A True ’60s Sitcom: Another Look at THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, we’re talking more about The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966, CBS), the iconic gem-producing sitcom that has become a recurring topic throughout our coverage of The Danny Thomas Show. As many of you may remember, Dick Van Dyke was actually one of the first series we discussed on Sitcom Tuesdays back in 2013. Well, this blog — and I — have changed a lot since then; my tastes have matured, as has my ability to analyze material and articulate ideas. It is not feasible right now to go back and redo coverage, but what I can do is take this entry to summarize and give you an idea of how I would frame my commentary on this series if I was writing it today. Now, don’t worry, I won’t let this essay get too unwieldy, for my basic goal is not to argue that The Dick Van Dyke Show is the funniest, most realistic, and character-driven sitcom of the ’60s — the material mostly speaks for itself there — but that it’s rather, contrary to the way most people (and formerly myself included) have viewed it, NOT an unrelated outlier to other classic 1960s sitcoms. That is, The Dick Van Dyke Show belongs exactly where it is, reinforcing many of the qualities of this era in situation comedy, making it a work that doesn’t circumvent the decade, but is a valued part of it.

Last week, we saw how the early 1960s had a trend in which typical domestic comedies — marriage, kids, white picket fence, etc. — started to aim for sophistication, via a self-awareness about the ongoing shift from cities to suburbs, along with a pronounced show biz gloss imparted by New York stage stars who both enabled and encouraged a realistic style of writing that would bring their proceedings both comic legitimacy and cosmopolitan smarts. The Dick Van Dyke Show was a byproduct of this subgenre, featuring a Broadway success story (Dick Van Dyke) in a premise that allowed his character to travel between work in Manhattan, as a writer for a famous TV comedian, and home in New Rochelle, with an attractive young wife and a cute kid who wasn’t too smart for his age but actually talked like a real person — just like everybody else. This depiction of suburban living was more honest for younger couples than that on say, Leave It To Beaver or The Donna Reed Showand it certainly wasn’t the traditional, banal, and bland fare that, yes, too many of the prior decade’s domestic comedies rightly earned a reputation for offering. But that’s no surprise, right? For as we’ve also discussed in Danny Thomas coverage, Dick Van Dyke could serve, in many ways, as the successor to I Love Lucy — a classic-producing and consistently excellent star vehicle for a physical comedian with a work/home conflict, a show biz veneer, and an active desire to be funny, courtesy of the Desilu multi-camera theatrical staging that made it beholden to the live audience’s laughter. These laughs were earned by clear, well-defined characterizations tinged with an elevated realism. And if Dick Van Dyke lacked the strong, singular character motivation that guided so much of Lucy and its stories, it smartly loosened its aperture (à la Danny Thomas) to keep a general work vs. home anxiety but within a premise that prioritized truth and sincere relationships over all else — meaning, anything could happen… as long as it made sense for these people.

For its simplicity, Dick Van Dyke is even more a display of “character” than previous shows in this category had been, and it operated with a low-concept and true-to-life aesthetic that didn’t preclude comedy, but, because it was done so well, enhanced it — making it universal, but still refined. Of course, comedy wasn’t a problem, for the series was created by Carl Reiner, former writer and star of Sid Caesar’s iconic Your Show Of Shows (and Caesar’s Hour), one of the seminal TV comedy-variety series of the 1950s and the best, yet most literate, example of the sketch-born, idea-driven “New York” style of writing we observed with both The Honeymooners and The Phil Silvers Show during our recent coverage of the latter. Now, you may be sensing a discrepancy; most of the character-rooted comedies of the ’50s came from radio on the West Coast, where the goal was to emulate the films of persona-making Hollywood for stars who needed a mask to hide behind, with Lucy, arising from My Favorite Husband, being the leading and never-bested triumph. Yet beyond making Dick Van Dyke‘s depiction of character even more impressive, Reiner’s pedigree also reveals a truth about this “two schools of comedy” theory: after the 1950s, they both borrowed from each other, and most sitcoms in the decades following, including in the ’60s, blended elements. Sure, most shows typically hew more to one side — there’s no doubt that with its sincere, humane writing, Dick Van Dyke is a character piece — but Reiner’s sketch like origins are evident, like when the show does flashbacks or dream sequences: two idea-based constructs that Lucy, for instance, did not regularly employ. What’s more, all the great shows of the ’50s and ’60s combine “high-brow” and “low-brow” qualities for a vital tension; Lucy and Dick Van Dyke both had a sexy show biz angle and a knowing air that made them appealingly cultured, with the latter seeming especially urbane because of, as we discussed, its expressly New York energy. The low-brow came in large part from slapstick — nevertheless legitimized in Lucy by the newness of the medium, which made visual humor a novelty, and in Dick Van Dyke from Reiner’s history with Sid Caesar, who elevated the stature of physical comedy and, more than any other TV comic, made it look most like an art form.

