Mary Tyler Moore was a formidable actress, the kind who could skillfully juggle steely strength and resolve with irresistible daffiness, as she did on The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, before subverting that image with her Oscar-nominated turn in Ordinary People.
The icon, who died Wednesday at age 80, had both the gift and the burden of being able to “turn the world on with her smile,” but she delivered—and never more so than in the classic Mary Tyler Moore Show episode “Chuckles Bites the Dust.”
While it certainly might be macabre to revisit the episode on the occasion of Moore’s own death, there may be no greater showcase of her singular gifts, the kind of comedic, human brilliance that deserves celebrating.
Airing for the first time in October 1975, it was actually an episode from the show’s sixth season, a point in a comedy’s run where defining excellence doesn’t typically surface. The episode earned an Emmy for Best Writing, and, when TV Guide first made its list of 100 Greatest Episodes of All-Time, it placed No. 1. (When the publication updated its list a decade later, it fell to No. 3.)
It’s a triumph of sitcom writing, to be sure, but it would be nothing without Moore’s performance, a tightrope walk teetering between poise and hysteria that, actually, is quite reminiscent of the work Julia Louis-Dreyfus recently won an Emmy Award for in Veep.
The episode begins with Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), Mary’s coworker, being forced to pass on the opportunity to grand marshal the circus parade. Chuckles the Clown is named as the replacement, but is killed during the festivities, trampled by an elephant.
He had dressed as Peter Peanut. A “rogue” elephant tried to shell him.
The dark, ludicrous irony provided a fountain of distasteful jokes from Mary’s coworkers, which she rails against, chastising them right up to Chuckles’s funeral, when they still can’t quit the clown puns.
But when the minister eulogizes Chuckles by recounting all of his comedy routines, Mary, to the horror of everyone she had just been scolding, cannot stifle her laughter. She has a full-on laugh fit, the kind that manifests itself like an unstoppable explosion at inappropriate times, escalating as the minister goes on:
“Chuckles the Clown brought 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. 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 archrival Señor Kaboom hit him with a giant cucumber and knocked him down, Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo would always pick himself up, dust himself off, and say, ‘I hurt my foo-foo?’ Life’s a lot like that. From time to time we all fall down and hurt our foo-foos. If only we could 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.’”
When the minister, instead of admonishing Mary, instead praises her laughter for keeping in spirit with the joy that Chuckles always hoped to bring, she begins sobbing. The transition is seamless, and Moore nails it, making it just big enough to be hilarious, but grounded enough that it didn’t seem histrionic or showy.
It’s some of the greatest comedic acting you will see.
In its revisiting of the episode in 2012, Splitsider wrote that it “found a way to even make death funny, and that’s what makes it one of the most human—not to mention hilarious—episodes ever.”
That human element, as always, was thanks to Moore. She won an Emmy for the performance.
In an Emmy Legends interview, Moore talked about shooting the episode, and how she found certain parts of the script so funny that she feared she wouldn’t be able to pull it off. She kept breaking at the wrong time, each time Mary makes reference Chuckles’ character Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo.
“I would lose it,” she said. “I started laughing. I certainly wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to get through it without laughing.” It would’ve destroyed the joke, she said. But she made it through. “I guess I pretty nicely made it through that scene.”
She did. Watch it, again and again. And then watch Ordinary People, and the rest of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and then read up on Moore’s extraordinary work advocating for diabetes research and progress in diabetes. Laugh hysterically, uncontrollably, just as Mary did. And then sob. Finally, of course, remember to smile—as if you’d be able to fight it.
At a time when “you’re going to make it after all” seems less reassuring but an almost impossible taunt, we need—and will always—need Mary, Moore, and the brand of grounded optimism she projected that served as a national comfort blanket for decades.
And after her death, we just want to curl up with it now more than ever.