stop, and assure her they all liked Chuckles, but that their humor is a release and a defense mechanism against their fear of death. Mary simply cannot fathom why they find the situation humorous.
At the funeral, once again she has to plead with them to stop laughing. They agree to stop making jokes. The minister begins his eulogy.
“The characters he created will be remembered by children and adults alike: Peter Peanut, Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo, Billy Banana, and my particular favorite, Aunt Yoo-Hoo.”
Mary tries to stifle a laugh.
“Remember Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo’s little catch phrase, remember how when his arch rival Senor Caboom would hit him with the giant cucumber and knock him down? Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo would always pick himself up, dust himself off and say, ‘I hurt my foo-foo.'”
Mary again tries to keep herself from laughing out loud.
As the eulogy continues, she is the only one who can’t seem to keep a straight face, until the minister calls her out and exhorts her to stand up. Mortified, she obeys.
“You feel like laughing, don’t you? Don’t try to stop yourself. Go ahead, laugh out loud. Don’t you see? Nothing could have made Chuckles happier. He lived to make people laugh. He found tears offensive, deeply offensive. He hated to see people cry. Go ahead, my dear–laugh.”
Mary bursts into tears.
“Chuckles Bites the Dust” was written by David Lloyd and is rightly remembered as one of the best episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The best comedy comes from character. Using the absurd circumstances surrounding the death of Chuckles, Lloyd mined comedy gold from each character. This time especially Mary, who often served as a straight man for funnier characters such as Ted, Lou, Sue Ann, and Murray.
Here, he showcases one of Mary’s most endearing flaws. Murray gently dings her early in the episode for trying to always look at the best side of everything. Mary mistakenly believes that laughing at the circumstances of Chuckles’ death is dishonoring his memory. By getting all their laughter out before the funeral starts, the others can sit quietly and not laugh at the eulogy. Because she has refused to laugh at the absurdity of his death, she can’t hold it in at the very moment she needs most to do it.
Death is often used as a subject for comedy, but it has rarely been done as perfectly as in “Chuckles Bites the Dust.”
Let’s all respect Chuckles’ memory, and repeat his Credo of the Clown:
“A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”