Monday, October 3, 2011

50 Years of The Dick Van Dyke Show

(This post is part of the Dick Van Dyke Show Blogathon hosted by Thrilling Days of Yesteryear to honour the show's 50th anniversary. After you finish this post, then, I'd advise you to head over there and check out the other posts in the blogathon!)

I cannot remember a time when The Dick Van Dyke Show did not exist. Given my age this should not be surprising. The show had already been in reruns by the time I could read and would be in reruns for years to come. In fact, I do not even have a clear memory of what was the first episode I ever saw. I believe it was "Oh How We Met the Night That We Danced," which portrays the first meeting of lead characters Rob and Laura Petrie, but I cannot be certain.

Regardless, there was a time when The Dick Van Dyke Show did not exist. The programme debuted 50 years ago tonight, on CBS at 8:00 Eastern/7:00 Central. The show centred on comedy writer Rob Petrie (played by Dick Van Dyke) and his wife Laura Petrie (played by Mary Tyler Moore). Rob and Laura were a young couple living in New Rochelle, New York with their young son Richie. Their neighbours and best friends were dentist Jerry Helper (played by Jerry Paris) and his wife Milie Helper (played by Ann Morgan Guilbert). Rob worked as one of the writers on The Alan Brady Show, a comedy variety show of the sort so popular in the Fifties. His fellow writers on The Alan Brady Show were Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam) and Sally Rogers (Rose Marie).  The Alan Brady Show was produced by Mel Cooley (Richard Deacon), Alan Brady's brother-in-law and often the target of Buddy's jokes. Plots were divided between Rob's home life and his work life, and often involved both. This set The Dick Van Dyke Show apart from many sitcoms of the Fifties, which either took place exclusively in the home (Father Knows Best) or the work place (Private Secretary), but rarely both.

Indeed, fifty years after The Dick Van Dyke Show debuted, it is often easy to forget how revolutionary the show really was at the time.  Much of the reason The Dick Van Dyke Show was so different from other sitcoms that came before it can be found in the origins of the show. The Dick Van Dyke Show was created by Carl Reiner, the now legendary comedy writer who had appeared as a performer and written for Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour. In 1958 Carl Reiner wrote a pilot called for a sticom to be called Head of the Family with himself in the lead role of Rob Petrie. The pilot did not sell, although it would air on The Comedy Spot, a short lived, summer replacement series on CBS which aired failed pilots. Fortunately, Head of the Family would receive a reprieve. Sheldon Leonard, producer at Danny Thomas Productions, saw potential in the pilot. That having been said, he also thought it should be recast. Up and coming song and dance man Dick Van Dyke was cast in the lead role of Rob Petrie. Young actress Mary Tyler Moore was cast as Laura Petrie. The roles of Buddy Sorrell and Sally Rogers went to two actors who already had plenty of show business experience. Cast as Buddy, Morey Amsterdam was a veteran of vaudeville and had already headlined his own television shows. Cast as Sally, Rose Marie was already a radio star at age three and would go onto a highly successful career on both radio and even in movies.

Like its pilot, Head of the Family, The Dick Van Dyke Show was largely drawn upon his own life. Carl Reiner had been both a performer on Your Show of Shows (starring Sid Caesar) and part of a stable of writers that included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Lucille Kallen. He would later be a performer and a writer on Caesar's Hour along with fellow performer and writer (and Your Show of Shows veteran) Howard Morris. He once more worked with writer Mel Brooks, as well as writers Selma Diamond, Larry Gelbart, and Aaron Ruben.  The experiences on these sketch comedy shows provided much of the inspiration for The Dick Van Dyke Show. In fact, the characters of Buddy and Sally were loosely based on writers Mel Brooks and Selma Diamond. Even the star of the fictional Alan Brady Show had some basis in reality. Alan Brady (initially unseen on the show, but later played by Mr. Reiner himself) was based to some degree on Sid Caesar, but combined with touches of Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason as well. The home life of Carl Reiner also provided inspiration for the series. Carl Reiner lived in New Rochelle himself, with his wife Estelle (who would later become famous for her cameos in her son's movies) and his young son, future actor and movie director Rob Reiner.

