The Making of the Sitcom
I was driving my car downtown from New Rochelle, wondering what grounds do I stand on that no one else stands on? I thought I am an actor and writer who worked on the Sid Caesar shows.
(Carl Reiner) (1)
I don't want to be an artist; I'm a good writer
(Rob Petrie) (2)
Any discussion of the American transmogrification of la condition humaine into consumer lifestyle could do worse than to begin with an examination of The Dick Van Dyke Show. In terms of the evolution of prime time, the show's portrayal of suburban life in the Northeast Corridor bridges the gap between the idealized We Like Ike nuclear family home-ownership epics of the fifties ( Father Knows Best, The Stu Erwin Show, Leave It to Beaver) and the stagflation-era designer social comedies of the seventies, such as the Norman Lear and MTM productions. Since completing its five-year CBS production run in 1966, Dick Van Dyke has proven itself to be what the syndication industry likes to call an 'evergreen', having achieved continuous play in many important markets, both in the United States and around the non-Communist world. Moreover, it is perhap the only emphatically New Frontier sitcom ever produced by television - a domestic video wall painting of those politically ebullient thousand days.
In the early sixties, television was coming into its own as an oracle supplying narrative continuity to even the most preposterous of situations. John F. Kennedy, the handsome instant New World aristocrat, and Nikita Khrushchev, the pithy proletarianized Old World peasant, were an iconic diplomatic dynamic duo of the likes of which has not since presided over the viewing audience. Both superpower button men made for television, carrying mythic baggage laden with elements of action-adventure, romance, and comedy. Here were the living precipitates of a century of Western politics: representing capitalism, a prince of an immigrant Boston dynasty with roots in urban ward-heeling and Prohibition; and in the corner to the left, a pauper who had lent a hand in the overthrow of the Romanovs, fought the Nazis in Kiev, denounced the cult of the personality before the Twentieth Party Congress, and lived to tell the tales with relish.
Neither Head of state was camera shy. World-class adventureres were not reluctant to exploit their triumphant, even grandiose personalities, each in his own way savored the unprecedented opportunities afforded by television for intimate mass exposure. The dashing young senator from Massachusetts as Edward R. Murrow's guest star on Person to Person, accepting compliments from his future U.S. Information Agency director on the charm of his Boston apartment, the graciousness of his New York wife, and (though the term had yet to leap forth from psychology textbooks into television discourse) his entire 'lifestyle'.(3) Khrushchev, in New York to attend the opening of the fifteenth session of the United Nation General Ass embly, went uptown, the world press in tow, to take a lunch with Fidel Castro at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. With dozens of international leaders present-Eisenhower, Nehru, Tito, to name just a few-he stole the show at the United Nations by taking off his shoe and banging it on the desk in spontaneous protest of capitalist-imperialist propaganda (a breach of parliamentary procedure for which the Soviets would be slapped with a $10,000 fine by Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold).(4)
The News had only recently become important enough to rate a coast-to-coast half hour at suppertime and the two superpower leaders stood behind events-Harvard and the Ukraine, touch football and tractors, proto - Mr. Goodbar and bald, fat grandpa - as the compellingly colorful players in what had mushroomed into the postmodern multimedia contest of world affairs. They battled. They compromised. They closed missle gaps. They engaged in cultural exchange. They sought 'peaceful coexistence'. Their dueling images offered a bonus offered eheightened intensity to those viewers brave enough or mad nough to notice the stakes.
Ironically, this colorful cold-war programming met with and abrupt cancellation. The Dick Van Dyke Show was barely into its third season in prime time when Kennedy was murdered under circumstances still not fully clear to the public; less than a year later Khrushchev was unceremoniously issued a one-way ticket to Palookagrad by a Central Committee not amused to see Lenin's heir struggling with the West to in entry into Disneyland. "JFK" and "K", as New York Daily News headlines had once so familiarly called this unlikely of hundred-megaton godfathers, gradually achieved the distance of "slain President John F. Kennedy" and "former et Premier Nikita Khrushchev", fading from daily electric screen life into the sanctity of history books. By the end of the decade, the magic had faded to the grim political five o'clock shadows of Nixon and Brezhnev.
Carl Reiner, the The Dick Van Dyke Show's creator, was still hard at work on his as yet unsold sitcom even as the hatless Kennedy was swearing allegiance to the U.S. Constitution on Earl Warren's Bible, an event carried simultaneously by all three networks. A survivor of the 'golden age" of live TV comedy-variety, Reiner had worked for Sid Caesar as both on-screen second banana and uncredited staff writer during most of the 1950s. Reiner's new show, his first effort at series authorship, was a timely swan song for the dying genre in which he-and others, including Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart- had made their professional marks. In this and several ways The Dick Van Dyke Show is a revealing use network television as a medium of personal expression; its autobiographical depth rivals that of Gleason's Honeymooners.
A native of the Bronx (Evander Childs '38), Carl Reiner was not an unfamiliar face in America during the pioneer years of network telecasts. His prime-time acting credits can traced back as far as 1948, when he played the role of a comic photographer in ABC's The Fashion Story, an obscure experimental sitcom set each week in the context of a fashion show (an idea that would lie dormant for over thirty-five years in such series as Cover Up and Miami Vice). He became best known, however, for his sketch performances as a regular member of Caesar's comedy-variety repertory troupes on Your Show of Shows (NBC, 1950-54), Caesar's Hour (NBC, 1954-57), and Sid Caesar Invites You (ABC, 1958).
Like Caesar, Reiner was a second-generation upwardly mobile Westchester homeowner with a consciousness minted in a Jewish New York City Depression-childhood.(5) Members of what Jimmy Breslin would one day call "the bridge and tunnel crowd", both artists had crossed the river to take up their showbusiness vocations in the fabled midtown Manhattan culture complex. In A Walker in the City, Alfred Kazin explores the psychosocial distance between neighborhood life in the boroughs of New York and cosmopolitan engagement in Manhattan. But Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Selma Diamond, and the other hungry young writers who had come to early television from the Bronx and Brooklyn triangularized this mythic geography to a third point, a place, perhaps, of less interest to the Irving Howe crowd - the affluent bedroom town on the parkway several exits beyond the last stop of the subway. The ongoing blackout sketches that Caesar performed with Imogene Coca (and later Nanette Fabray), Howard Morris, and Reiner - minidomesticoms with titles such as The Hickenloopers and The Commuters - exploited the self-amused peccadilloes of emerging alrightnik culture in post-World War II America: dented fenders, forgotten anniversaries, wives with charge accounts, impossible in-laws, the darned plumbing, and so on. If there could be no poetry after Auschwitz, there could at least be New Rochelle.(6)
Though comedy-variety stars such as Caesar, Milton Berle, Martha Raye, Jack Carter, and Jackie Gleason are often credited with having sold many American families their first TV sets during the wonder years of video, the comedy-variety show was already withering on the vine as the fifties drew to a close. As early as 1957-58, not a single example of such programming could be found in Nielsen's Top Ten, even as the Western (enjoying what proved to be its own brief moment in the sun) placed five programs in the charmed circle that season. With the television audience now roughly equivalent to the population at large, the economic stakes of prime-time telecast had suddenly risen steeply and no top was in sight. The ad agencies became increasingly anxious to assert quality control over the TV product. Spontaneity and uniqueness of occasion and performance - precisely those qualities that were potentially most satisfying in a comedy-variety show - came to be viewed as liabilities. Seed money was attracted by the rationalized system of film production. In terms of comedy, that meant the sitcom.
