I’ve always been an anxious sort of person, but it really kicked in when I got to 5th grade. We had just moved back to California, and I enrolled in a school where all the other kids hated me. Oh, you can file this under paranoia, but fifteen years ago I met my wonderful 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Winifred Kum, and she blurted this out in a conversation with my boss. She explained that I was small for my grade, bad at games, and extremely clever (I might have added the word “extremely” myself) – in short, a perfect target for my peers. “I did everything in my power to protect you,” she told me. I know she did, and I love her for it. But the damage was done, and whatever anxiety genes lay dormant inside me initiated fully that year and have churned within me ever since.
Don’t worry – this really isn’t a post about anxiety. I come from a generation that was taught to be resilient, to not cave in to our “weaknesses”. I deal with my anxiety without medication, and as a result there are things I can do just fine and things I don’t do very well. Some days are better than others, and some nights are tough – but I figure that’s true for everybody.
This may seem like an odd introduction to a post about my favorite sitcom, but there’s a story behind that. This past December, I made the big mistake of scheduling a medical procedure for the last day of my two-week winter break. The fact that I chose not to take up valuable school time may or may not earn me a special place in heaven, but I will never make that mistake er, sacrifice – er, decision again! For two weeks – including Christmas and New Year’s – I did not sleep. My thoughts were preoccupied with my upcoming colonoscopy (which, full disclosure, turned out to be a walk in the park!), and the whole experience really did a number on me.
As I said, I don’t medicate, and I don’t drink, so what was a fella to do? My solutions of choice tend to be reading classic mysteries and watching films. Except I couldn’t go to the movies because I would fall asleep as soon as my butt hit the seat. And for some reason I have been having a very hard time getting through a book. (Hence, the lack of literary posts this past eight weeks.) So I consoled myself with television, and lo and behold! I discovered that Netflix now carried my favorite sitcom of all time: The Dick Van Dyke Show! Every ten years or so I like to watch this entire series, but this time was different: this time I was engaging in a therapeutic binge. I shouldn’t call it a “binge” actually; I have stretched my viewing of all 158 episodes over a two-month period. This is a show you want to savor.
It has been such a joy to revisit this series again that I thought I would write something about it. If you are out there and you haven’t watched this show, focusing on modern programming . . . well, you are reading the blog of a man who reads ninety-year old mysteries, loves black and white movies and old radio shows, and in general conforms to the character description of an old soul. So you’ll just have to put up with a few moments of sheer raving over a situation comedy that shut its doors fifty-two years ago after a glorious five year run.
I even have a personal connection to this series . . . but we’ll get to that later!
1.“The Talented Neighborhood”
I’m not going to give you a lot of details about the history of this show. I direct your attention to a wonderful book, The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book, by Vince Waldron. It offers tons of details and behind-the-scenes stories about the people behind the show, as well as an episode guide. One of the reasons I love this show is due to its “meta“ – aspects, as it is a TV show about the TV business. Creator Carl Reiner had written for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, which some consider the greatest variety hour ever produced. Reiner got the idea for a sitcom showing the behind-the-scenes life of a team of script writers for one of these shows. The show would chronicle the day-to-day issues the team faced putting scripts together, as well as offer glimpses into the writers’ private lives.
The series had trouble gaining a foothold. Reiner produced a pilot in which he cast himself as the lead, head writer Robert Petrie. The pilot is readily available and fascinating as a study of the roots of a classic series – particularly because the pilot is not very good but the roots of greatness are there. I lay most of the blame at the door of Reiner as an actor. His version of Rob is way too acerbic, and when he gets mistreated at both home and work, you sort of understand why. But the tempo and the writing are also off, and it isn’t surprising that CBS shut Reiner down and demanded he recast if he wanted to go ahead with the series.
Making Dick Van Dyke his new leading man was a stroke of genius. Van Dyke had made his way up the show biz ladder as a radio DJ and nightclub performer, specializing in pantomime and other physical comedy and soon gravitated to the stage. In 1959, he auditioned for the ensemble of a new Broadway musical, Bye Bye Birdie. He had no dancing experience, so he utilized his mime technique to improvise a soft-shoe for the show’s director/choreographer, the great Gower Champion. After watching Van Dyke make up his dance, Champion walked onto the stage and cast him on the spot as the leading man.
His Tony-winning success in Birdie and occasional TV spots earned Van Dyke a seven-year contract with CBS, putting him in the perfect position when Reiner’s show needed recasting. Much of The Dick Van Dyke Show’s success lay with its star, both for his talent and likability and for his generosity with the brilliant ensemble that surrounded him. In addition, the writing, much of it by Reiner, and the direction, first by John Rich and later by Jerry Paris, who also had a recurring role in the show, gave the series a polish and sophistication pretty much unheard of in situation comedies up to that time. Just as a reference, for most of its run the show’s 8:00pm lead-in was the top-rated series . . . The Beverly Hillbillies!
