Throwback Thursday: Chuckles Bite the Dust

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.

Podcast: Mind the Gap!

We recorded this episode on the shores of the Pacific Ocean in beautiful Fort Bragg, California. So what did we talk about? Perhaps the most iconic, romantic form of transportation: the train! The Iron Horse is not only a major piece of American history, it continues to move millions of people every day around the world. The engine and entourage above are from the world famous Skunk Train.

Have a listen, send us feedback, and take care of yourself! LYL!

Book Ideas

Welcome back to the Carson-Hume blog where “two hearts share one brain cell.” I am today’s host: JT Hume. You’re reading my second or third writer-centric blog which is a blessing for me today. After twelve hours with the relations (fun but tiring), you get an updated rerun.

There are few easy chores when writing and publishing a book, and book ideas are tough for many writers. You can ask fifty writers for their inspirations and get twenty-five different answers. Some probably have a flowchart like we use in the IT business: stick drawings with boxes, diamonds, triangles, and so on. A lot of “if/then/else” decisions on paper, and all are oh-so-easy to overthink.

I’ve never been accused of being a thinker, so my method has two steps.

“Is it reasonable?”

You’ll probably never see a teenage zombie apocalypse story on my bookshelf because I feel the readers’ suspension of disbelief can stretch only so far. I can’t get past one or two episodes of book and television series because my eyes keep rolling. The mass of humanity may love their two-dimensional characters with one-dimensional explosions, but I want real meat on those bones. The upside of that “real meat” means fleshed-our characters with honest problems set on a background we can all understand. No sparkly vampires here, kids!

“Is it a good idea?”

This is the veto point, but what is a good idea? Hell if I know. There are a bunch of books on my bookshelf, and dozens of unpublished manuscripts and fleshed-out book ideas in Google Docs. If you apply the thumbscrews, I’d say the book must hit me in my feels. Yeah, I’m secure in my masculinity to admit that some manuscripts made me tear up like I’m peeling onions, but others left me feeling “meh” after 80,000 words. The latter are the ones stuck in limbo. Once I decide I have a good idea, though, I’m a greyhound chasing a rabbit. Get out of my way.

Bottom Line:

I don’t care about profitability or a thousand other details you might find in other writers’ brain spaces which simplifies things. I write and self-publish what I like, and if the world doesn’t buy the final product, I throw up my hands and move onto the next book. Either way, I have to believe in what I write and publish, or I feel I wasted your time, and nobody wants that. As long as I write what I like, I’m happy to sign the standard “rich and famous” contract in my next life.

Throwback Thursday: The Waltons

Throwback Thursday: TV Edition
The Waltons Season 1 Episode 11 – The Literary Man

TV was a large part of my childhood. You might say I was an early “latchkey kid” who spent many afternoons watching talk shows, soap operas, and reruns, which is how I got into I Love Lucy, a show that was popular well before my time. Primetime TV was also a big deal and most evenings were spent viewing the line-up on one of the big three networks of the time: ABC, NBC, or CBS. Throughout the 1970s, our evening viewing ranged from I Dream of Jeannie to Happy Days. One of my favorite shows aired from 1972-1981. Based on a book by Earl Hamner, Jr. called Spencer’s Mountain (1961), which also became a 1963 movie starring Henry Fonda, The Waltons was the semi-autobiographical television version of Hamner’s childhood during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The main character and narrator, John Walton, Jr. was based on Hamner. I could really relate to John, Jr, usually known as John-Boy, for several reasons: his large family, the family’s constant struggle to make ends meet, and the rural lifestyle. John-Boy, as played by Richard Thomas for a majority of the series, loved to read and desperately wanted to be a writer despite his background, which he felt to be a hindrance to his career choice.

I recently rewatched a season one episode of The Waltons called The Literary Man (IMDB link) which first aired 30 November 1972. In this episode, John-Boy was supposed to help his father and grandfather with the sawmill, but instead could be found reading Moby Dick. To make up for neglecting his responsibilities, he’s sent to the rail station to drop off a load of lumber.

