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Laughing at a funeral: Mary Tyler Moore’s comedy genius, captured in a single scene

“You laugh at something that scares you.”

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Mary Tyler Moore has died at age 80, but her television legacy will never be forgotten. In particular, her ability to coax a laugh from anyone and everyone was undeniable.

Perhaps the greatest example of Moore’s indomitable comedic talent is the legendary “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which aired during the series’ sixth season in 1975.

The gist: Chuckles the Clown was a seldom-seen character on WJM-TV, the news station where Mary Richards (Moore) worked. He dies in a freak accident after being “shelled” by a rogue elephant, and the staff can’t stop laughing at the juxtaposition of Chuckles’ humor and his weird death. Mary scolds everyone for not respecting the dead, kicking off the funeral scene embedded above.

What’s especially magical about the scene is Moore’s sense of comic timing. She’s not even saying lines, she’s just blurting out sounds and making faces. It’s hilarious. And just when you think it’s about to get even funnier, as the minister asks her to stand up, she unravels and begins to bawl. That’s when the show hits you with humanity.

Moore’s performance in “Chuckles Bites the Dust” nabbed her an Emmy in 1976, and is just one reason the episode is considered one of the greatest in television history. It’s even more respected for the way it approaches the idea of death.

“You laugh at something that scares you,” Lou Grant (Ed Asner) tells his staff earlier in the episode. “We laugh at death because we know death will have the last laugh on us.”

How The Mary Tyler Moore Show tackled such a painful topic in an honest and humane way is a testament to the show’s guts, writing (David Lloyd won an Emmy for the episode), the cast chemistry and talent, and of course, the impossibly funny comedic skills of Mary Tyler Moore.

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