2. Sally and Buddy and Laura, oh My!
I can certainly appreciate Van Dyke’s physical capabilities, and they were highlighted whenever the writers got the chance. Since this was a TV show about show-biz personalities, Van Dyke’s character Rob Petrie got to “perform” a lot: he and his co-workers would act out sketches they were writing for their star, Alan Brady (the brilliant but egocentrically nasty composite of Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason who was played – also with brilliance – by Carl Reiner himself); they would often perform at parties or other functions, and in some of my favorite moments, Rob would get roped in to work on the annual PTA fundraiser run by Mrs. Billings (the fabulous Eleanor Audley! I didn’t know until many years after this show ran that Audley also voiced my favorite Disney villain, the witch Malificent in Sleeping Beauty.)
But I particularly loved Van Dyke’s way with dialogue. His one-sided phone calls rivaled Bob Newhart’s, and his interactions with himself were as funny as the conversations he had with others. In one Season 5 episode, “See Rob Write – Write, Rob, Write,” Rob decides to finish a memoir he has been working on through much of the series, so he goes up to a friend’s cabin – where the solitude nearly drives him crazy. Van Dyke was always great playing a totally decent man in less than decent circumstances. There are countless example of this; one classic is “One Hundred Terrible Hours” from Season 4, a flashback episode where Rob is enlisted by his boss at a local radio station to disc jockey for one hundred hours straight as a publicity stunt and undergoes complete physical and mental deterioration before our eyes.
The focus of the show was supposed to be on the workplace, and Reiner surrounded Van Dyke with a cast of wonderful character actors and show biz veterans. As his co-writers, we have Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam.
Rose Marie was one of the first of the re-cast actors after Van Dyke. She played Sally Rogers, one of the few female comedy writers in the business (just like the composite of real-life writers on which she was based.) She recommended Amsterdam for the role of Buddy Sorrell, “the human joke machine,” which is exactly the moniker he earned working vaudeville and writing jokes for others. Personal story: one of Amsterdam’s best friends was Dr. Melvin Bleadon, a San Francisco dentist (yes, the name is real!) who happened to be my great-uncle. I met Morey when I was around eight or nine in my grandparent’s apartment. The show was going strong then, and I was star-struck. We had a conversation about Alcatraz, which you could see from the window: Morey thought the prison should be razed and a West Coast version of The Statue of Liberty should be plunked down on the island. I thought he was full of beans, and I told him so. (He took my moxie with great good will, bless him.) I saw him again years later at Uncle Mel’s funeral. He was very old himself but still a warm and funny man.
The characters of Sally and Buddy were both endowed with certain sitcom conventions that the show’s writers pumped for material. Sally was in her late 30’s and man hungry. She also loved to sing, which was good since Rose Marie gained fame first as a child singer on the radio. Buddy had a wife, an ex-showgirl named Pickles who drove him crazy. He was Jewish and proud of it. He played the cello and wisecracked constantly, and he had a tempestuous relationship with the Alan Brady Show’s producer, Mel Cooley (the fantastic Richard Deacon). In short, Morey Amsterdam played Morey Amsterdam.
All these qualities made for great comic moments, but their true genius came through in the day-to-day segments where they worked with Rob, throwing out jokes and lambasting all outsiders and each other. The show might have been just swell has it never left the New York offices of the Alan Brady writing staff. Add Reiner’s Brady and Deacon’s Mel to the mix, and you had a magnificent workplace sitcom. That is what Rose Marie, at least, signed on for. But nobody reckoned with Mary Tyler Moore.
It took a long time and over sixty auditions by various actresses before Reiner found his Laura Petrie. Finally, the show’s producer, actor Danny Thomas, remembered a girl who had auditioned for his daughter on his own show. He thought she was too beautiful to play the daughter of Danny Thomas, but he remembered her. After coming in to read, and despite her youth and relative lack of TV experience, Moore was cast.
It’s easy to tell that at first Moore was considered the “straight man” of the group. Initially in the first season, (when Rob called her “Laurie”) Moore’s scenes are conventional in the sense that she plays a supportive helpmate and occasional mild sparring partner to her husband. What Moore brought to the role from the start that was unheard of in the early 60’s was a bold domestic sexuality. What I mean here was that she wasn’t pushing her sexiness but was showing us that one of the reasons Rob married her was that he had been powerfully attracted to her looks and personality – and that after seven years of marriage he still was, despite the twin beds required by the TV censors! Laura Petrie was the first sitcom wife to dress is sexy Capri pants and flirt openly with her own husband.
