This movie is so funny you forget that it’s incoherent as hell.
Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) is a caddie at the snobbish Bushwood Country Club trying to save for college. Danny often receives advice, and tips, from Ty Webb (Chevy Chase), an eccentric and wealthy son of one of the club’s founders. Judge Elihu Smails (Ted Knight) offers a scholarship which Danny tries to pursue while sucking up to the Judge. Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield), a rich slob who owns a construction company, shows up and starts playing golf at the club, upsetting Smails. At the same time, Carl Spackler (Bill Murray), a greenskeeper, is ordered to hunt down a gopher that’s been tearing up the course. He starts by trying to flood the gopher out, then shoot him, but without success.
Danny helps his girlfriend Maggie O’Hooligan (Sarah Holcomb) wait tables at the Country Club and finds himself drawn to Smails’ niece, Lacey Underall (Cindy Morgan). Danny wins the caddy golf tournament, leading Smails to invite him to the Yacht Club, where Lacey and Danny hook up and have sex in the Judge’s bed. Smails catches them, but, rather than firing Danny, lets him keep the scholarship in exchange for his discretion.
Unable to deal with Czervik’s obnoxious behavior, Smails tells him that he’ll never be a member, only for Czervik to state that he just wants to buy the club to demolish it. Ty Webb tries to get them to talk it out, only for Czervik to challenge Smails to a golf match. Webb and Czervik will play Smails and local champ Dr. Beeper (Dan Resin) for $40,000, soon doubled to $80,000. During the match, Czervik, losing, fakes an injury and Danny takes over in the tournament. On the final hole, the score is tied, with Danny having to make a tough putt to tie. Czervik doubles the bet based on whether Danny makes it, but Danny leaves the ball hanging over the lip. However, at that moment, Carl, having gone insane trying to kill the gopher, explodes a number of C-4 charges (to the tune of the “1812 Overture”), knocking the ball in and destroying the course. Czervik leads a wild party and the gopher, unharmed, dances to “I’m Alright.”
The category for this film was “Film That Has a Line that You Quote Repeatedly,” and while there are a lot of movies that I quote frequently, this movie is the only one that has two phrases which I have used on the record in court. Both of them are by Carl Spackler, because Bill Murray improvised most of Carl’s lines, making them among the funniest and most unusual in the film. The first is “Correct me if I’m wrong, Sandy…” which, in the movie, is followed by “but if I kill all the golfers, they’re going to lock me up and throw away the key.” Due to the rarity of situations in which I am asked to kill golfers, I almost exclusively use the first part, but that is my go-to sarcastic way to clarify something ridiculous that someone says. The second line is “So, I got that goin for me, which is nice.” That line is the end of one of the most memorable parts of this movie, Carl’s speech about being a professional caddy to the Dalai Lama. I’m just going to put it below, because everyone deserves that joy in their life.
This movie was, from a production standpoint, a crapshoot. Most of the actual “plot” of the film got rewritten, re-shot, or just abandoned during filming as bigger and bigger stars got attached. The film was originally supposed to focus primarily on the caddies, particularly Danny and his desire to go to college, but once Rodney Dangerfield and Chevy Chase and Ted Knight joined, the movie quickly became more about them than about Danny. However, since they had already scripted a bunch of scenes about the caddies, some of them were left in, leading to strange plot threads that get dropped, like the rivalry between Noonan and caddy Tony D’Annunzio (Scott Colomby), or resolved in five minutes, like Maggie’s pregnancy scare. Additionally, they kept coming up with, admittedly funny, ideas during filming, like having a Bishop play a near-perfect game of golf only to get struck by lightning when he curses as he misses the last putt. Because of this, a lot of critics correctly pointed out that this film seems scattered and incoherent.
But who gives a crap about that, because this movie is funny as hell.
