“Chuckles Bites the Dust,” probably the most famous episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, first aired in 1975, which, mathematically speaking, is a long time ago. Not long like “the history of the Earth” long. Earth is very old. But definitely long when it comes to television. Long enough that it could be forgotten. Long enough to assume that it wouldn’t hold up. Long enough to assume that I couldn’t pull up the clip of its funeral scene and laugh my head off even today.
And yet, there it is. Still pretty much perfect. That’s really something.
You don’t even need to know anything about the rest of the episode to enjoy the clip, either. It helps, sure, and if you have twenty-odd minutes later today you should consider poking around on YouTube to watch the whole thing. But the funeral scene works by itself, somehow fuller and tighter than most standalone comedy sketches, even while being incredibly simple. A clown died. Mary Tyler Moore is at his funeral. She doesn’t want to laugh. Her body disobeys her, repeatedly, as she tries to fight it. The end.
It works as well as it does for two reasons, maybe three. One is that Mary Tyler Moore was a comic genius. Watch her squirm around in the chair as she tries and fails to stifle the laughter. You almost forget she’s acting. The moment is so natural and awkward that it feels kind of like a blooper reel where she’s ruining the take, or like an SNL sketch that went off the rails early and never quite made it back. (There’s a fine line with that second example. People breaking too easily on SNL can get annoying, but I maintain that the “Debbie Downer” sketch with Lindsay Lohan is one of the 20-25 funniest things that ever happened on that show.) Look at this face. This is the face of a woman in agony.
The whole clip is a master class in physical comedy, right up to the tears at the end. Take notes.
(The second reason it works so well is coming in a second, but here’s a question first: Does the studio audience’s laughter make this even funnier? I… I think it does. It’s strange to think about it now, in a time when the phrase “laugh track” has become a kind of code for “second-rate comedy,” and all the cool, hip comedies are single-camera half-hours that are sometimes more depressing than the dramas, but there’s something communal about it here. Like, we’re all watching this poor lady as she’s in misery, sharing the secret with her that she’s trying to keep from everyone else. There are times I find audience laughter or a laugh track to be kind of patronizing — “this is where the joke is, so laugh now, you idiots” — but it can also heighten a moment like this for the home viewer. That’s why I said “maybe three” reasons earlier. Something to discuss amongst yourselves.)
The other reason this scene will always be funny is that it’s universal. Everyone has been in that situation at one point, sitting in a silent room trying to fight back a wave of inappropriate laughter. You watch Mary start to squirm and play off little outbursts as coughs and your brain immediately takes you back to a time when the same thing happened to you. For me, it’s Sunday mornings in church. My younger brother and I used to get unending joy out of trying to make each other laugh during church when we were kids. There was one time I forgot some nice older woman’s name so I quietly told him it was “Mrs. Shembuggler.” It’s not even that funny on its own, in hindsight. And I have no clue where “Shembuggler” came from. It was all a very “you had to be there” moment. But the important thing is that, for one reason or another, in that moment, when everyone was supposed to be quiet and respectful, it tore him up. Red-faced, pained, trying to swallow a laugh that threatened to eat him whole. The full Mary Tyler Moore. And once I realized I had him, I kept twisting the knife, whispering it to him throughout the service, over and over. The only downside of it all was that it started to backfire eventually and just thinking about him squirming around in his seat started to make me laugh. It was a vicious circle. Mom wasn’t happy. It was worth it.
That’s what comedy does, though. Good comedy, at least. It takes something we all know, or feel, or have experienced, and dials it up to the max. When it does it right, whether it’s about a clown funeral or mastering one’s domain or literally anything from the golden era of The Simpsons, it can create something timeless, and something that outlives everyone involved. Like I said earlier, that’s really something.