Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Dick Van Dyke

Rob and Betty and Don and Laura

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Laura Petrie and Betty Draper

Mary Tyler Moore was the loveliest woman ever to appear on television, but you can only fully appreciate her charms if you also believe that Dick Van Dyke was maybe the most attractive man. I spent much of my youth obsessed with Rob and Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, which I think is the best three-camera sitcom of all time, and the one that secretly had the greatest impact on my inner life. Along with so much else, it was the first show that seemed to mine comedic and narrative material out of the act of its own creation. Rob was a comedy writer, and thanks to his scenes at the office with Sally and Buddy, I thought for a while I might want to do the same thing. I know now that this wouldn’t be a great job for someone like me, but the image of it is still enticing. What made it so appealing, I’ve come to realize, is that when Rob came home, the show never ended—he was married to a woman who was just as smart, funny, and talented as he was. (Looking at Moore, who was only twenty-four when the series premiered, I’m reminded a little of Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain, who effortlessly kept up with her older costars under conditions of enormous pressure.) It was my first and best picture of a life that seemed complete both at work and at home. And the fact that both Moore and Van Dyke seem to have been drinking heavily during the show’s production only points at how difficult it must have been to sustain that dream on camera.

What strikes me the most now about The Dick Van Dyke Show is the uncanny way in which it anticipates the early seasons of Mad Men. In both shows, a husband leaves his idyllic home in Westchester each morning to commute to a creative job in Manhattan, where he brainstorms ideas with his wisecracking colleagues. (Don and Betty lived in Ossining, but the house that was used for exterior shots was in New Rochelle, with Rob and Laura presumably just up the road.) His wife is a much younger knockout—Laura was a former dancer, Betty a model—who seems that she ought to be doing something else besides watching a precocious kindergartener. The storylines are about evenly divided between the home and the office, and between the two, they give us a fuller portrait of the protagonist than most shows ever do. The influence, I can only assume, was unconscious. We know that Matthew Weiner watched the earlier series, as he revealed in a GQ interview when asked about life in the writers’ room:

We all came up in this system…When I watch The Dick Van Dyke Show, I’m like, Wow, this is the same job. There’s the twelve-year-old kid on the staff. There’s the guy who delivers lunch. I guarantee you I can walk into [another writer’s office] and, except for where the snack room is, it’s gonna be similar on some level.

And I don’t think it’s farfetched to guess that The Dick Van Dyke Show was Weiner’s introduction, as it was for so many of us, to the idea of writing for television in the first place.

Rob Petrie and Don Draper

The more I think about it, the more these two shows feel like mirror images of each other, just as “Don and Betty Draper” and “Rob and Laura Petrie” share the same rhythm. I’m not the first one to draw this connection, but instead of highlighting the obvious contrast between the sunniness of the former and the darkness of the latter, I’d prefer to focus on what they have in common. Both are hugely romantic visions of what it means to be a man who can afford a nice house in Westchester based solely on his ability to pitch better ideas than anybody else. Mad Men succeeds in large part because it manages to have it both ways. The series implicitly rebukes Don’s personal behavior, but it never questions his intelligence or talent. It doesn’t really sour us on advertising, any more than it does on drinking or smoking, and I don’t have any doubt that there are people who will build entire careers around its example. Both shows are the work of auteurs—Carl Reiner and Matt Weiner, whose names actually rhyme—who can’t help but let their joy in their own technical facility seep into the narrative. Rob and Don are veiled portraits of their creators. One is a lot better and the other a whole lot worse, but both amount to alternate lives, enacted for an audience, that reflect the restless activity behind the scenes.

And the real difference between Mad Men and The Dick Van Dyke Show doesn’t have anything to do with the decades in which they first aired, or even with the light and dark halves of the Camelot era that they both evoke. It comes down to the contrast between Laura and Betty—who, on some weird level, seem to represent opposing sides of the public image of Jacqueline Kennedy, and not just because the hairstyles are so similar. Betty was never a match for Don at home, and the only way in which she could win the game, which she did so emphatically, was to leave him altogether. Laura was Rob’s equal, intellectually and comedically, and she fit so well into the craziness at The Alan Brady Show that it wasn’t hard to envision her working there. In some ways, she was limited by her role as a housewife, and she would find her fullest realization in her second life as Mary Richards. But the enormous gap between Rob and Don boils down to the fact that one was married to a full partner and teammate, while the other had to make do with a glacial symbol of his success. When I think of them, I remember two songs. One is “Song of India,” which plays as Betty descends the hotel steps in “For Those Who Think Young,” as Don gazes at her so longingly that he seems to be seeing the ghost of his own marriage. The other is “Mountain Greenery,” which Rob and Laura sing at a party at their house, in a scene that struck me as contrived even at the time. Were there ever parties like this? It doesn’t really matter. Because I can’t imagine Don and Betty doing anything like it.

Written by nevalalee

January 26, 2017 at 9:05 am

Lessons from Great TV #1: The Dick Van Dyke Show

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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.

Written by nevalalee

July 2, 2012 at 9:50 am

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