Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m augmenting our ongoing discussion on how the seminal sitcom of the 1960s, The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966, CBS), affected similar series from the era — a thread we’ve been looking at in our Danny Thomas posts and will soon do with Joey Bishop. But let’s refocus. For too long, we — myself included — have written and thought about Van Dyke’s show as an outlier in the history of the decade: a series that maybe riled up a few other contemporary multi-cams to copycatting and had a modern quality that the industry tried to replicate in the apparent young urbanite “demo-targeting” of the mid-to-late ’60s, but otherwise didn’t see its relevance flower until the MTM shows of the 1970s. However, as we’ve discovered, television is a medium of imitation — nothing comes from nothing — and Dick Van Dyke very much fits within its era, both as a composition of familiar elements and as an inspiration for others in a period that mostly had different concerns. Now, ruminating on how this series sits in the context of the decade is something we’ll attempt to do more next week, but we’ve already seen from our Sitcom Tuesday work that it nicely succeeds in the Lucy/Danny Thomas tradition of being a star vehicle with a work/home conflict, a show biz angle, and a multi-cam aesthetic that encourages big laughs. In this post, we’ll find that many of the series’ thematic particulars, which seemingly made it unlike most of the classic ’60s comedies we remember, are actually part of a trend into which Dick Van Dyke snugly fit and then capped: the sophisticated suburban sitcom of the early ’60s.
There were a handful of shows at the top of the decade — particularly the 1960-’61 season — that were all similarly premised as featuring a “married couple with kids living in suburbia” with at least one star player (either the husband, the wife, or both). They were considered highly unoriginal, for they were basically domestic comedies — not merely husband/wife attempts to replicate I Love Lucy, which was also a subgenre in that busy comedic buffet of a season, courtesy of Angel and Pete & Gladys, but full on family shows in the obvious tradition of those from the 1950s. Yet they were instinctively different. Although family shows from the former decade — Ozzie And Harriet, Leave It To Beaver, and Donna Reed — lasted well into the ’60s, as we saw with Beaver, they didn’t really evolve. Oh, sure, they did ostensibly; for instance, Ozzie And Harriet changed over the course of its run — it had teen heartthrobs to promote — but its humor and intent stayed the same: it was amiable fare intended to be universally relatable and therefore only mildly exciting… However, new additions to this roster during the 1960-’61 season, largely (with the exception of One Happy Family, which was decidedly unsophisticated and more premise-driven than every other domestic show that year), marked a unique progression in style — even from the glamorous but vacuous Donna Reed that had premiered just two years prior. These were family comedies that wanted to emphasize their knowingness — a sense of modernity, intelligence, and culture. They weren’t necessarily younger — not like the Petries — but they emphasized the “urban” part of suburban by featuring characters who more readily suggested the “fast life” through their star casting, a show biz undercurrent, and/or simply the narrative acknowledgment of their city-to-suburbs transfer, an ongoing cultural phenomenon more lampoonable as the 1950s progressed. (See: the evolution from Sid Caesar’s “The Hickenloopers” in 1951 to “The Commuters” in 1954.)
If this doesn’t sound very different from say, Ozzie And Harriet or Donna Reed, which were also star vehicles with an embedded movie star energy, it must be said that those lacked the overtly cultured intentions of the new wave of early ’60s domestic comedies, which not only were more self-conscious about their domesticity, but also charged their industry-related intelligence through a more “high-brow” battery, motivated by close ties to the Broadway stage and personalities known from that world — like Dick Van Dyke. The primary vehicles in question — highlighted below in today’s post — starred Tom Ewell, Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy, and Nanette Fabray, all performers with TV/film credits, but whose career triumphs, and personal interests, resided on the East Coast and New York, specifically. Accordingly, these players instilled in their shows the kind of Manhattan sophistication that didn’t exist in the earlier family comedies — a quality that would be more harshly contrasted against so-called “mainstream” tastes a decade later whenever the networks claimed they were shifting their sights toward certain sectors of the total audience. Here in 1960, putting more of the urban sensibility in decidedly suburban concepts was still somewhat novel — after all, previous domestic comedies set in New York City like I Love Lucy and The Danny Thomas Show seldom acknowledged the tension between different ways of living (at least, not until their final seasons). And if they imparted an explicit metropolitan energy… well, they actually were set in the city (not to mention about the business of it), which means this element was not intruding, but contained. It’s a different matter entirely when we get to Dick Van Dyke, which spends over half its time (the home part of its work vs. home premise) in New Rochelle, but is nevertheless more actively metropolitan than those two city-based multi-cams combined. This ethos is inherent to Carl Reiner’s vision — from the casting, to the writing, etc., and the same can be said for the suburban family comedies of 1960-’61 in relation to their predecessors.
