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Essay
Dick Van Dyke
Mary Tyler Moore
Carl Reiner
Garry Marshall
Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke, Larry MathewsRemembering the Dick Van Dyke Show

True Love in the Suburbs
By Justine Elias
 
Group photo

Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Sheldon Leonard, Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam, Garry Marshall, and Carl Reiner (seated)

 
Though it's not true, as some critics have said, that The Dick Van Dyke Show brought sex to prime time, it would be fair to say that this was the first series to depict a sexy, romantic and bright TV marriage.
 
The romance might have been short-lived had the show's network, CBS, stuck with its plan to cancel The Dick Van Dyke Show after its first season (1961-1962). Instead, after a plea from the show's producers to its main commercial sponsor, Procter & Gamble, and after a boost from summer reruns and an Emmy win for the show's writing, the series returned in the fall and quickly became a top-ten ratings hit. The renewal was a triumph for Carl Reiner, the show's creator, writer and producer, who'd been a writer and feature player on Your Show of Shows, the hugely popular variety hour starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca.
 
Before The Dick Van Dyke Show began its five-year run, television audiences had seen plenty of domestic comedies. But as funny and durable as the best of these sitcoms were, it's hard to picture Lucy and Desi courting without shrieking at each other, or to imagine earlier, more placid TV families like the Cleavers enduring any serious household discord. Reiner, who wrote the first thirteen episodes on spec, would depict a different, more intricate and modern marriage -- premised on his own hectic but evidently gratifying life in New Rochelle, N.Y. Rob and Laura Petrie showed that it was possible to argue, humorously, about anything that happened under their roof. All aspects of suburban life -- the husband's long working hours, neighborhood social obligations, the stress of home remodeling, even a crisis over a child's beloved but impractical pet (a duck) -- would become fodder for comedy. Though the show's original title was "Head of the Family," there would be little deference to the paterfamilias; both Petries gave as good as they got, no matter how silly their bickering became.
 
In retrospect, the Petries are an iconic early-1960s family: youthful, striving, optimistic. The couple's dealings with their oddball neighbors, Jerry and Millie Helper (Jerry Paris and Ann Guilbert) are nervously funny because the Petries are new to suburbia and still learning how to be good neighbors themselves. Unlike some of television's other sitcom clans (like Father Knows Best), there's the sense that the Petries are novices at being adults, and slightly unsettled at the prospect that their recently purchased Westchester house will forever be their home. Take the typical sitcom plot of a hero contemplating a job offer: it was a done deal that Ward Cleaver or Mike Brady would never embark on such a change. But the Petries, like so many real families of the sixties, were often game for upheaval.
 
Prime time has always been a venue for dramas about professionals: cops, doctors and Old West sheriffs who demonstrate an almost religious commitment to their jobs. With The Dick Van Dyke Show, for the first time, viewers were invited to enter the backstage world of entertainment. Rob Petrie's attractive work-life -- being brilliantly funny in the company of brilliantly funny people -- let audiences in on the joke by showing, literally, how the jokes were made. At the same time, his job as a writer sets him teetering on the edge of self-doubt and public failure. He's forced to justify himself, to prove his wit, and, if necessary, to reinvent himself or the way his bosses see him. These dilemmas are nimbly negotiated by both Petrie, the character, and Dick Van Dyke, the gifted improviser and physical comedian. With the help of his professional family he's able to save the day, scripting comic lines for a demanding TV star boss. (In one episode, the creative process gets dangerous as Rob and his cohorts are forced at gunpoint to pen a standup routine for a gangster's nephew.) Mainly, though, The Dick Van Dyke Show satirized celebrities and big star egos, as seen from just outside the spotlight.
 
Some CBS executives, early on, felt that Rob Petrie's profession was too exotic for the average viewer to relate to. But the audience, schooled on the topical parodies of Sid Caesar and others, were hipper than expected. Despite his high profile, Reiner knew about trying to please an employer, and suffering a little while others get the glory. Throughout his career, he'd been something less than a headliner, but always an essential part of an ensemble who had the respect of his peers. As a standup comic, he was always one joke away from being booed offstage, and that jittery desire to please his fellow comics, if not the audience, echoes through every script.
 
