When The Mary Tyler Moore Show tried and failed to eulogize a clown

When The Mary Tyler Moore Show tried and failed to eulogize a clown

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. Now through March: some of our favorite episodes of all time.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Chuckles Bites The Dust” (season six, episode seven; originally aired 10/25/1975)

In which it’s not funny until it is…

Todd VanDerWerff: It’s dangerous to think about this stuff, but I wonder how much of my critical consciousness was formed by watching the entirety of The Mary Tyler Moore Show on Nick At Nite when I was 12 and 13. So many of the things I like to see on TV come from this program, which is rightfully groundbreaking and important to TV historians. For me, it’s taken on even more importance as a way to understand TV comedy: The laughs should come from character and the characters should be well developed. The situations should be somewhat grounded. A little pathos here and there is desired. If there’s social commentary, it’s usually best placed in the background.

Yet, when picking my favorite Mary Tyler Moore episode, I’m the same as everybody else. It’s “Chuckles Bites The Dust.” It will always be “Chuckles Bites The Dust.” It’s the kind of episode that’s rare in the TV world: one that gets big laughs and big recognition almost solely from its universal content. When watching the episode for probably the 12th or 13th time, what came to mind was the aftermath of Paul Walker’s death in November. When Twitter filled with bad jokes about the actor’s death, it just as quickly filled with people scolding the jokers for being so insensitive and ghoulish. This is the cycle of grieving a public figure. It’s like Lou Grant says, “Death is such a big, scary concept that you have to laugh at it, lest you give it all of your power,” which sometimes results in crass jokes that ruffle the feathers of the Mary Richardses of the world.

“Chuckles Bites The Dust” became famous not just because it’s funny, but because it was brazen about finding laughs in this particular peculiarity of human behavior. It helps that the script by David Lloyd is filled with great jokes from Murray Slaughter as he makes fun of the unusual circumstances of Chuckles’ death—the clown was dressed as a peanut and shelled by a rogue elephant. It also doesn’t hurt that the true premise of the episode only gradually reveals itself. For roughly the first seven or eight minutes, it seems like it’s going to be about Ted Baxter wanting to be grand marshal of the circus parade. But the script manages the neat trick of allowing viewers to laugh with Murray and Lou, while also understanding Mary’s side. No matter how bizarre his death was, Chuckles died and that should matter somehow.

But, no, “Chuckles Bites The Dust” is famous because of this scene.

Mary Tyler Moore is a great comedic actress, but when it came time for a big comic set piece on her own show, it would often go to Ted Knight or Cloris Leachman, who both played characters wackier and more capable of pulling off big comic beats than the more buttoned-down Mary Richards. (It’s one of the strengths of the show that Mary is usually the straight man, but she can turn on a dime, becoming the weird catalyst for reactions.) Still, a scene like this reminds you what a vital and alive performer Moore was at her best. She wrings every laugh out of Mary’s reaction to the pastor’s speech, but finds both the laughter and the pathos in the moment when Mary finally breaks and weeps. It’s this kind of turn that Mary Tyler Moore did well, and it’s a big part of the reason the show is still one of my favorites.

But in the rush to justifiably praise the funeral scene and Moore’s performance, it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole episode leading up to that scene with a short and sweet coda where the characters discuss their funerals wishes. Outside of that famous set piece, there’s more going on in this episode. Were any of you first-time viewers of this one? And if you were, had the funeral been played in so many TV clip shows and the like that it lost its punch?

Zack Handlen: I was a first-time viewer, but I’d actually read sections of the script before. When I was a kid, I read an anthology called The Big Book Of New American Humor and it cited “Chuckles Bites The Dust” as an example of how to find humor in a serious subject. The editors of the book went to great lengths to explain how the structure worked—how the writers carefully established Mary’s (completely understandable) disdain for laughing at a dead man, only to have her break down at the worst possible moment. They included excerpts from the script, including the famous funeral scene. For the longest time, I’ve had this episode fixed firmly in my head as an example of how comedy is supposed to work. I’m not sure I could explain exactly what I thought that meant, other than that authoritative people told me that “Chuckles Bites The Dust” was ideal, and if I ever wanted to be funny myself, I could learn from it. And everything I’ve heard about the episode since then confirmed this assumption.

That’s an awful lot for a half-hour TV comedy to live up to, but “Chuckles Bites The Dust” manages the trick nicely. It helped that I never saw a clip of the funeral scene. I’m sure it plays well out of context. Like you said, Todd, Moore conveys the discomfort, absurdity, and pathos of the moment beautifully, and there are few things funnier than seeing someone struggle to maintain decorum and fail utterly. The moment plays better in context though—so well that at one point I couldn’t quite breathe, because I was laughing so hard. While I would love to have watched this for the first time without having any idea where it was headed, there’s something to be said for anticipation. Knowing what was coming meant I spent the whole episode waiting for Mary to get the giggles, so that when it did happen, I couldn’t help laughing too. 

