Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The INSIDE story on "Chuckles Bites the Dust"

Seeing the great reaction to the "Chuckles Bites the Dust" scene I posted a few days ago I decided to contact Allan Burns, one of the creators and executive producers of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and ask him for the inside story on that classic episode. Allan was kind enough to offer this:


The hard part was not in the writing. After a relatively short story meeting with Jim (Brooks), Ed. (Weinberger),Stan(Daniels) and me David (Lloyd) went off and wrote it. Just nailed it. One of us had read about some poor schlump who had died when he tried to put a large-size stewed tomato can over his head. Don't know what would have possessed him, but apparently his fellow workers found it a hilarious way to die and there was considerable merriment at the funeral. So, could we pass that one up? The script we shot was pretty much what David gave us in his first draft. So...no problems, right? Wrong. The problem was that Mary couldn't stop laughing through all those scenes where Murray and Lou were making peanut jokes. We went down for the first run-through and Mary pulled us aside and said, "I can't do this." We thought, like Jay, she thought it was tasteless, but she said she simply couln't get through all those scenes with a straight face. And if she sputtered the slightest bit, or even hinted at a smile, it would ruin the whole build up to the funeral. But we assured her that, being the trouper that she was, her actor's instincts would kick in and she'd get through it. Well, that was Wednesday, and for the next two days whenever she'd look at Gavin and Ed she'd blow. It was like Tim Conday and Harvey Korman and it continued right up to -- and through -- the last rehearsal before the show. By that time we were more than a little worried. Show time. Fingers crossed. And every time we got to one of those jokes, Mary sucked it up and stayed serious. Nobody dared talk to her, or even looked at her, like a pitcher with a perfect game going. I can't remember going into a final scene more nervous, but what you see is what we got. She was perfection. I think it got her the Emmy. Or didn't it?


Thanks so much, Allan. Here's that famous scene.


Stephen Robb said...

I vaguely remember a skit on a Second City special (not an SCTV episode) from the 80s about a funeral where the mourners tried to keep a straight face when they find out the deceased got his head stuck in a giant stewed tomatoes can.

They were doing old, time-tested skits. Now, whether they borrowed from MTM, MTM borrowed from them...or they both had the same inspiration, I don't know.

I do remember Ed Asner being in this special though.

Paul said...

hi ken.. im very happy that your blog was featured in blogs of note in blogspot. did you know that? your famous now. hehe.. congrats :D
Toothpaste Recall

Anonymous said...

Are series cast members given Emmy's for specific episodes? I'm not sure...

In any case Ms. Moore did indeed win the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 1976 and the Chuckles episode aired in 1975, so it's possible the award was for that episode.

Great story either way.

Hey Ken did you know your blog is popular?

Anonymous said...

Not related to The Mary Tyler Moore show, but thinking of winning an Emmy for a specific episode reminded me of a Cheers episode titled "Simon Says" in which John Cleese guest starred.

Cleese won the Emmyfor Outstanding Guest Performer in a Comedy Series in what I remember as the funniest episode of a sitcom I had ever seen.

According to your IMDB credits you would have been around when the episode was produced in 1987. Though you and David aren't listed as the writers (Peter Casey & David Lee are credited on IMDB) I thought you might have a good story about the genesis of the episode and how John Cleese was cast for the role.

Rob said...


Has anyone given you grief for using clips from You Tube? Aren't you taking money out of some poor (writer, director, actor, conglomerate)'s pockets by posting something like this?

It is a great way to see stuff like this. I've heard much about this episode and seen the funeral scene many times, but never this one. The fact that it stands up without even having a setup is a testament to how funny it is.

WizarDru said...

Ahhh...the sitcom. I remember those from my youth. Back when they were still actually on the air.

Man, this is one of the classics. Ranks right up there with the WKRP 'turkey' episode and more than a few MASH and Cheers episodes.

When did sitcoms stop being entertaining? (the 90s, I suppose?)

Anonymous said...

Reading the background story and then watching the clip in YouTube's familiar jittery motion style, you can almost see Mary lose it after Murray's joke about burying Chuckles with his "The End" bloomers.

The scene and Moore's work with Carl Reiner in the toupee scene from "Coast to Coast Big Mouth" from the Dick Van Dyke Show are two of the all-time best comedy scenes (though my favorite remains the Gleason-Carney "Chef of the Future" live TV commercial scene from "The Honeymooners").

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Sitcoms stopped being entertaining, wizardru, in my opinion when they became family sitcoms for the most part. Cheers, Seinfeld, MTM are friends having a good time with friends or arguing with eachother or doing crazy things on their own. It's believable. A family that is bickering rather than joking is not the best venue for humor because how many parents are that open with their kids, really? Besides that, the family sitcom has been grossly overused and seems redundant at this point.

Dwacon said...

Mary was on the TV Land awards a year or so ago and she looked amazing.

Ken, please write something that brings her back to the screen.

John Hudgens said...

Ummm.... unless things have changed recently, dwacon, I'm not sure he'd be up for that...

Look for the March 27, 2006 blog entry... :)

Rob said...

Yes, the only thing I imagine Ken writing for her is an MTV Celebrity Death match.

Check out the Jalikeakek Letters.

VP81955 said...

While many sitcom episodes take some time to be regarded as classics, I believe "Chuckles" was regarded as such almost immediately. In fact, a few days after the episode ran in 1975, IIRC, it was the feature of a Washington Post editorial, the type that runs near the bottom of the page to complement the lead editorial on the major issue of the day.

