Moore, who died on Wednesday at the age of 80, was a trailblazer for women, and single women in particular. She essentially created the modern family sitcom and the workplace comedy on The Dick Van Dyke Show and the Mary Tyler Moore Show, respectively. Every scripted comedy on TV follows in their path.
But Moore was also simply funnier than everyone else, before or since. On Dick Van Dyke, Moore was often relegated to the role of straight man, so to speak. But she still found hilarious ways to make something new out of what could have been a cliched role, the housewife who has to put up with her husband’s antics. Moore’s performances made episodes like “That’s My Boy?” into television classics. (She also got to show off her underrated skill as a dancer.)
But it was on The Mary Tyler Moore show where Moore broke new ground playing a neurotic, intelligent, single, professional woman who worked as a news producer on a television show. A kind of proto–Liz Lemon, Moore’s character Mary Richards was neither straight man nor comic force, but a little bit of both—a fully rounded-out human whose struggles in the workplace and outside it felt real. Richards showed Moore’s range as an actress (she would be nominated for an Oscar three years after The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended) and her effortless ability to steal scenes. Nowhere is that more clear than in what is probably the greatest episode of television ever, Chuckles Bites The Dust, where Richards and the news team attend the funeral of a local clown. Richards starts as a straight man, scolding her male coworkers for mocking the clown’s death, before she quickly becomes the center of the action, absolutely losing it during the funeral.