So, “Chuckles Bites The Dust” lived up to my expectations, which is always a relief, and “relief” is what makes this so great. It’s hilarious, yes, but also humane in a way that adds to the humor rather than undercutting it. Without working too hard to achieve it, the episode manages to wring laughs out of the comfort of being kind of awful, of taking something big and scary and realizing you don’t have to face it straight on. Humor typically works best when it arises out of tension; the higher the stakes, the funnier a situation tends to be. That isn’t to say every comedy needs a body count, but the greater the fear of embarrassment, or exposure, or humiliation, the bigger the laughs. Before watching the episode, I assumed the big reason Mary’s breakdown at the funeral was so hilarious was because of the inevitable shame of cracking up in the middle of a serious and sad occasion. That’s partly true, but the pastor goes out of his way to try and comfort her, and assure her that everything’s fine. 

I was struck with how uninterested the episode was in trying to judge anyone, which is where the relief comes in. Grief is such an awkward, jagged, confusing emotion, even the minor sort of grief the show’s ensemble goes through here. (Despite the fact that Chuckles’ wife is mentioned, we never see her. Ted’s the only person who seems even remotely connected to the clown, and, well, he’s Ted.) The social contract requires certain basic rituals and behavior—wear black clothes, don’t speak ill of the dead, don’t make horrible puns about peanut costumes—and that can be a great comfort, but it doesn’t take away the strangeness of death. What struck me most about “Chuckles Bites The Dust” was how comfortably the show dealt with what’s basically an impossible situation. An elephant crushes a 60-something-year-old man. That’s a violent and painful death, but it’s absurd too, and there’s no way to reconcile the absurdity with the awfulness. It just sits there in a lump, and you deal with it, and maybe you deal with it by laughing hysterically.

Okay, I’m spending too much time trying to dissect this, and not doing a very good job. Despite the occasional speech from Lou, “Chuckles Bites The Dust” is effortless, and doesn’t strain to impart a serious lesson. It just acknowledges something that television still struggles with today, accepting that “sorrow” and “humor” aren’t inherently discrete modes of thought. We don’t ever hear much about Chuckles the man, and much of the laughs come from the descriptions of his suddenly completely inappropriate clown shtick, but the episode never comes across like it’s laughing at him. There’s nothing mean-spirited in any of this, because often, life is inappropriate.

So what did you think about the tone, Carrie? And do you think Murray’s one-liners were inherently hilarious, or were most of them funny just because they were about a dead man? (It was the latter for me.)

Carrie Raisler: I did find Murray’s one-liners hilarious, so much so that the scene where he and Lou break down laughing in the office was far funnier to me than the more famous funeral scene. Part of this is simply my standard delight in finding inappropriate things humorous, but a larger part is that at that point in the episode, I still wasn’t sure where all of this was going. As Todd mentioned, “Chuckles Bites The Dust” is like a comedy nesting doll. It starts like a typical episode about Ted wanting to be the grand marshal in a parade, then sheds that shell and transforms into a goofily uncomfortable story about people figuring out how to talk about their co-worker’s strange death. Finally, it reveals the episode’s true heart as a sort of mirror that reflects the difficulties everyone goes through when processing something big and scary.

The problem with watching this episode for the first time so many years later, at least for me, was that by the time Mary started scolding Murray and Lou for making light of a serious subject, it was incredibly obvious where this would all end up. I didn’t watch much Mary Tyler Moore growing up (just enough to recognize the characters and absorb the ever-famous opening title sequence somewhere deep in my subconscious), and I’d never seen this episode before. It’s obvious a lot of sitcom writers have (as illustrated by Zack’s comedy book, they literally studied this thing), and this episode is the perfect example of how influential this show was on comedy for generations to come. The way the events unfold here is now such a classic comedy setup that the only surprise for me would have been if Mary didn’t completely break down with laughter at the funeral. This isn’t to say that it’s not funny—it certainly is, and Mary Tyler Moore is absolutely wonderful in the scene. But by knowing exactly what was going to happen, it was difficult to get to the gut-busting place I wanted to be, so Lou and Murray cutting up in the office felt more spontaneous to me.