When the family truck breaks down on the way, a stranger named AJ Covington (David Huddleston) offers to help. As Covington gets the old vehicle running again, John-Boy learns that the older man is an author who’s traveling the country looking for his one great story. After the two of them unload the lumber at the rail station, John-Boy invites AJ home to meet his family. Covington agrees and ends up spending several days helping out in various ways from chopping trees and working in the sawmill to diagnosing youngest son Jim-Bob’s acute appendicitis. As all this happens, AJ continues to tell a starry-eyed John-Boy about his travels to Chicago and the Pacific Northwest, as well as his interactions with a variety of well-known authors of the time.

Watching this episode again after many years reminded me just how much the character of John-Boy formed my earliest desire to write. Seeing the two discuss how life adventures can shape the work of an author reminded me of how the various things I’ve seen and done, and the places I’ve been, could serve as writing fodder. What really stood out most on this latest viewing was the ending. John-Boy is ready to give up his dream of becoming an author because feels duty and loyalty to his family. Covington realizes he has been a negative influence on the impressionable teen and also that he has been fooling himself all these years; his travels and tendency to “talk out” his stories have prevented him from writing much of anything. So AJ tells John-Boy what he has learned about himself and encourages the teen to write about his family, his poverty, and life on the mountain. The Literary Man then disappears from their lives, leaving behind a short note and enough money to cover Jim-Bob’s appendectomy, as well as a disappointed John-Boy.

My rewatch of this episode taught me a new lesson. The way the story is framed with John-Boy (Hamner) narrating his impression of the events initially made me believe that the author should be the hero of their own story when that’s not always the case. My writing is about other people who should have personalities and lives separate from my own. Though they might share similar experiences and interests, they need to respond to them in their own way, and not as I would. While I can narrate their stories, the stories aren’t about me.

This Throwback Thursday is the first in a series of weekly blog posts where I revisit some of the formative media I consumed as a child and young adult. If you’re also a fan of The Waltons, I hope you enjoyed this glimpse back at the series. Let me know which characters and episodes you enjoyed and why. I’d love to talk more about the show with you.

Good night, John-Boy!

Until next week…

Cover Charge

Welcome back. The blog is my fourth major blog (aside from Tumblr and Blogger and such), and the common thread between all was writing. I shared my positive and negative experiences as much as I could, and thanks to the Internet Archive, I found old posts that can get recycled and reposted here.

One such post is the science-art of picking a book cover because the cliché about book covers is true. The process of designing and/or picking a book cover is difficult for me because covers are a combination of design, art, analytics, and good old dumb luck. I am not an expert, as you may guess if you look at my Amazon bookshelf. I’m kind of all over the place, aren’t I? But I do have a process that starts with 99Designs, and I’ve never been disappointed in the professionalism and creativity of their designers.

The process is straightforward: you start a contest, you outline your needs, you have X number of days to pick a set of covers that will advance to a final round, and then another set of days to pick the finalist. I’ve developed a QC system that might help you in the future:

Communication: You cannot over-communicate, in my opinion. When you establish the contest, you provide a book outline and some details, and a list of your expectations. As the contest continues and the book cover designers post their covers, you have the opportunity to provide feedback. The biggest favor you can do for the designers and for yourself is to be open and candid. Provide sample chapters and links to your web sites (social media, blog, home site) so the designers can see your public thinking.

Rating: You can rate book covers on a system of zero to five stars. For me, I use zero to three stars, reserving zeros and ones for book covers I’m never going to use. Two stars are for book covers I’m not quite sure about, and three stars are for designs that I’m certain or near certain are going to survive to the final round. When designers ask why they received their rating, answer all questions. Don’t be afraid. The designers really want to give you what you want.

Be Realistic: Don’t fall in love with the first submissions (like I always do). You’ll have a lot of great designs by the end of the first round if you have adequately communicated your needs. Be patient and stick to your rating system from the beginning of the contest to the end of the contest.

The Final Cover: I have no idea how to pick the final cover. For my latest contest, I bounced back between three or four designs because they were all great. You can set up a poll so your friends and betas can help you pick, but even then, I struggle. When I narrowed it down to two designs for one book, I bought them both. They each have their strengths, and I would have been happy to post either on Amazon. The final decision came down to which cover do I want to see five years from now. (The winner is here, if you’re interested.)

