The Ten Best THE DANNY THOMAS SHOW Episodes of Season Eleven

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding our look at the best of The Danny Thomas Show! This season is currently seen only in COZI TV’s rotation. (Also, most episode guides for this series are inaccurate; these posts reflect the actual original air dates.)

The Danny Thomas Show stars DANNY THOMAS as Danny Williams, MARJORIE LORD as Kathy Williams, RUSTY HAMER as Rusty Williams, and ANGELA CARTWRIGHT as Linda Williams. With AMANDA RANDOLPH, SID MELTON, and PAT CARROLL.

After the series’ weakest season, in which Thomas again sought to ease himself out of his show by testing another replacement couple, the eleventh year of Danny Thomas is a snap back to a respectable baseline of quality. But it’s not just because it returns to its former structure, with Danny Thomas back as Danny Thomas‘ star. And it’s also not just because the series is seeking closure in advance of an ending, putting a welcome emphasis on character development and, for the kids, growth. I mean, sure, that’s something that we, in hindsight, benefit from knowing, but actually, Thomas didn’t announce Eleven as his last until halfway through production (October 1963), and even then, it wasn’t a guarantee; after all, he’d changed his mind before. (Although, after two failed attempts to find a spin-off-able pair, Thomas knew he had to be all in or all out, and he eventually chose the latter, making Eleven indeed his swan song.) So, that’s not the year’s focus either. The year’s focus is, essentially, a renewed effort to make the series, which hadn’t had a great season since the start of the ’60s, fresh and exciting again. Naturally, there are some gimmicks — including a few rotten backdoor pilots, most notably for the recurring Alfie (a one-dimensional nuisance played by the usually likable Bernard Fox), a reheated Annette Funicello arc for Piccola Pupa, the pint-sized Italian singing star who appeared in a dreadful European show last season, and a handful of episodic forays out into the country, where the Williamses and Halpers have bought a house together, allowing the year to continue telling “two couple” stories, and keep using Carroll, whose appearances have otherwise been reduced. (Melton remains in about two out of every three scripts.) But these country outings, while more rustic than the suburbia of Dick Van Dyke, nevertheless bring the series closer to its junior companion, also produced by Thomas and Sheldon Leonard (the latter of whom ceded directorial duties to Thomas but remained involved as an elevated Executive Producer). Here, the series jettisons the kids, the apartment, the guest stars, and can only use its regulars. Well, okay, I’ve oversold it — it’s still relying on its change of scenery as the engine for story (each of these country shows is premise-driven), and these entries are all only subpar, for Danny Thomas isn’t Danny Thomas without the kids, the apartment, the guest stars.

But the legitimate attempt to feature the two main leads better, even within a gaudy narrative template, is but one part of a larger trend that involves the smarter, more honest use of character: the move to recapture both humor and heart by instilling in the regulars and their relationships a greater degree of realism. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we talked about this in last week’s post on The Joey Bishop Show, for that series was following a similar trajectory — trying to inject honesty into the storytelling and earn a sense of sophistication that didn’t require guest stars — but Danny Thomas has always been a better class of show, and it was founded on truth: a scenario inspired by Thomas’ own life. Accordingly, when Danny Thomas rededicates itself to being both funnier and more believable, it’s not fighting an uphill battle — it feels natural. As you’ll see in entries below, like “The Perfect Crime” and “Beautiful Lady,” the situations still feel of the “sitcom” world, meaning they’re heightened, comedic, and somewhat unoriginal, and yet within them, the characters have consistent motivation and behave more like people in 1963-’64 actually would than characters on a 1963-’64 sitcom. But don’t be tempted to think this is merely a return to form — the series rediscovering the version of itself back when it was funnier and more honest (in 1957) — for the influence of Dick Van Dyke, the second most popular sitcom by 1963 and the new paragon of TV realism, is unmistakable and can’t be avoided. We see it most in story, with a whole cluster of outings that revisit the initial work vs. home premise, and a few in particular (“The Woman Behind The Man,” “Linda’s Crush,” “Sense of Humor”), with a glaring Dick Van Dyke ethos — for, you see, it’s not like in the Margaret years, where drama stemmed from Danny not being home with his kids enough; now there’s conflict about Danny’s actual profession: being a comic and getting into trouble because of the things he says. This series has only employed that idea occasionally — once, obviously, in a story by a future Dick Van Dyke contributor who revised it for the latter — because it’s not an easy fit here. It makes less sense on Danny Thomas than Dick Van Dyke, for Rob works in national TV and Danny works in a New York nightclub; the stakes are lower.

