Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Mary Tyler Moore Show : “Chuckles Bites The Dust”

Season 6, Episode 7
Original Airdate: October 25, 1975
Writer: David Lloyd
Director: Joan Darling
Executive Producers: James L. Brooks, Allan Burns
Cast: Mary Tyler Moore, Edward Asner, Ted Knight

“Chuckles Bites the Dust” is a joke where everyone knows the punch line. However, in this case that doesn’t make it any less funny. In fact, knowing exactly what will climax the episode makes the first two acts that much funnier. The show’s writer, David Lloyd (who also coincidentally wrote the “Frasier” episode in my last entry), has pulled a hat-trick by making an episode of television funnier with every subsequent viewing, which is a near-impossibility.

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was in its sixth season, but while earlier seasons (beautifully) balanced the work and home life of Mary Richards (Moore), after the departures of her neighbor characters from the show (both to their own lucrative spin-offs) the series tipped its balance into a full workplace comedy. Oddly enough, this reinvigorated the show creatively instead of seeming like it was past its peak. Many of the very best episodes, leading up to one of the greatest series finales in history, came in these later years, and this installment is no exception.

Of course, as the title suggests, “Chuckles Bites the Dust” concerns the death of the barely-seen network clown after he was waylaid by a rogue elephant at the circus after dressing up like a peanut. Seriously. But this revelation doesn’t come until about eight minutes in. Before that, most of the humor is surprisingly flat. Sue-Ann Nivens (Betty White) “gifts” Mary a hanging mobile of food and Ted is thinking of quitting the show because Lou won’t let him go to the circus. It’s all funny-ish, but the show has had much better gags, and there’s only one genuinely laugh-out-loud moment…when Sue-Ann tells Mary what she should do with the food mobile:

“Why don’t you put it in the bedroom? You need something to relieve the tedium.”

An actress at her peak of comedic powers.
But the moment Lou (Edward Asner) walks into the office to deliver the news of Chuckles death, the episode transforms into something great. I have absolutely no idea how Asner could have delivered the lines with a straight face, especially considering the audience reaction, but his delivery is priceless. Lou races onto set during a commercial and tells Ted (Ted Knight) that he has to improv the story…and we watch as Ted comes to terms with death live on the air, stumbling his way through half-memories of a man he barely knew. Watching his spiel is like watching a slow-motion car crash, only funnier and without the brains on the asphalt. It went a little something like this:

"Ladies and gentlemen, sad news. One of our most beloved entertainers, and close personal friend of mine, is dead. Chuckles the Clown died today from…from…he died a broken man. Chuckles leaves a wife. At least I assume he was married, he didn't seem like the other kind. I don't know his age, but I guess he was probably in his early sixties; it's kind of hard to judge a guy's face especially when he's wearing big lips and a light bulb for a nose. But he had his whole life in front of him, except for the sixty some odd years he already lived. I remember, Chuckles used to recite a poem at the end of each program. It was called ‘The Credo of the Clown,’ and I'd like to offer it now in his memory – ‘A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.’ That's what it's all about, folks, that's what he stood for, that's what gave his life meaning. Chuckles liked to make people laugh. You know what I'd like to think, I'd like to think that somewhere, up there tonight, in his honor, a choir of angels is sitting on whoopee cushions.”

The fact that the producers were comfortable enough and trusting enough to just put the camera on Knight (with a few cutaways to the cast in the newsroom) and let him ramble the monologue shows how much confidence they had in Lloyd as a writer and Knight’s charisma, and the scene alone would make the episode noteworthy. But there is still so much more to come…

Of course the ludicrousness of everything about the situation begins to creep into conversation. Murray (Gavin MacLeod) makes the first off-color joke, and Lou finally gives in and laughs. Lloyd gave Lou a very interesting, reflective, human moment as he considers gallows humor just before the jokes begin to fly full force.

“It’s a release. A defense mechanism, like whistling in a graveyard. You laugh at death, because you know death will have the last laugh on us.”

The episode didn’t “need” that beat, but it’s a release for the characters, making their laughter okay. Of course Mary is infuriated by all this, telling them how horrible they are being with their relentless laughter.

And then the funeral happens.

"That bitch is NOT laughing right now."
It’s fascinating to watch the funeral again. I wonder if audiences originally had a sense of what was coming, or if Mary’s inadvertent laughter took them completely by surprise. The gag has been reused so many times since (on lesser shows) that it’s hard to look at it with fresh eyes…and yet it’s still one of the greatest moments of television comedy. It’s all about Mary’s face and the range of emotions that hits as she begins to giggle. She’s furious with herself, then horrified, then angry – but the giggles keep coming. It’s a master class in comedic timing, and I have to wonder if it was done in front of a studio audience or if they used a laugh track for the day. The audience laughter is more muted and short than the situation deserves, making me think her facial expressions weren’t as visible or that a PA had his finger on a dial making sure Mary’s laughs didn’t bleed into the audience’s.

The reverend makes Mary stand and tells Mary that Chuckles would have wanted her to laugh. That his life was about laughter, and he would have been happy to make someone smile, even in consideration of his death. This is, of course, completely true and makes Marie start bawling. And the viewer is crying too, because at this point the laughter has begun to hurt. And you know that’s the sign of a masterpiece.

“Chuckles Bites the Dust” is available on Hulu Plus (ugh), the sixth season DVD of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” on iTunes and on Youtube for free. You’re welcome.

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