Mark Harris on David Lloyd
On Nov. 10, David Lloyd died. He wasn’t famous, except among his peers, TV comedy writers who would probably admit that really, he had no peers. David Lloyd wrote some of the funniest episodes of some of the finest situation comedies of all time — Cheers, Frasier, Taxi, and The Bob Newhart Show among them — so it’s unfair to reduce his legacy to one episode. But those are the breaks: You’re either remembered for nothing or lucky enough to be remembered for something, and David Lloyd will forever be remembered as the man who made death a laugh riot in ”Chuckles Bites the Dust,” a landmark 1975 episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Those 30 minutes probably did as much to change my life as any TV show ever could. In 1975, I was 11 years old, and as I started seventh grade, a kind of ominous hush was settling over our household. My father was seriously ill (terminally, it turned out); my three living grandparents were seriously old (that too proved to be terminal); and my mother was raising me and my younger brother, working full-time, and facing the coming set of calamities with stoicism. There was a lot we didn’t say, a lot we just assumed but didn’t talk about, a lot we knew we shouldn’t mention.
Alone one Saturday, I turned on the TV and watched Mary Richards and the gang at WJM cope with the shocking demise of their colleague, local TV personality Chuckles the Clown. From Lou Grant, we learned the circumstances: He was in a parade, dressed as Peter Peanut, and a rogue elephant tried to shell him. ”That’s funny, but that’s in bad taste!” protests a disbelieving Ted Baxter when Lou tells him.
Yes, it was. But bad taste never tasted so good as when served by David Lloyd. You know the old saying ”Dying is easy, comedy is hard”? Comedy about dying, 34 years ago, was all but impossible. Mary Tyler Moore herself was reportedly dead set against filming the episode, and the show’s regular director, appalled, took that week off. Today, morbid humor is a staple of everything from House to Weeds, but in 1975, television simply didn’t go there until David Lloyd found a pathway. I won’t spoil the elegance of his writing by trying to recapture it here (watch for yourself Feb. 2, when season 6 of Mary Tyler Moore finally arrives on DVD), but in brief: Murray, Lou, and Sue Ann hear the news, and start making jokes. And they can’t stop. ”Lucky more people weren’t hurt,” says Lou. ”That’s right,” says Murray. ”After all, you know how hard it is to stop after just one peanut.” Only Mary won’t laugh. ”The man died,” she says, shaming them. Finally, at the funeral, the giggles are out of all their systems — except hers. At the worst possible public moment, she cracks — and cracks up.
That exquisite comedy of embarrassment lodged permanently in my brain that night. Here was a piece of TV that told me a secret: Even the adults I was trying so hard to imitate were barely maintaining their own facades. It taught me that in some ways, all comedy is inappropriate — that’s why it’s funny — and that making jokes about things that are not laughing matters can keep darkness temporarily at bay. I sucked that black humor into my system and carried it through the next few bad years like an internal suit of armor — a way I could walk through the world and feel stronger and tougher than I was.
David Lloyd was brilliant at demonstrating how people could never quite live up to the biggest occasions of their lives. He went on to write a superb funeral episode of Frasier and Woody’s nuptials on Cheers, and had a hand in Rhoda’s wedding and the magnificent Mary Tyler Moore finale. His DNA survives in almost every contemporary sitcom — literally, since one son, Christopher, is the co-creator of Modern Family, and another, Stephen, is a writer-producer, most recently on How I Met Your Mother — but also in the instincts of every comedy writer who pushes the envelope not for shock value but for honesty. I wish I’d had the chance to thank him. But, as Georgette says, ”funerals always come too late. We take people for granted…. When they’re gone…we dress in black and cry our eyes out. Why don’t we ever think to do that when they’re still with us?” Thank you, Mr. Lloyd.