Monday, October 3, 2011

Happy Anniversary: The Dick Van Dyke Show At Fifty

Today, we here at the Monkey are taking a break from our usual focus on classic movies to participate in Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.'s blog-a-thon honoring the fiftieth anniversary of the network premiere of one of America's greatest television sitcoms, The Dick Van Dyke Show.

In case you don't know the basic set-up of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) is the head writer of The Alan Brady Show, a fictitious comedy-variety television series airing weekly on one of the major networks. Working out of their Manhattan office, Rob and his staff (Buddy and Sally, played by Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie) crank out a script full of the sort of sketch comedy that dominated American television in the 1950s and '60s. Meanwhile, Rob's wife Laura, a former USO dancer turned stay-at-home mom (Mary Tyler Moore), wiles away the hours as best she can with their son Richie (Larry Mathews) in New Rochelle, an affluent suburb of New York City.

Rob's often futile attempts to juggle the demands of work and home provide the backbone of the series' humor.

Carl Reiner, who created Dick Van Dyke and wrote most of its episodes, based the series on his own experiences as a performer on Sid Caesar's Your Show Of Shows, a popular comedy-variety series of the early 1950s, with Rob a midwestern version of himself, Buddy modeled on fellow writer Mel Brooks, Sally a lovelorn version of raspy-voiced writer Selma Diamond, and Alan Brady (played by Reiner himself) a tart combination of Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason.

"My Part-Time Wife"

In the specific episode I've chosen to write about, "My Part-Time Wife," Rob reluctantly hires Laura to sub for Sally as the office's resident "lady writer"/typist when the latter scores a plum supporting role on a late-night talk show. "I have a lot of time on my hands, like most every day," Laura says, pleading her case, "and I wanted to do something constructive."

"We could use a new garage," suggests Rob, who prefers to keep his "marriage partners" separate from his "business partners."

"But don't you realize," says Laura, "that in the office, you'd be the boss?"

After Rob fires his fourth secretary in as many days, he finally gives in and Laura is thrilled. "Mr. Petrie, I love you!"

"Yeah, well," he grumbles, "we'll soon put an end to that!"

And he very nearly does, though not, as you might suspect, because Laura is bad at the job. No, she's good, maybe too good—so good he'll have to give her the job permanently—and Rob goes into a full-blown panic as his carefully-compartmentalized world starts crumbling around him.

"I feel like a schoolboy on Parents Day with my mother peeking over my shoulder."

"My Part-Time Wife" isn't the best or best-known episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show (that would be "It May Look Like A Walnut!"), but it is very funny and it highlights those aspects of the series that make it worth another look fifty years on—its depictions of the workplace and of the home front.

Dick Van Dyke At Work
First and foremost among the series' strengths was the show's emphasis on the workplace. Although sitcom characters had of course had jobs before—Ralph Kramden was a bus driver, Ricky Ricardo was a band leader—Dick Van Dyke was the first that routinely sent us to work with them; and even on the "work-coms" that followed (including, I might add, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a highly successful series in its own right), the office is usually a place to screw up, fill space or manage fractured personal relationships—Homer at the nuclear plant, George Costanza sleeping under his desk at Yankee Stadium, Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin flitting around Rockefeller Center.

On The Dick Van Dyke Show, however, we see Rob Petrie and his talented team of gag writers put together a show nearly every week, hammering out an hour's worth of sketch comedy, trying out ideas, rejecting some, improving others. Admittedly, this formula is often an excuse for the stars to reel off one-liners, do impressions and even break into song and dance, but by my count, at least a quarter of the series' episodes focused on the day-to-day reality of holding a job: deadlines, burnout, salary disputes, crazy bosses, crazier clients (in the form of Alan Brady's guest stars), and above all, the general anxiety associated with earning a living in a field (entertainment) where unemployment is the norm.

The show is also one of the few to capture the hard work and pure joy of creating for a living. Think of all those Hollywood movies about artists and entertainers—Walk The Line, Ray, and a hundred others—that wind up relying on a cliched story arc of addiction and redemption without ever really capturing that precarious balance of inspiration and craftsmanship, and of euphoria and despair, that is at the heart of the creative process. Sure, we see the byproduct of that process, but how often do we actually catch a glimpse of the artist capturing the lightning in the bottle that made him or her famous in the first place?

