One little miscalculation can just ruin your whole day. Take Chuckles the Clown, WJM-TV’s kiddie-show host. Named grand marshal of the circus parade, he shows up dressed as Peter Peanut, and, as news director Lou Grant (Ed Asner) later explains to his troops, “a rogue elephant tried to shell him.”
And so begins Chuckles Bites the Dust, unquestionably the best remembered, most discussed, most supremely influential episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show of all time. Chuckles’ nutty demise becomes the source of dark jokes for everyone in the office — except somber Mary, who can’t see the absurdity of the incident, the humor in the clown’s passing…until the funeral when, in a sublime example of poor timing, it suddenly hits her during the eulogy.
Surrounded by stony-faced mourners, striving to maintain proper decorum, squirming for control, trying to cover her giggles with coughs and throat clearings, Mary, finally lets loose. Surprisingly, the preacher encourages her unseemly outburst as something the deceased would have wanted.
No sooner does he say, “So go ahead, my dear, laugh for Chuckles,” than Mary breaks down in tears. This unforeseen final twist, and Moore’s bravura bipolar performance, make this exquisite episode a sitcom landmark and proof positive that TV can explore a social taboo with sophistication, wit, irreverence, and impeccable good taste.
“During rehearsals,” recalls Moore, “I cracked up every time I had to refer to one of Chuckles’ characters: Mr. Fe-Fi-Fo. That would have confused the audience terribly. We didn’t know right up until the camera was on if I was going to be able to pull it off without laughing.”
Original broadcast: October 25, 1975