Welcome to another Sitcom Tuesday! Today we’re starting our series on the best episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show. This is my favorite sitcom of the 1960s and every single episode is available on DVD (and Netflix)!
Rob Petrie, a lovable comedy writer has his hands full at work, contending with Buddy and Sally, two larger-than-life writing partners. (Not to mention a spineless producer and an egomaniacal star.) Then Rob goes home to his quirky wife, Laura, an adorable son, Ritchie, and a pair of eccentric neighbors.
The Dick Van Dyke Show stars DICK VAN DYKE as Rob Petrie, MARY TYLER MOORE as Laura Petrie, ROSE MARIE as Sally Rogers, MOREY AMSTERDAM as Buddy Sorrell, LARRY MATHEWS as Ritchie Petrie, RICHARD DEACON as Mel Cooley, ANN MORGAN GUILBERT as Millie Helper, and JERRY PARIS as Jerry Helper.
The smartest and best written sitcom of the entire decade, The Dick Van Dyke Show was nearly canceled twice during its first season. Truthfully, it took a few episodes for Van Dyke and Moore to settle into their roles, and the comedy of the series — coming from the expertly drawn characters — worked best after the audience developed a familiarity with the show. Still, this first season, with MORE than ten excellent episodes, could, in itself, serve as a masterclass in comedy writing. 90% of the scripts are not only hilarious — but incredibly well constructed. And it’s difficult to describe; how do you know you’re watching a great series? Everything just works. I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify the season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 2: “My Blonde-Haired Brunette” (Aired: 10/10/61 | Filmed: 08/15/61)
Laura dyes her hair blonde — with disastrous results — when she fears the romance in her marriage is fading.
Written by Carl Reiner | Directed by John Rich | Production No. 009
This is the episode that establishes Mary Tyler Moore as a comedic asset. It was the ninth filmed episode, and in the preceding eight, Moore is obviously more reserved — struggling with her characterization as the other actors quickly find theirs. By finally giving Laura an outrageous bit of physical comedy, Moore’s talent explodes and the entire series is instantaneously richer. No wonder the producers decided to air this episode right after the pilot!
02) Episode 3: “Sally And The Lab Technician” (Aired: 10/17/61 | Filmed: 07/04/61)
Laura matches up her shy lab technician cousin with Rob’s fireball co-writer, Sally, for a lopsided dinner party.
Written by Carl Reiner | Directed by John Rich | Production No. 004
This is the first episode that gives us real insight into Sally Rogers, who along with Buddy, probably gets the show’s most uproarious lines. Her date with Thomas Edson is incredibly hilarious but doubly painful. (They say comedy comes from pain!) This is probably the show’s funniest pre-“My Blonde-Haired Brunette” installment and had me laughing pretty regularly.
03) Episode 7: “Jealousy” (Aired: 11/07/61 | Filmed: 06/27/61)
Laura begins to worry when Rob has to work on a troubled script with a beautiful starlet night after night.
Written by Carl Reiner | Directed by Sheldon Leonard | Production No. 003
This early episode, like the majority of these first ten, is elevated by the office scenes, which have already established a rhythm and a formula that rarely fails to deliver laughs. Meanwhile, Moore continues to struggle, but she is helped by playing opposite Millie and Jerry for the first time — an already hilarious pair. (Millie was in “My Blonde-Haired Brunette,” but this was shot earlier.)
04) Episode 12: “Empress Carlotta’s Necklace” (Aired: 12/12/61 | Filmed: 09/12/61)
Rob proudly presents Laura with a huge, horrible necklace, but she cannot bring herself to tell him that it is an atrocity.
Written by Carl Reiner | Directed by James Komack | Production No. 013
What I like most about this episode is the growing chemistry between Moore and Van Dyke. Her attempts to hide her disgust with the necklace are excellent, as is his utter glee at surprising her with what he thinks is a beautiful present. Future Mary Tyler Moore co-star Gavin MacLeod makes an appearance.
05) Episode 13: “Sally Is A Girl” (Aired: 12/19/61 | Filmed: 09/05/61)
Rob is accused of being a Don Juan when he takes his wife’s advice and stops treating Sally as one of the boys.
