A tribute to Mary Tyler Moore

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Like millions of other TV fans, I was saddened to hear of the death of Mary Tyler Moore, who passed two days ago just a month after her 80th birthday.

Moore’s death spawned a legion of blogs and columns about her legendary 1970-77 CBS sitcom, which paved a small but incisive path for American feminism. Countless women have stated how they were inspired to follow in the steps of Mary Richards and become journalists. (My wife, a newspaper publisher/editor, is among those women.)

Yet, for all of Mary Richards’ quiet assertiveness on the job and in her private life, the episode from the show that has been most cited by pundits is the 1975 gem “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” wherein one of Mary’s co-workers, a TV clown, dies an odd death, inspiring much gallows humor among the survivors. Mary, the voice of reason and good taste, continuously chides her other co-workers for making tasteless remarks at the expense of a dead man. Then at the man’s funeral, the minister cites some of the clown’s career highlights — including his signature line, “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants” — and dignified Mary gradually loses her composure for all of the funeral guests to see.

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Don’t get me wrong. The episode is a small master class in comedy and probably one of my top five all-time favorite TV episodes ever. (TV scripter and blogger Ken Levine has written about how he and his partner, David Isaacs, decided to become TV comedy writers in the 1970’s. They decided the first thing they should do was attend the live taping of a TV sitcom. Wouldn’t you know it, the first one they ever saw live was “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” which nearly intimidated them out of a TV career at the thought of ever writing anything approaching that level of quality.)

But it’s worth noting that, besides its sense of superb comedy, one of the best qualities about “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was its generosity of spirit. It was indeed often quite hysterical, but never at the expense of its characters, who were provided many grace notes.

Where so many others have seen fit to cite the “Chuckles” episode as a pinnacle of the show, I’d like to mention an episode from Season 3, “Rhoda the Beautiful.”

(WARNING: Major spoilers to follow. If you’d prefer to watch the episode first, I’ve embedded it at the bottom of this blog.)

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Mary’s good friend Rhoda Morgenstern (played wonderfully by Valerie Harper) has been steadily dieting and looks fabulous, but she is still making self-deprecating jokes about her appearance, much to Mary’s consternation. At the same time, the department store where Rhoda works is holding a beauty contest, and after much hemming and hawing, Rhoda enters the contest.

When the contest ends, Rhoda returns to the apartment of Mary, who is talking to the apartment manager Phyllis (Cloris Leachman). Rhoda announces that she won third place in the contest. The women congratulate her on her not-bad showing, and Phyllis leaves, as does Rhoda.

Then comes the (pardon the pun) crowning moment. Rhoda returns and sheepishly tells Mary that she did not come in third — she won the contest.

Mary is so happy for Rhoda that Mary’s facial expressions and body language speak volumes. Mary Tyler Moore has always been justly credited as a good reactor to fellow actors, but mostly as a comic reactor. Watch Mary here — you’d swear she was just being handed Rhoda’s good news for the first time. How many TV shows of any kind, much less sitcoms, would take the time to include grace notes such as this?

Rest in peace, Mary Tyler Moore. You made television a better place, after all.

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