Well, we’re finally at the last episode. You guys have suffered through all of the suspense. This is it. This is the best episode of TV that I’ve ever seen. I’m not alone, either, since this is one of the highest episodes on most critics’ lists. When I was researching great television in order to figure out what shows to watch, this show, and this episode in particular, was consistently highly rated, almost regardless of the nature of the critic or the list. It’s just that universally beloved.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the result of changing times. Mary Richards (Moore) was a new kind of central figure on a sitcom: A single, working woman who didn’t really have a gimmick. She was just a normal person, who, as the result of a break-up, moved to Minneapolis to change careers. I realize that doesn’t sound particularly novel now, but this was 1970, that really hadn’t become a thing yet. Weirdly, the character was originally going to be a divorcee, but people thought that viewers might think that she had divorced Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke), Moore’s husband on the Dick Van Dyke Show, despite the different names, locations, and being completely distinct characters. But, either way, Mary Richards was a different kind of protagonist than TV had shown before, and Moore played her perfectly.
Mary originally works at WJM-TV, the lowest-rated TV station in Minneapolis, as an Associate Producer. She initially had only applied to be a secretary, but Lou Grant (Ed Asner), the station’s News Producer, liked her and gave her the better job. Later, when Grant got promoted to News Director, Mary took his job as News Producer, a job for which she was almost completely unqualified, but made work anyway.
Her co-workers at WJM-TV made up most of the cast: Murray Slaughter (Gavin McLeod), the quippy head-writer for the news division; Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), the buffoonish, vain, but occasionally sweet news anchorman; Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White), host of the “Happy Homemaker Show” in the station; and Georgette Franklin (Georgia Engel), Ted’s girlfriend-later wife. Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman) and Rhoda Morganstern (Valerie Harper), Mary’s neighbors, had previously been regulars, but they both already had spin-offs by season 6, when this episode takes place.
One recurring, but mostly-off-screen, station member was Chuckles the Clown, the host of the “Chuckles the Clown Show” on the network. As many of you may have guessed from the title, this episode does not go well for him.
The episode begins with Ted being asked to be the Grand Marshall of the Circus Parade, but Lou refuses to let Ted take the role, believing it will undermine Ted’s already-limited credibility as a newsman. Ted later comes over to Mary’s apartment to complain about Lou’s actions, telling her that he’s going to leave the station. Ted quickly forgets about this threat when Mary says that the Circus already picked a new Grand Marshall: Chuckles the Clown.
The next day, Ted is still angry, but then Lou stumbles into the newsroom with dire news. Chuckles the Clown is dead. Apparently, Chuckles decided to use one of his characters, Peter Peanut, to host the parade, and a rogue elephant found him and “shelled” him to death.
Lou goes to tell Ted the news so that he can report it mid-broadcast, and tells Ted to ad-lib something “short, simple, and warm” in tribute to the long-time children’s show host. Ted proceeds to deliver a completely inept farewell, including Chuckles’ famous poem, “The Credo of a Clown”:
A little song, a little dance
A little seltzer, down your pants.
The next day, the people at the station cannot stop making jokes about the way that Chuckles met his fate, all of them breaking down laughing after each witticism. Murray, in particular, keeps thinking up quips about it, which Lou flat-out explains as: “It’s a release, Murray. A kind of defense mechanism. It’s like whistling in a graveyard. You try to make light of something because it scares you. We laugh at death because we know death will have the last laugh on us.”
Mary, however, thinks that everyone at the station is just being callous and disrespectful towards Chuckles’ death. In particular, she actually rejects Lou’s assertion that it’s a necessary release. Despite her attempts to keep it solemn, the other characters can’t stop breaking into fits of laughter over trying to make a solemn tribute out of a CLOWN.
At the funeral, quips are still being made, because, come on, they’re at a clown’s funeral. Mary finally shames Murray and Lou into stopping, just in time for the priest to begin the eulogy. Unfortunately, just as the priest is delivering his speech, Mary suddenly realizes how hilarious everything about the circumstances is, and cannot stifle her own laughter. Even worse, the priest tries to delve into the “great meaning” behind some of Chuckles’ routines (and, by the way, nails it), which just makes Mary laugh harder, embarrassing the rest of the cast.
The Priest singles Mary out, and tells her that nothing would have made Chuckles happier than to have someone laugh. He lived to make people laugh. He hated sad occasions and crying, so nothing would be more appropriate than someone laughing through a funeral. Unfortunately, saying this makes Mary realize exactly the kind of man that left the world that day, and she breaks down in tears.
The episode ends with the cast discussing how they would want their funeral held, except for Ted, who thinks he’s going to live forever through cryogenics. Mary mocks this by asking him to keep some food from her fridge in with him.
While credit should go to everyone involved in this episode, the biggest winner here is David Lloyd, the writer (who also worked on or created about 10 entries on this list). This episode only works because he was able to craft believable dialogue that could be simultaneously morbid and yet hilarious. Of course, it only worked because of great actors that could really put their all into making sure it was laughable. Honestly, everyone involved in this episode was working at 100%.