Written by David Adler | Directed by John Rich | Production No. 012
I have a soft spot for the Sally-centered episodes, but only the ones that don’t sacrifice comedy for unsubtle emotional reaching. Fortunately, this one is quite funny from start to finish. Again, the office scenes are killer, but the dinner party doesn’t disappoint — featuring a rare appearance by Pickles, Buddy’s wife. Two actress played Pickles during her few scant appearances during the first two seasons, before the character was relegated to off-camera mentions. (This is the first actress, and I have no preference for either.)
06) Episode 14: “Buddy, Can You Spare A Job?” (Aired: 12/26/61 | Filmed: 09/19/61)
After Buddy leaves The Alan Brady Show for a job that falls through, Rob and Sally conspire to get him his old job back.
Written by Walter Kempley | Directed by James Komack | Production No. 014
This episode is heavy on office stuff and as a result, is a cut above many of the other first season installments. Rob, Sally, Buddy, and Mel work excellently together. The episode is well-constructed and the laughs are plentiful.
07) Episode 15: “Where Did I Come From?” (Aired: 01/03/62 | Filmed: 11/08/61)
When Ritchie asks the inevitable, “Where did I come from?” question, Rob and Laura recall the days just before his birth.
Written by Carl Reiner | Directed by John Rich | Production No. 019
This is the second flashback episode, and in my opinion, one of the best. A lot of fans adore these episodes, but I find them very hit and miss. If you’ve been following my blog, you know I think devices like these can be gimmicky, but this one is pretty funny. Part of this is, undoubtedly, the result of including Buddy and Sally (they aren’t in all the flashbacks, and I miss them) in the episode. The office scene — including a STELLAR physical comedy bit — is one of the series’ highlights.
08) Episode 16: “The Curious Thing About Women” (Aired: 01/10/62 | Filmed: 10/24/61)
Rob’s sense of humor backfires when he decides to base a television sketch on Laura’s penchant for opening his mail.
Written by David Adler | Directed by John Rich | Production No. 017
Last week, I said this episode was Mary Tyler Moore’s best performance from the series. I showed this episode to ten 19-year-olds at a sitcom fest this past summer and they adored it. It’s incredibly well-written, hilariously funny, with the PERFECT balance between Rob’s home life and his work life. In addition to Moore’s outstanding tour de force performance, this episode boasts one of the only times we actually see the Alan Brady writers physically write a sketch. It’s magnificent. Truly.
09) Episode 18: “Who Owes Who What?” (Aired: 01/24/62 | Filmed: 10/10/61)
Rob’s forgotten loan to Buddy turns into a forgotten debt, and into a passive aggressive sketch.
Written by Carl Reiner | Directed by John Rich | Production No. 015
This is one of best scripts of the first season, and the final scene is excellent. Not only do we get the money exchange sketch — which the series refreshingly admits is tired even for 1962 — but we get the bit that follows, where Rob, Sally, and Buddy actually DO exchange money. So brilliant. Plus there’s this moment that always cracks me up — Rob, Buddy, Sally, and Mel each repeating each other’s names in frustration. Hysterical.
10) Episode 26: “I Am My Brother’s Keeper” (Aired: 03/21/62 | Filmed: 02/06/62)
Rob’s bashful brother arrives in town and proves to be confidant and outgoing — but only when he’s sleepwalking.
Written by Carl Reiner | Directed by John Rich | Production No. 028
Dick Van Dyke’s brother, Jerry Van Dyke, is inspired casting as Rob’s brother, Stacey Petrie. The script is excellent and uniformly funny. Stacey’s awake bit is appropriately bad, and his asleep bit is rightfully infectious. Even though there were a string of great episodes earlier in the season, I think the series finally clicks here — in an episode most resembling the brilliance to come in Season Two.
Runners up from this season include the first episode, “The Sick Boy And The Sitter,” which features excellent performances by Van Dyke, Marie, and Amsterdam, “A Word A Day,” which boasts an excellent and uniquely handled story, “One Angry Man,” which is this series’ warped version of Twelve Angry Men, and the season finale, “The Return Of Happy Spangler,” which gives Van Dyke one of the best physical comedy bits of his career.
Also, the second part of “I Am My Brother’s Keeper,” entitled “The Sleeping Brother,” is nowhere near as funny as the first part. However, it features some EXCELLENT musical performances by the four leads, and I would be remiss if I didn’t include a clip here.
Come back next Tuesday as I cover the best Dick Van Dyke Show episodes from Season Two! And remember to tune in tomorrow for an all-new Wildcard Wednesday post!