The mighty fell quickly: the 1957-58 season was the first of the decade to open without Sid Caesar on the prime-time schedule. Let go by NBC, the desperate star went hat in hand ABC and made a deal with the last-place network for a new, live Sunday night show - a stubborn attempt to retain the purity of the genre within the limits of a half hour ( Your Show of Shows had run ninety minutes in prime time). Furthermore, the revival would reunite Caesar in comedy blackout sketch performance with Imogene Coca, his original costar from Your Show of Shows, whose own career had also suffered in the comedy-variety rash.(7) With as much fanfare as ABC could muster, Sid Caesar Invites You premiered as a midseason replacement in January 958; it was canceled, however, after only thirteen weeks, unable to outpoint the anthology dramas of General Electric Theater with Ronald Reagan in the 9 p.m. time slot.
Milton Berle - 'Mr. Television' - who had signed a thirty-year contract with NBC in 1951, found himself earning his keep as host of Jackpot Bowling for the network in 1960. His 1974 autobiography contains bitter reflections on the death of the genre that had helped make both Berle and TV household items: "Seven solid years of live television when it was really live, seven years of going seven days a week trying to make each week's show better, bigger, and funnier than the week before - and for what? To end up axed, out [...]. I was really working my way down to the depths."(8)
Berle was not the only comedy-variety Brahmin headed for a game-show mike. Jackie Gleason, whose comedy-variety tour was cut in half by CBS in 1957-58 and then canceled altogether at the end of the season, left television completely to try his hand at Hollywood movies for the next several years. Then the 'Great One' attempted a grand return to CBS prime game show, which in spectacular Gleason style flopped after a single telecast. Similarly, Ernie Kovacs, who had hosted game shows for Dumont before achieving critical acclaim as commercial television's greatest comedy-variety artist, found himself back in the moderator's chair as host of Take a Good Look (ABC, 1959-61).
Even an injection of promising new talent could not revive the genre. Bob Newhart's comedy album The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart had made him the hottest young stand-up in America in 1960. Described by the New York Times that summer as a "rising young comedian who specializes in satire,"(9) Newhart was essentially a monologist who preferred sitting on a stool with an imaginary telephone in his hand (in the style of Shelley Berman or Mort Sahl) to running around on a vaudeville set with a seltzer bottle. The comedian had won network interest by stealing the 1959 Emmy Awards Show with his takeoff on an officious TV director going through a dry run of Khrushchev's arrival in the United States. CBS approached Newhart first, hoping to bolster its weak Thursday evening schedule with a fresh face. The network, however, dropped out at the last minute. Its reasoning offers a glimpse at how low confidence had fallen in comedy-variety. Lee Rich, who had been engineering the CBS deal for Benton and Bowles, explained, "Considering the time period we had lined up for the show [it would have faced The Untouchables and You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx ]we reconsidered and decided not to take the risk."(10)
NBC, the network that had traditionally been most closely associated with comedy-variety, took a more optimistic view. Perhaps, it was thought, this type of program could rebound in the hands of a relatively sophisticated humorist who might attract a new viewership. But The Bob Newhart Show, premiering in the fall of 1961, went nowhere. It was quietly canceled at the end of its first season, losing out in the ratings to representational dramas (Naked City and The U.S. Steel Hour) on the other two networks. Newhart disappeared from national television, only to reemerge twenty years later as a sitcom star. With the failure of the Newhart show, the handwriting was on the wall for comedy-variety. Except for a few hangers-on - most notably Red Skelton - the presentational showcases enjoyed by the pioneer comedians had pretty much become a thing of the past. The few hours of comedy-variety left in prime-time passed into the painfully mellow hands of singers such as Andy WiIliams and Perry Como.
By the turn of the decade, the prime-time network game show seemed to be the last refuge for a comedian who wished to work on national television without donning the mask of a sitcom character. The model for success in this now extinct genre was clearly Groucho Marx's Y ou Bet Your Life. Though billed as a quiz show, the program was a thinly disguised talking-heads vehicle for the comedian's talents as a witty raconteur, a talk show that eschewed the pretense of being one. In terms of production control, You Bet Your Life was filmed in sixty-minute sessions and then edited down to thirty-minute episodes, affording a greater degree of quality control than could be exercised over live comedy-variety.(11) Though Groucho was apparently at liberty to go after the incredible collection of Southern California wild life that took the stage as quiz-show contestants on You Bet Your Life, any remarks that violated network, agency, or sponsor sensibility could be put to rest on the cutting-room floor, just as in a sitcom. Groucho had synthesized the talk show and the quiz show, much as Jack Benny had synthesized the sitcom and the comedy-variety show. You Bet Your Life had been a consistent ratings winner for NBC television since 1950, when it had crossed over from network radio.
In the fall of 1958, thirty-five-year-old Carl Reiner had read the situation accurately and was ready to make a career move. Like Berle, Gleason, and Kovacs, he turned first to the prime-time game show, replacing Monty Hall as the host of a CBS series, Keep Talking: "The players [...] were divided into two teams of three each. The emcee gave each player a different secret phrase, which the player was then required to incorporate into a story. After the phrase had been used the emcee would stop the story and ask the other team what the phrase was."(12) The show was one of several attempts to rehabilitate the scandal-tainted quiz-show genre as a celebrity parlor game which was so much fun to watch that the audience would fail to notice that no cash prizes were on the line. Regulars included Elaine May, Joey Bishop, Peggy Cass, Paul Winchell, and Morey Amsterdam. In less than a year, however, Reiner was himself replaced by the rapidly ascending Merv Griffin.
That same year, Reiner also completed Enter Laughing, a nostalgic autobiographical coming-of-age-in-the-city novel. David Kokolowitz, Reiner's innocent, idealistic first-person narrator, is an apprentice sewing-machine repairman living with his parents in a Bronx apartment. The action focuses on his effort to transform himself into Don Coleman, sophisticate Manhattanite and Broadway actor. Early in the story, after a seemingly disastrous audition, the hapless though politically prescient Kokolowitz comments, "As I left the Lyric Theater, I felt that my chances of [getting the part] were as slim as my chance of becoming the first non-Protestant President of the United States."(13) The novel was adapted for the Broadway stage by Joseph Stein in 1963 and Reiner himself directed a 1967 film version.
But Reiner's cash project in the period immediately following the demise of TV comedy-variety was a situation comedy that he had been developing under the working title of "Head of the Family." Whereas Enter laughing had been a memoir of Bronx adolescence dissolving into Manhattan worldliness, Reiner would build the fictive order of the new sitcom from his experience as a Manhattan artist seeking to establish adult mainstream assimilated domesticity in New Rochelle. The autobiographical roots of the work were clear: the author had cast himself in the lead role of Rob Petrie, head staff writer for a live New York comedy-variety show titled (at that point) The Alan Sturdy Show. (14) The name "Sturdy" was an anglicized compromise of the Yiddish word shtarker ("big bruiser"), a reference to the six-foot, two-inch Sid Caesar, a man who, in Me] Brooks's words, "was considered a giant among Jews." Rob would be married to a former dancer who had given up her career as an artist to be his wife; Reiner was in fact married to a former painter. The Petries would have a son; the Reiners had a son (Rob Reiner, who grew up to play Meathead in All in the Family). The Petries would live at 448 Bonnie Meadow Road in New Rochelle; the Reiners lived at number 48. The narrative line, like the sitcom auteur, would commute between the mythic poles of downtown show biz and winding-lane family life. "It was actually what my wife and I were doing", recalls Reiner.(15)
The comic relationship of stage and hearth was, of course, nothing new in American culture. It provided, for example, the narrative framework that tied together the song-and-dance numbers of the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney musicals directed by Busby Berkeley in the thirties and forties. In terms of television situation comedy, the 'show-biz family' had always been a strong subgenre. Burns and Allen refused to distinguish between home and theater; their home was a theater. Danny Thomas and Desi Arnaz had masked themselves as Danny Williams and Ricky Ricardo, professional nightclub entertainers, which, in fact, both had been before transforming themselves into sitcom stars. Chief, perhaps, among the advantages of building a storyline on this premise was that it allowed presentational forms of entertainment-singing, dancing, even stand-up comedy-to be worked into the episodes of otherwise representational programs: a Cuban number for Ricky, a ballad for Danny, a few yams for George.
