Examining The Dick Van Dyke Show’s sophisticated comedy in just 10 episodes

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch those 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

When the Clampett family waved goodbye at the end of each episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, millions of viewers switched the channel or turned off the TV, but enough of them stuck around to see a lanky guy walk into his modern suburban home and trip (or almost trip) over an ottoman in a much more sophisticated, quite different kind of sitcom. Thanks almost solely to that timeslot, The Dick Van Dyke Show became a hit, as well as the most Emmy-winning comedy of the decade. TV didn’t see another sitcom written so well (and so well-written for adults) for several years, but Dick Van Dyke was the bridge between two golden ages of comedy: the polished slapstick of Sid Caesar and I Love Lucy in the ’50s and the realistic situations of All In The Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the ’70s.

Carl Reiner, formerly a cast member on Your Show Of Shows, wanted to create a family sitcom that showed what happened when Daddy went to work—in the writers’ room of a TV variety hour. Reiner gave himself the lead role, but after a failed pilot, the show was recast for Broadway star Dick Van Dyke, who was more of an Everyman (i.e., not Jewish). That version made it to the air but almost got canceled after the first season. The move to the post-Hillbillies slot saved it.

During the show’s original run, Rob and Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore) were compared to John and Jackie Kennedy: a young, attractive couple with wit and intelligence. Outside of wearing a suit and tie almost constantly, Rob is also a prototype for today’s creative-class worker. He’s college-educated, introspective, and clearly a political liberal. His colleagues—gag writers Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam) and Sally Rogers (Rose Marie), along with egotistical TV star Alan Brady (played by Reiner in a recurring role)—are tough-talkers who made their way up through vaudeville, while Rob comes up with the “big words” and literary allusions that give The Alan Brady Show a veneer of class. If he had been born later, Rob might have wound up as just one of the eggheads working on the The Daily Show.

Rob’s also a funny character, in part because Van Dyke is equally at ease with snappy dialogue and slapstick. It’s possible that the show’s ratings improved in season two not just because of its new time slot but also because of the new (and famous) second-season credit sequence that showed Rob flipping over the ottoman. But the show also got laughs from Rob’s overactive imagination (appropriate for a comedy writer), which leaps to conclusions (Buddy and Sally having an affair!) and entertains obsessions with flying saucers and cat burglars. He’s got a touch of Larry David in his insistence on certain rules, as when he whines to Laura that “chocolate cake is milk cake!” after she gives him the wrong beverage with his dessert. And his Midwestern friendliness leads to such moments as Rob tumbling out of a jury box when he chivalrously tries to retrieve the beautiful defendant’s dropped handkerchief.

Then there’s Mary Tyler Moore, the other half of one of the best marriages on TV. A former dancer, Laura Petrie scandalized CBS—and intrigued viewers—by wearing capri pants instead of dresses around the house, and she could match her comedy-writer husband in any battle of quips. The show was also notable for spending equal time on Rob’s work life, and Buddy and Sally can be seen as prototypes for wisecracking supporting characters from Murray on The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Karen on Will & Grace.

It would be easier to come up with examples of the rare Dick Van Dyke episode that’s a dud (there’s a strong consensus for those), but here are 10 episodes that include some indisputable classics and some examples of the show’s versatility.

“My Blonde-Haired Brunette” (season one, episode two): This Reiner-scripted episode is the show’s first home run. Laura—not for the last time—worries that the spark is gone from the Petrie marriage and decides to become a blonde. The final scene, with Laura in tears and her head looking like a black-and-white cookie, cements Moore as the co-lead of the series, not just another sitcom wife.

“The Two Faces Of Rob” (season two, episode two): Written by Sheldon Keller and Howard Merrill, this is the best of the show’s many “jealousy” episodes. As research for a comedy skit, Rob pretends to be a stranger who flirts with Laura over the phone. She flirts right back, causing Rob to become jealous of his alter ego. The episode heads into more adult territory than, say, I Love Lucy might have, as it’s implied that Laura likes a little role-playing to spice up the Petries’ sex life. The script also builds out from the jealousy theme to explore the question of how well both members of a married couple can really know each other. As Rob tells Buddy and Sally, “You think you know about us? I am part of us, and I don’t know her, but I know her better than you know her, and I tell you that she thought it was him and not me!”

“A Bird In The Head Hurts” (season two, episode 11): This may be the best of the episodes centered on Rob and Laura’s son, Ritchie, who, admittedly, is not the most compelling character on the show. Rob doesn’t believe Ritchie’s claim that he’s being stalked by a “giant woodpecker” in this outing from Reiner, who has a knack for taking a high-concept, sketch-comedy idea and making it into a fully rounded story. Like all good Westchester County parents, Rob and Laura try to psychoanalyze Ritchie’s behavior—while Buddy’s advice is to move from suburbia to the city, where Ritchie can instead get “attacked by a nice street gang.” To compare comedy styles, compare this to The Andy Griffith Show’s similarly themed “Mr. McBeevee,” in which Andy is convinced that Opie is telling tall tales.