Look, whether it’s coherent or not, this movie contains some of the most memorable comedy bits of my childhood. Lines and scenes from this film influence comedy writing to this day. I’ve seen multiple shows directly lift the gag of having a Baby Ruth in the pool appear to be feces. Aside from Fletch, Ty Webb is the epitome of Chevy Chase as a perfect wise-ass. His complete and utter unwillingness to behave like a normal person fits better in this movie, because he has too much money and no responsibilities. Bill Murray as Carl Spackler is a comedy archetype now, despite the fact that he had no scripted lines. Murray just improved the whole thing. It’s the only movie in which Murray and Chase have ever been on-screen together. Rodney Dangerfield’s entire film career started here, and Al Czervik was basically re-written to be Dangerfield doing his stand-up routine so that it came off as natural and genuine. Since Dangerfield was one of the biggest stand-ups in the world at the time, this makes his character hilarious. That’s basically what the movie is: A bunch of talented people playing to their strengths with almost no actual oversight.
It should be mentioned that this film was notorious for the amount of drugs on set. Peter Berkrot, an actor whose role got repeatedly cut down during filming, called cocaine “the fuel that kept the film running.” I don’t know exactly who was doing what, but it’s entirely possible that the frenetic nature of the film, and Harold Ramis’s willingness to keep letting it get less coherent overall, was because everyone was coked out of their minds.
Overall, if you haven’t seen this movie, you need to. It’s got a lot of parts that might not work for you, but it’s got a hell of a lot more that will. Gunga galunga.
How you start is important to getting popular, but how you finish is the key to being a legend. After all, who wants to sit through 75 hours of a show for a giant letdown? Here are ten series that managed to really stick the landing.
Runner-Up: My Finale (Scrubs)
The Show: John “J.D.” Dorian (Zach Braff) is a doctor at Sacred Heart Hospital with his best friend Chris Turk (Donald Faison), Turk’s wife Carla (Judy Reyes), his girlfriend and fellow doctor Elliot Reid (Sarah Chalke), his mentor Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley), the head of the hospital Bob Kelso (Ken Jenkins), and his nemesis the Janitor (Neil Flynn).
The Finale: Okay, this is only a runner-up because I am not willing to deal with people sending me messages that say “technically, the show had another season,” followed by me slapping my face in frustration and saying “Then why did they call it Scrubs: Med School? How come it changes location, most of the cast, and central character?” But, the DVD release still says Season 9, so… fine. It’s not the “finale.” That’s particularly sad because I think it would be a strong contender for the number one spot here if it was. Unlike many great finales, this one didn’t rely on any kind of subversion or loss. Instead, this episode gives its main character, J.D., the exact send-off that we probably hoped he’d get.
It probably stands out because of the last 5 minutes of the episode, when J.D. starts to walk out of the building, and the show, and is suddenly surrounded by every guest from the show’s run that they could manage to fit and afford. As he walks down a literal memory lane, he finally stands at the exit, and we see a projection of the future he’s headed for, filled with love, happiness, and friendship. It’s a happy ending that never feels too cheesy or overdone.
10) The Last Show (The Mary Tyler Moore Show)
The Show: Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) is a single woman who is an Associate Producer for WJM’s 6 o’clock news, starring Ted Baxter (Ted Knight). She works alongside Executive Producer Lou Grant (Ed Asner), and head writer Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod). Mary’s best friend is Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), Rhoda’s nemesis who is also Mary’s friend is Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman), and Mary’s friend who works at WJM is Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White). The other main character, introduced later, is Georgette Baxter (Georgia Engel), Ted Baxter’s girlfriend.
The Finale: For a show that contains what I consider to be the single best episode of all time, it’s pretty impressive that it managed to end with what was, for a while, considered the “gold standard” of finales. It was a regular exhibit in screenwriting courses. The creators of Friends said it was a major influence in how they wrapped their show. The key is that it really is an ending for the characters as well as the show. When a new station manager (Vincent Gardenia) takes over WJM, he decides he wants to fix the 6 O’clock News ratings. Unfortunately, he determines that the only person worth keeping is Ted, the person who repeatedly causes the show to tank. Everyone else is fired, devastating Mary. To cheer Mary up, Lou Grant arranges for Rhoda and Phyllis to visit her (both now had spin-offs), with both offering vastly different methods of support for Mary (and hatred for each other). Ultimately, Ted tries to do a sincere send-off, but instead quotes the song “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” Everyone says goodbye, resulting in a group hug that no one wants to break, giving rise to the hilarious image of the entire team moving together in order to get tissues. Mary ends up smiling at the good times and turning off the lights on the set.
