Golden Words — The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Chuckles Bites the Dust”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

Jay Sandrich directed 119 episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but he opted out of the seventh episode of the sixth season. The lore around the series — and that notable episode — maintains that he found the subject matter of the teleplay distasteful, feeling that it was inappropriately trying to get laughs out of somber subject. Later, Sandrich downplayed this characterization of the situation, noting he always took ceded several episodes to other helmers every year. Even so, there are plentiful stories about broad misgivings among the cast and crew. The star who gave the show its name was lukewarm at best on the episode’s story and rehearsals during the week were reportedly performed to stony silence from the cast and crew, a rarity for a show that routinely and accurately predicted future audience response on the basis of how many helpless chuckles bounced around the studio during weeklong preparations for shooting. A loose consensus formed that the episode, titled “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” wasn’t all that funny.

The episode was written by David Lloyd, one of about thirty of the series he had sole or shared credit on. He later recounted that the inspiration for “Chuckles Bites the Dust” was twofold. First was a story about someone who died in absurd fashion, suffocating after wedging a large, empty food can over his head. Secondarily, and more importantly, he drew on a memory from when he was a young boy and his mother and aunt had succumbed to a giggle fit during a funeral, leaving him mortified. From those prompts, Lloyd crafted an sitcom episode that can make a legitimate claim on being one of the greatest of all time.

The setup and payoff of the story are, simply put, absolutely perfect. The plot revolves around the shocking death of Chuckles the Clown, a children’s show host at Minneapolis television station WJM. When the coworkers of news producer Mary Richards (Moore) engage in gallows humor in reaction to the funnyman’s demise, she chastises them, declaring their string of jokes to be in poor taste. In the last act, there’s a notable turnabout when Mary finds herself unable to stifle her own laughter at the eventual funeral when the reverend presiding over the ceremony gravely recites the buffoonish characters and catch phrases of Chuckles’s career. There’s yet one more poignant punchline to the scene when the reverend gently, kindly encourages Mary’s laughter, noting it is exactly what Chuckles would want. That’s what sets her to crying.

The episode is truly a masterpiece of sitcom story construction. The jokes are solid enough, often relying on very familiar interplay, both barbed and affectionate, between the characters, but it really is the situation and how it progresses that makes the comedy work. More shrewdly, the episode echoes the strategy of “Coast to Coast Big Mouth,” an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show that won a writing Emmy, in playing to the performing strength of Moore. Fine as Lloyd’s writing is, what elevates “Chuckles Bites the Dust” to the level of classic is the spectacular work of Moore in the pivotal funeral scene, depicting Mary’s contorted helplessness as different strong emotions overwhelm her resolve to keep them contained. Of course, determining precisely the sort of acting challenges that the star of a show can make magic out of it is one of the most valuable skills the writing on an ongoing series can have. It was no fluke that Moore pulled the scene off. Lloyd surely knew he was setting her up for glory.

When the Emmys handed out their trophies for the television year in which “Chuckles Bites the Dust” aired, The Mary Tyler Moore Show absolutely dominated. Moore won an Emmy for her acting, as did Ted Knight and Betty White, and the series took the Outstanding Comedy Series trophy for the second year in a row (it won the following year as well). And, in one of the most undeniably correct decision in the history of the awards-giving body, Lloyd was handed the writing award for the song, dance, and seltzer down the pants of “Chuckles Bites the Dust.”

Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.

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