In drawing upon his own life Carl Reiner then created a sitcom that was different from any other before. In fact, The Dick Van Dyke Show straddled the worlds of early to mid 20th century vaudeville and the United States of the Kennedy era. Films and radio would effectively kill vaudeville in the Thirties, whereupon many vaudeville performers would find work in either motion pictures or radio. With the arrival of regularly scheduled network broadcasts in the Forties, many vaudeville performers and writers then found work in the new medium. Many of the early sketch comedy shows, from Texaco Star Theatre (starring Milton Berle) to Your Show of Shows took their inspiration from vaudeville. As a television show about once such show (The Alan Brady Show), The Dick Van Dyke Show then owed a good deal to vaudeville. Not only were Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam veterans of vaudeville, but many episodes featured blackouts (as part of the show within the show, The Alan Brady Show) of the sort both seen on the sketch variety shows of the Fifties and on vaudeville stage performances earlier in the century. Scenes set in the writers' office of The Alan Brady Show were a realistic portrayal of what must have happened in writers' offices of many of the variety shows of the Fifties and before that in the offices of writers for vaudeville shows. The writers would throw ideas back and forth, spouting one liners the whole time.

While The Dick Van Dyke Show drew heavily upon vaudeville, however, it may well have been the most up to date sitcom of the time. If Buddy and Sally represented the bygone days of vaudeville, Rob and Laura Petrie represented America in the early Sixties. Unlike Ricky and Lucy Ricardo on I Love Lucy, who lived in an apartment in New York City, Rob and Laura Petrie lived in their own house in the suburb of New Rochelle. This reflected the situation of many young couples in the post-war years, who lived in the suburbs but would commute to work in the city. The very modernity of The Dick Van Dyke Show was even further reflected in the person of Laura Petrie herself. Laura Petrie was unlike any housewife who had appeared on television before. Not only was she very young (she was only 25 in the show's first season), but Laura also dressed in the latest fashions. Indeed, she may have been the first television housewife to regularly wear Capri pants, and there is a very valid argument that The Dick Van Dyke Show may have helped popularise the fashion. Beyond Laura's relative youth and her fashion sense, however, there was one other thing that made her different and much modern than other television housewives before her. While such characters as Margaret Anderson (played by Jane Wyatt on Father Knows Best) and June Cleaver (played by Barbara Billingsley on Leave It to Beaver) were attractive, they were not what one would call, "sexy." On The Dick Van Dyke Show was there was no doubt of Laura Petrie's sex appeal, to the point that Mary Tyler Moore was probably many a young boy's first crush.

The Dick Van Dyke Show differed from previous shows in more than its modernity. Along with The Andy Griffith Show (which had debuted the prior season),  it was one of the first true ensemble shows. While the series was titled The Dick Van Dyke Show and there was little doubt that Dick Van Dyke was the lead, the show was very much a team effort. Episodes centred on the writers as a whole, on Sally, on Buddy, and even on producer Mel Cooley, almost as often as they did Rob and Laura. This set The Dick Van Dyke Show apart from many earlier comedies, in which there was an undisputed star of the show. While there can be little doubt that Ricky, Fred, and Ethel contributed to the success of I Love Lucy, there was little doubt that she was the show's star and nearly every episode of the show centred on her. Along with The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show is the direct predecessor of such ensemble comedies as WKRP in Cincinnati, Cheers, Frasier and 30 Rock.

Not only was The Dick Van Dyke Show one of the earliest ensemble shows, but it was also one of the earliest work place comedies. Prior to The Dick Van Dyke Show there only a few comedies that were even partially set in the work place. Mr. Peepers, Private Secretary, and Our Miss Brooks were some of the few sitcoms set in a work place. With much of the action on The Dick Van Dyke Show taking place in the writer's office of The Alan Brady Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show can then be considered one of the forerunners of other work place comedies, from Cheers to The Office.