The key to this ending is that everything goes wrong for all the right people. Everyone who has spent years cleaning up Ted’s mistakes gets fired because of Ted, but because they kept making him look good, Ted keeps his job. He tries to protest the firings, but ultimately backs down when threatened, leading to Murray saying “When a donkey flies, you don’t blame him for not staying up that long.” When Lou tries to cheer Mary up, she calls in two of her friends… who hate each other and fight viciously. When Ted tries to be sincere, he just quotes a completely unrelated song. That’s what made the show great, watching people deal with all of life’s crap and unfairness with a laugh and a joke. It was the best way to end the show.
9) Come Along With Me (Adventure Time)
The Show: Adventure Time follows the journeys of Finn, the last human (Jeremy Shada), and his adopted brother Jake the dog (John DiMaggio), through the land of Ooo. They usually are accompanied by Princess Bubblegum (Hynden Walch) and Marcelline, the Vampire Queen (Olivia Olson), and sometimes the Ice King (Tom Kenny).
The Finale: The last episode of this show takes place far in the future from the normal timeline and the show now apparently stars two new characters named Shermy (Sean Giambrone) and Beth (Willow Smith), who appear to have a similar relationship to Finn and Jake. They go to meet with the King of Ooo, who is revealed to be BMO (Niki Yang), Finn and Jake’s AI game system. BMO tells them the story of the “Great Gum War,” what the show had been building to for a season, then tells them of the coming of GOLB, the anti-God of that universe. Ultimately, the war is averted and the world is saved, and Shermy and Beth take up the mantle of Finn and Jake.
The reason this is on this list is mostly because it contains three great elements. First, the Great Gum War is literally averted, rather than fought. Finn ends up convincing both sides of the war to stand down, and does so by forcing each side to view the situation from the other’s point of view. This represents the culmination of Finn’s growth from a boy to a man, finally realizing that violent solutions propagate violence, but that forgiveness can bring true peace. Afterwards, Shermy, now representing young Finn, complains that he thought the War would be more important, like the end of the world, only for BMO to casually say “no, that’s what happened next.” Second, after the apocalypse is averted, Shermy and Beth, acting as audience surrogates, ask BMO what happened next, only for BMO to respond with “Eh, y’know. They kept living their lives.” I think this may be one of the most perfect summaries to end a show. It’s not a bland “happily ever after,” but it is a way to tell everyone that, even though life goes on, this story has hit the end. However, the true ending is Shermy and Beth taking the pose that Finn and Jake take in the title screen, meaning that the adventure will always continue. Lastly, we see Marceline and Princess Bubblegum finally become a couple. Given how much crap the show had gotten in the past for even hinting at this, I love that they decided “we’re at the end, let’s go for it.” This finale summed up everything that was good about this show.
8) One Last Ride (Parks and Recreation)
The Show: The series follows the lives of all of the people who work for or are associated with the Parks Department of Pawnee, Indiana: Idealist Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), her husband Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), her Libertarian boss Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), her coworkers Tom (Aziz Ansari), April (Aubrey Plaza), Garry (Jim O’Heir), Craig (Billy Eichner), and Donna (Retta), as well as April’s husband Andy (Chris Pratt), and Leslie’s best friend Ann (Rashida Jones) and her husband Chris (Rob Lowe).
The Finale: By the end of the series, everyone is leaving and no one works for the Parks Department anymore. However, Leslie asks everyone to help her when a man asks them to fix a swing near his house. As they work together to navigate the bureaucracy to repair the swing, the show flashes forward and shows how almost every characters’ life progresses. We see Garry get a happy ending after being the sad sack for most of the series, Donna turn her success into helping children with her husband (Keegan-Michael Key), and Tom become a celebrity through writing a bestseller. Ron is shown to retire from his business to run a major park with Leslie’s help. April and Andy start a family and Leslie and Ben both become successful politicians, with one of them implied to eventually be president.
