Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Oh, Rob!

For this post, we're taking a step inside our WABAC machine (which is another great show from days past), all the way back to 1961. In 1961, America was living in fear that the Earth would be blown up at any instant and our country would be taken over by Commies—and we weren't even sure which was worse.

Television had been a thing, or at least a thing people used regularly, for about a decade, and by then it was already in almost 90% of American homes. Amazing, right?

The early '60s were still a pretty squeaky-clean time for television, as far as censorship and regulation goes. Think of I Love Lucy, where they weren't even allowed to say the word "pregnant" because the network felt it was too vulgar—even when Lucy was actually pregnant.

Well, in comes The Dick Van Dyke Show, breaking boundaries at every step without really even trying. They faced some push-back from the network, but with persistence and clever loopholes, they managed to capture a sense of reality in every episode that no one else had accomplished before. It ran for five seasons, from 1961-1966, on CBS, and is still popular in syndication, as well as being one of the most well-loved sitcoms ever. It won 15 Emmys for acting, writing, and directing, and was nominated for many more; it was nominated and won at least one award for every season it was on air.

The Dick Van Dyke Show was originally meant to star creator Carl Reiner and was called Head of the Family. The pilot episode of this version is on Netflix for you to watch, but it's so terrible that I'm not sure you really want to. Luckily Reiner realized it wasn't working and set out to find someone else to star.

Lucky for everyone, he found the then-nobody Dick Van Dyke, long before anyone knew him as Bert from Mary Poppins (which, incidentally, is one of my all-time favorite movies). He was starring with Chita Rivera in Bye Bye, Birdie on Broadway at the time, and when Reiner saw him, he knew that he would be perfect: not too good-looking, a little awkward, and all-around lovable. The trouble was, Dick Van Dyke was far from a household name, so Reiner took a pretty big risk putting his name front and center. However, the show eventually became so popular that Dick Van Dyke would be a name no one would forget.

Public Domain
Besides the obvious Dick Van Dyke as Rob Petrie, The Dick Van Dyke Show also stars Mary Tyler Moore as Rob's wife Laura, as well as Larry Matthews as their young son Ritchie. Rob works as the head writer on the fictional Alan Brady Show (based on Reiner's experience as a writer on the real Sid Caesar Show) with co-writers Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam), whose one-liners are to die for, and Sally Rogers (Rose Marie). There are also Rob and Laura's neighbors and best friends, Millie and Jerry Helper (Anne Morgan Guilbert and Jerry Paris, respectively), as well as Carl Reiner himself as the ill-tempered diva Alan Brady and Richard Deacon as his balding producer Mel Cooley. The show even includes a couple of appearances by Dick Van Dyke's real-life little brother Jerry in particularly hilarious episodes, as Rob's sleepwalking little brother.

In every episode, the characters find themselves in all kinds of silly shenanigans—yet always believable ones. Whether it's a flashback to Rob and Laura's wedding that almost wasn't, or it's Rob losing a script that he, Buddy, and Sally had spent all day working on and then negotiating with a homeless man to get it back, or it's a bird that has taken a liking to little Ritchie's hair for its nest and attacks him every time he comes home from school, there's no shortage of entertainment in every episode.

There are many, many things that work in The Dick Van Dyke Show. Very often when I watch early television, like I Love Lucy, Green Acres, or even something a little later like Bewitched, I find that I enjoy it because it's quaint. It's adorable and old. And sometimes a little bit uncomfortable because of the obviously misogynistic story lines. No matter how scheming Lucy was, Ricky always put her back in her place. I love these shows and find them funny and entertaining, but there's always a part of me that thinks, "Aw, how cute."

This was never the case with The Dick Van Dyke Show. It never felt quaint, despite being over 50 years old. It was just genuinely funny. I laughed out loud all the time.

Carl Reiner was nothing short of genius in the way he put the show together. First and foremost, Reiner made it his goal to capture real life. It wasn't "real" life the way TV portrayed it in many other similar sitcoms. It was real life the way he and the people he knew experienced it. He would ask his crew, his actors, and even his then-young son Rob (who is a great actor, writer, and director in his own right), about things that had happened in their own lives. Much of what happened in Dick Van Dyke came from actual things that happened to people Reiner knew. Reiner has said himself that he never intended to necessarily break any boundaries or be particularly forward-thinking; he was just thinking about real life. Mary Tyler Moore said of the show that the only thing that didn't feel real about it was the fact that Rob and Laura slept in separate beds. Ah, well. You can't win every battle with the networks.

The character Sally Rogers (Rose Marie) was the
first time a single, working woman
was shown on television.
Also pictured is Morey Amsterdam as Buddy
Sorrell, king of the hilarious one-liners.
The Dick Van Dyke Show treated women with great respect. They weren't just gossiping housewives (although Laura and Millie were housewives, and they did gossip, that wasn't their only purpose). They were real and they had opinions that were valued. One of the things Reiner and Mary Tyler Moore fought the network for was pants. In every television series before this one, women were always, always shown in skirts. No woman had ever been shown wearing pants. But Mary Tyler Moore pointed out, "Well, all the moms and housewives I know wear pants," so Reiner said, "Then you'll wear pants." This bothered CBS, who at first wouldn't let them show Laura in pants at all, and then insisted that they show her in a skirt for at least a certain number of scenes in every episode. This lasted until they included a scene in which Laura goes into the kitchen wearing pants and comes out a second later wearing a skirt, after which CBS finally decided it wasn't going to change their minds. Mary Tyler Moore actually made Capri pants a huge fashion trend because she wore them in the show.