BTW, Mary turns 70 in December. And while I love her as Mary Richards and Laura Petrie, to me her greatest role has been to promote the interests to aid diabetics such as herself (and myself).

Anonymous said...

Regarding the first comment, the Second City sketch was famous one that came out of one of their stage shows that I believe pre-dated the Chuckles episode (but I'm not certain). As I recall the fatal instrument was not stewed tomatoes but a giant size can of Van Kamp's Pork and Beans.

Over the years, it frequently has been included in the Touring Company shows that were a kind of "Best of" the skits that were developed over the years.

Anonymous said...


I am a proud owner of an original shooting script of Chuckles Bites the Dust which is also signed by Mary.

It's been in every office I've ever had as a sign of what to try and shoot for. It's the best of the best.

No, I'm not bringing it to class.

Mr Burns: Thanks for taking the time to give us a behind the scenes.


Anonymous said...

My wife and I were kicking around this thought the other day, and reading about Chuckles made me think about it again:

By age 8, I had probably seen every MTM and Bob Newhart episode five times over. I don't know if I got all the jokes, but they were among my favorite shows.

My kids, 6 & 2, growing up with DVDs and specialized cable channels have never watched any sort of "adult" programming. My daughter will watch THE OFFICE with me for stretches, but that's about it, and she has no real interest in the (select few) shows I watch. She does, however, like Zach & Cody and Hannah Montana.

More than anything, this is where network TV is dying -- if your under 20, those four channels may never be on your remote's favorites.

Anonymous said...

I feel dumb asking this, but have always been curious...why the period after Ed's first name (Ed. Weinberger)? Always felt like it should be followed by an "@something.com"

Anonymous said...

"Born in a trunk, died in a trunk."

That one line cracked me up the most.


Anonymous said...

"you can almost see Mary lose it after Murray's joke about burying Chuckles with his "The End" bloomers."

Now stories about moments of actors almost losing it that make it to air or film would be cool. Here's one of my favorites:

In the 1959 Hammer film of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" with Peter Cushing & Christopher Lee, hardly a laugh riot, the wonderful British comic actor Miles Malleson has a scene as a dithery vicar obsessed with tarantulas. Christopher Lee, playing a particularly dour and humorless Henry Baskerville, can be seen trying ineffecively to conceal a smirk. Lee admits in his autobiography that Malleson ad-libbed different lines each take, and kept breaking he and Cushing up, so they just couldn't get a smirk-free take to use.

Hardly associated with comedy, Lee and Cushing actually had (And Lee still has) rather wacky senses of humor. Co-workers report they were fond of squawking at each other on-and-off set in their impressions of - yes - Daffy Duck and Sylvester the cat.

Anonymous said...

This entry of Ken's sheds more light on his relationship with Mary.


Anonymous said...

Ken, you have worked with so many comedy greats. Who is the wittiest writer you know of in TV? I'm guessing it would be either David Lloyd or Larry Gelbart.

Mary Stella said...

Now stories about moments of actors almost losing it that make it to air or film would be cool. Here's one of my favorites:

Some of the best examples are Carol Burnett and company struggling not to explode in laughs during a skit.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but that's in live sketch work, which by nature is loose, and frankly, was part of what we tuned in to see each week. Tim & Harvey were notorious for it. In fact Burns refers to their breaking up in his piece.

I'm referring to finished filmed work where the acting performances are supposed to be right: where, if they break up, they reshoot.

The great comic genius Stan Laurel particularly disapproved of breaking up, even in sketches. He told Dick Van Dyke (and others) "You must never, never laugh." People who knew him towards the end, like Van Dyke, report on him watching Red Skelton on TV, another performer who could not get through a sketch without roaring at how funny he found himself, and finding it appalling. Laurel would have highly disapporved of Conway & Corman's constant laughing in sketches, had he lived long enough to see it.

That said, I know that when I was 12 and watching Red Skelton every week, his breaking up made me laugh so hard I couldn't breathe.

But then, on the rare occassions I get to see an old Red Skelton Show these days, it doesn't even provoke a smile anymore. I DO still find the old Carol Burnett Shows funny.

Ger Apeldoorn said...


And Skelton of course, had his 'break-ups' written for him. One of his writers (I believe Johnny Carson - or was it Norman Lear?) refers to it in his biography.

Michael Jones said...

I'd always loved that episode as well. But it brings a whole new meaning to the theatrical term, "CORPSING", doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

There is as scene in The Wizard of Oz -- I believe it is around when Dorothy slaps the Cowardly Lion -- where it is very obvious that Judy Garland almost breaks up. Just watch her face!

Anonymous said...

I can't wait for a DVD of the Chuckles episode with outtakes showing Mary not breaking up.

ChrisO said...

Ken, I love your blog, but I'm pleading with the commenters to please take a break from all of the moaning about how great sitcoms used to be. I'm 56 and loved a lot of the old stuff as well, but I also remember My Mother the Car, It's About Time, Gilligan's Island and a zillion other bad comedies. And I'll put Seinfeld, Arrested Development and The Office up against just about any of the old shows. Stop sounding like such dinosaurs.

By Ken Levine said...


I totally agree with you and have done pieces on how great THE OFFICE is, etc. I do think there were golden periods of TV comedies and this isn't one of them, but there's no question that every era had MOSTLY bad sitcoms. You just forget those. Or try to.

But this is not a tribute site to the good old days of comedy.