That said, the intention to imitate Dick Van Dyke is clear, just as it is when Morey Amsterdam guest stars as his Buddy Sorrell character (“The Woman Behind The Man”), or when Kathy is made to be more like Laura Petrie, either by participating in similar stories (“Kathy, The Secretary”), or even just by existing with more of a comedic perspective — a point-of-view that positions her well in amusing, but relatable scenarios (“Beautiful Lady”). It’s impossible to think all this is accidental, though perhaps some if it could have been subconscious, given that many of Eleven’s scripts came from writers who worked, and were working on, both series. The head scribes were still the same as last year — Jack Elinson and Charles Stewart — but this time, regular contributions come from notable duos like Sheldon Keller & Howard Merrill, who started on Dick Van Dyke the year before, and Garry Marshall & Jerry Belson, who make it their mission to concoct stories for the kids that are authentic for the first time in a while — it’s harder with Rusty than Linda, but their efforts are not unsuccessful. This makes sense; if you’ll recall, this pair was toiling on Joey Bishop in ’63-’64 as well, and by the end of it, would also be regularly offering scripts to Reiner’s series, which remained the Holy Land for sitcommers, especially those who worked on all three — the great (Dick Van Dyke), the good (Danny Thomas), and the subpar (Joey Bishop). And to that point, it must be reiterated that this season is good, thanks to its obvious efforts to improve, adapting traits of Dick Van Dyke with an intentionality that can be debated but a clarity that can’t — becoming a show that deserved to be on TV in 1963-’64 alongside Dick Van Dyke, just as it had become, many years before, a show that deserved to replace I Love Lucy. This idea of Danny Thomas as a bridge between the two has been the primary reason for our coverage here, so it’s wonderfully full-circle to see it end not only on a high note, but also while reinforcing the “changing of the guard” — no longer was Dick Van Dyke a show that one could say was in Danny Thomas‘ image; now Danny Thomas was striving to be more like Dick Van Dyke: truthful, funny, modern. And it works. But see for yourself — as usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s finest.

 

01) Episode 314: “Rusty Drives A Car” (Aired: 09/30/63)

Danny has trouble accepting that Rusty has grown up.

Written by Sheldon Keller & Howard Merrill | Flashback Material by Bob Fisher & Alan Lipscott, Charles Stewart & Jack Elinson, and Arthur Stander | Directed by Danny Thomas

Eleven opens with an entry that remarks on how far the series has come, and particularly the children, as the story is about how Rusty is now old enough to drive. And true to the show’s sentimental thematics, this idea doesn’t become a “Rusty wrecks the car” teen hijinks show, but one about how Danny has trouble letting him grow up — with three flashbacks from the first five years used to support the notion, prior to a decently funny scene where Danny and Charley try to ruin the car so Rusty can’t take his test. So, humor plus heart: just what we want.

02) Episode 315: “The Perfect Crime” (Aired: 10/07/63)

Danny tries to give back money that he took from Kathy, who believes someone stole it.

Written by Ray Allen Saffian & Harvey Bullock | Directed by Danny Thomas

There was a version of this story back in Season Nine and I cited it as an Honorable Mention because I knew this much funnier, more character-driven alternative was ahead, for now the story of Danny taking money and Kathy reporting it stolen does not rely solely on Danny’s conscience as its comedic/dramatic engine but the actual things he DOES (actions), specifically hiring the club bartender Frank (played by Joey Bishop‘s Guy Marks, whom Thomas was hoping to groom for a spin-off, especially in his second appearance this year) to go pretend to be the burglar who’s returning the money. Now, this is certainly a contrived sitcom premise, but there’s motivation behind every move and, otherwise, everyone behaves believably and comedically — making it close to the kind of writing we’d expect on Dick Van Dyke.

03) Episode 317: “The Woman Behind The Jokes” (Aired: 10/21/63)

Kathy doesn’t like being used in Danny’s act, so she hires a writer to get back at him.

