Mary Tyler Moore is dead.
The video above is, of course, one of the most famous episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (MTM) sitcom — “Chuckles Bites The Dust” — that sits as but one testament to the brilliance of one of television comedy’s first ensemble casts. And certainly the first the be headlined not only by a woman, but one who played a capable single working woman.
MTM was the first comedy where a woman was not an extension of her husband and family, but rather was a fully formed individual in her own right.
It’s hard today to understand for many people how groundbreaking — and controversial — the show was for its time.
It also had clearly adult — and sometimes sexual — edge to it which was rarely seen prior in a sitcom, and which was most prominently on display with the Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens, a character given life by current fan favorite Betty White.
Sue Ann was a sexually voracious man chaser, given to popping off with lines like, “Mary, I was lying in bed last night, and I couldn’t sleep, and I got the most wonderful idea. So I went right home and wrote it down.”
That seems tame today, but it was daring stuff in the 1970’s because Sue Ann was like a man in the way she treated men and sexual conquest. Many gay men of the era felt they had a spirit animal in Sue Ann.
As upwardly mobile TV news producer Mary Richards, Moore was the perfect straight face for much of this naughtiness. She almost never ran with any of the blue material, but it was clear that her character got the jokes and liked them. She was no libertine, nor was she a prude, either. That women could laugh at such things was also new as adult humor became the province of more than just the men without the blue humor coming at the expense of the women. Women could make and laugh at jokes about something other than housework and raising kids.
The show ran from 1970-1977. From when I was 10 years old until I was 17. It informs much of my sense of humor.
I learned how to laugh and much of what was funny from MTM and Mary, Sue Ann, Lou Grant, Rhoda Morgenstern and Phyllis Lindstrom — the latter played by the brilliant Cloris Leachman.
The show even managed to sneak in a gay reference here and there.
Oh, Mary, Mary, Mary.
I’m so sad you are gone. But you live on for me in a show I still watch as a kind of television comfort food when I am down.
Especially that episode about Chuckles the Clown which blog visitors can watch above.
The show seems dated now in some of its references, but the sets are fabulous kitsch that is costing people fortunes to reproduce today.
(Note also that Moore was able to prove her dramatic chops in “Ordinary People” in which she played to pitch perfection an emotionally constricted suburban mother grieving so completely over the death of a favored son that she has no more love to give the surviving tortured son played by budding actor Timothy Hutton.)
In the Chuckles episode, Chuckles the Clown, a beloved television station kiddie show institution in the Twin Cities, has died. He was leading the circus parade in downtown Minneapolis dressed as Peter Peanut and a rogue elephant tried to shell him.
From that bit of comedic genius this episode takes off and highlights what made this series and its perfectly cast actors part of television history.
I was going to just link to the part of the episode during the Chuckles funeral itself, but you really have to watch all the craziness that builds up to that to truly appreciate Mary Tyler Moore’s legendary performance at the funeral.
Mary Richards: Did you crash the men’s room?
Sue Ann Nivens: Of course not. I went as somebody’s guest.
Lou Grant: [Lou hasn’t announced who from the newsroom will go on the Chicago junket. Sue Ann comes into his office, and tells Lou she’s going, and wants him to go as well] I didn’t know you were going.
Sue Ann Nivens: I wouldn’t miss a chance like this! 3 days… and nights, in the city where I had my first program. It was a cooking show , called; ‘Let’s Talk About Meat.’