[15 January 2013]
According to one of the countless extras on the recently released The Dick Van Dyke Show: The Complete Series Blu-ray set, after Carl Reiner’s long run as the second banana to Sid Caesar on NBC’s Your Show of Shows, Reiner was interested in sitcoms but was frustrated by the quality of so many of them. Thankfully, Reiner listened to his wife when she suggested he could write a better show himself. With The Dick Van Dyke Show, he ended up creating one of the greatest, most influential sitcoms of all-time.
The classic television series, which ran from 1961 to 1966, features first-class writing and remarkable casting. One major setting, appropriately enough, was behind the scenes of a fictional TV comedy show. Dick Van Dyke plays Rob Petrie, the head writer for The Alan Brady Show. Alongside Rob are his fellow comedy writers: the man-hungry, brash Sally (Rose Marie) and the wisecracking Buddy (Morey Amsterdam). Their adversary, of sorts, is the pompous producer Mel Cooley (Richard Deacon), who doubles as the walking punch line for the best series of bald jokes in television history. The other half of the show, when Rob is home from work, is a family sitcom at its finest, thanks to the wonderfully multifaceted performance of Mary Tyler Moore as Rob’s stunning wife Laura. As Rob and Laura, whether disagreeing, quipping, dancing, or romancing, Van Dyke and Moore gave endearing performances throughout all five seasons.
The Dick Van Dyke Show certainly was, if not the first modern sitcom, at least the proper lead-in to the modern sitcom. Its seamless duality as neither a workplace-only sitcom nor a family-centered sitcom layered the show in a way that modern shows have emulated and carried forward. Instead of watching a father and his briefcase come home from a mysterious unseen job, like on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet or Leave It To Beaver, the series admirably devoted equal time to the main character’s workplace and family life, which was unheard of during that era, yet the storytelling in both settings remained remarkably strong. The gag writing scenes at work were especially rambunctious with each actor hamming it up; meanwhile, the droll scenes at home were especially relatable. Though humor was almost always present, The Petries even showed that it was possible to argue about virtually anything that happened under their roof.
The Dick Van Dyke Show was the bridge between two celebrated ages of the sitcom: the outlandish slapstick of Your Show of Shows and I Love Lucy in the ’50s, and the more realistic circumstances of more complex shows like All in the Family in the ‘70s. It didn’t spend every scene painfully setting up a punch line; it captured the emotional rollercoaster of everyday life but through the conversations and actions of naturally amusing, likeable people. In between the many jokes, the scripts from each episode found room for genuine communication. Thanks to smart writing, not a single character is a fool. Yet each of them from time to time, like the average viewer, plausibly found himself/herself doing stupid things.
As a creative sketch writer, Rob had an overactive imagination that made him leap to hilarious conclusions and entertain obsessions with things like aliens, cat burglars, and whether or not he brought home the right newborn from the hospital. For example, in 1962’s whimsical “The Two Faces of Rob”, Rob attempts to disguise his voice and gives Laura a very flirtatious phone call, then spends the episode irrationally flustered at how she’s welcomed the advances of an amorous Italian stranger. “She thought she was flirting with a complete stranger!”
Usually, the dialogue developed with a natural rhythm more like a play than a motion picture, making it the perfect fit for Van Dyke, a proven stage performer. No matter what the script called for, Van Dyke, the animated, versatile showman, easily weaved between being as wildly clumsy as Chaplin and as graceful and full of rhythm as Astaire. The series took plentiful advantage of Van Dyke and Moore’s experience on Broadway and in dance, respectively. They executed several song-and-dance numbers throughout the series like in “Oh, How We Met the Night That We Danced” which tells the story of their first interactions while Rob was serving in the Army.
The show also notably allowed the lead’s wife to be as funny and have as much personality as her husband, which except for I Love Lucy, was a sitcom rarity. Like Lucille Ball before her, Moore was an absolutely fetching actress who wasn’t afraid to look silly. Plus, in countless episodes the talented Moore with her distraught “Oh, Rob!” phrase proved that she’s, without a doubt, the funniest crier of all time.
And while CBS fielded plenty of complaints about Moore spending so much time in form-fitting capri pants, with those daring fashion choices, Laura’s spunky vitality and Sally’s turn as a successful independent career woman, it’s easy to find nice glimpses of feminism in The Dick Van Dyke Show, if you read between the one-liners. In several episodes, Rob asks Laura how she knew something that he couldn’t figure out and she replies, without fail, “I’m a woman.”
As the Petries, Van Dyke and Moore have more on-screen chemistry than most of couples to ever appear on the small screen. Van Dyke and Moore played an enamored couple so convincingly on the show that I wouldn’t be surprised if many viewers actually thought they were married in real life. It’s easy to notice how many times Rob and Laura dance around their living room, careen into each others arms, or kiss passionately. Their characters slept in separate twin beds, but that wasn’t fooling anyone. Rob and Laura were totally infatuated, frisky, and proud of it. In one episode, Sally comes to visit and when she asks if she interrupted anything, Rob frankly replies, “Yeah, we were necking.” Indeed, the Petries bicker and disagree, but they always end each episode enthralled by one other. It’s as refreshing as it is charming.