Written by Fred S. Fox & Iz Elinson | Directed by Danny Thomas

As the first of three shows this season about how the jokes Danny tells in his act get him in hot water with the people in his real life, “The Woman Behind The Jokes” uses the most obvious version of this narrative (and the one employed before back in Season Eight, but much less effectively) — the one where the wife is upset. Again, this is a very Dick Van Dyke idea, and reinforcing this association is Morey Amsterdam as Buddy Sorrell (note how it’s Dick Van Dyke that’s now so popular that its characters are the most valuable and crossover-desired). Kathy hires him to write jokes about Danny so she can get him back when she makes a rare television appearance. As you can see, the show is definitely trying to write Kathy like Laura, and although this script ironically doesn’t come from any of the regular contributors who also wrote this same season for Dick Van Dyke, it does an adequate job of capturing its energy. If there’s any difference, it’s that Dick Van Dyke would have had a funnier pay-off. You can see the complete version of this episode on The Dick Van Dyke Show DVD/Blu-Ray.

04) Episode 320: “My Fair Uncle” (Aired: 11/11/63)

Danny tries to break up Uncle Tonoose’s engagement.

Written by Fred S. Fox & Iz Elinson | Directed by Danny Thomas

Hans Conried makes two final appearances as Uncle Tonoose this season, and though he remains a broad, larger-than-life character, signs of the year’s intent to be more realistic and modern are evident, for even his characterization is fleshed out with more honesty and humanity, like in this memorably funny (and occasionally sweet) outing where he shows up with his intended bride, played by perennial old lady Florence Halop, who has him wrapped around her finger, subduing him in a way that makes Danny uncomfortable, for he’s determined to split them up. The solution: convincing her to attempt getting him to shave his mustache, which is a deal-breaker for the old Lebanese bull! Again, it’s funny and believable — yay!

05) Episode 323: “The Hex” (Aired: 12/09/63)

Danny and Charley think they’ve been cursed by a country carpenter.

Written by Charles Stewart & Jack Elinson | Directed by Danny Thomas

Determined to pick at least one of the five country offerings as a sample for those curious, I could have selected the routine “Peaceful Co-Existence,” which is low-concept and fairly standard sitcom material (it’s about two couples getting on each other’s nerves) and therefore supports my point about how the year is attempting to prioritize character about all else. But instead I’ve chosen a funnier entry that simultaneously better reflects these stories, which are more idea-driven, like this one, where Charles Lane plays a carpenter who puts a hex on Danny and Charley, right before they have trouble doing the work on their new house, with some predictable, but fun DIY gags. Also, I appreciate that Bunny, no longer shoehorned into the leading lady spot, can be more outspoken, harsher — the semblance of a character.

06) Episode 326: “Linda’s Crush” (Aired: 12/30/63)

Linda is angry at Danny for using her crush on a boy in his act.

Written by Garry Marshall & Jerry Belson | Directed by Danny Thomas

The next installment in the “Danny’s act offends someone” category claims Linda as its subject, as she’s terribly mad when Danny uses her crush on a boy — and mentions him by name — on a television show. Now, while this outing isn’t as narratively identical to Dick Van Dyke, and as consequently pure, as the above centered around Kathy, it’s actually a better take on the story. In the first place, it’s one of the few scripts credited this year to Marshall and Belson, whose first Dick Van Dyke show would air a few weeks after this broadcast, and they inherently manage to capture the same kind of realistic, but ever-so-slightly heightened style that would make them appropriate scribes for that series and an elevating presence on this one. Additionally, the story wisely has Danny tell his jokes on TV, which raises the stakes and makes Linda’s anger with her father much more believable, especially now that it’s impossible for the boy in question not to have heard (or heard about) what was said. And whenever the show is able to feature the kids well, particularly at this point, it’s a victory for the familial part of its identity.

07) Episode 334: “Sense Of Humor” (Aired: 02/24/64)

Danny gets in trouble with tradesmen for joking about them in his act.

Written by Sheldon Keller & Howard Merrill | Directed by Danny Thomas

Rounding out this trio about Danny’s profession upsetting people is this, the weakest of the three, yet still a fine, notable episode for its premise, not only fitting neatly in this subset, but also reminding of a future Seinfeld (“The Diplomat’s Club”), where Jerry becomes self-conscious about the kind of jokes he can tell after knowing his airline pilot is in the audience. Here, Danny offends both the janitor and the laundryman for making jokes about them, and they retaliate in their service. Again, this all happens in the club, not on TV, so the drama doesn’t feel totally justified, and it’s a little more preachy than the two above, but the desire to use Danny’s profession for comedic drama that also involves his personal life is noble, believable, and connected to Dick Van Dyke. (And, no surprise, Keller & Merrill authored this teleplay.)

