Lessons from Great TV #1: The Dick Van Dyke Show
We tend to treat television as a utility available at the push of a button, like electricity or hot water, but it’s also an art form made by real men and women, and unlike film, it’s emphatically a writer’s medium—at least on the inside. From the outside, it’s fair to say that even in the era of the celebrity showrunner, many viewers are only vaguely aware that television sitcoms—even those that seem largely improvised—are written by people other than the actors themselves. (Phil Rosenthal, the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, claims he was often approached by fans who would gush: “That Peter Boyle is so funny—the things he says!”) Still, there was a time in my life when I thought writing for television was the coolest job imaginable. While I’ve since realized that my own narrative skills are better suited for a different sort of storytelling, I’m still fascinated by what television writers do. And for that, I have The Dick Van Dyke Show to thank.
When it came time to figure out what Rob Petrie did for a living, creator Carl Reiner gave him the job he knew best: he was the head writer for a television variety show. And The Dick Van Dyke Show, along with giving us the coolest married couple in sitcom history, made working for television look like the greatest game in the world. The first episode of the show I ever saw was “My Husband is Not a Drunk,” and while it may not be the series’ finest moment—my own vote would go to “It May Look Like a Walnut”—it’s the one that I still view with the most affection. The premise is pure slapstick: Rob accidentally receives a posthypnotic suggestion that makes him roaring drunk whenever he hears a bell ring. It’s an excuse for Dick Van Dyke, one of our great physical comedians, to do what he does best, and the high point is an incredibly sustained sequence at Rob’s office, where a ringing telephone turns him into a giggling mess in front of one of the program’s sponsors. The sponsor, naturally, is delighted, thinking he’s watching a comic genius working out a brilliant comedy routine. And the funny thing, of course, is that so are we.
Tomorrow: The joys of crude animation.