In The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet show biz and middleclass family life were revealed as emphatically compatible. Ozzie Nelson's duties as a bandleader made so few demands upon him that he was left free virtually twenty-four hours a day to play golf, improve the house, and otherwise cultivate himself as a source of ethical inspiration for his wife and children. His son Rick's budding career as a rock-and-roll singer was encouraged as a positive opportunity for both Rick and the family, even though rock and roll in the 1950s still had a long way to go before achieving the status of American family music. As portrayed by the Nelsons in Ozzie and Harriet, there was indeed no business like show business.
In I Love Lucy, however, the relationship is not quite so congenial. Lucy was frankly jealous of Ricky's show-biz career. The Ricardos lived in the East Sixties in a residential neighbor-hood that was close enough to the midtown entertainment world so that Lucy could get over to the Tropicana quickly. However, the nightclub is territory verboten to wife Lucy by her bandleader husband. She plots and schemes to find a way out of her drab routine domestic life and into one of Ricky's 'shows'. With her friends the Mertzes, retired vaudevillians who own the apartment building and who themselves yeam for the roar of the greasepaint, Lucy is often stuck at home for most of an episode, emerging only in the climactic segment to sneak onto the stage of the Tropicana for the grand finale. Even though she is funny - to both the on-screen nightclub audience and the television viewer - her attempt to cross over from neighborhood (urban provincial) life into the cosmopolitan world of show business is revealed as both ridiculous and futile. She is funny, but incom-petence is the source of her humor. The audience, which watches television and knows professional entertainment when it sees it, laughs at Lucy Ricardo, not with her: she sings in an opera sketch with a horrendous voice. She dances in a bebop routine with a crazed jitterbug who throws her all over the stage like a sack of potatoes. She gets stage fright and forgets her lines. As the episode ends she is, in quick order, reminded of her rightful place, forgiven by her exasperated but loving husband, and sent back to Little Ricky and the roast.
In Head of the Family, however, Reiner would tap his own memory to strive for a new autobiographically based realism that would eschew the fantastic extremes of the Nelsons and the Ricardos. "I was examining my life and putting it down on paper," Reiner claims. He was trying to create "the first situation comedy where you saw where the man worked before he walked in and said, 'Hi, honey, I'm home!'"(16) The fact that the place where the man worked happened to be a network television production company seemed perfectly normal to Reiner, who had spent over a decade doing just that. The paradigms of Reiner's life - ethnicity and assimilation, urbanity and suburbanity, presentationalism and representationalism - would be the mythic resources from which the show would be refined.
Reiner's dedication to Head of the Family led him past the conventional wisdom that guides TV show creators: instead of completing just a pilot script, he went ahead and - with no money or guarantee of any kind - wrote scripts for thirteen series episodes. "This would be a nucleus, a bible, for anybody who would help write it after that. It would guard against supposition; everything would be spelled out."(17) Clearly, the author was envisioning more than syndication residuals.
Harry Kalcheim, Reiner's agent, took the matenal to Peter Lawford, the "Rat Pack" film actor who was then attemping to establish himself as a television producer. Lawford was the husband of Patricia Kennedy, the sister of Senator John F. Kennedy, who was at that moment neck deep in his race for the U.S. presidency. Joseph P. Kennedy, the patriarch of the clan, was keeping close watch over all activities of family members during this crucial period. He demanded to read the sitcom script before sanctioning Kennedy involvement. "Everything the Kennedy money went into had to be approved by him," recalls Reiner.(18) After a weekend of careful study at the family's Hyannis Port retreat, the elder Kennedy gave the venture a resounding thumbs-up. He was so enthusiastic about Head of the Family that he not only granted the go-ahead to Lawford, but agreed to personally finance the production of the pilot.
Kennedy, of course, was no stranger to the mass entertainment industry, having been deeply involved in Hollywood during the interwar years. He had owned FBO, a major distributing company, and for a time he had even served as chairman of the board of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum theater chain. Kennedy had also had his share of experience playing the angel. In 1925 he had personally backed his intimate friend Gloria Swanson in the ill-fated Queen Kelly, a nonstudio production directed by the difficult Erich von Stroheim. Though costs ran in excess of $1 million (mostly out of Kennedy's pocket), the film was never released in the United States.(19)
On July 19, 1960, the pilot episode of Head of the Family appeared on Comedy Spot, a "Failure Theatre" summer replacement anthology series that CBS was using to showcase would-be sitcoms.(20) On the strength of Reiner's reputation, the New York Times placed a star next to its listing of the show, denoting "a program of unusual interest" (the network competition consisted of Arthur Murray's Dance Party and Colt. 45). The dramatis personae, especially Rob's colleagues at the office, had a decidedly New York flavor: Rob Petrie (Carl Reiner), Laura Petrie (Barbara Britton), Ritchie (Gary Morgan), Sally Rogers (Sylvia Miles), Buddy Sorrell (Morty Gunty), and Alan Sturdy (Jack Wakefield).
In Watching TV, a season-by-season history of American television, Harry Castleman and Walter Podrazik describe the Head of the Family pilot: "Petrie and his wife Laura had to convince their son Ritchie that his father's job was as interesting and important as those of the other kids' fathers. To prove his point, Rob brought Ritchie to the office to see firsthand how valuable he was [...]. The format seemed workable, the cast adequate, and the writing mildly clever.
Though there was some sponsor interest, the series was not picked up by CBS. For one thing, situation comedy seemed to be in eclipse in 1960. Only one new sitcom had premiered during the 1959-60 season, Love and Marriage, which starred William Demarest as an aging music publisher who hated rock and roll and had little patience for his hipper-than-thou son-in-law and partner. NBC canceled it almost immediately. Westerns were the hot properties as the election of 1960 rolled around, with Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, and Have Gun, Will Travel finishing win, place, and show in the Nielsen Top Ten for two consecutive seasons. Reiner fully believed that Head of the Family had died a quiet death in a bad sitcom market.
Kalcheim, however, was not so sure. In September 1960 he persuaded Reiner to meet with another of his clients, Sheldon Leonard. Though a fellow New York Jew, Leonard had followed a different path into show business. A theater graduate of Syracuse University, Leonard first found a career in B movies in the forties as a stock Runyonesque gangster heavy, but then jumped to the production end in the television era, where he achieved phenomenal success. In 1953 he had joined Danny Thomas' production company as executive producer of Make Room for Daddy (later retitled The Danny Thomas Show) and the show had been running ever since. More recently, he had sold a new sitcom to CBS, The Andy Griffith Show, which was set for a fall 1960 premier.
The Reiner-Leonard relationship was that of student to mentor. Leonard tutored Reiner in the fine points of cranking out situation comedy (as opposed to comedy-variety), giving him license to roam the Thomas production facilities and observe the day-to-day operations of making a narrative TV series. Asked for his opinion on the all-but-moribund Head of the Family pilot, Leonard remembers being "torn between a desire to be helpfully honest and a desire to be tactful [...]. The only thing I could say was 'Carl, you're not right for what you wrote for yourself!' I believe that if recast, the show would have every chance of making it. Do you mind if I try to wrap the package?"(22) After some initial reluctance, Reiner accepted this judgment and Leonard was hired to direct a new pilot.
