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Throwback Thursday -The Mary Tyler Moore Show - Episode 6x07 - Chuckles Bites the Dust

Throwback Thursday is a weekly article in which we look back at our favorite TV episodes from the past.

A highlight of the Hacks season finale (1x10), "I Think She Will" is the fabulous Jean Smart's performance during the funeral for Ava's father. Watching Smart masterfully use humor to deal with grief made TV fans flashback to an iconic sitcom episode that dealt with death. It would not be surprising to learn that the writers of that Hacks scene had watched or studied The Mary Tyler Moore Show's "Chuckles Bites the Dust", (6x07) considered by many to be the gold standard of sitcom episodes. The episode has been an inspiration that many sitcoms since aspire to match the level of to this day. A true testament to the power of this classic Mary Tyler Moore Show, episode is the fact that a little over 45 years after it originally aired on CBS, the message, the writing, and the humor still resonate today.
During the 1970s, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, dominated the ratings and best-of lists for critics. For many, the show was and remains the epitome of television comedy. In its seven-year run, the show earned 29 Emmy® awards, including one for best writing for "Chuckles Bites the Dust" and best actress for Mary Tyler Moore (her third in the category) in 1976. The show is often considered one of the best-written TV series ever and "Chuckles Bites the Dust" remains high on lists citing the greatest TV episodes of all time.
The premise of "Chuckles Bites the Dust" is simple: the staff of station WJM where Mary, Murray (Gavin McLeod), Lou Grant (Ed Asner), Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White), and Georgette (Georgia Engel) are all reeling following the death of their colleague, children's program host Chuckles the Clown. Chuckles, while serving as grand marshal during the Minneapolis Circus Parade and dressed as a character named Peter Peanut is killed by a rogue elephant. What follows next is comedic genius as everyone deals with death in their own ways.
Perhaps in the hands of a lesser cast, the message or episode might not have worked, but the delivery, timing, and earnestness of the golden Mary Tyler Moore cast elevates the episode to its iconic status. Each takes this look at the core of grief and showcases their own reactions. Murray, the writer, known for his biting put-downs of inept anchor Ted can't seem to stop making bad peanut jokes that make almost everyone laugh. News director Lou Grant laughs the most but knows he shouldn't and takes great pains to point out to his laughing cohorts that they're not really being disrespectful; rather they must laugh at death, but death ultimately gets the last laugh. Ted, being Ted, begins to ponder his own mortality when he realizes it could have been him because Chuckles had taken his place as grand marshal of the parade when Mr. Grant told Ted he couldn't have the role.
And then there's Mary who finds nothing funny about their behavior. She is in fact appalled by them finding humor in a topic which she doesn't find the slightest bit funny. However, she can’t contain her laughter when she's seated at Chuckles' funeral and the priest begins reminiscing about Chuckle's many characters, (Mr. Fee-Fi-Foe, Aunt Yoo-Hoo, Billy Banana). Watching Mary Tyler Moore trying to stifle her laughter and remain respectful, as her increasingly somber friends react in dismay, is some of Moore’s best work on the series. Then when the priest tells her it's perfectly ok to laugh, that making people laugh was what Chuckles loved best, she instantly breaks down into tears. This episode is likely one of the biggest reasons Moore took home the best performance by a lead actress in a comedy Emmy® that year.
Any writer who aspires to write television comedy surely must have The Mary Tyler Moore Show's "Chuckles Bites the Dust," at the top of their list of sitcom episodes to study. What the episode gives, in addition to a deep and honest look at death and grief, is a masterclass in storytelling, timing, and delivery. All great things withstand the test of time, and the enduring greatness of The Mary Tyler Moore Show's "Chuckles Bites the Dust" is a prime example. How do you feel about this iconic Throwback Thursday episode? Leave your thoughts and comments below.


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