“It May Look Like A Walnut!” (season two, episode 20): Reiner gets even more bizarre in his script for this Twilight Zone parody about body snatchers who leave their victims with no humor and a really boring diet. It’s a great approximation of the way people dream, with unsettling images (Laura cracking open walnuts as if they’re eggs) and an increasing sense of paranoia. The episode makes a common object seem threatening by multiplying it and putting it in unexpected places. Laura riding a wave of walnuts as they tumble out of the Petries’ living-room closet is one of the show’s iconic images, but it’s the office scene with Buddy and Sally that allows the story to sustain itself. How can Rob know what’s real when he’s talking to two people who never take anything seriously?

“That’s My Boy?” (season three, episode one): In this flashback episode, Rob gets one of his most stubborn fixations, as a series of coincidences convinces him that he and Laura brought the wrong baby home from the hospital. Bill Persky and Sam Denoff scripted this episode, which has one of the most famous twist endings—and one of the longest laughs from a studio audience—in sitcom history. And in contrast to many “most memorable” TV moments, it flows perfectly from a funny and well-paced story. (Rob, frantically: “Laura, do you know that one out of every 50 million women has the wrong baby?” Laura, calmly: “Well, that’s a cute trick. How does she manage it?”)

“All About Eavesdropping” (season three, episode five): A well-worn sitcom plot is handled with typical Dick Van Dyke panache in this script by Keller and Merrill. Thanks to an accidentally switched-on intercom, Rob and Laura overhear some catty comments by neighbors Jerry and Millie. (Rob is especially hurt to hear that he’s “no Albert Schweitzer.”) The Petries are usually so polite that there’s a comic charge in seeing them ruin a dinner party—nastiest round of charades ever—because their feelings are bruised. Things work out in the end, but this is a great case study on the fragility of friendships.

“Never Bathe On Saturday” (season four, episode 27): Laura gets her big toe stuck in a bathtub spigot (“I was playing with a drip!”) in a hotel full of unhelpful staff (including the great Kathleen Freeman as a chambermaid). This Reiner-scripted farce is famous in part because Moore was unhappy to learn that she’d be off-camera most of the time. Reiner assured her that half the audience wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about her lying naked in the tub behind the locked bathroom door; the other half would presumably be entertained by Van Dyke’s klutzy attempts to rescue her.

“Baby Fat” (season four, episode 29): Alan is about to star in a new Broadway play by Harper Worthington Yates (Strother Martin, sending up Tennessee Williams) and hires Rob to “punch up” the dialogue with some jokes. This broadly played but effective satire explores Rob’s desire for recognition as an artist, not just a hack TV writer. This is something that Reiner obviously felt as well, but “Baby Fat” was written by Garry Marshall (future producer of The Odd Couple and Happy Days) and Jerry Belson. Look for Richard Erdman (Leonard on Community) as a flagrantly gay costume designer.

“Coast To Coast Big Mouth” (season five, episode one): The Dick Van Dyke Show is virtually unique among hit sitcoms for its lack of idiotic, malapropism-prone characters. So it takes clever writers to make its regulars do stupid things. In this Emmy-winning script by Persky and Denoff, Laura is tricked into revealing on live television that Alan wears a toupee. Rob is angry enough to blurt, “I’m surprised you didn’t blab about his nose being fixed!” to Laura, inadvertently revealing another secret. The high point is Laura’s attempt to apologize to a pissed-off Alan—at his desk, surrounded by a half-dozen wig stands—while trying to argue that he looks better without hair anyway. (“There must be some needy bald people” is her suggestion of what to do with the toupees.)

“The Bottom Of Mel Cooley’s Heart” (season five, episode 19): Each regular character was given a showcase episode during the show’s final season, and this is that episode for The Alan Brady Show’s toadyish producer, Mel Cooley (Richard Deacon), who finally fights back after Alan humiliates him in front of the entire staff. The stellar story about workplace dynamics is by John Whedon, perhaps better known for his work on the markedly different sitcoms The Andy Griffith Show and The Donna Reed Show (and for being Joss Whedon’s grandfather). And while Dick Van Dyke’s crackling dialogue is still here, Whedon adds some depth to a character who had mostly served as the target of Buddy’s insults.

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Where Did I Come From?” (season one, episode 15), “The Curious Thing About Women” (season one, episode 16), “My Husband Is a Check Grabber” (season two, episode 21), “The Masterpiece” (season three, episode two), “Who Or What Is Antonio Stradivarius?” (season three, episode seven), “The Life And Love Of Joe Coogan” (season three, episode 17), “One Hundred Terrible Hours,” (season four, episode 30), “Br-rooom, Br-rooom” (season four, episode 31), “Odd But True” (season five, episode eight), “Obnoxious, Offensive, Egomaniac, Etc.” (season five, episode 26).

Availability: All five seasons are available on DVD, and The Dick Van Dyke Show airs regularly on TV Land. The entire series is also available on Netflix streaming and on Hulu.

Next time: From a show set backstage at a comedy/variety show to perhaps the most influential comedy/variety shows ever made: Phil Dyess-Nugent tries to distill decades of Saturday Night Live down into just 10 episodes.

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