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6 Unusual TV Deaths

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TV's most unusual deaths only happen to tertiary characters as a rule. Producers don't want viewers to feel guilty for laughing at what should be a somber situation. So the sitcom rule of thumb has always been save the wacky deaths for non-regular cast members. Henry Blake perishing in a plane crash? Tragic. Chuckles the Clown getting shelled to death while dressed as a giant peanut? Comedy gold.

1. Mary Tyler Moore Show — Chuckles Bites the Dust

The reigning heavyweight champion in the category of "weird deaths" is still "Chuckles Bites the Dust." Chuckles the Clown was an oft-mentioned member of the WJM family, though he was only seen onscreen twice in the context of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In this classic episode, anchorman Ted Baxter was asked to be the grand marshal of a circus parade but was forced to turn the offer down by Lou Grant "“ appearing in a parade was conduct unbecoming when it came to the news business. He was replaced by Chuckles the Clown, who dressed as Peter Peanut for the occasion. Sadly, a rogue elephant attacked him and tried to shell him. The circumstances of Chuckles' death led to a slew of jokes in the WJM newsroom, much to Mary's disgust. She was appalled that anyone could laugh when someone had died. But the absurdity of the situation finally struck her during Chuckles' funeral:

2. The Bob Newhart Show — Death by Zucchini

Dr. Bob Hartley had a recurring group of regular patients in his all-encompassing "group" "“ Mr. Peterson the henpecked milquetoast, Mrs. Bakerman the elderly supermarket cashier who always seemed to be knitting, Michelle the slightly overweight Daddy's girl, and Mr. Carlin the name-the-neurosis-and-he-has-it man. Even though Mr. Carlin was known to occasionally lash out with a biting comment at other group members, he was not nearly as nasty as Mr. Gianelli, who had definite anger management issues. In the episode entitled "Death of a Fruitman," Dr. Hartley's group has arranged for a surprise party for their favorite shrink to celebrate four years together. As the patients begin to recite a special poem in tribute to Bob, Carol the receptionist learns that Mr. Gianelli, a produce wholesaler, was crushed to death earlier that day when a truckload of zucchini fell on him.

Mr. Peterson: You helped us all in every way.
Mr. Carlin: You got inside our head.
Michelle: And that is why we'd like to say...
Carol (bursting into the office): Mr. Gianelli's dead!
Mrs. Bakerman: Well, that rhymes.

Noam Pitlik, who played Mr. Gianelli, had decided to leave the show in order to concentrate on producing and directing another sitcom, Barney Miller.

3. Seinfeld — The Invitations

Susan Biddle Ross' on-again, off-again romance with George Costanza finally resulted in the couple getting engaged at the end of season seven. Typically, George got cold feet almost immediately after popping the question and tried his best to be extra-obnoxious in an effort to get Susan to call the whole thing off. Susan probably should've twigged on to her fiancé's reluctance when he chose the cheapest wedding invitations available. No wonder they'd been discontinued "“ the glue on the envelopes was toxic, and Susan fell ill and died after licking one too many. "The Invitations" originally aired in 1996 and was temporarily pulled from the syndication package after the 2001 anthrax attacks in the U.S.

4. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman — Killer Soup

Fernwood, Ohio, the setting for Norman Lear's soap parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, was a veritable death trap. Not only was there a serial killer terrorizing the locals, several Fernwood residents met their demise in bizarre ways. Jimmy Joe Jeeter, an eight-year-old evangelist, was electrocuted when a TV set fell into his bathtub. Garth Gimble, a notorious wife-beater portrayed by Martin Mull, accidentally impaled himself on the pointy end of an aluminum Christmas tree in his closet. The odd circumstances of Coach Leroy Fedders' death were conjured up not by the show's writers but by Norman Lear himself. Leroy, miserably sick with the flu and unable to sleep, is sitting at the kitchen table alternately sipping bourbon and popping Seconals. Ever-helpful Mary Hartman drops by with a huge bowl of her homemade chicken soup. While Mary and Leroy's wife go off to chat, the coach grows drowsy, falls face-first into the broth and slowly drowns.

5. Cheers — The Zamboni Accident

When Carla Tortelli married Eddie LeBec, he earned a living by playing goalie for the Boston Bruins. But then his game started going downhill, so he retired and joined a touring show called "The Wonderful World of Ice." Eddie played a penguin in the show and died a noble death when he was run over by a Zamboni while pushing a fellow cast member out of the machine's path. It was later revealed that Eddie probably wouldn't have been killed off had actor Jay Thomas not, during a radio interview, responded to a caller's question about life on the Cheers set by saying: "It's brutal. I have to kiss Rhea Perlman."

6. Will and Grace — Blown Away

Diminutive (4'11") actor Leslie Jordan received an Emmy Award for his portrayal of perpetual-thorn-in-Karen's-side Beverley Leslie on Will and Grace. He was wealthy and traveled in the same social circles as Karen and delighted in publicly taking her down a peg or two. Even though Beverley was ostensibly married, the other characters viewed him as a closeted gay man. And their assumption may well have been true, since in the final episode it was revealed that Karen had encouraged a reluctant Jack to cozy up to Beverley. When the tiny Beverley was blown off of a balcony by a strong gust of wind and fell to his death, Jack was the beneficiary of his estate, which allowed him and Karen to continue their bacchanalian friendship. Interestingly enough, the writers had originally intended for the Beverley Leslie character to be a female portrayed by Joan Collins. But Ms. Collins pulled out of the project after reading a script that involved a catfight between Beverley and Karen, during which Bev's wig would be pulled off.

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The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.

THE AD

If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).

SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR

Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.

WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT

Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother

WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT

When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."

THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP

A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:

20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:

FURTHER READING

Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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