That Ball and Van Dyke were both experts at slapstick surely propelled their shows’ inclusion of physical gags, but in both cases, primarily Van Dyke’s, any show grounded by character that aimed to be the best of its decade, as both are, was going to utilize physical comedy in some fashion, because, again, the balance of high/low is fundamental, particularly in a series that seeks and offers anything elite. This is something separating it from Danny Thomas and Joey Bishop — never mind their larger problem of lacking regulars with characterizations who could be as thoroughly mined for story and exploited for comedy — and I bring them up here because Dick Van Dyke not only was produced by Thomas with Sheldon Leonard and shared some of the structural particulars of Danny Thomas, but also because it would eventually come to eclipse that show in both quality and popularity, forcing it, along with its subpar spin-off for Joey Bishop (discussed next week), to start adopting traits more emblematic of Reiner’s vision. We’ll talk much more about this soon, but now, note that they all shared writers (naturally), and after the 1961-’62 season, we can see the lesser efforts attempting to become more realistic, like Dick Van Dyke, and engaging similar narrative constructs, such as flashbacks or stories with Reiner’s experience-driven take on how show biz affects the home. But outside of those few early ’60s multi-cams with a shared design, Dick Van Dyke’s influence on the sitcom seems to be rather nil — at least, not until 1970, when MTM’s company debuted The Mary Tyler Moore Show, its flagship enterprise (for the former’s leading lady), ushering in a whole era of character-led, palpably human, and realistic situation comedies. At least, that’s the narrative; in the same way we often jump from Lucy to Dick Van Dyke without giving due time to a show like Danny Thomas, we jump from Dick Van Dyke to Mary Tyler Moore without considering much in between… Well, I mean, oh, we’ve spent time on this blog looking at some of the efforts that came from Dick Van Dyke writers and therefore shared traits, like Good Morning World and That Girl, and have definitely given extra attention to a few of the mid-’60s Barefoot In The Park shows that targeted younger viewers and sought a familiar urbane charm, like my beloved He & She.

But for the most part, these shows weren’t popular (even That Girl never cracked the Top 40), so they couldn’t claim much influence. After all, ’60s sitcoms, generally, seemed to be poised in another direction. They were not elite or cosmopolitan, but more intellectually accessible and tailored to the country as a whole (including the rural areas); they were not interested in realism or strict fidelity to character, but fun high-concept ideas and escapism from everyday life; and they weren’t multi-cams working to earn laughs, but single-cams with sweetened tracks to either outrageous hijinks meant for kids or gentle homespun antics in the “warmedy” vein. And that’s largely it — the majority of ’60s sitcoms adhere to those templates, and when we reflect on the decade’s comedies, I don’t know about you, but I think of Henning’s rural classics (like The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres), the wave of supernatural efforts (like Bewitched and The Munsters), and then the broad ensemble pieces that either had a kid-driven appeal (like Gilligan’s Island) or were family-friendly and warmly placid (like The Andy Griffith Show). And then there was Lucy, whose shows successively took on more traits associated with the decade as it went on — diminishing both low-concept realism and character in favor of stars and high-concept silliness, the same kind of material that pretty much every sitcom by 1964-’65 was offering… with few exceptions, Dick Van Dyke being one of them. Accordingly, Dick Van Dyke looks to be a show that doesn’t fit here. Yet it does. Not just because, as we’ve seen, it was born from a trend that sought to modernize the suburban family comedy by making it smarter and more truthful, and not just because it spent four seasons in a successful CBS lineup with its seeming contrast, The Beverly Hillbillies, but also because, heck, every decade gropes around searching for its comic identity in the early years. So, almost any show premiering at the beginning of a new era belongs to its new era, for experimentation and being unalike the soon-to-set reputation is expected.

