Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re beginning our coverage on the best episodes from one of the most interesting early ’70s sitcoms that you may have forgotten about, The New Dick Van Dyke Show (1971-1974, CBS). This series has not been on DVD, but it was mildly syndicated for several decades, and I have an almost complete collection on a set of DVD-rs (only missing one Season Three episode). I’m confident that because of Mr. Van Dyke and Mr. Reiner, the series will eventually be released. Until then, I’m thrilled to present the first ever guide to the best episodes!
Local Phoenix based talk show host Dick Preston and his beautiful wife Jenny contend with life in the early ’70s alongside their children, their neighbors — Dick’s manager and his wife, and Dick’s sister/producer. The New Dick Van Dyke Show stars DICK VAN DYKE as Dick Preston, HOPE LANGE as Jenny Preston, FANNIE FLAGG as Mike Preston, MARTY BRILL as Bernie Davis, NANCY DUSSAULT as Carol Davis, and ANGELA POWELL as Annie Preston.
As television prepared to enter the ’70s by targeting the young “hip” consumer, CBS was anxious to find vehicles for the two stars of the network’s most sophisticated and critically successful sitcom of the past decade. The show was The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966, CBS) and the stars were Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. Both of these dynamite performers inked deals during the transitional ’69-’70 season to headline their own series. Moore was given 13 episodes to prove herself during the Fall of 1970 and her show stayed on for seven full seasons, becoming a sitcom classic. Van Dyke was signed to a three year “pay or play” deal, and though CBS made good on their promise, his show faded into relative obscurity after it left the air in 1974. Perhaps this is because, from its inception, the new show was always compared to his earlier (and already legendary) series. Of course, creator Carl Reiner did Van Dyke no favors by crafting a premise that wasn’t dissimilar from what they had established. The only things that seemed to make the show unique was that it took place and was produced entirely in Arizona, per Van Dyke’s request, and that the series was going to be driven by how the couple was going to cope with Jenny’s discovery of her late-in-life pregnancy, a topic which had yet to be addressed on television.
But as a result of the commute required for performers and technicians based in L.A., the series began production in January of 1971, wrapped in late August, and had 24 episodes locked and ready to go before CBS aired the first one in September. Because of this pacing, Reiner and Co. had the opportunity to play with the airing schedule, showing what they believed to be the strongest episodes first. They also opted to hold the pilot, which established the aforementioned pregnancy plot point, to mid-season after they decided (during production) that the storyline was only good for a few episodes and not enough to carry the series. Though Reiner may have been right (and I actually believe he was), the removal of this unique focal point rendered the series way too reminiscent of the original Dick Van Dyke Show (a complaint that would later necessitate major changes). Despite the qualms, CBS had much faith in the series and aired it in a Saturday night line-up that included The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977, CBS) and All In The Family (1971-1979, CBS). Though not as strong as those two powerhouses, the series did pretty well and the series looked to be a solid, if not exceptional, situation comedy.
Looking at these first 24 episodes today, you’ll find that most of them are what you expect: good, but not great. The supporting cast is strong, but they don’t get the material that they deserve, and as a result, all of the characters (even Flagg’s) are underwhelming. Because of this, the funniest episodes generally focus on Dick, who carries the show. And even though the writing is perfectly acceptable, one can already see in this first season that the cast is working overtime to elevate the comedy. But they can only do so much. The show is most exciting when it tries new things (or decides to be more topical), and amidst general mediocrity, there is some really funny stuff. So, because I’m quite fond of Van Dyke and much of the other talent involved, this is a series I’m thrilled to present here on Sitcom Tuesdays. I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this 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 1: “Smoke Rings” (Aired: 09/18/71)
Dick’s smoking habit is reignited after a gag on his show involves smoke rings and a chimpanzee.
