Saturday, July 30, 2005

Now I've Seen Everything

Haggis jugglers.

Yes, that's what I said.

Haggis jugglers.

I saw it with my own eyes on Discovery Channel or whatever it is they call it these days. Young Glasgow men who juggle haggis for fame, fun, and profit.

It's all relative, isn't it? We pull tractors. They juggle haggis. Who knows what they're doing in my grandfather's Romanian homeland. Anything's possible.

I love pop culture. I love the crazy things we do and watch and sing along with and dance to. Every now and again when I find myself a little embarrassed by our love for Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and the Three Stooges (okay, a lot embarrassed when it comes to the Stooges), I remember that every country has its own beloved oddities and I feel better.

Stephen King wrote a wonderful piece in last week's Entertainment Weekly and if you haven't already read it I recommend you do so immediately. Especially if you love all the crazy bits and pieces that make up the world we live in and love.

I admit freely that I'm a student of the sit-com. While I can't say I love them all, I will say that when they're good, they're downright great. Think about it: your canvas is maybe 22 minutes long and you're asked to deliver a certain number of belly laughs, chuckles, guffaws, and occasionally a tear or two. And the great ones do it week after week, year after year.

The second season DVDs of The Mary Tyler Moore Show arrived this week and I left hot and muggy central NJ behind for Minneapolis. The characters aren't fully-formed yet, they're still raw and broad in the manner of the average sitcom, but you can see the seeds being sowed. Sue Ann hasn't been introduced yet and we all know that's when the show began to take off. The first few seasons relied too heavily on "Isn't Mary fabulous!" and that fabulousness (or at least the awareness of it) weighed down the show. I think it's Season 3 where the writers and producers begin to realize they have more than Mary Tyler Moore (as terrific as she is) going for them and begin to let the other characters claim centerstage.

It's hard for people to remember the way sitcoms were before MTM came along. There was little if any continuity between episodes. Beaver Cleaver brought home a puppy in week #1 and that puppy was gone forever in week #2. No explanation. No acknowledgement that there had, indeed, even been a puppy in the kid's life. The characters evolved during the run of MTM. Mary moved house. Rhoda left Minneapolis for New York and married Joe. (Big mistake. But I digress . . . ) Phyllis became a widow. Lou and Edie divorced. Ted married Georgette. Georgette gave birth to a daughter. Ted and Georgette adopted a son. Murray and his wife adopted a Vietnamese baby. Sue Ann -- well, Sue Ann had a gooood time.

A sitcom script can be a work of art. If I had to pick the quintessential sitcom episode to slip into a time capsule, it would have to be the Chuckles the Clown episode. The one where Mary erupts into laughter during Chuckles' funeral. We've all been there, haven't we? That hideous moment that's so fraught with emotion that something snaps and you find yourself collapsing into laughter at the worst possible moment. You didn't mean to laugh. God knows, it's inappropriate. But there you are just the same, laughing until you cry.

It happened to my family when Grandpa Larry died in 1997. I was at the funeral home with my parents and we were talking with the funeral director about the various options. Grandpa Larry had had little interest in funerals and big sendoffs. He had chosen cremation and a paper bag as his #1 option. Now the paper bag was clearly a non-starter but when the funeral director reached under his desk and pulled out a cardboard shoebox for $500 we were goners. We laughed until we couldn't laugh any more. We laughed so hard and so long that even the funeral director joined in. I swear to you that for a second I thought I heard Grandpa laughing too.

Let's face it, this world would be a sorrier place without those Chuckles the Clown moments.



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