It does not seem to me to be a coincidence that arguably the best situation comedy episode ever written is also, structurally, the simplest.
(It is also not a coincidence that I am disproportionately partial to simplicity in my creative preferences, leaning strongly towards Hank Williams’ “Three chords and the truth” over the studied obscurities of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.)
Imagine a swinging door – it swings one way, and then the other. That’s the structure of David Lloyd’s highly acclaimed Mary Tyler Moore Show episode “Chuckles Bites The Dust.”
A 26-minute episode. No circuitous twists and turns. It simply swings in one direction; and then, it’s the opposite.
In short: Mary berates her workmates for joking about the death of colleague. Then, at the colleague’s funeral, with her workmates appropriately solemn, Mary herself explodes in uncontrollable laughter.
You see what David Lloyd did there? Totally simple. The story goes one way; and then, it’s the opposite. Nothing to it.
Other than impeccable execution.
The “Chuckles” episode brought together three of David Lloyd’s inestimable strengths: lean and mean construction, superior joke writing, and a mischievous penchant for the darker corners of comedy. Together, they produced a classic episode. Only one person could have written it as well. But that does not mean there aren’t lessons we can all learn from it.
In broad outline:
When a station WJM colleague, “Chuckles the Clown”, is killed in a bizarre accident – grand marshaling a circus parade attired as one of comic characters, “Peter Peanut”, an elephant, presumably mistaking him for an actual peanut, “shells” Chuckles, and he dies.
Though it is obviously a horrible situation – make that a hilarious situation with a horrible outcome – the office comes alive with a barrage of “ gallows humor”, relating the specifics of the victim to the unusual manner in which he “went” – “He could have gone as ‘Billy Banana’ and had a gorilla peel him to death.”
When Mary objects to her co-workers’ lack of respect for the deceased, her boss Lou explains to her that death is so scarily unfathomable, people need humor to serve as a comforting safety valve for their emotions.
But Mary will have none of it. Death, she insists, is no laughing matter, and that’s that.
Then, however, at the funeral, as the minister’s eulogy tries to glean meaningful significance out of Chuckles’ characters’ pre-adolescent antics – referencing Mr. Fee-fi-fo’s memorable catchphrase, “I hurt my foo-foo!” and Chuckles’ show-closing mantra, “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants”, Mary gradually becomes – with apologies – unmoored – struggling desperately to stifle her escalating giggles, until she can no longer control herself, and, to the shock and horror her workmates, she bursts out in entirely inappropriate laughter.
When the minister tells her that her laughter is in totally keeping with his legacy and encourages her to “Laugh…Laugh for Chuckles”, Mary “buttons” the situation comedically by breaking down completely and crying her eyes out.
(A parenthetical though, I think, interesting note with mildly ironic overtones: Mary’s regular director, the incomparable Jay Sandrich, refused to direct the “Chuckles” episode for the same reason Mary berated her workmates – he thought it was in terrible taste.)
Elements of the episode’s success and is its much-deserved classic status? The “on the money” jokes helped a lot. Augmented by the generically funny situation – not the death, but the specific manner in which it happened. Immeasurably helpful too, is Mary’s incomparable performance. (Mary Tyler Moore’s background as a dancer cannot be underestimated as a significant contributor to her impeccable comic timing.)
The “taste issue” itself is a plus. Thought the episode skates “this close” to censorable morbidity, “dangerous” comedy is quite often the funniest. However, in its masterful execution buttressed by the psychological reality that sometimes despite the circumstances you really do need to laugh (or you may “go off” at an embarrassingly inappropriate moment) – “Chuckles Bites The Dust” steers respectably clear of moral objectionabililty. (Unless you’re Jay Sandrich.)
Still, bottom line in explaining why it worked is the simplicity of its construction. Mary assails her workmates for laughing, and then later, she does the same thing, or, arguably, worse.
That’s the story. No credulity-testing stretches. No escalating comedic complications.
First “A.” Leading inevitably – and hilariously – to “B.”
It’s so simple, in fact, you might say that it virtually writes itself.
Please trust me on this:
Nothing writes itself.
But you’ve got the recipe laid out. A generically funny premise with a credible psychological underpinning, superior joke writing and, most significantly for me, a Ginsu-knife sharp and simple story construction.
There you have it.
Now get to work.