However, if we acknowledge that as the ’60s began to form its identity before solidification by ’65 (it’s usually around the middle of every decade), and recognize the aforementioned traits associated with its major comedies, then we can also see how they took the best of the early part of the period and altered it in accordance with emerging interests. For instance, think of Bewitched: a domestic comedy with an attractive young couple and a version of a work vs. home conflict… it feels very Dick Van Dyke, especially in the much-heralded early years, which strove to write its leading characters believably and make suburbia feel sexy. It’s the same type of setup, except now there’s a high-concept supernatural premise where the wife and her whole family are witches, and that‘s the drama. Or what about Gilligan’s Island? Is it not an old-fashioned workplace comedy populated by characters who wouldn’t be together… but for the fact that they have the same high-concept career pursuit: getting off the island on which they’re stuck? (You may want to read it as domestic, but the regulars’ different, non-familial backgrounds are key to the conflicts; and its premise-led nature, despite being a fine venue for character, is more in the idea-driven vein of the Hiken modeled workplace shows than anything else.) And surely The Beverly Hillbillies is just a version of the quieter The Real McCoys of the decade prior — a show that lasted until 1963 and is aesthetically linked to another one of the best comedies of the early ’60s, Andy Griffith, which resisted the temptation to get as broad as its contemporaries, but still reinforced the same country charm while earning laughs… Now then, think about all the shows related to those above — the other supernatural, but relationship-anchored comedies (I Dream Of Jeannie), the other high-concept workplace efforts (Get Smart), the other rural comedies with a middle-of-the-country appeal (Petticoat Junction). The best ones are grounded by some of the realistic character concerns of the early ’60s’ (erroneously) perceived outliers that support the wonderfully fun and goofy hijinks typical of this definitively escapist decade…

Which all goes to say that Dick Van Dyke is actually one of the shows that allows the 1960s to be the 1960s. It gives a number of comedies a jumping off point to explore the thematic interests and comedic elements that they prefer, inspiring all those who pay close enough attention to its use of character to emulate an enhanced understanding that harkens back to Lucy, looks forward to Mary Tyler Moore, but sustains itself at all times, for the value of believable regulars — who can also motivate laughs — is essential to the situation comedy, no matter how distracted by premise, silliness, or anything else. It’s why Bewitched and Gilligan’s Island and The Beverly Hillbillies still work themselves as outstanding 1960s comedies: they have great characters, too. In other words, The Dick Van Dyke Show may be the guiding light for character in this decade, but it’s not alone, and in saying so, we’re also acknowledging how strong and interrelated the best of the best always are: they work for the same reasons. And they deserve to be discussed together: Dick Van Dyke influencing and being influenced by its own era… So, that’s how I’d talk about the series today. I’d also emphasize how its realism allowed scripts to touch lightly on social issues (like civil rights), extoll the virtues of the cast and crew, play up the combination of its Lucy-style character format with Reiner’s Sid Caesar comic energy, and insist that Season Two, and to a lesser extent, Three, are the best because they have the finest display of character, without too many idea-based gimmicks that’d be more at home in a sketch. As for the episodes I’d highlight, well, I’d pay more attention to how the show uses its work vs. home conflict, established in the premiere, and how its well-defined characters propel episodic story… Now, I can’t go ahead and pick new favorites — I haven’t studied the show recently in the way that I’d need to — but I can offer a list of entries, just by skimming the episode guide (okay, and popping on a few), that would earn my attention and likely be discussed in some manner here, if I was devoting full coverage. I’ve listed them below. Again, these aren’t official selections, just an educated guess on where I’d be focusing my time.

 

Season One (1961-1962)

01 “The Sick Boy And The Sitter” 

02 “My Blonde-Haired Brunette” 

05 “Oh, How We Met On The Night That We Danced”

11 “Forty-Four Tickets” 

12 “Empress Carlotta’s Necklace” 

14 “Buddy, Can You Spare A Job?” 