Sally Rogers was also a remarkable character. She was a single, working woman, which was absolutely unheard of in entertainment and extremely rare in real life. She was always joking about finding a husband, and she was teased frequently about it, but it was always good-natured, and she was never made out to look like some kind of spinster or whore or anything. Her teasing wasn't any harsher than the treatment Roz Doyle gets on Frasier, and considering the state of the world in the early '60s, that's pretty amazing. Sally was great at what she did, and that, rather than her being single, was her defining characteristic, which honestly is more than I can say about some more recent shows.

Reiner was also aware of the lasting impression The Dick Van Dyke Show could have if he was smart. He intentionally never included political or cultural references or 1960s slang in episodes, because he knew that those would date the show and would make it less likely to withstand the passing of decades. And it's true; once I knew this fact, I looked out for it, and I might have heard a brief reference to an actor or something maybe once or twice, tops. The content is generally timeless and relatable, despite being in an era with very specific visual markers.

The relationships between the characters are also interesting, particularly between Rob and Laura. Unlike many shows (especially I Love Lucy), Rob and Laura genuinely respect each other. They both make decisions together. It's not all up to Rob to be the man of the house and be in charge of everything—they run the house together. And, more than that, they argue. They argue about real problems and petty ones, just like a real couple. This isn't Father Knows Best, where the husband is
Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore were so convincing as
husband and wife that the public was extremely disappointed
to find that they weren't actually married.
Some people even actively hated Dick Van Dyke's real
wife, Margie, because she wasn't Mary Tyler Moore!
so wonderful and respectable and the wife is so obedient that no one argues. This is a real, loving, respectful relationship. Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore were so convincing that people thought they were married in real life, and were even devastated to find out that they weren't.

And the last major piece of genius from Reiner and the production team was to end it after five seasons, even despite pleas from the public and the network. Especially because at this time every season had at least 30 episodes (compared to the average 22 or even 13 of today), this was a brilliant move to keep the show from, as I've said before, either jumping the shark or simply fizzling out. Reiner didn't even want to have any reunion episodes later on, which I also think is smart, if only because I just personally am not a fan of reunions.

So, overall impression: it's an incredible specimen of television. Maybe not every episode is a complete winner (including the slightly disappointing final episode), but as a whole, this is simply great TV. Not great TV despite its era, just great TV. The writing is witty, clever, and often laugh-out-loud funny (real lols were had!). The characters are endearing, and their relationships are believable. The casting is brilliant. And it's never quaint. The jokes are lasting, the scenarios are lasting, the relationships are lasting. It's no wonder Dick Van Dyke became a household name.

If you've watched The Dick Van Dyke Show, let me know your thoughts! If not, go watch it now, you'll love it!
The cast and producers with their well-deserved Primetime Emmys!
Richard Deacon (played Mel Cooley) is on the left. Mary Tyler Moore
and Dick Van Dyke are to his left. Carl Reiner is the second from the right.
I believe the man on the far right is Jerry Paris, who played neighbor Jerry
Helper, and who was also a very successful (and Emmy-winning)
director on the series. Unfortunately I'm not sure
who the man to Reiner's right is. If you know, do tell!
My favorite episode:
"Obnoxious, Offensive, Egomaniac, Etc," (S5, Ep. 26). Rob, Sally, and Buddy write insulting epithets about Alan Brady in their script while they are writing, something they do every week, but they always ink it out before sending the final script to their egomaniacal boss. However, this particular week they were in a big hurry to finish the script and left it on Alan's desk without remembering to cover up all of their insults! Alan is out of the office, so the three, plus Laura, hope they can get the script back before Alan sees it and without being late for the play they're about to see.

Some Trivia:
  • Buddy (Morey Amsterdam) and Mel (Richard Deacon) are notoriously enemies on the show. Buddy is always making fun of Mel's baldness with hilarious one-liners, and Mel always refers to Buddy simply as "Yeuch!" However, Amsterdam and Deacon were actually close friends in real life and came up with many of Buddy's best insults over dinners or between scenes.
  • This was the last show to have its entire run in black & white. If it had continued on to a sixth season, it would have converted to color.
  • Buddy Sorrell was based on Mel Brooks, who worked as a writer on Sid Caesar's Show of Shows alongside Carl Reiner.
  • Alan Brady's face was never shown and his voice was rarely heard for the first three seasons of the show, because Carl Reiner wanted to find a big celebrity to play the part. But by season four, Reiner decided just to play the role himself.
Next up in the series:
Murder, She Wrote

A favorite scene of mine, in a Christmas special.
"Alan Brady, Alan Brady," they all sing sweetly, until, one by one,
they each sing out their own names and exit the song, leaving
a peeved Rob conducting no one!


  1. I'm 99% positive the unknown man in the Emmy picture is Sheldon Leonard, the producer of the Dick Van Dyke Show.