But, as you’ll note below in my (bite-sized) commentary on these three pre-Dick Van Dyke modern suburban comedies, they all go about telegraphing their evolved sub-urbanity differently. Two of the three set up premises where the move from a city is narratively pertinent (or supposed to be), all the while featuring characters from the show biz world — making the juxtaposition of urban complexity and rural simplicity part of the main text, while another (Tom Ewell), an outlier that keeps its character away from the bright lights, claims a star who professed an interest in procuring laughs only through realism, a goal more successfully realized the following season in Dick Van Dyke, which, crucially, added a live audience. Together, these shows predict Van Dyke’s exploration of, subliminally, the idea of suburbanites more cultured than ever before, and reveal that, again, The Dick Van Dyke Show did not come from nothing, but a palpable trend within the genre — one waiting for a classic to finish the thought.
THE TOM EWELL SHOW (Sept 1960-May 1961, CBS)
Premise: A befuddled real estate agent tries to survive in a house filled with women — his wife, mother-in-law, three daughters, and a dog.
Cast: Tom Ewell, Marilyn Erskine, Mabel Albertson, Cynthia Chenault, Sherry Alberoni, Eileen Chesis, with Barry Kelley, Norman Fell
Writers: Madelyn Davis & Bob Carroll Jr., Billy Friedberg, Michael Morris, Max Wilk, Larry Rhine, Milton Pascal, Fred S. Fox & Irving Elinson, Howard Leeds, Ed Simmons, Henry Sharp
Thoughts: As the only series in this trio without a regular character who’s a performer, this vehicle for Tom Ewell doesn’t have the same distinct connection with show biz — but the casting of Ewell and Erskine (as his wife) implies one. These are Broadway babies, with a more high cultured cachet than most, and they participate in a premise that, as was the goal for many domestic series in the late ’50s/early ’60s, puts a wrinkle on the “traditional” structure, for the gag is that Ewell is the only male in his house of five women — and a dog. Okay, so it’s not original, but this idea seeks to be smarter than the usual fare, and that’s definitely the mark of this trend. Also, the series was created and originally led by Lucy‘s former scribes, who imbued their scripts with slapstick — making daddy the ditz — until they clashed with Ewell; he desired a more realistic, down-to-earth style of writing, and they were replaced after a few weeks by Phil Silvers‘ Billy Friedberg, who supplied the more talky, New York aesthetic with which Ewell felt comfortable. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very funny — Ewell’s not a clown himself, and none of the other characters were either, so there was nothing to react against — and it would take another NYC-born writer with a star willing to do broad comedy (if motivated) for “realism” and the suburban sitcom to blend as Ewell intended (sans blandness).
Episode Count: 32.
Episodes Seen: All but “Tom Cuts Off The Credit,” “The Old Magic,” and “The Prying Eye”
Featured Episode: #13: “Try It On For Size” (Aired: 01/10/61)
Why: Although I almost featured one of the very early Davis/Carroll episodes where the show is really trying to make us laugh, I decided to choose an entry more emblematic of the rest of the run — dad is slightly bumbling, but not hysterically. Yet the script is nevertheless funnier than most — credited to Wilk & Morris, with direction by Hy Averback.
PETER LOVES MARY (Oct 1960-May 1961, NBC)
Premise: A pair of married entertainers move with their two kids from the city to the suburbs.
Cast: Peter Lind Hayes & Mary Healy, Bea Benaderet, Merry Martin, Gil Smith, with Herbert Ellis, Howard Smith, David Lewis, Joan Tompkins, Harriet E. MacGibbon
Writers: Danny Simon, Billy Friedberg, Mel Tolkin, Mel Diamond, Sam Locke & Joel Rapp, Terry Ryan, David R. Schwartz, Norman Barasch & Carroll Moore
Thoughts: Early episodes of Peter Loves Mary were very clear that its premise featured Hayes and Healy, married performers playing a version of themselves, moving their family from the big city to suburbia — a fish-out-of-water scenario, for Hayes especially, that was to provide the main conflict. This would make it the most obvious, direct exploration of the core themes underneath all of these early ’60s domestic efforts, which were conscious about what it meant for otherwise worldly individuals to choose the white picket fence. Unfortunately, this conflict didn’t make it into very many scripts, and the series basically devolved quickly into a standard sitcom, with occasional show biz moments because of its leads. Now, being totally reliant on the regulars to sustain plot — like the housekeeper Wilma, played by the great Bea Benaderet — was tough, for nobody was very well-defined, and what’s more, the scripts didn’t seem interested in truly being funny (with a few key exceptions that almost stick out like sore thumbs because they’re so rare). So, much like the sanitized Tom Ewell Show (for which Friedberg simultaneously wrote — they were both Four Star productions), this is something of a bland affair… without the former’s supposed realism either, for the show biz gimmicks make this appear more conventional and false than its sophisticated aura would otherwise hope to be.