Written by Carl Reiner | Directed by Carl Reiner | Production No. 16
Though produced several months after the pilot, this episode was chosen to kick off the series. It’s a logical choice because, not only is it written and directed by creator Carl Reiner, but it does a quick and easy job of establishing the setting, the premise, and the characters. (In fact, it almost feels like one of the first episodes produced.) It’s fascinating to see a story hinged on smoking — produced only months after cigarette ads were banned on television. This episode takes the stance that smoking is bad (as all the characters have quit), but mines comedy from the fact that they still desperately want a cig. It’s quite funny and original for a 1971 sitcom.
02) Episode 3: “Mid-Term Dinner” (Aired: 10/02/71)
The Prestons are shocked when Luke comes home with a black girlfriend in time for a visit from Dick’s mom.
Written by George Bloom | Directed by Carl Reiner | Production No. 7
This episode was the subject of a Wildcard Wednesday post back in November of 2013. In addition to a great guest appearance by everyone’s favorite meddling mom of ’60s TV, Mabel Albertson, this installment boasts a topical premise: what to do when your son comes home with a girl of another race? The script superbly walks a fine and incredibly truthful line in the scenes where Dick and Jenny discuss their feelings about this development, and given how new race relations are to TV, there’s lots of fresh and original comedy. Maybe a little passé by 2014 standards, from a 1971 standpoint, this episode is funny, and undoubtedly a winner.
03) Episode 4: “Everything From A To Z” (Aired: 10/09/71)
Dick panics when Annie unknowingly takes a dirty book to school for show and tell.
Written by Bernie Orenstein & Saul Turteltaub | Directed by Jay Sandrich | Production No. 17
Like the above installment, this episode is mostly a triumph in creative and original storytelling. The subject here is S-E-X as Dick does a segment with the author of a controversial novel that captivates each character. Thinking it’s a dictionary, Annie decides to take it to school for show and tell, prompting an awkward visit in which Dick must go down to her classroom and get it back. While this is dramatically the high point of the script, the real strength of this episode is the reactions that various characters (particularly Jenny) have to specific letters in the book. And, as always with this show, it’s all handled quite tastefully.
04) Episode 8: “Queasy Rider” (Aired: 11/06/71)
Dick buys a motorcycle against advice and worries everyone when he gets lost in the desert.
Written by Bernie Orenstein & Saul Turteltaub | Directed by George Tyne | Production No. 21
Though this series is too obscure to have any episodes considered “classics,” this installment is probably one of the most remembered. The second episode of this series to give Dick a nice big block comedy scene, the meat of this episode is Dick alone in a deserted desert cabin (after crashing his new motorcycle). He’s just as good as ever, and while I don’t think the episode is funny enough to ever be considered my favorite of the season, I appreciate his performance and think that the show DOES work incredibly well when it gives him things like this to do. (Interestingly, though this is a later episode in the production order, it feels like an earlier one.)
05) Episode 11: “Off And Running” (Aired: 11/27/71)
Dick is surprised by Jenny’s reaction when she learns that she’s pregnant again.
Written by Carl Reiner | Directed by Carl Reiner | Production No. 1
Yes, this is the aforementioned pilot, which sets up what the show was intended to be about: Dick and Jenny (two characters in their late ’30s) having to raise another baby. As mentioned above, it was a wise decision not to make this the focal point of the series (babies aren’t funny, remember). However, as a story, it’s undeniably refreshing — coming a year before the Maude abortion episode. Jenny’s disappointment in her pregnancy is both hilarious and truthful, and it works largely because we know she’ll come around in the end and be happy about it. (But I do think the ending is a bit of a cheat; I’d have liked to see her sadness come from a less trivial place.)
06) Episode 13: “Linda, Linda, Linda” (Aired: 12/11/71)
Dick promises a young startlet that he’ll help her break the world record for TV’s longest kiss — sparking a series of strange dreams.