15 “Where Did I Come From?” 

16 “The Curious Thing About Women” 

17 “Punch Thy Neighbor” 

18 “Who Owes Who What?” 

20 “A Word A Day” 

22 “Father Of The Week”

24 “One Angry Man” 

26 “I Am My Brother’s Keeper” 

29 “Sol And The Sponsor”

30 “The Return Of Happy Spangler” 

 

Season Two (1962-1963)

02 “The Two Faces Of Rob” 

03 “The Attempted Marriage” 

04 “Bank Book 6565696” 

06 “My Husband Is Not A Drunk” 

07 “What’s In A Middle Name?” 

09 “The Night The Roof Fell In” 

11 “A Bird In The Head Hurts” 

12 “Gesundheit, Darling” 

13 “A Man’s Teeth Are Not His Own” 

14 “Somebody Has To Play Cleopatra” 

15 “The Cat Burglar” 

17 “Will You Two Be My Wife?” 

18 “Ray Murdock’s X-Ray”

19 “I Was A Teenage Head Writer” 

20 “It May Look Like A Walnut”

21 “My Husband Is A Check-Grabber”

22 “Don’t Trip Over That Mountain” 

25 “The Square Triangle”

26 “I’m No Henry Walden” 

28 “Divorce” 

30 “A Surprise Surprise Is A Surprise” 

 

Season Three (1963-1964)

01 “That’s My Boy??” 

02 “The Masterpiece” 

03 “Laura’s Little Lie” 

04 “Very Old Shoes, Very Old Rice” 

05 “All About Eavesdropping” 

07 “Who And Where Was Antonio Stradivarius?” 

10 “The Ballad Of The Betty Lou” 

12 “The Sound Of The Trumpets Of Conscience…” 

16 “The Lady And The Tiger And The Lawyer” 

17 “The Life And Love Of Joe Coogan” 

18 “A Nice, Friendly Game Of Cards” 

20 “The Brave And The Backache” 

22 “My Part-Time Wife” 

23 “Honeymoons Are For The Lucky” 

24 “How To Spank A Star” 

25 “The Plots Thicken” 

26 “Scratch My Car And Die” 

28 “October Eve” 

30 “My Neighbor’s Husband’s Other Life” 

31 “I’d Rather Be Bald Than Have No Head At All”

 

Season Four (1964-1965)

01 “My Mother Can Beat Up My Father” 

02 “The Ghost Of A. Chantz”

04 “A Vigilante Ripped My Sports Coat” 

07 “4 ½”

08 “The Alan Brady Show Goes To Jail” 

09 “Three Letters From One Wife”

10 “Pink Pills And Purple Parents” 

11 “It Wouldn’t Hurt Them To Give Us A Raise”

13 “My Two Showoffs And Me”

16 “The Impractical Joke” 

17 “Stacey Petrie (I)” 

21 “The Case Of The Pillow” 

23 “Girls Will Be Boys” 

25 “Your Home Sweet Home Is My Home”

26 “Anthony Stone”

27 “Never Bathe On Sunday”

28 “Show Of Hands”

29 “Baby Fat”

30 “One Hundred Terrible Hours” 

 

Season Five (1965-1966)

01 “Coast To Coast Big Mouth”

02 “A Farewell To Writing”

03 “Uhny Uftz” 

05 “No Rice At My Wedding” 

07 “The Great Petrie Fortune” 

10 “Go Tell The Birds And The Bees” 

12 “See Rob Write, Write Rob Write” 

13 “You’re Under Arrest”

18 “The Curse Of The Petrie People” 

19 “The Bottom Of Mel Cooley’s Heart” 

21 “Dear Sally Rogers” 

22 “Buddy Sorrell, Man And Boy”

23 “Bad Reception In Albany” 

24 “Talk To The Snail” 

25 “A Day In The Life Of Alan Brady” 

26 “Obnoxious, Offensive, Egomaniac, Etc.” 

27 “The Man From My Uncle” 

29 “Love Thy Other Neighbor” 

30 “Long Night’s Journey Into Day” 

31 “The Gunslinger”

 

 

Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Monday for a musical rarity!