This episode should be terrible. It’s saccharin beyond anything else the series had done up to this point and it’s little more than an extremely elaborate “and they all lived happily ever after.” However, the way in which their flash-forwards are told give us a real picture of how all of these people, despite drifting apart, are always bonded by the events of the show. Even though they live in different parts of the world, they’re still a family and they always will be. Moreover, the world we see in the future is a hopeful and just one, with Leslie, who has always been thwarted by the stupidity of Pawnee, becoming governor of Indiana. We see a world where, despite still having problems, we find a group of people who are fighting for the right thing, even if they all disagree on what that is. To drive it home, Leslie even quotes Teddy Roosevelt’s line “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is to work hard at work worth doing.” We see a future where that kind of dedication is celebrated, and that’s what really makes this episode work.
7) Basil the Rat (Fawlty Towers)
The Show: Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) and his wife Sybil (Prunella Scales) run a hotel in England. Basil is an angry jerk obsessed with class mobility, always trying to become one of the elite, but his own incompetence usually dooms him. His staff includes the sensible Polly (Connie Booth) and the hapless Spanish waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs).
The Finale: A health inspector (John Quarmby) informs Basil that the state of Fawlty Towers’ kitchen is below standard. If they don’t fix the problems in 24 hours, the hotel will be closed. At the same time, Basil discovers Manuel is keeping a pet rat, named Basil, in the kitchen, having been sold it as a “Siberian Hamster.” Basil tries to get rid of it, but Manuel protests and he and Polly hide it in the shed. After Manuel foolishly lets the rat back into the hotel, Basil the human poisons a veal shank in an attempt to kill the rat, but the shank gets cooked by accident. After every customer, including the returning health inspector, orders the veal, hilarity ensues. Eventually, the health inspector is handed the rat, but the cast attempts to cover for it as the episode ends.
The key to Fawlty Towers was the incredible combination of tight writing and amazing physical performances. Each episode typically took Cleese and Booth six weeks to write, which is probably why there are only twelve of them in two seasons over five years. This episode is the pinnacle of that, because all of the beats in the episode have to be precisely timed in order to keep the tension building. In the meantime, all of the characters have to keep scrambling and covering for their actions as they keep trying to find Basil the Rat. It also helps that this episode is the opposite of what Basil Fawlty had been hoping for. Rather than becoming an elite establishment, his hotel is almost closed down for being a dump, and at the end of the episode, it seems extremely likely that it will be shut down. Rather than a happy ending, we get a shot of Basil, having passed out from stress, being dragged unceremoniously from the room.
6) Weirdmageddon (Gravity Falls)
The Show: Gravity Falls is a town filled with strange happenings and mysteries. When two kids, Dipper and Mabel Pines (Jason Ritter and Kristen Schaal), come to stay with their Great Uncle “Grunkle” Stan Pines (Alex Hirsch) for the Summer at his Mystery Shack, they get caught up in the town’s weirdness, along with Stan’s two employees Wendy (Linda Cardellini) and Soos (Hirsch). Their greatest enemy is a dream demon named Bill Cipher (Hirsch).
The Finale: The final episode begins with Bill winning. He has finally figured out a way to enter the real world in his true form and he immediately reveals himself to be one of the most horrifying villains ever to be featured in a show for kids. He and his gang start to wreak havoc upon the town, until Dipper, Mabel, and the surviving cast fight back. Ultimately, they’re able to trick Bill into entering Stan’s mind, which they then wipe, destroying him as Stan’s dream self punches the demon out of reality. Then, finally, the Summer ends and the kids have to go home in a tearful goodbye.
The greatest strength of Gravity Falls was that it always focused on how the characters felt and what they were going through internally more than externally and this finale is no exception. The strength of the episode isn’t just in finally showing us the power of Bill Cipher and having the team overcome him, it’s that the last 20 minutes is just having a slow, sad, emotional goodbye from all of the characters to the two kids that changed the town so much. We see some nice flash-forwards explaining that most of the characters will be okay, and still be the eccentric oddities that we came to love, but also that everyone will be separated in their own lives. Maybe they’ll be together again one day, but it seems likely that this is the end of this story. It ends with a cryptogram that deciphers to: FADED PICTURES BLEACHED BY SUN. THE TALE’S TOLD, THE SUMMER’S DONE. IN MEMORIES THE PINES STILL PLAY. ON A SUNNY SUMMER’S DAY. I’ll admit that I still tear up reading that, because it’s just that adorably sincere.