What’s often forgotten today is that The Dick Van Dyke Show struggled in its first season to find an audience, despite sidesplitting episodes like “Where Did I Come From?” or “To Tell or Not to Tell”. In the second season though, The Dick Van Dyke Show added the now-famous opening credits which showed Rob Petrie flipping over the ottoman and the series sidestepped cancellation and tripped over an ottoman into the hearts of America.
In retrospect, sure, there are some weak, especially forgettable episodes. That’s to be expected with any series. The Dick Van Dyke Show rarely feels out-of-date though, because its greatest humor is rooted in behavior, not one-liners, and human nature doesn’t change too much over time.
Indeed, The Dick Van Dyke Show is one of the most clever, forward-thinking television programs of its time. And, excluding the brilliant surrealism and symbolism of The Twilight Zone, it’s the most adventurous and progressive TV series of the decade.
The show took chances in its storytelling format and continually broke the rules of typical sitcoms. It made regular use of flashbacks and dream sequences like when the Petries explain how their son Ritchie (Larry Matthews) ended up with the middle name Rosebud or when Rob imagines that he’s totally bald. In 1962’s “The Night the Roof Fell In”, out of the blue, there are even talking fish in the Petrie home fish tank that set up a story about the couple’s worst fight. “I was floating around, minding my own business, watching.” In that same episode, both Rob and Laura tell their own exaggerated version of the serious fight and audiences get to hear what each character is thinking, thanks to the ingenious use of voiceover.
While the twin beds in the Petrie’s bedroom certainly could remind modern viewers that there were censors and concerned program sponsors, for a show that finished its five-season run by 1966, the show addressed a lot of difficult yet commonplace aspects of everyday life. The husband’s long working hours, social obligations within the community, and the stress of parenting. Viewers witnessed plenty of escalating arguments, albeit amusing ones. Episodes centered around seemingly-taboo issues like divorce, popping pills, equality, neighborhood crime, and the changing gender roles in America.
Also, while the series wasn’t the first to feature a show-within-a-show or satirize the industry, The Dick Van Dyke Show opened a door to the eccentric behind-the-scenes show business world that seemed enigmatic to audiences, a proverbial door that has been successfully opened again by programs like The Larry Sanders Show, 30 Rock, and Sports Night, among many others.
In the 158-episode collection, classic episodes abound. In the uproarious “Never Bathe on Saturday”, Laura gets her foot stuck in a hotel suite’s bathtub faucet while Rob, at his most klutzy, tries to break down the door to rescue her. There’s the program’s most famous episode, “It May Look Like a Walnut”, a much-celebrated, bizarre, walnut-filled Twilight Zone tribute which has Rob dreaming that aliens with no thumbs from the Twilo Zone are taking over his entire world. And there’s the boisterous season five episode where Laura must somehow stand up to Rob’s grumpy boss Alan Brady (Carl Reiner) after revealing to the world on a game show that the illustrious celebrity wears a toupee.
After Reiner, Moore, and Van Dyke finished the Dick Van Dyke Show, which won 15 Emmys, they each probably thought that their best work, somehow, still lay ahead of them. However, only Moore would go on to find a more iconic role as Mary Richards in, appropriately, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Even so, The Dick Van Dyke Show provides quite a lasting legacy for the group.
The Complete Series on Blu-ray includes an exhaustive batch of extras including: the original dull pilot (Head of the Family) that starred Reiner in the lead role; several slapdash audio commentaries from Reiner and Van Dyke; witty commercials for the show; photo galleries, entertaining rehearsal footage; and several televised tributes to Reiner that are of varying quality. Most disappointing is the “50th Anniversary Q&A” with Van Dyke, Reiner, and show writer Garry Marshall. The seasoned trio gives jovial, moderately interesting responses but the production’s so unpolished that its famous subjects are sometimes out of focus or almost entirely out of the shot.
The most captivating featurettes on the set are the two-minute “Remembering” interviews that accompany many of the episodes in which the major players on the show (usually Reiner, Van Dyke, or Moore) dish out vivid production stories and/or worthwhile reflections about individual episodes like “That’s My Boy!” As a whole, the set’s numerous extras reveal an incredible amount of trivia for fans of the show. Did you know that Reiner originally considered casting Johnny Carson as Rob or that after Moore’s stellar performance in the underrated “My Blonde-Haired Brunette” completely changed how Laura was written in order to better show off the performer’s wide range of comedic skills? Were you aware that Rob’s involvement with the ottoman in the opening moments of the show was varied each week to smartly encourage viewers not to miss a moment of the broadcast?
There’s no doubt though that the biggest selling point of the Blu-ray set is simply the collection of amazing episodes. And while the show has been a staple in reruns for decades, it’s never looked better than on these 15 Blu-ray discs. The episodes are presented in immaculate high-definition, direct from the original 35mm negatives, which only aids The Dick Van Dyke Show’s modern appeal.
If I were asked to say with certainty which American sitcoms will still be widely-known and respected a few decades from now, the list would include programs like “I Love Lucy”, “The Andy Griffith Show”, “The Cosby Show”, “Seinfeld”, “The Simpsons”, probably “Friends”…and, certainly, “The Dick Van Dyke Show”. The writers of The Alan Brady Show would be proud. “Oh, Rob!” indeed.