Episode Count: 32.
Episodes Seen: All 32.
Featured Episode: #2: “High Society” (Aired: 10/19/60)
Why: This is one of the only entries, beyond the pilot, that actually keeps the central duo outsiders in their new suburban community. More than that, this mildly amusing story truly depicts a suburbia that’s glamorous, and definitely sophisticated, which neuters the conflict but proves my thesis. Written by Friedberg, Ryan, and Schwartz; directed by Sidney Miller.
WESTINGHOUSE PLAYHOUSE or THE NANETTE FABRAY SHOW or YES, YES, NANETTE (Jan 1961-July 1961, NBC)
Premise: A Broadway star marries a widower and is whisked out to Beverly Hills where she immediately becomes mother to his two kids.
Cast: Nanette Fabray, Wendell Corey, Bobby Diamond, Jacklyn O’Donnell, Doris Kemper, Mimi Gibson
Writers: Ranald MacDougall, Si Rose & Seaman Jacobs, Luther Davis, Bob Fisher & Alan Lipscott, Benedict Freedman & John Fenton Murray, Hugh Wedlock Jr. & Howard Snyder, Larry Rhine, Kay Lenard, Jess Carneol
Thoughts: This series went by several different titles in the press and on screen, but it was always a vehicle for Nanette Fabray, whose husband created a comedy for her based on her own life: she was a Broadway star who married a widower with several children, making her automatically both a wife and mother. Additionally, she left her longtime home of Manhattan, and moved to the suburbs… well, kind of, if we’re going to call Beverly Hills a suburb, which, it definitely is… but a more highfalutin one — a setting as culturally elite as the place the character was leaving. Accordingly, even though the show attempts to engage with the notion that this change in scenery is providing conflict for the characters, it doesn’t really. And with the step-kids taking to their new mother after the pilot, there’s not a lot of inherent drama in the relationships either… which, as with the above, sort of gives the show license to become more of an ordinary, run-of-the-mill family comedy. However, with Fabray, a great comic entertainer who cut her teeth on TV alongside Sid Caesar, there’s a definite effort to present her with funny material, and as a result, this is undoubtedly the most consistently amusing of the three shows featured in this post… Now, with all that said, I’ve also only seen seven of the series’ 26 aired offerings, so perhaps viewing more would create a different impression.
Episode Count: 26.
Episodes Seen: “The Planned Picnic,” “Nanette’s Teenage Suitor,” “The Pipes Of Pan,” “Moth Trap,” “Sweet Charity,” “Nancy Comes Home,” and “Ballet-Oop”
Featured Episode: #5: “The Planned Picnic” (Aired: 02/03/61)
Why: Nan still feels somewhat like an alien getting used to her new world in this early segment, and the script toils to afford her moments of comedy. This therefore seems like an ideal sample of the series as a whole. Written by Wedlock & Snyder, directed by Jerry Hopper.
Oh, and that’s not all! I’m also offering — for subscribers who comment below to alert me of their interest — access to a pilot script for The Alan King Show, another proposed domestic comedy that was to star the named comic in the traditional role of husband and father, allowing him to mine material from his act in standup asides to the audience (pre-Seinfeld, but not the first — Jean Carroll had done it earlier). This pilot, penned by Arnie Rosen & Coleman Jacoby (Jean Carroll, Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers, Garry Moore), featured King alongside Garry Moore‘s Denise Lor, and was very much in this sophisticated suburban trend, for although the script never makes clear what exactly King does — he doesn’t look to be a comic — his energy is very New York, and the story of the family going on vacation and accidentally ending up at a nudist colony is the kind of humor that typifies this idea-based style.
Now, it’s not great — none of the characters are well-defined and they don’t propel the situations — and apparently critics agreed, for after the show aired on CBS on September 18, 1961, reviewers were kind to the stars but nothing else. The network, which was seriously considering the pilot for its 1962-’63 season (providing sponsor interest), never moved forward. If it had, we’d have had another sophisticated suburban comedy… at least, in theory. As you’ll see, the writing isn’t up to the Dick Van Dyke standard, where truth and humor were proven to not be mutually exclusive, nor independent from the depiction of well-established leads… But I digress, for this is further proof that the trend extended throughout ’61 and transcended Dick Van Dyke, so if you’re interested in seeing more, let me know! Here’s a taste.
Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned for more Danny Thomas!