The short list of candidates to replace Reiner in the role of Rob Petrie consisted of two thirty-five-year-old nationally familiar (but not yet star) performers, both Midwesterners by birth: Johnny Carson and Dick Van Dyke. The Iowa-born, Nebraska-bred Carson had been a television personality since 1951, when he had hosted Carson's Cellar, a local Los Angeles satire program in which the comedian riffed on the day's headlines, much as he would in his Tonight Show monologues years later. The show drew the attention of several West Coast comedy giants, including Red Skelton and Groucho Marx, both of whom willingly appeared as unpaid guests to help out the young comedian. In 1953, Skelton gave Carson his big break, hiring him to write the stand-up monologues with which he opened his weekly CBS show. In less than two years, the network decided to try Carson in a comedy-variety hour of his own. Johnny, however, proved not ready for prime time. The only TV series ever actually titled The Johnny Carson Show was dumped at the end of its first season. As Reiner and Leonard began their search for a new Rob Petrie, Carson was biding his time, building an 'F Score' with the daytime audience as host of the game show Who Do You Trust? (formerly Do You Trust your Wife? ), on ABC.(23)
Dick Van Dyke seemed, on paper, the underdog in the competition. A native of West Plains, Missouri, he had started out in the forties by opening his own advertising agency in Danville, Illinois. Moving over to the performance end of the business, he gradually built a prime-time resume that offers an eclectic panorama of 1950s television: a summer as host of CBS Cartoon Theater starring Heckle and jeckle; a season as regular on Mike Stokey's Pantomime Quiz; a dramatic role opposite George C. Scott on The U.S. Steel Hour; two guest pots as a hillbilly private on The Phil Silvers Show; and a brief stint as comic relief on The Andy Williams Show. TV stardom, however, eluded Van Dyke. Unable to find a suitable format in television for his considerable talents as a physical comedian, he turned his efforts away from the medium in 1959 and scored a tremendous smash on Broadway in the musical comedy Bye Bye, Birdie.
Leonard, however, strongly favored the gangly, pratfalling Van Dyke to the mesomorphic, wisecracking Carson, despite Johnny's greater public recognition factor. He had envisioned Rob Petrie as the kind of guy who Is not "too glamorous to be sharing your living room with,"(24) and following this logic, Carson's relative fame worked against him; the newer the face, the better, as far as Leonard was concerned. He had also imagined Rob as someone who "doesn't want to get up in front of an audience, but who can perform in a room at a party."(25) In this respect, Van Dyke's proven abilities in musical comedy offered distinct advantages for the presentation of nonnarrative performance art in what amounted to a backstage sitcom. While Carson could do stand-up, some yeoman's party magic, and a bit of ventriloquism, Van Dyke could sing, dance, do pantomime, and play broad slapstick. Leonard sent Reiner to New York to see Bye Bye, Birdie, and the issue was settled. Van Dyke received permission from his Broadway producer for time off to go to the West Coast and shoot the pilot.
As Sheldon Leonard had predicted, the cast change proved to be the key to getting the series on the air. But the significance of recasting Rob Petrie from a Bronx-born Jew to a heartland gentile surely could not have been lost on an author who had so self-consciously set out to produce an autobiographical work. Carl Reiner had never worn his Jewishness on his sleeve. He had in fact played the ethnically nondescript 'interviewer' of Sid Caesar's "German Professor" on many occasions. The low-key (assimilated?) nature of his style can be seen perhaps most plainly when Reiner performs with the hyperactive Mel Brooks. On The 2000-Year-Old Man record albums (which contain not only the title cuts, but a wide variety of sketches) Reiner characteristically plays the 'American' straightman to Mel Brooks' howling ghetto mishuganeh.
By what logic had Leonard come to the conclusion that "if recast, the show would have every chance of making it?" After ten years in front of the camera, Reiner's competence as television performer could not have been the issue. Was there an unspoken agenda to the change in personnel? It has been suggested that Berle and Caesar in particular had proved 'too Jewish' for the vastly expanded television audience of 1960. Was Leonard's new plan to sell Head of the Family based on the WASPing of Rob Petrie?
As the series unfolded it was obvious that Rob's background had been thoroughly reimagined to reflect the life of the actor who now played the role. In flashback episodes, we learn that the comedy writer is a native of Danville, Illinois;(26) that he met Laura, a dancer with a USO troupe, while serving in the army; that Rob and Laura lived as newlyweds in Joplin, Missouri, before moving to New York. Whereas in Head of the Family, the Rob character had played a Carl Reiner to the Buddy character's Mel Brooks, in The Dick Van Dyke Show, the relationship was removed one more level: Rob played the Middle American to Buddy's Jewish New Yorker.
The transformations in ethnic cosmology brought about by Van Dyke's assumption of the lead role is a subject that has apparently never been broached in print. In The Dick Van Dyke Show: Anatomy of a Classic, the only book ever devoted to the program, Ginny Weissman and Coyne Sanders go into otherwise exhaustive detail about the mechanics of recasting the series, but completely ignore the issue of ethnicity. There is no mention at all of it in an interview that Reiner and Leonard gave to Television Quarterly in 1963, at the height of the show's popularity.(27) The newspaper and magazine reviewers of the day were similarly silent on the subject.
Leonard, with his excellent sitcom track record, had little trouble in placing the revamped show on the CBS prime-time schedule. In the early sixties, advertising agencies tended to control blocks of time on network television and had great leverage in making program decisions. Using his liaison with the Benton and Bowles agency (which handled the sponsor accounts for both Danny Thomas and Andy Griffith), Leonard obtained an assurance from Procter and Gamble that the retailing giant "would back any pilot I chose."(28) A company, Calvada Productions ( Carl Reiner, Sheldon Leonard, Dick Van Dyke, Danny Thomas), was formed to produce the show, with each partner to receive a percentage of the profits. Thomas, who provided much of the financing for the new pilot out of his own pocket, was to receive the lion's share.
As for the name of the program, it was generally agreed that "Head of the Family" would be abandoned so as not to confuse the series with the Kennedy-backed pilot of the previous summer. Several titles that referred to Rob's dual management functions in the office and at home were considered. "Double Trouble" was adopted as a working title at one point, but was dropped in favor of "All in a Day's Work". In the end, however, Leonard reverted to form. The Danny Thomas Show and The Andy Griffith Show had both done quite well for him and the new sitcom was christened The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Like the television industry itself, Reiner (under the tutelage of Sheldon Leonard) had made the transition from the blackout sketch vaudeville of live East Coast comedy-variety to the prerecorded, studio-edited filmed drama of West Coast situation comedy. He was one of the very few who did this successfully. Caesar, Berle, Coca, and other golden-age stars attempted periodic comebacks, but to no avail. Imogene Coca's Grindl (NBC, 1963-64) was a particularly ambitious sitcom in which Coca, playing the title role of a housemaid, was afforded generous opportunities to perform pantomime bits and other types of high-tone physical shtick. Unfortunately Grindl was programmed against The Ed Sullivan Show during a season that included appearances by half the groups in the British invasion - the Beatles and the Rolling Stones among them - and it never had a chance.