But loving the unexpected is why I liked the bit where Mary suddenly stops laughing and starts crying. It’s the one thing I didn’t see coming, and it lands flawlessly, with the absurdity of the moment perfectly punctuated by Mary’s bewilderment at her own uncontrollable emotional reaction. Everyone going back to Mary’s place afterward having completely absorbed the insanity of their day, moving on from their strange reaction to Chuckles death to reflect on how death affects them, is what makes the episode work so well. There’s obviously no “right” way to do comedy, but Mary Tyler Moore shows that if you create great characters and pay close attention to them, you can get away with having them do everything from the mundane to the absurd to the poignant all in the span of a single episode without having to try very hard, because it’s relatable, and that’s what makes this episode special.

Genevieve, am I the only one who prefers the escalating inappropriateness of Lou and Murray’s battle of the one-liners to the funeral?

Genevieve Koski: Mary’s epic bout of church-giggles at the funeral is so burned into my brain that I can’t co-sign that preference, Carrie, but I did love the one-liners as well. I’ve seen “Chuckles Bites The Dust” before, though I was quite young at the time. I don’t know if I remembered the one-liners from that early viewing, or if they’re so loudly telegraphed that I could usually recite them in my head moments before they happened. I’m relatively sure that’s on purpose, though. As far as vocations go, there are few with more built-in jokes than professional clown, and I think much of the humor of Lou and Murray’s quips is based in a certain “They’re not gonna go there, oh man they went there!” sense of knowing delight, combined with the graceful escalation of actually going there.

This concept of laughing at death works, because the dead party is someone who exists to be laughed it—and will continue to be laughed at once he stops existing. Once that foundation is in place, the jokes strongly suggest themselves. As Murray says, “I’ve been coming up with dumb jokes about it ever since you broke the news to us,” a feeling I can relate to. That said, I probably couldn’t come up with wonderful phrasing like, “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants,” or, my personal favorite, “From time to time, we all fall down and hurt our foo-foos.” Those are perfectly silly phrases, and the solemnity with which they’re delivered is why this episode has literally gone down in the annals of comedy.

I could spend this whole piece writing about the beautiful dance of emotions that play across Moore’s face as she’s trying not to crack up, but to do so wouldn’t come close to doing justice to her fine work. Instead, I’ll bring up Chekhov’s mobile, that weird cluster of dangling foodstuffs that spends most of the episode sitting in Mary’s refrigerator, mocking me with that banana that surely could have somehow been worked into a joke about Billy Banana or something. Instead, it’s dutifully dragged out during the coda, providing the episode with a final, absurd image. It’s strange that an episode about a clown who dies at a goddamn circus parade is so devoid of any imagery that evokes the colorfully artificial milieu it’s centered on. That can probably be chalked up to sitcom frugality—please note that Chuckles’ funeral appears to be held in a re-appropriated living-room set with eight chairs, a few flower arrangements, and no visible casket—but it’s still strange to see the death of a clown rendered in such a neutral palette. That’s why I appreciate the mobile, that last tiny visual punch—the “Chuckles Bites The Dust” equivalent of a pair of bloomers with “The End” written on them. 

Todd, you’ve seen this episode so many times, and it’s an important one—both good and heavy—that your inclination to over-think it is understandable. But I want you to put on your critic’s cap and give it to us straight: What about “Chuckles Bites The Dust” makes you laugh?

TV: There’s little in “Chuckles Bites The Dust” that doesn’t make me laugh, but I think what gets me is the long list of silly characters the clown played over the years. There’s no attempt to show footage of him as these characters, (There couldn’t be, since he was always an off-screen character.) and there’s little attempt to explain who they were outside of the magnificently named “Aunt Yoo Hoo,” so things grow in the imagination. That’s one of the great things about this episode in general. So much of it is left to your imagination, from the exact details of Chuckles’ death to Sue Ann Nivens’ salute to the four food groups.

That might be why I carry such a torch for multi-camera sitcoms. I absolutely understand why single-camera sitcoms are ascendant, but I love the inherently stagy aspect of having a character talk about something ridiculous, relying on the actor to sell that craziness. I love it when George Costanza says, “The sea was angry that day, my friends!” I love it when Bob Newhart engages in a long phone call with someone we have to imagine filling in the other side of the conversation. I love it when Mary Richards tries to keep a stiff upper lip while she explains what Aunt Yoo Hoo’s shtick was. This silly stuff has always made me laugh, and it always will.

Zack, what did you think of that coda? I always forget it exists, because the funeral is such a perfect end point, but I also think it really adds something to the episode, reminding us of the pathos this show was capable of at its best.

