Throwback Thursday: The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Season Six-Episode Seven: “Chuckles Bites the Dust”
In 1970, The Mary Tyler Moore Show brought us Mary Richards, a single woman working as associate news producer of the fictional Minneapolis station WJM-TV. A group of interesting regular characters worked at the station along with her: anchorman Ted Baxter, head writer Murray Slaughter, Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens, and producer Lou Grant. Other characters came and went throughout the course of the series, including Chuckles the Clown, the host of the WJM children’s program. Chuckles only appears on camera in three episodes, but is sometimes mentioned as an off camera presence, as was the case in one of one of the best episodes of the show: “Chuckles Bites the Dust.”
Dealing with character death can be tricky. This is especially true of a half-hour comedy series like The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The premise of this episode is that the producer Mr. Grant refuses to allow anchorman Ted Baxter to serve as grand marshal of the circus parade, so Chuckles the Clown is chosen instead. Chuckles dresses for the parade as one of his characters, Peter Peanut, and is attacked (shelled) by a rogue elephant.
Everyone is shocked when they hear of Chuckles passing. However, the manner of his death causes the people around Mary to crack jokes about his tragic demise. Mary is horrified by the behavior of her coworkers and chides them for not being respectful. When the group attends the funeral everyone appears more somber than they’d been at the office…except Mary, who keeps trying to stifle her laughter as the minister reminisces about the late clown and his various characters: Peter Peanut, Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo, and Aunt Yoo-Hoo. The minister eventually singles Mary out and tells her that Chuckles would appreciate her laughter since he’d never liked tears. At this point, Mary begins sobbing hysterically.
This episode aired in 1975. At the time, I couldn’t imagine facing such a situation in my own life and just laughed along without really understanding the nuances of the situation. The idea of an elephant attacking someone wearing a peanut costume seemed inherently funny. That was the whole point, wasn’t it?
What sticks with me about this particular episode now is that I ended up in a very similar situation just a few years later. One of my uncles passed away unexpectedly and I felt shocked and saddened by his tragic loss. Yet for some reason, I started laughing at the funeral. All these years later, I don’t remember exactly why. I do recall sitting in a pew with my cousins so maybe the trigger was something they had said or done. In my case, unlike on the show, no one called me out because I managed to disguise my laughter as tears. Or at least, I think I did. No one has ever told me otherwise.
The “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show was not only very well-written, but actually quite true to life. The episode still holds up all these years later and has been held up as an example of truly great comedy writing. In the 1990s, when I tried to write a spec script for Roseanne as an attempt to earn a television scriptwriting fellowship, I learned that writing for a half-hour sitcom wasn’t as easy as I’d imagined. I think I still have the failed script lying around somewhere so I may go back to compare my attempt to the masterpiece that is “Chuckles Bites the Dust”. I’m sure that would be a good lesson.
Not that I plan to attempt television writing again at this point. Of course life, like television, often provides unexpected situations. Whatever happens, I’ll be sure to avoid wearing a peanut costume around an elephant.