While the fifties comedy-variety performers frantically tried to retool for the brave new prime time that Madison Avenue was inventing for the sixties, the best golden-age writers abandoned the medium, using their TV resumes to gain entrance into the relatively genteel circles of popular theater and cinema. After penning several "Sergeant Bilko" scripts for his friend Nat Hiken's Phil Silvers Show, Neil Simon headed for Broadway and became the most widely produced playwright of the century - some say of history. Woody Allen and Mel Brooks dabbled in stand-up performance, but soon began new careers as movie directors and, eventually, producers. Each of the three won a national audience by focusing his lower- middle-class Brooklyn Jewish sensibility on a different social circle: Simon created a theater of consumer realism that made him a comic plainfiff voice for New York middle-class arrivistes. Allen, with his shiksas and poetesses, became the bard of the uptown condominium cosmopolitans. Brooks, apparently knowing no shame, continued to cultivate the scatological excesses of the schoolyard.
Ironically, Reiner - who had been both performer and writer during the comedy-variety era - accomplished his feat of network survival by creating a nostalgic West Coast sitcom about the life of a New York comedy-variety writer. In the bargain, he was forced to reinvent his Bronx persona in the image of a tall, skinny gentile who had grown up next to the Mark Twain National Forest in Howell County, Missouri. Leonard, the bicoastal mastermind of this transmutation, apparently mixing up his Midwestern states, once referred to Van Dyke as "an Indiana Baptist".
The Dick Van Dyke Show pilot went into production on a soundstage at the Desilu Cahuenga complex in January 1961. The 'three-camera system', which Desi Arnaz had originated for I Love Lucy, was used. This system synthesized film, theater, and video techniques so that a live audience, in effect, attended the filming of a short movie that was shot with three stationary cameras and then cut in an editing room. In April, CBS chose to pick up the series without a preseason airing of the pilot; full-scale episode production began on June 20. Reiner's original writing staff consisted of the team of Jerry Belson and Garry Marshall; in subsequent seasons another team, Bill Persky and Sam Denoff, was added, along with several contributing free-lancers. The half-hour, black-and-white show premiered that fall in the Tuesday 8 p.m. slot, hammocked between Marshall Dillon (reruns of the old half-hour Gunsmoke) and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. The competition was Bachelor Father on ABC and the second half of Laramie on NBC.
Each episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show opens in a fashion that makes it recognizable as a turn-of-the-decade nuclear-family sitcom: an instrumental musical theme plays on the soundtrack as the members of the family gather together in the house. The signature scene of Dick Van Dyke, however, distinguishes itself in several ways. Most fifties suburban domesticoms opened with brief but potent establishing shots of the exterior of the family home. These suburbopastoral house portraits emphatically underscore the family's unbearably secure upper-middle-class status. No such shot, however, is offered of the Petrie house. Their class status must be gleaned instead from the more subtle connotations of interior decoration: their contemporary sectional sofa; their quasimodern objets d'art; their breakfast counter; their elaborate but unused woodstove fireplace. In this way, the Petrie living room transcends the traditional sitcom standard of family comfort, introducing notions of personal taste. The signature sequence then departs even further from fifties sitcom custom: instead of just dad, mom, and offspring, the family picture is extended to include Rob's office co-workers, Buddy and Sally - a Jew and an unmarried career woman.
Rob enters the living room (his and yours) through the front door, emerging from behind the superimposed series title, as it is vocally announced. The white-collar dignity of his suit and tie is immediately betrayed by a slapstick pratfall over the ottoman. (Later, this was self-reflexively revised so that Rob enters and avoids tripping over the ottoman.)(30) He is greeted and surrounded, first by Laura and Ritchie, who approach Rob from the viewer's right, and then by Buddy and Sally, who follow from the left. The show-business world, as symbolized by the pratfall (or nonpratfall) and the joke writers, is resolved into the domestic world of wife, child, and spacious but warm living room. All constitute one big happy family-only forty-five minutes from Broadway. Though Rob is a 'real character', in the Midwestern sense of that phrase, his soul is 'out here' in the New Rochelle house, among the prosperous eight-cylinder families-and not 'down there' among the Others of Manhattan.
There is a kind of curious narrative anomaly embedded in this opening. What, a regular viewer might ask, are Buddy and Sally, city-dwelling Others, members of minorities, doing in the idyllic Middle American house? They seem somehow to be waiting for Rob to come home from the office. The typewriter sitting on the coffee table (foreground, viewer's left) suggests that a work session is about to take place, but this is something that never happens in the course of the 158 episodes. The scene might as easily have been shot at the office, with Laura and Ritchie dressed for a visit. The use of the living room, however, establishes the show's cosmic priorities: family, blood, and home constitute both the alpha and the omega of Rob's consciousness; city, art, and commerce, while important, are, in the final analysis, only transitory experience. Though the series will spend more time at the office than other family sitcoms, it proclaims itself no less a family sitcom than Donna Reed or Danny Thomas by reaffirming the primacy of family life.
Much like the New Frontier, the show viewed in reruns a quarter century later waxes and wanes as a series of promises and compromises. Fresh and unconventional styles are used to package familiar morals in what evolves as an upbeat saga of a bright, fast-track couple playing by the rules and making it. The power-and the possibilities of power-all belong to a youngish middle-aged white male hero, an unpretentious college graduate of liberal sensibility who makes good money in a creative position with a Madison Avenue industry. A modem guy riding the wave of late-twentieth-century technocracy, Rob outranks the older, more experienced writers on The Alan Brady Show staff by virtue of his college diploma. Luckily, his political outlook is just as up-to-date. "Head writer" is only a title to Rob; he is careful to treat Buddy and Sally as equals and valued collaborators at all times. Perhaps he is satisfied to simply make more money than they do.
Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) is Rob's sitcomic Jackie, a talented beauty who has given up any number of possibilities in life to pilot the family station wagon. With their pointedly youthful good looks, with their emphatically moderne suburban detached single-family dwelling, with a respect for art and Kultur that is topped only by a love of show business and what it can do for you, the Petries were perhaps the last sitcom couple who could simultaneously take for granted their unnamed (and, on television unnamable) white, middle-class, heterosexual advantage and still manage to exhibit a kind of quasi-sophistication and personal warmth that imply sympathy for civil rights and possibly even advocacy of welfare-state measures.
The politically progressive feel of the show is due in part to the inclusion of black actors as extras in crowd scenes at public places and private events, such as museums and parties. Reiner was by no means the first sitcom producer to attempt to integrate his cast. Nat Hiken had always included one or more black soldiers in Sergeant Bilko's platoon on The Phil Silvers Show (CBS, 1955-59) and several black officers in the police squad of Car 54, Where Are You? (NBC, 1961-63). Car 54, premiering the same season as The Dick Van Dyke Show, was perhaps the most integrated series that had ever appeared on network tele-vision. Regulars included Officer Anderson (Nipsey Russell) and Officer Wallace (Frederick O'Neal) and many episodes of the series, which took place in the Bronx, featured black extras and walk-ons. But Dick Van Dyke, unlike the Hiken shows, was about suburban family life and even token integration stood out as extraordinary.
In "A Show of Hands", Rob and Laura are to go to a banquet to accept an award for Alan Brady from the Committee on Interracial Unity. Before leaving the house, however, they accidentally dye their hands indelibly black while helping Ritchie make a costume. Embarrassed, they wear white gloves, but take them off when they are reminded by their hosts that truth is the only path to human understanding and therefore world harmony. In "That's My Boy??", Rob recounts the birth of Ritchie in flashback. A series of events influences Rob to believe that the hospital has given them the wrong baby, switching Ritchie Petrie of Room 206 with Richie Peters of Room 208. Rob calls the Peters family and tells them what he thinks has happened. Punchline? The Peters walk in-and they are black. Though blacks are otherwise never seen on sixties sitcoms as guest stars, Godfrey Cambridge appeared on The Dick Van Dyke Show as secret agent Harry Bond in "The Man from My Uncle", a 1966 spy-spoof episodes
Could Rob or Laura have voted for Nixon in 1960 or Goldwater in 1964? Could Carl Reiner have voted for them? (The Petries and the Reiners might well have parted ways, however, in 1952 and 1956.)