The #2 episode on this list, “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” was amazing because it managed to show something horrifying (having your dream fail through no fault of your own) and turn it into something hilarious. This episode takes it one step further: You’re laughing at death. It turns one of the most tragic events, the death of a good person, and makes it hilarious, and then JUSTIFIES IT COMPLETELY. When Lou Grant is talking to Murray, he’s really telling the audience why it’s okay to laugh at this episode: Because it removes some of the sting from the reality that you’re going to die.
Now, I’m going to get personal for a second, when I picked this episode, I was still pretty sure I was going to die within a few months. The tumor was shrinking at this point, but I was also still pretty sure I was going to die, because it was statistically likely. This episode made that easier to deal with. Because it’s so much easier to deal with death by laughing at it, and that’s exactly what this episode is about. You laugh in death’s face, because death is going to win in the end.
The death in this episode is also just so absurd that you have to laugh at it: It’s a clown in a peanut costume being shelled to death by an elephant. It’s something that’s so silly that it immediately makes you laugh a little at the inanity. There’s the added element of seeing Mary trying to take it so seriously while having to say things like the names of the characters that Chuckles used to play: “Mr. Fee-fi-fo,” “Billy Banana,” “Aunt Yoo-hoo,” and “Peter Peanut,” the character that killed him. Her insistence that it isn’t funny just makes it all the more obviously comical.
Then, we have the funeral. And that’s really the reason this episode won an Emmy for writing. After Mary has finally gotten everyone to take it seriously, the priest starts to give a somber, reflective oration on the many characters of a clown. Crazier still, it genuinely is meaningful:
There was always some deeper meaning to whatever Chuckles did. Remember Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo’s little catch phrase, remember how when his arch rival Senor Kaboom 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.” Life’s a lot like that. From time to time we all fall down and hurt our foo-foo’s. If only we could all deal with it as simple 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.”
That’s actually a pretty great legacy: You showed people that you should just get yourself up and keep going when life gets you down. It’s not just that you were making them laugh, you were trying to make them better people. And that’s what breaks Mary down, in the end, because that’s a better legacy than she realized that he was leaving. It’s a better legacy than she is likely to leave, because it’s about the best one that anyone can. Chuckles the Clown spent his life trying to make people happy, trying to make everyone better, and trying to make the world a better place, one seltzer bottle at a time. Even though he’s a clown, one of my most hated enemies, you can’t help but think of him as Mr. Rogers in pancake make-up. That’s why it’s all the more fitting that his death will be laughed at forever, because nothing would have made him happier than giving people one more giggle. We should all be lucky enough to meet such a fate and to live such a life.
Afterwards, it’s even easier for the main characters to talk about their own demises, which includes Sue Ann’s desire to have her ashes scattered on Robert Redford, Mary’s desire just not to have a sad funeral organ playing, and Lou’s famous statement:
“When I go, I just wanna be stood outside in the garbage with my hat on.”
The only one who doesn’t really address his own mortality is Ted, who is too stupid to really conceive of it, instead believing that he’ll be immortal due to cryogenics.
This episode also showcases one of the best features of Mary Richards as a protagonist: She’s usually covering up her self-perceived weaknesses with a disciplined exterior. In this episode, she is trying to force a level of somberness and sobriety upon something that everyone else recognizes is incredibly funny. She’s trying to stay above it all, because she thinks that’s what she’s supposed to do, but eventually, she just can’t fight it anymore, and it happens that she loses her composure at exactly the wrong time. The fact that this is Mary Richards, a woman who absolutely wouldn’t do this under any circumstances, only makes everything all the more impacting.
Within the Sitcom Industry, this episode was, and to a degree is, pretty much the gold standard. I told you earlier that an episode of the Dick Van Dyke show was used to teach screenwriting. Well, this episode was used to refine the craft of sitcom writing. It’s not that shows hadn’t killed off recurring characters before (people dying sometimes necessitated it), but this wasn’t done as a “very special episode,” it was just done as the set-up to a joke… and then, at last, turned into a pretty moving and meaningful sequence. A sequence, by the way, in which Moore never actually says a word.
Ultimately, the reason this episode won is that I don’t have another episode that makes death feel so much less scary without having to promise something fantastic, like a VR heaven or an actual divine guidance to the universe. This episode never addresses any of that. You die. It happens to everyone. Maybe there’s a God, maybe there’s an afterlife, or maybe there’s not. It doesn’t matter. You can laugh at it anyway, because all of life, including its end, is perfectly ridiculous. So, stop taking it so damned seriously, try to be the best person you can be, try to make everyone else’s lives happier by being in them, and enjoy it. Until we one day find out more about the nature of life and death, this episode has universal appeal. After all, somewhere out there is an Elephant with your name on it.
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If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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