Moore always credited the show for her comic training, and you can see flashes of it as early as the second episode when she dies her hair blonde to get the spark back into her marriage. But Laura’s full-fledged status as comic partner occurred in that season’s sixteenth episode, “The Curious Thing About Women,” an otherwise pure exercise in 1950’s sexism, revolving around a Laura’s tendency to open Rob’s mail. From then on, the show balanced work and home, creating another couple to act as neighbors and best friends to the Petries. Jerry Helper (Jerry Paris, the show’s main director for its 3rd through 5th seasons) was Rob’s dentist and pal, a charming egotist, and Ann Morgan Guilbert deserved an Emmy or three for her role as Laura’s best friend, Millie Helper.
With her growing comedy chops and her elegant allure, Mary Tyler Moore’s increasingly prominent role on the show made for a little trouble between her and Rose Marie. It never affected the quality of either actresses’ performance, although they performed in very few scenes alone together. (Incidentally, those rare moments are wonderful, and Rose Marie always got most of the laugh lines.)
I can actually see a bunch of parallels between this series and my favorite author, Agatha Christie. Both took a little time to find their footing. Both enjoyed a Golden Age right in the middle of their careers. And while the TV show didn’t falter like Christie did at the end, you can tell especially when you binge watch that energies were flagging and the gang was ready to split up before the quality had a chance to go south.
Watching a show multiple times, like re-reading a Christie novel, allows a person to both revel in favorite moments and find something new to notice. In this modern era of the #MeToo movement and a renewed focus on race relations in America, it was interesting to note a few things about a show that has been praised for its ahead-of-its-time take on male/female relationships. The lead female characters of Laura, Sally and Millie are strong women who are partners to the men they work and/or live with. True, Sally does the typing in the office, and yes, Laura or Millie are housewives and mothers. (Mary Tyler Moore will remedy this a decade later when she creates her own series and portrays a working girl whose romantic life is not her road to personal fulfillment.) Throughout the series, Rob often asserts his authority as the man of the house and Laura verbally complies; the fact that his authority is constantly upended is more likely the result of traditional comedy tropes than any pro-feminist influence. But their conversations – at least those after Season 1 – are not typical of 50’s sitcom marriages where the wife is relegated to saying, “Yes, dear.” When difficult situations come up, like with their son Richie, husband and/or wife will say, “Do you take this, or shall I?” Rob is also deeply respectful of Sally’s position and contribution in the workplace. He never implies that marriage is necessary for Sally to be a complete woman, although it is significant that, for the most part, Rob and Buddy treat Sally like “one of the fellas.” I personally feel that it’s sort of a shame that so many of the Sally-oriented episodes center on her search for a man and the suggestion that her dominant personality is what keeps her from finding one. I much prefer the workplace Sally, who gives as good as she gets without any censure from the men.
Just as striking is that the creators were deeply aware of the rising civil rights movement, and this is reflected in a presence of African American actors that was significant for its time. It’s not enough: there are no black regulars or recurring neighbors. But black people are present throughout the series in positions that indicate complete equality with their fellow white citizens. In the episode “Bupkis,” a major character is played by the actor Ivan Dixon, and his race is irrelevant. Still, the writers do not shy away from the discomfort white people have in their dealings with black people, and one late episode “A Show of Hands” deals with the subject openly.
I only wish the show had been as sensitive with other races their portrayal of Latino characters or with gay characters, who fulfill their stereotypical roles exactly as you would expect of them. But in 1960, you couldn’t expect much, and the show delivered much more than one could hope for.
4.The Best of The Dick Van Dyke Show
Watching the series this time did much to lift me out of my doldrums. If you haven’t ever given The Dick Van Dyke Show a chance, please consider doing so. And if you don’t have time – or don’t like to spend much of your time in front of a screen – allow me to suggest ten episodes out of the 158 where you can’t go wrong. Let’s call these my “Top Ten” for February 26, 2018. Like any of my favorite things that tend toward the prolific, parts of the list will change frequently.
Counting down to my favorite episode (and it really is my favorite and has been for years):
- “A Day in the Life of Alan Brady” (S. 5, Ep. 25, first aired April 6, 1966)
One thing the show did so well was to showcase a gathering of people and somehow make everybody count. The episodes about the PTA shows were great at this (see #7), as were the storylines involving Rob having to sit in a waiting room. This episode from near the end of the series is not only a great showcase for Reiner’s Brady and Deacon’s Mel Cooley, but it hilariously illustrates what happens when you throw “normal” suburbanites into an extraordinary situation – in this case, Alan Brady’s attempt to make a documentary improbably casting himself as a lovable man of the people.
- “All About Eavesdropping” (S. 3, Ep. 5, first aired Oct. 23, 1963)
The first great sitcom, I Love Lucy, nearly always depended upon a straight up conflict, either between husbands and wives, men and women or neighbor vs. neighbor. One of the truly great things about The Dick Van Dyke Show is that it never resorted to these tried and true plotlines. In this episode, Rob and Laura go to a dinner party at the Helpers’ – but not before they get an earful due to the toy intercom that their sons had set up between their houses. The lesson of this episode in and of itself is funny but true: as Rob puts it, “If you can’t say something mean about your neighbors in the privacy of your own home, where can you say it?” But before they embrace that lesson, Rob and Laura go through a series of behaviors reflecting their anger and hurt feelings, including a hilarious game of Charades, that make this lesson on friendship extra special.