While an identifiable if tepid political statement is implicit in Reiner's casual integration of middle-class blacks into the series mise-en-scene, Reiner is more explicit on other, perhaps less controversial themes. One of the recurring leitmotifs in Dick Van Dyke is a kind of status-based tension between art and mass entertainment. Artists who work in relatively low-return media - painters, poets, independent filmmakers - are almost always treated skeptically. At the same time, the pursuit of money by the commercial artist is tied to common sense, love of family, and humane social values, all of which are embodied in Rob, who is utterly valorized. Artistes who show up on The Dick Van Dyke Show can expect rough treatment.
In "I'm No Henry Walden", Rob is mysteriously invited to a charity cocktail party where all the other guests are poets, playwrights, novelists, critics, and assorted literati given to avant-garde hyperbole. Everycouple Rob and Laura are completely out of place. The 'serious' writers turn out to be nothing but a bunch of intolerable snobs who can't even get Rob's name straight, no matter how many times he introduces himself. When he mentions that he is a TV writer, they are aghast, one of the guests exclaiming, "Why I don't even own a television machine." Doris Packer, who was typed as one of the great sitcom snobs for her stunning performance as Chatsworth Osborne, jr.'s mother in Dobie Gillis, plays the party's hostess, Mrs. Huntington. She introduces the 'Petrovs' to Yale Samsden (Carl Reiner), "one of our budding British anti-existentialists." Reiner, with a goatee and a virtually incomprehensible Oxbridge accent, launches into a crazed exegesis on "the state of American culture in our times." Phrases such as "plethora of the mundane" and "atrophy of the brain" emerge from his otherwise brilliantly incoherent rantings. "Verisimilitude", Yale warns in a backhanded swipe at the sitcom, "must be stamped out."
Henry Walden, as the name suggests, is a 'true' poet conjured from America's nineteenth-century literary heritage. He is brought by Reiner to The Dick Van Dyke Show much as Kennedy had produced Robert Frost for his inauguration. The snowy-haired Walden, who has not been. seen for most of the episode, appears at the end to right the wrongs that have been done to Rob. Unlike his snotty friends, he is a Whitmanian appreciator of mass culture, an unabashed fan of The Alan Brady Show. He even proves his sincerity by reciting the complete career resumes of Buddy and Sally. (Interestingly, we learn that Buddy, like Morey Amsterdam, had once had his own comedy-variety show and that Sally had been a gag writer for Milton Berle). The real reason he invited Rob to the party was to ask him to collaborate on a TV documentary on the history of American humor from the Revolutionary War to the present. When Rob protests that he knows nothing about American history, Walden assures him, "Don't worry, I know all about that stuff. I need someone who knows television."
The episode ends with the same group of snobs from the party gathered at Mrs. Huntington's Park Avenue apartment to watch the documentary on a 'television machine' that has been placed in the living room just for the occasion. Henry Walden reads the writers' credits aloud at the end of the broadcast and the literati are forced by the revered poet to recognize Rob's talent-and the 'validity' of television as an art. Poor Henry Walden, however, must remain with the entourage of pseudointellectuals; he is dependent on their patronage. Rob, on the other hand, is lucky to be "no Henry Walden" but a self-sufficient breadwinner with a beautiful wife who can choose his own friends.
In "Draw Me a Pear" (a risque pun on "pair"), Rob and Laura take art classes from a devious female painter who praises Rob's work in an attempt to seduce him. Laura sees through the ruse from the start, but wishing to appear modern, she tells her husband to do "whatever makes you happy, darling." The seductress-in-smock invites Rob into the city for 'private lessons' at her Greenwich Village studio. After giving him a phony line about "freeing himself from his inhibitions," she makes her move. Instructing Rob to feel her face with one hand while sketching it with the other, she fondles Rob's fingers with her mouth, an extraordinarily frank bit for an early sixties sitcom. Perhaps more extraordinary, the sexually aggressive home wrecker is not made to seem either excessively evil or pathetic. Her personality flaw is revealed as deviousness, not hypersexuality. The conclusion, however, is strictly fifties: Rob tells Laura in the coda, "It's a good thing I'm such a good boy." (A variation on this episode can be seen in "Teacher's Petrie", in which Laura's creative writing teacher betrays similarly lecherous designs on her.)
Perhaps the most sarcastic dig at noncorporate artists takes place in "October Eve", in which Reiner once again caricatures the artiste, this time playing the role of Serge Carpetna, a Russian painter - complete with goatee, beret, and insufferable ego. Many years ago, Laura had commissioned Carpetna, then an unknown, to do a painting of her for $50. Though she had posed for him fully clothed, the artist had taken license to paint her as a nude. Enraged, Laura attempted to destroy the canvas by throwing black paint on it. But Carpetna, we learn, has restored the painting. It shows up in a swank New York gallery with a $5,000 price tag attached to it.
In a flashback sequence, Laura tells the story of the painting to Rob, apologizing for having kept it a secret from him for all these years. We see Laura's reaction as she gazes at Carpetna's image of her nude body for the first time. Though her outrage is presented as the only reasonable attitude in such a situation, the arrogant artist shows no understanding for her middle-class morality. In a stereotypical display, he calls her a "peasant" and tells her to "go back to New Rochelle, land of peasants."
Realizing that Laura owns the painting by virtue of the $50 she paid for it long ago, Rob decides to go down to the city to confront the artist in his Greenwich Village studio. The maestro is hard at work on a new masterpiece-with squirt guns. When Carpetna learns the reason for Rob's visit, he throws a tantrum, threatening to knock Rob in the head before allowing him to destroy his work of art. Revealing sensitivity and fairness, however, even as he seeks to protect his own interests, Rob offers Carpetna a deal: the Petries will forgo their ownership of the painting if they can pick the buyer. The 'happy' ending has the artist selling his painting to a reclusive South American millionaire who will place it in his Brazilian mountaintop retreat. As if this is not enough, an extra potshot is added after the climax. Carpetna does a new painting of Laura, which he promises will not be a nude. Keeping his word, he creates a Marcel Duchamp-like "portrait" in which no one can even find Laura. The artiste, unlike the TV writer and most people, simply cannot comprehend the 'normal' human preference for simple representationalism. Carpetna would no doubt agree with Yale Samsden that "verisimilitude must be stamped out."
The caricaturing of artists (as well as intellectuals) is a convention of the pre-1970s sitcom that is by no means limited to The Dick Van Dyke Show. Male artists are usually portrayed as either effeminate or lecherous; female artists, as either sexually maladjusted or just downright daffy. But the fact that Rob himself is a writer gives a certain edge to Reiner's obsession. There is a plea for identification with Rob's relatively down-to-earth attitude. The audience is asked to accept the TV writer as one of the bourgeois crowd. Rob is a writer the way Jerry Helper (Jerry Paris), his next-door neighbor, is a dentist. There are no callings in New Rochelle, just professions. Each man democratically pays off his auto loan with the same green money. Ironically, the signature credits sequence concludes each week with the superimposition of an episode title across the Petrie living room, a flourish that in sitcom terms suggests no small artistic pretension. Who does Reiner think he is, Quinn Martin?(31)
With the seemingly divided world of the commuter given continuity and coherence by Rob's ability to maintain a single consciousness at both ends of his daily trip on the New Haven Railroad, the notion of the artist as marginal person is disputed. The avant-gardists down in the city of art are provocative, but they are too self-important to be the cognoscenti of a democracy. Let them jump off the deep end, as is their right; Rob, the American poet, seeks the center. It is left up to him, the man with the mortgage, to be the divine literatus of posturban society. Rob-the mate, the breadwinner, the homeowner, the artist, the manager, the Middle American-is the hub of all of the drama's dynamic human relationships.