If you have a better methodology, please share. This blog stands to share my experience, but also to learn from you. To paraphrase Edmund Gwynn, “Writing is easy. Book covers are hard.” Thank you.

Podcast: A Writer’s Ear

Coronal section of head showing inner ear with cochlear implant in place. SOURCE: Original KPC art referenced from:

The one where we talk about JT’s cochlear implant and how deafness affected his writing. We discuss how CC was JT’s beard during his deaf years, and we talk about the deaf culture. We send out an update our respective WIP’s (spoiler: they’re crap) and give the weekly smoke report.

Edit: Here’s a PDF transcript for the hearing impaired.

Send feedback to us and scroll down to sign up for email notifications. TIA and LYL!

HW: Random Worlds

Writers aren’t crazy.
We just make up random worlds.
Normal people don’t.

The eternal question: did I think hard about this poem when I wrote it or did I mail it in?

And the answer is: I actually thought about this.

In our podcast about writer’s responsibilities, CC touched on artistic temperament, the cliche that describes the outside-the-box personalities possessed by those gifted with rare insights to our lives. Mozart and his music, Picasso and his art, Jim Morrison and his stage antics (google “The Doors,” kids). The first Neanderthal to drum out a beat on the cave walls was probably looked upon with wary eyes and held at arm’s length.

I can’t speak for other writers, but yes, making up random worlds and keeping the details straight in my mind would be enough to drive normal people batty. What details, you ask? From my books:

  • Eye and hair colors.
  • The fit of a deputy’s uniform.
  • The name of the Child Protective Services’ computer system.
  • Character names (I’m the worst!).
  • Descriptions of the landscape for novels set in deserts and cities.
  • Breed of dogs (they’re all mutts, but remember the color of their fur!).
  • Makes and models of cars and sidearms.
  • Food eaten on a political campaign. (Every brand of chicken.)
  • The knee that received the wound (left or right).
  • A character’s favorite sexual position.
  • Is the trailer park north, south, east, or west of town? (South)
  • Number of Purple Hearts awarded. (I’ll get back to you.)
  • Number of siblings, and is the character the youngest? (Three and yep.)

And on and on and on. These and two thousand other plot points are the details that readers focus on, especially if you’re writing a sequel.

“Artistic temperament” and “random worlds”? Oh yeah. They’re not just cliches. They’re a way of life.

I wonder what normal people are doing tonight?

The Citizen Writer

In CC’s and my weekly podcast for writers, we talked about if a writer has a responsibility to be an engaged community citizen, and we got into the pros and cons of putting ourselves out there in the “real world,” so to speak. Social Media (SM) gives us both a pathway into the debate of our choosing, and a window into the character of strangers who agree and disagree with us.

CC takes the position of non-engagement when it comes to politics and other sensitive SM subjects, and y’all probably know I’m the engager. As I say in the podcast, I cannot not sit on the sidelines when discussing the troubles in our society. I often tread where angels (like CC) fear to tread.

Being this special kind of idiot is not without risk. I’ve been called all sorts of names and held up as a fool (not entirely without justification). On the other hand, I’m gratified by the much larger number of fellow SM surfers of similar minds. All in all, I’m happy to hear all levels of opinions, but I will not be silent when there are windmills to tilt at.

As for you, fellow writer, I believe you should engage because writers are trained to stimulate the thoughts and imagination of our readers. It’s the core of our professional existence. But dive in only if you feel safe to do so. You must look to your own good mental health before dipping a toe in the sewer-pit known as the internet. And under no circumstances should you feel obligated to wade in. Your first responsibility is to yourself. Once you’re on firm ground, then perhaps cast a line into the SM muck.

CC explains it much better in our podcast, so take a listen and feel free to push back. Let’s debate away and get to a better place. Thanks for reading.

Podcast: A Writer’s Voice

The one where we discuss writer engagement in social media debates. Does the writer have the responsibility and duty to engage? CC and I are at opposite ends of this discussion, and we explain why we do and do not get involved in social media conversations. Related: what are the risks and benefits?

Shorter: any podcast that mentions Shrek is a good podcast.

Here you go. Let us know what you think! Thank you and love you all!

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