- “The Ghost of A. Chantz” (S. 4, Ep. 2, first aired Sept. 30, 1964)
This is writers Bill Persky and Sam Denoff’s version of George M. Cohan’s play Seven Keys to Baldpate. It is one of several episodes that play out like a classic murder mystery. Rob, Laura, Sally and Buddy are invited by Alan Brady to check out a new resort, but a reservations snafu winds up with them being stuck together in an old cabin adjacent to the hotel – a cabin with a history of murder. I won’t say another word about how this plot unravels, but it includes some very cool camera shots that make it a clear pastiche of 1930’s old dark house movies, and the final twist in a series known for its twists does a marvelous job of both surprising us, solving the mystery, and dropping a 1930’s plot into the 1960’s and returning it firmly to the “present”.
- “Somebody Has to Play Cleopatra” (S. 2, Ep. 14, first aired Dec. 26, 1962)
“Mark Antony, pray tell, how are things in Rome?” “Rotten!”
The best of the PTA episodes featuring a group of normal, untalented suburbanites who, faced with the prospect of putting on a show, revert to their worst natures. Rob is laughingly beleaguered, Laura struggles with the false modesty of the only talented person in the room – or so she thinks, and all the neighbors are hilarious.
- “My Two Show-Offs and Me” (S. 4, Ep. 13, first aired Dec. 16, 1964)
The workplace episodes were funny whether the staff acted in concert or in conflict with each other. Here, against Rob’s better judgment, he allows a reporter from a famous magazine to interview the writers at work. Rob’s fears that nobody will be able to “be themselves” are confirmed in the best way. There’s even a nice twist at the end.
- “The Impractical Joke” (S. 4, Ep. 16, first aired Jan. 13, 1965)
My favorite episode featuring Buddy, where his propensity for practical jokes targets Rob. The phone gag Buddy enacts is funny and so are Rob’s reactions. But it’s a showcase for Morey Amsterdam as he falls victim to his own fear of Rob’s revenge.
- “The Case of the Pillow” (S. 4, Ep. 21, first aired Feb. 17, 1965)
Rob goes to civil court to sue the man who sold four pillows to Laura that he claims are filled with eider down but actually contain chicken feathers. This episode is a brilliant parody of the popular legal programs and even prefigures Judge Judy and all the rest. Nowhere was Dick Van Dyke more hilarious than when he was trying to help lawyers and cops, usually by emulating them. Ed Begley nearly steals the show as the put upon judge, but watching Van Dyke try to be Perry Mason over a set of defective pillows is not to be missed.
- “That’s My Boy??” (S. 3, Ep. 1, first aired Sept. 25, 1963)
Deservedly considered one of the greatest episodes of this series (and maybe any sitcom), this one continues a world-building exercise that ran through the series where Rob would tell somebody (Richie, his co-workers, a reporter) a story about his life with Laura. Almost all of these episodes are gold, and in fact, the final episode aired puts it all in perspective as Rob finally finishes his memoirs and Laura reads the book as snippets from these flashbacks are presented.
This one is the best of them all: Rob and Laura finally welcome Richie into the world, but due to a series of bureaucratic errors at the hospital, Rob becomes convinced that they have been given the wrong baby. The twist is justifiably famous and ahead of its time, but I’ll say no more. Equally hilarious are Rob’s attempts to prove to himself and to his horrified spouse that Richie is not a Petrie.
- “October Eve” (S 3, Ep. 28, first aired April 8, 1964)
Every once in a while, Carl Reiner would step out of his Alan Brady persona and play another character, always with hilarious results. Here he is Serge Carpetna, a temperamental Greenwich Village artist who paints a portrait of Laura as a surprise gift for Rob that leaves far too little to the imagination. Watching Moore, Van Dyke and Rose Marie’s reactions to seeing the painting is priceless.
And my favorite episode of all time is (drum roll) . . .
1.“It May Look Like a Walnut” (S. 2, Ep. 20, first aired Feb. 6, 1963)
I don’t think I’m going to say anything about the plot to this one. Here the writers created the most perfect pastiche ever made of every McCarthy-era science fiction/horror movie. I can’t even tell you how much they pack into twenty-five minutes, but it’s magnificent – and includes the best guest starring spot of the series.
If I haven’t lured any of you to either reminisce below about the series or give it a try yourself – well, at least it did the trick for me. My colonoscopy is behind me (groan) and only a dim memory. The brilliance of The Dick Van Dyke Show has done the trick!