20. "Chuckles Bites the Dust," The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1975)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
You knew this would be on the list. "Chuckles Bites the Dust" is the most famous sitcom episode ever — at least within the sitcom industry. I suspect that several Seinfeld episodes have overtaken it among the general public, and perhaps even Arrested Development is better-known with those under 25. But "Chuckles" is still the Citizen Kane of sitcom episodes. TV Guide ranked it as the No. 1 television episode of all time in 1997 (Seinfeld's "The Contest" overtook it in 2009, which makes it Vertigo, I suppose), and professional sitcom writers such as Ken Levine still cite it as a perfect example of their craft.
Lou: It's a release. A kind of defense mechanism. It's like whistling in a graveyard. You laugh at something that scares you. We laugh at death because we know death will have the last laugh on us.
"Chuckles" is more daring than Sullivan in that its characters not only use laughter as a distraction from a tragedy, they laugh at the tragedy itself. We don't get to that right away, but Lloyd foreshadows the dark comedy at the very beginning of the episode, when Sue Ann Nivens blithely shares the title of her latest Happy Homemaker TV special: "What's All This Fuss About Famine?" So we're already in an irreverent mood when Lou staggers into the newsroom with the announcement that Chuckles the Clown, dressed as Peter Peanut and leading a circus parade, has been "shelled" by a rogue elephant. Still, we're not quite sure it's okay to laugh until Ted Baxter is given the task of breaking the news to the Twin Cities.
Ted: (ad-libbing an on-air obituary) Ladies and gentlemen, sad news. One of our most beloved entertainers, and a close personal friend of mine, is dead. Chuckles the Clown died today from... from, uh... he died a broken man. Chuckles, uh, 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."
The climax of the episode is Mary's uncontrollable laughter at Chuckles's funeral — after scolding everyone else for making jokes about his death — and Mary Tyler Moore's performance is quite funny but also nostalgic. Moore's big break as a comic actor was in "My Blonde-Haired Brunette," the second aired episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, in which she sobs uncontrollably to husband Rob after disastrously trying to dye her hair. (DVD might have been a more workplace-oriented sitcom if Moore hadn't impressed creator Carl Reiner so early on.) "Chuckles" came 14 years later, when Moore could no longer play an ingenue and her Mary Richards character had already evolved to become a more self-confident woman — even something of a steel rose when necessary.
So when Mary loses control at the funeral, it's a more surprising twist than it would have been when Moore was still playing someone who got over-emotional with some regularity. Mary Tyler Moore is hardly Margaret Dumont, but part of what makes "Chuckles" funny is that it's like going to your first funeral as a kid and seeing a decorous great-aunt dissolve into hysterics.
Reverend Burke: Chuckles the Clown gave pleasure to millions. The characters he created will be remembered by children and adults alike: Peter Peanut, Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo, Billy Banana, and my particular favorite, Aunt Yoo-Hoo. (Mary stifles a laugh.)
And not just for the laughter they provided. There was always some deeper meaning to whatever Chuckles did. Remember Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo's little catch phrase, remember how when his archival, Señor Caboom, would hit him with the giant cucumber and knock him down? Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo would always pick himself up, dust himself off, and say, "I hurt my foo-foo." (Mary again tries to stifle a laugh. People glare at her.)
Life's a lot like that. From time to time we all fall down and hurt our foo-foos. (Mary snorts with laughter again. Other people turn to look at her.)
If only we could all deal with it as simply and bravely and honestly as Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo. And what did Chuckles ask in return? Not much. In his own words, "A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants." (Mary finally lets out a huge laugh.)
Excuse me, young lady... Yes, you... Would you stand up please? (Mary reluctantly stands up.)
You feel like laughing, don't you? Don't try to stop yourself. Go ahead, laugh out loud. Don't you see? Nothing could have made Chuckles happier. He lived to make people laugh. He found tears offensive, deeply offensive. He hated to see people cry. Go ahead, my dear, laugh. (Mary bursts into tears.)
• There's a great interview with Ed Asner about "Chuckles" by the Archive of American Television here, and he recalls that the episode's script ran four or five minutes short. Instead of adding another scene (or a distracting "B" story), the cast simply stretched everything out, particularly when Lou laughs long and hard at Murray's jokes. ("It could have been worse. He could have gone as Billy Banana and had a gorilla peel him to death.") I assume that the long time it takes for Lou to get out his announcement about Chuckles's death is also attributable to the slowed-down tempo, but it feels genuine for the character. Lesson: Sitcom scripts don't need to be filled in with jokes to the last second.
• Only a few weeks before "Chuckles Bites the Dust" first aired, The Bob Newhart Show (which aired after MTM on Saturday nights) built an episode around the death of a recurring character. In "Death of a Fruitman," Mr. Gianelli, one of Bob's therapy group members, is crushed by a truckload of zucchini. Vince Waldron contrasts the two episodes in Classic Sitcoms:
The fruitman's death is no less absurd, and yet Bob and his group accept the circumstances of his demise with almost existential calm. On The Bob Newhart Show, life itself was such an absurd proposition that death — even death by zucchini — was taken in stride.
• The British sitcom Coupling does its own take on uncontrollable giggling during a solemn occasion in the 2000 episode "Sex, Death, and Nudity," but in this case, laughter isn't really a coping mechanism but just a biological impulse.
• I saw the first airing of the "Chuckles" when I was 11 years old and at a family gathering with my younger siblings and some prepubescent cousins, none of whom were too happy when I insisted that we watch something as faggy as The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I felt vindicated when the episode turned out to be something that even little boys could find funny. (South Park was a long way in the future.) I remember chuckling at Murray's "born in a trunk, died in a trunk" joke even though I had no clue what it was about. Thankfully, no one asked me to explain it.