Thanks for the "Chuckles"

Writer of the classic "Mary Tyler Moore" clown funeral episode dies – but he gave us the last laugh

By Jere Hester
|  Thursday, Nov 12, 2009  |  Updated 11:00 PM CDT
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Actor Ed Asner and Mary Tyler Moore pose together.

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The name David Lloyd probably means little to the vast majority of us who don't bother to read TV show credits. But Lloyd, who died this week, wrote perhaps the funniest half-hour in American sitcom history: the "Chuckles Bites the Dust" episode of the "Mary Tyler Moore” show.

Chuckles, for those too young to remember or too old to fully recall, was a children's show star at WJM-TV, the Minneapolis station where Mary Richards and her gang put out a shambles of a nightly newscast.

Tragedy struck when Chuckles, dressed as his character Peter Peanut, served as grand marshal of a circus parade. As Lou Grant memorably described the cause of death, “A rogue elephant tried to shell him.”

The bizarre ending spurred gallows humor in the newsroom: "It could have been worse... he could have gone as Billy Banana – and had a gorilla peel him to death," cracked newswriter Murray Slaughter.

Everybody laughed except Mary, who went all schoolmarm her colleagues, lecturing them about respect and decorum.

But at Chuckle's funeral, Mary finds herself unable to suppress her inappropriate laughter as the minister rattles off the clown's characters – “Peter Peanut, Mr. Fee- Fi-Fo, Billy Banana, and my particular favorite, Aunt Yoo-Hoo.”

The minister finally asks Mary to stand. “(Chuckles) found tears offensive. He hated to see people cry. Go ahead, my dear – laugh!” – at which point she, of course, bursts into uncontrollable sobs.

This was dark humor, especially for 1975, and is comparable in sheer laughs and irreverent tone perhaps only to "The Germans" episode of Britain's "Fawlty Towers." (In a delightful coincidence, the two shows originally aired one day and one ocean apart).

Speaking of the Brits, they often do a better job appreciating their comedy writers – folks like Stephen Merchant (“The Office”), and Ben Elton and Richard Curtis (“Blackadder” and “”Mr. Bean”) are celebrities of sorts, and sometime see their names in the credits above the actors.

David Lloyd won an Emmy for the “Chuckles” episode and wrote for other great sitcoms, like "Cheers," “Frasier” and "The Bob Newhart Show." Though he died this week, reportedly after a long illness, he already confronted the grim reaper three decades ago and laughed in his face for all of us. “We laugh at death because we know death will have the last laugh on us,” he says through Lou Grant.

But maybe the most fitting epitaph for Lloyd, who entertained us if we didn’t always know he was behind the jokes, is the one he wrote for Chuckles: "A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants." 

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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