Written by Gordon Farr & Arnold Kane | Directed by Jay Sandrich | Production No. 13
The kooky (but marvelously talented) Marcia Rodd guest stars in this episode as a glamorous starlet whom Dick has promised to give a big kiss on television — one long enough to break the world record. This arouses Jenny’s jealousy, sparking Dick to have a series of dreams about the girl — each of which are completely unique, filled with comedy, and fascinating in their psychological undercurrents. (SPOILER: And Dick’s not the only character to have dreams.) In addition to the laughs, this episode works because it’s not predictable; you think the episode will be about setting the record for TV’s longest kiss, but it’s actually about the affects this event is having on the characters. Fresh and fun — this is the season’s most original episode. Another winner!
07) Episode 15: “Bernie Did It” (Aired: 01/01/72)
Following a fight with Bernie, Dick is left to settle the terms of his new contract alone.
Written by Steve Pritzker | Directed by Marc Breaux | Production No. 3
Although this was produced as the third episode of the series, it doesn’t particularly feel stiff or out-of-place (as early episodes often do). The premise is a simple one, centering on the relationship between Dick and his best friend/neighbor/business manager Bernie, who functions in this series as a combination Buddy/Jerry. (He’s far from being as good as Amsterdam, but I blame the writers for giving him a role so similar.) The comedic centerpiece of this episode is the scene in which Dick goes to his boss, played by the recurring David Doyle, to negotiate a raise. Naturally, Dick’s in over his head and it’s hilarious.
08) Episode 18: “The Birth” (Aired: 01/22/72)
As Jenny prepares to go into labor, the Prestons take in an unmarried pregnant woman that Jenny met on the side of the road.
Written by Bernie Orenstein & Saul Turteltaub | Directed by Stan Harris | Production No. 8
Even though this series is rarely the well-written laugh riot of Van Dyke’s classic ’60s show, this series has an early ’70s charm, taking on social issues, but graciously. In this episode, a very pregnant Jenny picks up a very pregnant hitchhiker — a very pregnant unmarried hitchhiker. Watching the series navigate around presenting Van Dyke’s character as both conservative and liberal is strangely exciting, and the sheer originality of turning what would have been an ordinary “wife has baby” episode into a topical and amusing installment, which climaxes with a misunderstanding involving Dick and the pregnant girl’s father, is much appreciated. Very funny!
09) Episode 19: “The Split” (Aired: 01/29/72)
The Prestons are caught in the middle when Carol and Bernie split over the prospect of having kids.
Written by Bernie Orenstein & Saul Turteltaub | Directed by Marc Breaux | Production No. 15
This is one of those typical sitcom episodes in which the secondary couple fights and the principal couple is caught in the middle. Though I considered filling this slot with an episode that features a more unique premise (like any of the honorable mentions listed below), this installment is much funnier than many of those produced for this season, and thus, a natural fit for the list. In addition to great dialogue (including a joke about an X-rated murder mystery), the script gains several points for its mild social relevance, as the fight between Carol and Bernie is about having kids. Good showcase for Dussault.
10) Episode 21: “People’s Choice” (Aired: 02/12/72)
Dick tries to remain neutral when he hosts a debate between two candidates running for the school board.
Written by Laurence Marks | Directed by Marc Breaux | Production No. 4
It remains a mystery why this very funny episode (produced early in the season) was held for so long — especially since the events of this installment are mentioned in a script that aired earlier. This episode takes on politics directly as Dick plays mediator for two candidates running for election onto the school board. One candidate is male and the other is female. Jenny and a high powered feminist reporter are supporting the woman, but Dick is supporting the male. In addition to the conflict this causes at home, Dick makes a fool of himself trying extra hard to not be biased on the show. The result, naturally, is a very comedic disaster.
Other notable episodes that didn’t make the list above include: “The Storm,” in which the Prestons take in a priest with a secret during a big thunderstorm, “The Conductor And The Lady,” in which a conductor keeps canceling dinner plans with the Prestons, “Annie Get Your Bike,” in which the Prestons reminisce about when Jenny was pregnant with Annie, and “Running Bear And Moskowitz,” in which Jenny and Carol decide to go into business together.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of The New Dick Van Dyke Show goes to…..
“Linda, Linda, Linda”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Two! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!