5) All Good Things… (Star Trek: The Next Generation)
The Show: It’s the 24th Century and mankind has spread itself among the stars, meeting new life forms and threats along the way, and forming the United Federation of Planets. The top ship among the Federation fleet is the Enterprise-D, captained by Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). Along with crew members William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Data (Brent Spiner), Worf (Michael Dorn), Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), Picard explores the unknown along the Final Frontier.
The Finale: Picard finds himself unfixed by time, his mind jumping between the present, twenty-five years into the future, and seven years in the past, just before the show’s pilot. These jumps are random, making people think he’s going mad. In the present, he goes to investigate a space anomaly. He then uses a jump to convince his future ex-wife Beverly to travel to the same anomaly, which is happening in the future as well. In the past, he declines to go to the anomaly so that he can have the encounter at Farpoint with Q (John de Lancie), an omnipotent being who threatens humanity. However, it turns out that Q is actually causing Picard to jump through time, telling him that solving the mystery of the anomaly is the only chance to save humanity. Picard discovers that investigating the anomaly is actually what causes it, and sacrifices all three different versions of the Enterprise to stop it. This is revealed to be Q’s test and that Picard passed, saving humanity.
It’s one thing to manage to tie in the themes of a show with the finale, it’s another to literally tie the entire series together into one single cohesive expression of what the show is about. Star Trek has always been about humanity at its best; challenging the unknown, exploring the unexplored, bettering themselves for the sake of being better. This episode reveals that the entire series, from the Pilot to the end, was a test of whether humanity can evolve, with Picard as its focus. Picard proves not only that he can solve a four-dimensional problem, but that he and his crew are willing to sacrifice themselves in three different time periods in order to save the universe. It proves again that humanity has limitless potential both scientifically and socially, if only we can evolve beyond our selfishness.
The Finale: Fry (Billy West) decides to propose to his longtime flame Leela (Katey Sagal), and uses a device that rewinds time by 10 seconds (and has a 10 second recharge time) to set up the perfect proposal. Unfortunately, he ends up breaking the device, trapping him and Leela in a frozen world. Together, they live a long and happy life, until they’re discovered by the Professor, who fixes the device. He warns Leela and Fry that when he undoes the time freeze, it’ll take them back to before the episode started, with no memory of the events. Fry and Leela agree that, while they enjoyed growing old together, they both want to do it all over again.
This show gets bonus points because Futurama actually had four separate finales: “The Devil’s Hands are Idle Playthings,” “Into the Wild Green Yonder,” “Overclockwise,” and then this one. Despite having tried to wrap the show up multiple times, I am always impressed that this one is, in my opinion, the best of the four. It’s not just telling us that Fry and Leela will ultimately find happiness, we get to see them being happy together, with each of them clearly influenced by the other for the better. It helps that so much of the episode is really funny before that. We see Fry messing around with time in a number of fun gags, a throwback to the pilot, and Fry dying multiple times to the point that Leela starts to get bored with it. It’s a solid set of comedic scenes that turn into a sincere and emotional third act, which is basically what Futurama did at its best.
3) Goodbyeee (Blackadder Goes Forth)
The Show: Each season of Blackadder featured Rowan Atkinson as a different descendant of the Blackadder family. This one was a Captain in the British Army during WWI. He was commanded by the incompetent General Melchett (Stephen Fry) and his nemesis Captain Darling (Tim McInnerny). Each episode features his attempts to get out of actually having to fight, usually involving Blackadder’s incompetent aides George (Hugh Laurie) and Baldrick (Tony Robinson).
The Finale: Blackadder finds out that there’s going to be a full-scale attack the next day, meaning that he, along with all of his soldiers, will be running all-out into No Man’s Land. Since all of them will likely die, Blackadder pretends to be crazy in order to get sent home, but it fails. He tries to contact the British High Command to get sent home, but it fails as well. Darling is sent to the front line, despite his attempts to protest, while Melchett sits miles back. George and Baldrick discuss their losses during the war in a humorous way, until finally George admits that he’s afraid of dying. Blackadder and the rest of the group go over the top and are killed, with the shot fading to a silent poppy field.