Of course, even given that The Dick Van Dyke Show was in many respects revolutionary for its time, the show would not have been a success had it not been for the excellence of both its cast and its scripts. In its five seasons on the air The Dick Van Dyke Show won fifteen Emmy Awards in various categories, and it was nominated for even more. Critics at the time recognised The Dick Van Dyke Show for the intelligence of its writing and the quality of the cast's performances. The show regularly tops lists of the greatest sitcoms of all time. Indeed, often it is considered the greatest sitcom of all time. The Dick Van Dyke Show would not have proven to have such lasting influence nor would it still be considered a classic if it had not been a show of the very highest quality.

In fact, The Dick Van Dyke Show may well be one of the few series whose run is very nearly perfect. While episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show varied in quality, I myself cannot remember any that were actually bad. Of course, much of this may be due to the fact that, unlike many shows, The Dick Van Dyke Show did not overstay its welcome. In its fifth season The Dick Van Dyke Show was still highly rated. There was no doubt that CBS would have renewed it for another season. Rather than continue the series, however, Carl Reiner decided to end it while the show was still on the top. While it is lamentable that there are not more seasons of The Dick Van Dyke Show, its fans can at least be happy that the show never diminished in quality after being on too long.

Regardless, The Dick Van Dyke Show would have an immediate influence on television in the Sixties. One can see echoes of The Dick Van Dyke Show in Sixties sitcoms ranging from Bewitched to He & She. Beyond the Sixties its impact can still be felt, even to this day. The Odd Couple, Barney Miller, Cheers, Mad About You, Seinfeld, and even more modern comedies such as 30 Rock and Modern Family owe a good deal to The Dick Van Dyke Show. With repeats of the series nearly ubiquitous in the past fifty years, it can be safe to say that most of the sitcom writers during that time watched the show and in turn were influenced by it, if not inspired by it.

The Dick Van Dyke Show was perhaps the first sitcom that was identifiably a product of the Sixties, one that would have a lasting influence on television. It should then be surprising that when viewed today the show still seems as fresh and original as ever. Despite obviously having been made in the early to mid Sixties, The Dick Van Dyke Show is not at dated and still holds up today. And while the show's themes have been repeated over and over in other series for the past Fifties years, The Dick Van Dyke Show never seems cliche or shopworn. Such was the quality of its writing and its performances that The Dick Van Dyke Show is essentially timeless. I rather suspect that not only will it be remembered as long as there is television, but that at no time will there not be someone watching the series.


Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Toby O'Brien of Inner Toob and I have been having a spirited discussion over whether or not there ever was a bad episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. I'm not a fan of "The Twizzle" simply because I think it's inane (and dates the show badly); he's lobbying for "The Bad Old Days," which reaches new heights in misogyny (even if it is explained away at the end)...and I have to confess, he's probably right (it's not very good).

Thanks so much for helping me out with the blogathon, Mercurie...this is a splendid piece of work, with all the essential information on the show included and it's a great place to start for anyone who's just stumbled onto the blogathon. As Bill McNeil would say: "Kudos to you, sir!"

Terence Towles Canote said...

Ivan, I think I'd be inclined to agree with Toby on this one. While "The Twizzle" is pretty silly, "The Bad Old Days" just seems to be so misogynistic. In fact, I think that might date it even more than "The Twizzle" with its teen idol and his brand new dance.

You're welcome and thank you for alerting me to the blogathon! I enjoyed participating and all of the entries were top notch. It was a honour to be in such company! :-)

Larry said...

While many episodes of The Dick Van Dyke show are considered classic, and I do have to admit I like them very much, I have always had a difficult time with Dick Van Dyke himself. Even as a kid watching the show in its original run I found him to be too over the top in most instances. The weakest link in the show was Dick himself. I know most people will disagree with me on this point. But even today when I watch it in reruns or on DVD I still find his characterization difficult to watch. The writing and the supporting cast all are top notch. Its just Mr. Van Dyke that I have a problem with.