The lack of emphasis on parenting problems in The Dick Van Dyke Show was another factor that helped create the penumbra of sophistication that still surrounds the series twenty-five years later. Compared to children on other Sheldon Leonard shows - Danny Thomas and Andy Griffith - Ritchie Petrie is the sitcom's answer to the neglected child. As is the case with I Love Lucy, the plots tend to focus on adult problems, often excluding the couple's son completely. When Little Ricky does appear in an I Love Lucy episode, however, he is often trotted out in grand style, wearing miniature Xavier Cugat outfits, playing the bongos, and joining dad in a chorus of "Babalu". Ritchie (Larry Mathews) rarely if ever gets such attention. He is occasionally used as a font of cute remarks, but his personality and his consciousness remain largely unexplored. His problems are presented only to the extent that they allow the viewer to see how Rob and Laura react to them.Besides being obedient and painfully well adjusted (or perhaps because of these things) he is pretty much of a nebbish. The screaming apple-of-my-eyeism that so thoroughly dominated the genre during this period was absent from the show.
Robert S. Alley has argued that the classic domesticoms of the fifties, which are often ridiculed today as ideological fossils of a conformist conservative era, actually contain many highly relevant-and in some cases quite liberal-political and social messages, especially in the area of parent-child relations.(32) For example, sitcom children are never spanked or physically punished. Instead, they are reasoned with in a calm but firm manner as prescribed by Dr. Spock, who, according to Laura in one episode, "is a genius [and] knows everything."(33) Parents who practice this progressive method will be rewarded with a Beaver or a Wally. Parents who do not can expect an Eddie Haskell or a Lumpy Rutherford.
The child-rearing philosophy of the Petries is perhaps best illustrated in the episode "Girls Will Be Boys", in which Ritchie is repeatedly harassed and beaten up by a female classmate, Priscilla Darwell, at school. Having been taught by his parents never to hit a girl under any circumstances, he refuses to retaliate, choosing instead to suffer the pain of emasculation. Under his mother's concerned and sympathetic questioning, he breaks down and reveals his shame. Rob goes to see the girl's father, but Priscilla, in perfect little party dress, looking like Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed, politely denies having ever hit Ritchie and, as far as Mr. Darwell is concerned, the matter is settled. Rob, whose sense of fair play transcends his paternal pride, is equally impressed by the performance and is perfectly willing to believe that his son is the liar-until an impeccable eyewitness (Jerry and Millie's son Freddie) bears Ritchie out. The attacks continue, and this time Laura goes to see Mrs. Darwell. She turns out to be an even worse parent than her husband. She refuses to believe that her little girl is even capable of such behavior and suggests that Laura try giving Ritchie some sweets to get him to tell the truth. Dumbfounded and enraged at such parental irresponsibility, Rob and Laura give Ritchie permission to defend himself.
Tension builds as Rob and Laura wait for Ritchie to get back from school; Rob has come home from work early that day just to be there. Comic harmony is breathlessly restored as the twenty-two-minute drama winds to its conclusion. We learn that Ritchie was too embarrassed to tell his parents that all the little girl ever wanted from him was a kiss. Refusing to hit a girl despite parental permission, he gives in and kisses her, ending the attacks. As in "October Eve", a bit of overkill is added after the climax: Priscilla tells Ritchie's classmates about the kiss and some boys tease Ritchie and start a fight with him. He promptly beats up all three of them. Hearing the story, Rob is devilishly delighted; he sees both his virility and his values redeemed in such good, old-fashioned male horseplay.
As the show's increasing ratings gained credibility for him at CBS, Reiner gradually became freer to leave behind parentchild situations and give more attention to the Rob-Laura and Rob-office plots he favored. By the fifth season, Ritchie had all but disappeared from the show, and quite frankly, not much was lost. In general, Reiner proved to be far more interesting and original at the office than in the home.
Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie play the roles of comedy writers Buddy Sorrell and Sally Rogers strictly by The Method. Both had been stars of radio and early TV who made phoenixlike comebacks on the Van Dyke show. Amsterdam was born in Chicago in 1914. A cello-playing prodigy, he gained admission to college before the age of fifteen but chose to devote himself to show business, achieving national stature as a popular comedy-variety figure in the late forties and early fifties. He was known for his theme song, "Yuk-a-Puk", which he played on the cello as punctuation for the one-liners of his stand-up routine (a style of presentation made perhaps more famous by Henny Youngman and his violin). Along with Youngman, Jack Carter, Milton Berle, and several others, Amsterdam had been one of a rotating circle of comedians who had hosted The Texaco Star Theater before Berle won the job for himself in 1948. He had his own show, The Morey Amsterdam Show, on CBS and then Dumont in the late forties- its supporting cast included pre-Norton Art Carney and pre- Valley of the Dolls Jacqueline Susann, whose husband, Irving Mansfield, was the show's producer. In 1950, Amsterdam returned to NBC as the Monday and Wednesday host of Broadway Open House, the first late-night network talk-variety show, an ancestor of The Tonight Show. Once again, however, he was passed over for an NBC op spot when the network gave the show to Jerry Lester on Monday-through-Friday basis. As comedy-variety went into its tailspin in the latter part of the decade, Morey Amsterdam began what seemed to be a descent into game-show oblivion, appeanng as a regular on no less than five prime-time network mes, including Keep Talking, which Reiner had briefly hosted. "Baby" Rose Marie, as she had been known when she began her career singing on network radio at the age of three, was a frequent guest on comedy-variety programs. She had been a regular on The Ina Ray Hutton Show (NBC, 1956), a short-lived summer replacement series that retains the distinction of havg been the only program in prime-fime history to have had an all-female cast, featuring Ina Ray and Her All-Girl Band. e show's subtitle was "No Men Allowed" and, indeed, not single man ever appeared on camera during its ten-week run on Wednesday evenings. Rose Marie's game-show credits included Pantomime Quiz, a long-running charades vehicle that had also featured Dick Van Dyke for a time. More recently, she had tried her hand at sitcom work, playing the role of Bertha Secretary on My Sister Eileen (CBS, 1960-61).
Buddy and Sally, though toned down considerably by the onstraints of genre, medium, and period, evocatively conjure visions of Mel Brooks and Selma Diamond in a Max Liebman writers' room. Known as "the human joke machine", Buddy s the acknowledged master of the one-liner-the wiseguy comic from the streets of neighborhood New York. The stuffy and officious Mel Cooley (Richard Deacon), Alan Brady's bald producer and brother-in-law, is the natural butt of Buddy's sessive schoolyard rank-out prowess. Buddy's Jewishness s for the most part implicit, though it is freely acknowledged upon occasion. In "The Ugliest Dog in the World", Rob brings street mutt to the office and Buddy feeds it a corned beef andwich. When Rob tries to give the dog some milk, Budprotests:
Buddy: That ain't kosher. For him it's cream soda or nothing.
Sally: Rob, he's trying to kill that dog
Rob: No, he's trying to convert him.
