In the famous "Chuckles Bites the Dust" episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou and Murray and Sue Ann just can't stop laughing at the absurd circumstances that led to their clown colleague's death. At one point Murray asks why they laugh and Lou elegantly responds:
It's a release, Murray. A kind of defense mechanism. It's like whistling in a graveyard. You try to make light of something because it scares you. We laugh at death because we know death will have the last laugh on us.
The man who wrote that passed away himself Wednesday morning. David Lloyd has died after a long illness. He was a true giant in the industry and one of the major influences on our career (me and my partner, David Isaacs). Proud to say we received our first rejection letter from David Lloyd. Seven years later we would work together on Cheers and I mentioned that to him. He was very apologetic. I think his exact words were: "Then I'm sure the script was a piece of shit."
We wound up working with him for twenty years. Most of what I learned about rewriting and pitching in a room I learned from observing David Lloyd. There's never been anybody like him. He was a cyclone. Once a week, on his night to consult, he'd sweep into the room (wearing his customary white shirt with red pin stripes) and completely dominate it. Always bringing positive energy, very strong opinions (about EVERYTHING), hilarious anecdotes, and the jokes that would get the best laughs in the show.
He was so bright, and so fast. The show runner would say, "We need a joke here for..." and bam! David would have it before he finished his sentence. He was awe-inspiring and I don't mind saying -- intimidating as hell! If you pitched a bad joke, duck!
So you learned to pitch good jokes. He made you better.
And room writing wasn't even his best act. David Lloyd also wrote the best first drafts. Normally when a writer turns in a first draft the staff rewrites it to a varying degree. Not David's. You sent his right down to the stage. When you see a David Lloyd writing credit on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, The Tony Randall Show, The Associates, Rhoda, Phyllis, Cheers, Taxi, Frasier, Lou Grant, Best of the West, Amen, or Wings, you are seeing his original work.
Story meetings with David were unique. Generally the staff and writer pitch out ideas and eventually cobble together a story. The writer takes extensive notes, goes home, and writes the outline. David kept no notes. Ever. Even with a million thoughts flying around. He'd come back three days later with an outline that contained every detail. Contrast that with David and me. Even taking furious notes we still taped the story meetings because invariably we would forget or miss something important. David Lloyd kept it all in his head.
And his outlines themselves were a thing to behold. No other Cheers writer that I know could get away ending a scene by saying, "Carla says something really crass and stupid here and we move on before the audience hates her."
David Lloyd attended Yale where he was classmates with such notables as Dick Cavett and Richard Maltby Jr.. He went on to write for Jack Paar, Dick Cavett, and the Tonight Show. Legend has it (a legend perpetuated by him) that he wanted to come out to California so he dashed off a spec The Mary Tyler Moore Show without ever having seen the show and he sold it. And throughout his entire sitcom career he never had an agent. He negotiated his own deals. Like I said, there was no one like him.
He had a passion for the finer things -- art, literature, wine, model trains. He was the Algonquin Round Table but funnier and more caustic.
The first sitcom filming my partner and I ever attended was a The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It just happened to be "Chuckles Bites the Dust". We walked out of there in awe. I remember saying, "Do you think we could ever write anything that good?" and David answered, "No one can."
He was right.
I go back to that classic funeral scene. As the preacher is delivering a eulogy Mary begins stifling laughs. The preacher spots her, asks her to stand, and says this:
You feel like laughing, don't you? Don't try to stop yourself. Go ahead. Laugh out loud. Don't you see? Nothing could have made Chuckles the happier. He lived to make people laugh. He found tears offensive. He hated to see people cry. Go ahead, my dear -- laugh.
As Mary (and everyone who ever knew and was touched by him) bursts into tears, we:
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