08) Episode 335: “Tonoose Gets A Job” (Aired: 03/02/64)

Tonoose gets a job at a women’s shoe store.

Written by Charles Stewart & Jack Elinson | Directed by Danny Thomas

Tonoose’s final appearance is another memorable good time, mostly because of the centerpiece with him in the ladies’ shoe store, where he makes a mess of things with two elderly, unpleasant women. It’s a riot. Also, I want to note that it’s Kathy who saves the day and comes up with the solution to get Tonoose back home — a detail that affords her character both an agency and an intelligence I wish she was allowed to display more often, but here, is at least indicative of smarter, more believable writing. (Lucy fans, Shirley Mitchell and Bob Jellison guest.)

09) Episode 339: “Pupa Loves Rusty” (Aired: 03/30/64)

Pupa believes that Rusty has proposed marriage to her.

Written by Garry Marshall & Jerry Belson | Directed by Danny Thomas

As with the country shows, I wanted to select at least one of the three Pupa outings because although I generally find her an unfunny albatross whom the series only features for her and its own promotion (just like with Gina in Season Six), with not enough laughs or emotional sincerity to warrant it, this one actually works because it does the best job of integrating her character into the ensemble and using her to support a comedic conflict in which she mistakenly believes that Rusty has proposed marriage. The scene between the two is a highlight — one of Hamer’s best scenes in the last few seasons, where he’s typically not used well — and, as with the premiere, this is a show that delights because it suggests growth on behalf of Rusty.

10) Episode 340: “Beautiful Lady” (Aired: 04/06/64)

Danny’s old homely former girl friend shows up and is now beautiful.

Written by Charles Stewart & Jack Elinson | Directed by Danny Thomas

My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Beautiful Lady” is the best singular representation of The Dick Van Dyke Show‘s aesthetic being applied here in Eleven. In the first place, it’s got a wonderful teleplay that, yes, uses a story with a familiar sitcom ring to it — the old flame (Marilyn Maxwell) showing up and igniting jealousy in the spouse — but it’s otherwise grounded by believable human depictions that can motivate big hahas because of their focused characterizations, which are simultaneously universally relatable, specific to the scenario, and congruous with what we know based on past behavior. More than that, they all talk as real people do, and this goes a long way in asserting naturalness, particularly, in this case, with Kathy, a character whose definition has always been somewhat scant and up for interpretation given the story. Any script that’s able to make her funny, by giving her flaws and/or a sharp comedic perspective, while also transcending her usual “understanding wife and mother” function in a story that doesn’t make us doubt its legitimacy, is a winner. As for the story, though it is familiar, it’s also easily associated with several Dick Van Dyke installments where Rob and Laura are revisited by former lover interests who cause amusing, adult complications, and so this is narratively akin to that series’ efforts. At the same time, the reason it’s my MVE is that the script is credited NOT to any Dick Van Dyke writers, but to Stewart and Elinson, longtime Danny Thomas scribes who’d been around since 1956 and were promoted in 1962. The fact that they’re able to write an entry of Danny Thomas that works as a Danny Thomas but feels like Dick Van Dyke, a show for which neither wrote, is a testament to this season’s ability to successfully invoke the comic modernity and character realism it sought. Mission accomplished.

 

Other notable entries that merit mention include: two more shows about growth for the kids, “Linda And The New Dress,” which has a fun fantasy scene, and “Rusty And The Chorus Girl,” the penultimate outing that would have made a good finale; two shows with a low-concept Dick Van Dyke story engine, “Peaceful Co-Existence,” the country offering about the annoying couples, and “Kathy, The Secretary,” about Kathy working for Phil; two remakes of earlier, better efforts, “Bunny Gets Into The Act,” which uses Pat Carroll in a version of Season Seven’s “Kathy Crashes TV,” and “Call Off The Hounds,” which uses dancing dogs in place of Season Seven’s “little green men”; and two shows built around visiting personalities, “The Quiz Show” for Guy Marks, “The Leprechaun” for Howard Morris.

 

*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eleven of The Danny Thomas Show goes to…

“Beautiful Lady”

 

 

Come back next week for Dobie Gillis and tomorrow, a new Wildcard Wednesday!