Dick Van Dyke showed us the bottle nearly every week and let us watch Rob and Buddy and Sally struggle to fill it before their deadline ran out. Sometimes they filled it with lightning, and sometimes, by their own admission, they filled it with lightning bugs, but that's the way it goes when you create for a living.

Dick Van Dyke At Home
The other great narrative engine driving the show's success was the relationship between Rob and his wife Laura. Rather than the traditional portrait of white-bread suburban bliss—Ward Cleaver smoking a pipe and dispensing wisdom, June doing housework in high heels and pearls (never mind her barely-repressed longing for the obsequious Eddie Haskell)—The Dick Van Dyke Show weekly gave us a look at an affectionate but deeply-neurotic couple who would have kept a team of marriage counselors busy for years.

Most participants in this blog-a-thon will surely point to the palpable chemistry between the two leads, rare for a show of that era, but the fact is, if you take their actions at face value rather than as the simple machinations of a sitcom plot, Rob and Laura undermined each other and their marriage at least every other week. No mere Nick and Nora banter here—Rob and Laura lied, played games, kept score, backstabbed, nursed grievances, publicly humiliated each other, and, in a mere five years, accused each other of infidelity on at least fourteen separate occasions.

If the Petries weren't so obviously nuts about each other, I'd put theirs on a list of the most dysfunctional sitcom marriages ever—
it lacks only the constant threat of spousal abuse that characterized the Kramdens' marriage on The Honeymooners to claim that dubious honor—a bitter truth that Laura's tight-cut Capri pants and Rob's goofily-grinning face cannot hide.

Nor are they very good parents, the last desperate refuge of an unhappily married couple. Their son Richie often disappears for weeks at a time, unnoticed and unlamented, and even when he is there, he rarely spends time with his parents; instead he's shuttled off to his bedroom without even a PB&J while Rob and Laura dance the night away hosting wild cocktail parties for New York's entertainment elite.

In the episode in question here, "My Part-Time Wife," Laura takes a job in downtown Manhattan without a single thought reserved for Richie's well-being. Now maybe I'm misinformed, but for every other family I've known with two working parents, child care is a major issue. What do Rob and Laura expect their eight year old son to do, forage for food like a wild animal? (although I confess, the thought of Richie rummaging through the neighbors' garbage cans like a raccoon really appeals to me).

In retrospect, Dick Van Dyke isn't so much a rom-com valentine to a perfect couple as it is Revolutionary Road with a laugh track. They even filled out papers once for a Mexican divorce.

That Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore squeezed so many laughs out of this connubial nightmare is a testament to their wit, hard work and irresistible charm. No wonder the show won 15 Emmys during its five year run.

Zeitgeist: A Fancy Word For What We're Feeling
Other than the most generic cookie-cutter fluff, every work of art winds up saying something about its creator and the world he lives in, often things the creator himself doesn't recognize until long after the fact. Although writer Carl Reiner strove to eliminate any cultural references that would date the show—no mention, for example, of Kennedy, Vietnam or the Beatles—because he routinely gleaned story ideas from the ongoing lives of his cast and crew, inevitably their concerns became his concerns.

And one of their biggest concerns was the ever-changing role of women in American society.

The Sexual Revolution (also known as the "second wave" of feminism, following the early 20th century's suffragette movement) had no clear beginning, but the seeds of that revolution were planted during World War II when millions of women were pressed into service in war-related industries and (non-combat) units of the military. After the war, government, business and entertainment leaders aggressively pushed for a return to the prewar status quo—they didn't want women competing with returning service men for scarce jobs—but the fact is, once they've seen the factory, how are you going to keep them down in the kitchen? Even as they returned to lives centered on home, husband and children, women chafed at their limited opportunities. In 1963, Betty Friedan's groundbreaking study of their discontent, published as The Feminine Mystique, became a controversial and influential bestseller.

Reiner certainly didn't set out to write a commentary on what Friedan called "the problem that has no name," but he did know how to spin real life into comedy, and dozens of episodes, including "My Part-Time Wife," wound up turning on conflicts arising either from Laura's discontent with her role as a suburban housewife or from Rob's doubts about his role as the primary breadwinner and traditional patriarch in a male-dominated society. Both are inherently unsuited for the parts they are required to play and profoundly insecure about their ability to pull off the charade. Rob puts on his gray flannel suit and hustles for a paycheck while Laura shops and sorts neatly-typed recipe cards—the roles America's intensely-conformist postwar society has assigned them—but at heart, he's a song-and-dance man, she's the daughter of Rosie the Riveter, and both ache for a new balance between the sexes that will allow them to express aloud their true selves.