Perhaps Reiner still had that writing-team banter ringing in his head when he created witty characters based on his days alongside Mel Brooks, Lucille Kallen and Neil Simon. Brooks became the old-school comic Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam), whose jokes tended toward schtick and one-liners, while Rose Marie's brash Sally Rogers, was based on Kallen and Selma Diamond, two of the few women writing for such shows. Episodes that center on Sally tended to focus more on romantic misadventures (blind dates gone wrong, secret admirers) than on her then-unusual status as a professional. Character actor Richard Deacon played the anxious, priggish producer, Mel Cooley, the perfect foil for Rose Marie and Amsterdam. The demanding host, Alan Brady, based on Caesar, was coyly played by Reiner himself. Though they were definitely supporting characters, they got substantial screen time and quickly became as beloved as the nominal hero. In a 1966 episode entitled "Buddy Sorrell, Man and Boy," Buddy is suspected of cheating on his wife. When confronted, he announces that he has secretly been preparing for his own bar mitzvah. The episode marked the first time in TV history that a series regular was bar mitzvahed onscreen -- and used a real cantor!
 
What also defined The Dick Van Dyke Show was the sparkling chemistry between its lead actors. As his alter ego, Reiner cast a musical comedy star who left a successful Broadway run of The Music Man to try his hand, again, as a prime-time leading man. (Van Dyke had headlined several TV shows that fizzled despite his talent and fame.) To match Van Dyke's cheerful, loose-limbed style, the show's producers searched for a compatible leading woman. Mary Tyler Moore, just 23 when she won the role of Laura Petrie, had little experience in TV comedy; her most noted small screen role was the unseen (but for her fabulous legs) secretary to David Janssen's Richard Diamond on The Fugitive. But like Van Dyke, she had theatrical training and an easy, almost musical, way with a funny line. It didn't hurt, either, that Moore, in her sleek sweaters and capri pants, was as dancerly and lithe as an Audrey Hepburn. Like Lucille Ball before her, the actress was a beautiful woman who wasn't afraid to look silly. In one of the best remembered episodes, "Never Bathe on a Saturday," the humor is almost entirely derived from Laura's embarrassing predicament: getting her toe stuck in a bathtub faucet.
 
As a couple, the Petries seemed perpetually in thrall to each other, as sexually charged up as a pair of teenagers. That spark was evident in the show's pilot episode, when Laura assures her husband, with a knowing gleam in her eye, that her intuitions are trustworthy. "Darling," she explains huskily. "I'm a woman." In a simple, seductive gesture, Laura unhooks her pearl necklace and exits, dangling the pearls, toward the couple's offstage bedroom. Rob Petrie's response ("Yeah!") is startlingly lustful for a TV show at that time. And notice how many times Rob and Laura's living room turns into a ballroom, with the couple careening into each others arms for a furtive, joyful dance. The Petries' delight in each other, in discovering, each week, that they've got the perfect partner, is refreshing and irresistible. Even the worst of the Petries marital warfare (if it can be called that) was lightened with grace: In "The Night The Roof Fell In," the Petries recall, separately, a bitter argument. In each partner's retelling, they cast themselves as impossibly innocent, until both realize that each is partly to blame.
 
The early days of television were notable for the influence of single sponsors. Procter & Gamble, for instance, could ensure that a show would get a good chance of success by agreeing in advance to buy ads for a full season. With that much buying power, the sponsors could and did demand changes in dialogue they found too edgy. The network's censors exerted their influence, too: A reference, in a flashback episode, to Laura's pregnancy was deemed too suggestive. (Or perhaps it was the idea that a woman, shortly after giving birth, would assert herself in a line like, "I carried him for nine months. I think I can carry him out of the building.")
 
It's a testament to The Dick Van Dyke Show's quality that it is still a favorite on cable TV and DVD. Even if you were born well after the show went off the air, the jokes still ring true. The writers' room is still alive with wit, and the Petries are still dancing, and living, slightly off balance.
 
[The Dick Van Dyke Show can still be seen twice a day on TVLand. Check your local listings.]

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*Video clip courtesy of The Dick Van Dyke Show DVD (www.dickvandyke.com), © Calvada Productions

Clip from The Dick Van Dyke Show
Video 220KVideo 56K

Laura and Rob meet for the first time. From the episode "Oh How We Met the Night That We Danced"*
 
Note: Real Player (free from RealNetworks) required to view video.
 

Rob, Laura, Buddy, Sally, and Mel

Left to right: Rob, Laura, Buddy, Sally, and Mel
 

Left to right: Laura, Buddy, Rob, and Sally

Left to right: Laura, Buddy, Rob, and Sally
 

Photos courtesy of Calvada Productions and Clear Productions, Inc.
 

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