ZH: The coda is nifty. I found the last joke with the mobile kind of forced, although I respect the construction. Georgette Baxter sticking the thing in the fridge is the sort of great gag that doesn’t telegraph any kind of payoff. But what I loved about the final scene was the normalcy of it, everyone hanging around and decompressing after the event. I honestly think multi-cam sitcoms do this a little better than single-cam, if only because the sense of immediacy makes the comfort of it all the more satisfying. There’s immediacy about multi-cam that ensures that I’m always aware not just of the characters, but of the actors and the sets they’re standing in. There’s a certain detachment to single-cam, and I liked the closeness of that coda, the ease of conversation, and the way no one appears interested in talking to Mary about breaking down at the funeral. It was just a thing that happened. They all understand, and that’s fine.

I agree that leaving Chuckles’ death (and, outside of his work, life) somewhat vague was a great choice, partly because it’s how that sort of thing might happen, and also because it makes sure our attention stays where it matters. A scene of Chuckles’ sobbing wife doesn’t distract us, and neither does learning he had a secret drug addiction. There are enough details that he’s not quite just a symbol, but not so much that he becomes a living, breathing person, and that’s a relief. It’s funnier this way.

Carrie, what do you think about multi-cam versus single-cam? And how great is Ted’s improvised on-camera eulogy?

CR: I like multi-cam as well, mostly for the same reason Todd mentions: the stagy setting. That’s why the mobile joke works for me here in a way it probably wouldn’t in a single-cam. It’s as if the show is letting the audience (both in the studio and at home) in on the joke construction, then putting a button on it to say “Aha! You definitely see what we did there, and you like it, even if you’re groaning at the same time!” I’m sure much of the reason I love multi-cam shows is that they were part of the fabric of my childhood, but it’s impossible to dismiss how great the form can be when done well. There’s just pure satisfaction in watching broad comedy structured perfectly, and the best multi-cam shows know exactly how to mine those moments in a way single-cam inherently isn’t able to do. The best multi-cam shows leave room for the specific moments interspersed between the broadness, and that translates well into the character moments in the “Chuckles” coda as well.

As for Ted’s eulogy, it made me kind of uncomfortable. This is obviously an incredibly personal reaction—watching someone do something horrendously terrible on live television harkens back to some deep-seated fears from my broadcasting classes, I think. But this reaction actually led to a greater enjoyment of the show, because it demonstrates how many different types of comedy it squeezes into this one episode. There’s the absurd, the obvious, the uncomfortable, and finally, the catharsis of watching Mary absolutely lose her shit at the funeral. That’s an impressive breadth to cover in such a short time frame.

Was anyone else put off by Ted’s crash-and-burn? Or am I just strangely emotionally scarred?

GK: Ted’s crash-and-burn didn’t bother me at all, Carrie, because that’s what Ted does. He’s WJM’s resident buffoon, and his incompetence as a news anchor is as central to his character as Michael Scott’s incompetence as an office manager is to his. That buffoonery was downplayed somewhat in the show’s later seasons, in an effort to make Ted seem more sympathetic, but the incompetence never really went away—hence the series-finale joke that Ted is the only WJM employee to survive the mass layoff of the Six O’Clock News staff, despite being its obvious weakest link. So, just as we know right after hearing Chuckles has died that a clown-car joke is in the near future, we know the moment Lou tells Ted to ad-lib the death announcement that it’s not going to go well. But what makes that moment special is that Ted seems at least somewhat aware of his incompetence, and chagrined at his inability to pull off this important moment—at least until he gets into a rhythm and starts talking about a choir of angels sitting on whoopee cushions. Perhaps that’s why you experienced that moment more as cringe-comedy, Carrie, because it’s apparent Ted actually cares, which makes his failure sting more.

This ties back to the staginess of multi-cam—this idea of knowing roughly how characters are going to act in a given situation. I’m not saying that can’t be the case with single-cam as well, and I’m certainly not implying that these characters are predictable, but there is a somewhat closed, formulaic aspect to the construction of multi-cam sitcoms that engenders certain comfortable joke-rhythms like the ones Carrie’s talking about. That puts the onus on the actors to work within that structure, to give their characters enough dimension and nuance to bring life to a moment that could seem flatly predictable—and to sell moments that break from that rhythm, like Mary bursting into tears after the priest tells her to laugh. Knight does that wonderfully in Ted’s on-air eulogy, as do the rest of the cast, which is why the MTM cast is generally considered among TV’s best comedic ensembles. This episode is a great example of how working within a formulaic, closed system—and strategically breaking from it from time to time—can make for great television, current trends be damned.

Next time: Erik, Phil, Molly, and Ryan dissect The Sopranos’ “Funhouse,” which is available on DVD and on HBO Go.