Of course, we're not meant to take any of this seriously, and even now I'm laughing just thinking of Mary Tyler Moore's quavering cry of "Oh, Rob!" or Dick Van Dyke's physical contortions as he tries in vain to live up to the title "man of the house." Still, I think that's why Annie Leibovitz's S&M photo of Rob and Laura, with the latter gleefully topping the former, works so well—we laugh at first because it's unexpected, but we keep laughing because deep down we know it's true.

Rob and Laura, happy at last. Glad they finally made it. Glad we all did.


Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

You know, MM...if anyone ever gives you grief about your legendary "3,000-word" essays I'll be only too happy to ask them to step outside--particularly if they're filled with insights like this. Truly a splendid essay; I loved how you weren't afraid to show the soft white underbelly of the Petrie's marriage but the part that had me on the floor was

What do Rob and Laura expect their eight year old son to do, forage for food like a wild animal? (although I confess, the thought of Richie rummaging through the neighbors' garbage cans like a raccoon really appeals to me).

I hated Richie with the intensity of a thousand white-hot, suns. I can just hear Millie Helper yelling at her son: "Freddie, stop playing with Feral Richie and come inside for supper!"

Thanks for agreeing to be a part of the blogathon, MM. This is a post to be proud of.

Mythical Monkey said...

I see we have the same opinion of Richie.

I think it's amazing how well The Dick Van Dyke Show has aged over the years. I'm not sure how many other shows could inspire me to write 3000 words -- given how much thinking is required. The hamster wheel inside my skull was squeaking for days.

Yvette said...

I agree with Ivan, MM. When you decide to enter a BLOGATHON - watch out, world! This is splendid stuff.

I liked that you had the nerve to point out (I didn't) the 'reality' behind the happy sunshine marriage of Rob and Laura. :) I so agree.

Obviously, what kept them together was the fact that they were nuts about each other. True.

So funny about Ritchie. Yeah, I noticed he was the often disappearing kid.

Loved the racoon line. HA!

But I wonder if, at the time of the show, the strangeness going on in New Rochelle would have been as apparent.

Mythical Monkey said...

Thanks, Yvette! You know me -- I like to bludgeon a subject into complete submission.

I wonder if, at the time of the show, the strangeness going on in New Rochelle would have been as apparent.

I'll bet most of the audience in 1961 thought "Oh, that nutty Laura -- doesn't she know women are supposed to stay home and raise kids?" The idea of her working was probably up there with some of Lucy's schemes, like when she set a fake nose on fire while talking to William Holden.

It all looks very different from the vantage point of the 21st century.

FlickChick said...

Wow - what a post! Rob and Laura Petrie were just a couple of kids who might soon be seen at some suburban swap parties. Or maybe that was Buddy and Pickles. Seriously, I loved this show then and now. Both Rob and Laura were in love, and that was always fun to watch.

Dawn said...

What a Awesome post. I need to get to you-tube and watch some of the shows.

Mythical Monkey said...

I need to get to you-tube and watch some of the shows.

Actually, all the episodes are available for free at Hulu.

Mythical Monkey said...

Rob and Laura Petrie were just a couple of kids who might soon be seen at some suburban swap parties. Or maybe that was Buddy and Pickles.

I'll bet you money that neighbors Millie and Jerry were into that sort of thing. They just had an air about them ...

Aubyn said...

I agree with everyone else, this was an incredible post. Sharp-edged, insightful, funny, and memorable.

Don't ever change, Mythical Monkey. We need your essays.

Mythical Monkey said...

Thanks, everybody, for the very nice comments. I have to admit, I worked pretty hard on this one, but the "Richie as raccoon" gag was one of those images that popped unbidden in my head, and I just went with it.

Lisa said...

I also contributed to the DVD-a-thon and have tried to read every entry, albeit a little late! Wonderful essay and love the cultural observations!

Wonderful overall blog!! I'll be visiting often!!