It was a tradition for each season of Blackadder to end with death, usually that of the entire cast, but it was always done in a comic fashion. This entire season had frequently played off the massive casualties of World War One as a dark joke, which set everything up to do a similarly humorous or absurd conclusion to this season, but instead, they played it perfectly straight. It’s a sad, somber, painful ending to the show. It’s a subversion of the nature of the series, but it fits the theme of the season, that war is hell. The show sacrificed its own cast to make sure that people remember that the price of war is blood and tears.
2) Felina (Breaking Bad)
The Show: Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a chemist who finds out he has terminal cancer. He decides to partner with his ex-student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to make meth in order to provide for his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and his son Walt, Jr. (RJ Mitte). He does surprisingly well, eventually becoming a kingpin.
The Finale: Having managed to lose most of his money and betraying Jesse in the last season, Walt threatens former partners to leave a fortune to his son and decides to “make things right.” He rigs a machine gun to a mechanical arm and tries to make amends to his wife for all of his misdeeds, having a conversation in which she points out that his actions were always about him, never the family. Walt goes to meet the Aryan Brotherhood members holding Jesse hostage and uses the machine gun to kill almost all of them, with him and Jesse killing off the survivors. Walt is mortally wounded, but dies smiling surrounded by meth cooking equipment as Jesse escapes.
This episode works on so many levels. First, the title is an anagram for finale and a reference to the song “El Paso,” which mirrors the events of the third act. Like the subject of “El Paso,” Walt dies in the arms of his beloved: Meth. Second, it mirrors the pilot, both beginning and ending with sirens headed for Walt. In the pilot, Walt declines to shoot himself, but here, he dies by a shot from his own gun. Walt even dies in the same outfit he wore in the pilot. Third, it provides a satisfying conclusion to a series that was constantly escalating tension by doing exactly the opposite, being a quiet denouement for Walt after one last blaze of glory. The show was always building towards his death, and Cranston’s final moments on-screen send the character off in exactly the right way.
1) The Last Newhart (Newhart)
The Show: Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart) is a writer who moves to Vermont to run an inn with his wife Joanna (Mary Frann). While Dick is a relatively normal and sane person, the town is populated by eccentric people whose inability to operate within the bounds of reality constantly drives Dick crazy.
The Finale: After years of putting up with the locals, the entire town is purchased by a Japanese tycoon who wants to turn it into a golf resort. While Dick and Joanna make a show of wanting to keep the town the same and refuse to leave, literally everyone else takes a huge payout and vacates. Years later, Dick and Joanna now run their inn in the middle of a golf course. All of their former neighbors pay them a surprise visit, but quickly drive Dick crazy until he gets hit in the head with a golf ball. He then wakes up in bed… as Dr. Bob Hartley, the main character of The Bob Newhart Show, next to his wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette). He reveals that the entire series of Newhart was just a dream he had, something that annoys his wife when he reveals that he was married to a beautiful blond.
This finale should be terrible, because the idea that the whole series was a dream would normally be stupid or seem like a cop-out. However, The Bob Newhart Show was a series about Bob Hartley questioning his own reality and Newhart was a series where everyone somehow played by rules that defied any established rules of logic, except for Bob Newhart’s character. It not only made sense that Newhart was a dream of someone who constantly questioned reality, it made MORE sense than any other explanation. Bob Hartley always defined himself as the “only sane man” in his life, so he still does that in his dreams. Bob Newhart essentially spent 20 years setting up this punchline across two different series and it served as a perfect finale for both of them. I think it’s telling that after Breaking Bad ended, Bryan Cranston did a “fake ending” where he wakes up as Hal on Malcolm in the Middle that was inspired by this. When the second best ending has to pay tribute to something, you know that thing has to be the best.
Let me know if there are any others that you think I should have added by posting in the comments or on my Facebook or Twitter.
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.