Thursday, August 03, 2006

Classic Comedy Lookback - The Dick Van Dyke Show

(Note: I had every intention of getting this out on Tuesday but circumstances required that I spend the night at my brother's place to look after my nephew in case Greg was called out to fix a traffic light. Which in fact he was. It is being posted now (Wednesday night I hope) because I was too tired to work on it when I came home. My brother's couch is not terribly comfortable to sleep on.)

The 1960s were something of a golden age for the sitcom, a golden age that stretched into the 1970s although with considerable changes. Shows that were huge at the start of the 1960s wouldn't have been given a greenlight by any network executive at the end of the 1970s. After all who would be willing to believe a comedy about hillbillies living in a Beverly Hills mansion?

I mentioned the Beverly Hillbillies because that was the original Blogcritic article that inspired this little project listed The Beverly Hillbillies as one of the best sitcoms ever and the writer was right. The show works on a great many levels both in terms of creating great characters - Milburn Drysdale, Jane Hathaway, Jethro Bodine, and "Granny" in particular - as well as using it's "fish out of water" format as a springboard for social satire. And Max Baer Jr. in drag as his twin sister Jethrine is a hoot (Jethrine's voice was provided by producer Paul Henning's daughter Linda who would later appear as Betty Jo in Petticoat Junction). I have a feeling that the show - which was cancelled in 1971 along with the rest of the CBS "rural shows" because Fred Silverman believed that the audience was too "sophisticated" for these shows - could have continued until Irene Ryan's death in 1973. And yet, as much as I love the show I couldn't find an angle to base an article on. Now the Dick Van Dyke Show is a whole other story.

What can you say about a show which starts being funny in the credits? The classic credits scenes for The Dick Van Dyke Show were funny. While the first season's credits were pedestrian - pictures of the cast and clips from the show - the three variants of the later credits were gems. In one you have Rob tripping over the ottoman when he enters the house (to see the people he's been working with for 8 hours sitting there), in the second he sidesteps the ottoman to the congratulations of everyone, and in the less often seen third version he sidesteps the ottoman and then trips on the carpet. About the only thing you can say is that this little display of slapstick visual humour gives both a taste of what's to come and the wrong impression about the show. While there was some visual humour - Van Dyke was excellent at physical comedy - what The Dick Van Dyke Show really specialized in was great writing and a nearly magical cast chemistry.

The Dick Van Dyke Show was based on series creator Carl Reiner's experience working as an actor and writer with Sid Caesar on Your Show Of Shows and Caesar's Hour. In fact the characters are based on Reiner himself (Rob), his wife Estelle and son Rob (Laura and Ritchie), writing partners Mel Brooks, Selma Diamond and Lucille Kallen (Buddy and Sally), and Caesar himself (Alan Brady, played by Reiner himself). The series splits between the office where Rob heads perhaps the smallest writing staff ever to attempt to put together a one hour variety show and home where he has to deal with his wife, son and neighbours Jerry and Millie Helper (Jerry Paris and Anne Morgan Guilbert). The office format allows the characters a chance to be actively funny - they're writing a comedy show after all - while the at home material deals more with funny situations that arise in every day life, like your son giving lectures on the facts of life to other kids (and giving out the version his grandfather told him because the truth is sort of boring). The show's writing sparkles. It's fast paced, sometimes even frenetically paced, and the home portions of the show work because the stories are often drawn from life experiences, to the point where Reiner was asking cast members to supply him with anecdotes from their own lives. These parts of the show have a real sense of authenticity that is missing from a lot of shows then and now.

What really makes the show work though is the chemistry between cast members. Dick Van Dyke's chemistry with Mary Tyler Moore is palpable. Despite the fact that he was 11 years older than Moore that their relationship seems eminently plausible (in fact both actors have apparently admitted that they had crushes on each other while the show was in production). It didn't hurt the show that Moore was an incredibly sexy woman in her mid-20s whose sex appeal was enhanced by the fairly simple wardrobe that she frequently wore - usually a white blouse and black Capri pants that emphasized her shape. One of the sexiest scenes in the whole series is Moore lying on her stomach atop a pile of walnuts that had erupted from the hall closet (that's the picture I wanted to use for this article!). Much the same could be said about the relationships at the office. Van Dyke fits in well but there's also a sense that something we don't know about exists between Buddy and Sally. In fact the show even did an episode where the two seem to be sneaking off together for an affair - in fact they're sneaking off to a hotel in the Catskills to perform an music and comedy act because they miss performing. Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam were long time friends and she was the one who suggested Amsterdam, who was often billed as the "human joke machine." Amsterdam had done a lot of early TV including Broadway Open House, a predecessor of The Tonight Show. Added to the mix was Richard Deacon as Mel Cooley, the producer of "Alan Brady Show" who was also Alan's brother-in-law (and by default his chief lackey). The relationship between Cooley and the writing staff was mixed - Rob had to work with him, Sally basically ignored him, and he was that target of Buddy's most creative work - insults. In truth though Mel's biggest nemesis was the egotistical Alan Brady, played in what I suspect was a dead on caricature of Sid Caesar.

The show is not without it's weaknesses. I found the character of Ritchie Petrie to be one of the most annoying children in the history of TV kids. From an adult perspective the fact that Rob and Laura slept in twin beds is one of the great absurdities - who would willingly sleep in a separate bed from her! Of course this sort of thing was common in TV at the time; except for The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet married couples didn't actually share a bed until Bewitched broke that "taboo". Perhaps that explains why Rob and Laura only had one kid. Another problem was one that was quite common in this period; there was little if any continuity between episodes, even when something a big factor in an episode like Ritchie getting a dog, who was never seen again. In one episode Rob had a huge rock jutting into his basement that kept him from having a pool table, but in a later episode is hustled in a pool game by Buddy's brother in the same basement. It's maddening, but also depressingly common in 1960s sitcoms.

The Dick Van Dyke Show ended after five seasons in which the show's ratings and network support increased every year. There are different stories about how and why it ended. Carl Reiner has stated that he never intended the show to last more than five years and resisted pressure from CBS to continue the series. Morey Amsterdam claimed that the show had been renewed and would have been shot in colour in the 1965-66 season but Van Dyke wanted to move into the movies and Reiner made it clear that he wouldn't be returning as producer. Rose Marie claimed that the series could have continued for at least two more years, in colour (I have to say that I find it nearly impossible to imagine The Dick Van Dyke Show in anything except Black & White - sort of like Casablanca). I suspect that Amsterdam is at least partially correct in that Van Dyke was anxious to move into movies after his relative success in Mary Poppins in 1964, but I have no real doubt that Reiner wanted to end the show and was probably edging towards burnout. Today we have a lot of shows that try to imitate The Dick Van Dyke Show but try to "update" it by giving the characters lower social standing and making the characters less "perfect". All too often the results are, to say the least, less than perfect. Instead of witty and well paced shows you frequently get something like According To Jim where the lead character is obnoxious and not nearly as smart or in charge as he thinks he is. Worse, in trying to "humanize" the male lead they've tended to make the situation absurd. Can anyone believe that in real life a woman like Courtney Thorne Smith would give a second look to someone like Jim Belushi? Or that Leah Remini would be with Kevin James? A lesser series would make Buddy & Sally younger and probably have them as both people Rob worked with and the next door neighbours, eliminating Jerry & Millie. The fact is that The Dick Van Dyke Show was one of the greatest shows - comedy or drama - ever, a show that has often been imitated but rarely equalled by those imitators, so maybe it's a good thing that Carl Reiner pulled the plug on the show before it degraded into something imperfect.

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