In "There's No Sale Like Wholesale", Buddy uses what F. Scott Fitzgerald had once called "gonnexions" to get Rob and Laura a fur coat at a wholesale price. The most 'Jewish' episode of all, however, is "Buddy Sorrell-Man and Boy", in which the middle-aged comedy writer corrects an injustice of his poverty stricken Brooklyn youth by finally taking bar mitzvah lessons. In the last few minutes, the bar mitzvah itself is presented (in English), complete with synagogue, congregation, and a yarrnulke-clad Dick Van Dyke. The rabbi even refers to Buddy by his Jewish name: Moshe Selig Sorrell. Occurring as it does in the final months of the series production run, the episode seems like a whimsical revisiting of some of the autobiographical material that Reiner had been forced to abandon to put the sitcom on the air back in 1961. Amsterdam's organic toomlerdelivery makes him the surviving vessel of jewishness in the otherwise mainstreamed narrative. "I am Buddy,' he once told an interviewer.(34)
By contrast, Sally Rogers shows no hint of ethnicity. The archetypal sitcom career woman of the pre-Mary Richards era, her significance radiates strictly from gender. Sally's lack of a husband hangs over her like a dark cloud, adding an element of pathos that is lacking in any of the other characters. Rob and Laura frequently fix her up with blind dates, but her aggressive 'unfeminine' style makes her unfit for each of these potential mates. Her one steady boyfriend is Herman Glimsher (Bill Idelson), a pathetic mama's boy whose widowed mother takes full advantage of his oedipal problems.
The "Sally episodes" take on a familiar pattern. In "Like a Sister", she misjudges the affections of guest star Vic Damone, who plays a singer named Vic Vallone. In "Jilting the jilter", comedian Fred White (Guy Marks) tries to marry Sally as a cheap source of gags for his stand-up nightclub routine. In another episode, Rob's brother, Stacy (Jerry Van Dyke), comes for a visit and dates Sally in order to get over his shyness so he can propose to the woman he really wants to marry. In "Dear Sally Rogers", Sally appears on a network talk show and shamelessly solicits marriage proposals by mail. It is not unusual for a Sally episode to end with a tear in her eye; she has a cat named Mr. Henderson.
There is something inescapably off-center about the sitcom relationship of Buddy and Sally. Appearing together frequently at social functions, they might easily be mistaken for husband nd wife. It is easy to speculate, however, on why Reiner and Leonard chose not to marry them. For one thing, Sally is not Jewish. Mixed marriages, then as now, were not considered sitcom fare.(35) On the other hand, if Sally was written as a Jewish character, a Jewish majority on The Alan Brady Show writing staff wouId violate another type of marketing wisdom. With Sally a single woman, Reiner retained the comic prerogatives of Sally's self-effacing spinster jokes as well as a dependable plotting device that accounted for more than a half dozen episodes.
Buddy's wife, Pickles (Joan Shawlee; later Barbara Perry), though often mentioned as the butt of his one-liners, is rarely seen on screen. Yet, the fact that Buddy has a wife obviates peculation about his sexuality. Sally, by contrast, is the female eunuch, unfulfilled and philosophical about her lot in life. She s typical of the pre-1970s sitcom career woman in this way. In Our Miss Brooks (CBS, 1952-56), Eve Arden is an English teacher ho spends most of her time at Madison High futilely trying to gain the romantic attentions of Mr. Boynton, a colleague in the Biology Department. Ann Sothern carried this archetype into two series: Private Secretary (CBS, 1953-57) and The Ann Sothern Show (CBS, 1958-61). The structural supposition of both proms was that she worked for a living in lieu of marriage, which was valorized as the principal or 'real' goal of any woman. In the latter show, she plays an assistant hotel manager who is passed over for promotion in favor of an outside man. The new boss is played by none other than Don Porter, the same actor who had played Sothern's boss in the earlier series. Most of the episodes are built on her attempts to 'snare' the man ho has taken the job that was rightfully hers.
Sally is slightly better off than the Eve Arden and Ann othern characters in that her career is meaningful to her, but he is still very much the victim of male domination. Though fficially a full member of The Alan Brady Show's writing staff, he does all the typing while Buddy lies on the couch and Rob ces the center of the room. In the two-part episode "The Pen Is Mightier than the Mout"/"My part-time wife", Sally makes an appearance on The Stevie Parsons Show (Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson). She is a big hit on the late-night talk show and takes an indefinite leave from her job to become one of Stevie's regulars. Rob and Buddy find themselves unable to function without Sally around to keep the office in order and do the typing. Sally, however, gives up her big chance to become a star by purposely getting into an argument with Stevie Parsons when he makes a crack about The Alan Brady Show on the air. She dutifully returns to her place at the typewriter in the office, leaming the old sitcom lesson that a solid place in a warm gemeinschaft is worth more than anything the flashy gesellschaft can ever offer-a lesson still frequently taught in the genre.
The show's three regular women characters offer a constellation of sitcomic female figures. Laura is offered as the heroic center point of identification. Beautiful and capable, talented and motivated, she has found a comfortable and rewarding place in the world. If she is defined by her husband, at least it can be said that she has made the most enviable 'catch' of the men in the series. Alan Brady is wealthy and a star, but he is arrogant and ego-tistical. Buddy may be funny, perhaps even funnier than Rob, but he is socially adolescent and physically endomorphic. Mel, as producer of the show, technically outranks Rob, but he is a fawning sycophant who has made his way in the world by nepotism. Next-door neighbor Jerry Helper is a successful dentist-a professional-but he is bland and ordinary. Rob stands out as the perfect blend of the domestic (loyal, loving, caring) and the artistic (funny, handsome, creative). That Laura gave up her career as a dancer is less important than the fact that she could have been a dancer, had she wanted to be anything other than Rob's wife and the mother of his children.
Her commitment to her choice is made clearest in "To Tell or Not to Tell". The episode begins with a typical Dick Vail Dyke party scene at the Petrie home. The well dressed, middle-class, racially integrated guests are entertained first by Buddy and Sally, who do one of their Catskills song-and-dance comedy routines, and then by Rob, who does a few pantomime impressions. Next, however, we are treated to a rare perform,ance byLaura, who, in capri pants, does some post-Martha Graham gallivanting around the living room to the accompaniment of bongo drums on the phonograph. Mel is so impressed by Laura's work that he asks her to fill in for an injured dancer on The Alan Brady Show. Buddy wams Rob not to let Laura do it: "You'll be eating frozen dinners." But Rob is too progressive to take authoritarian measures and so decides to let Laura make her own decision: "I think I know what my wife wants." The episode concludes with Laura's being offered a job as a regular dancer on the weekly network TV show.
"I always wondered if I could make it again as a dancer," Laura tells Rob, "but I don't want to be a dancer, I want to be your wife." She then adds a complaint about the aches and pains of dancing, but this is only an ameliorating gesture that serves as minimal ironic counterpoint to Laura's heavy-handed denial of ego. Laura's decision is very much in the official spirit of the times. As Theodore Sorensen has written, "Providing a normal life for her children and peaceful home for her husband was only one of Jacqueline Kennedy's contributions to the Kennedy era, but she regarded it as her most important. 'It doesn't matter what else you do,' she said, 'if you don't do that part well, you fail [...]. That really is the role which means the most to me, the one that comes first.'"(36)
Millie Helper (Ann Morgan Guilbert) helps define Laura as a "modem" woman by offering the contrast of a familiarly zany sitcom hausfrau. Millie's talents in life are strictly domestic. She is hyperemotional and unable to function outside her prescribed role. When any chance for individual attention or distinction is thrust upon her, she is unable to accept it, as in "Coast to Coast Big Mouth", an episode in which Millie is picked out of the audience to be a contestant on a game show, but falls to pieces with stage fright and gives her opportunity away to Laura. Millie functions as a sidekick, a kind of sounding board for Laura, allowing her to verbalize her feelings about Rob. She is a second banana lacking the dignity, however, of an Ethel Mertz, who at least gets to be Lucy's partner in middle-class deviance. Ann Morgan Guilbert handles the role with great skill, calling attention to Laura's calm, reasonable, and relatively cosmopolitan tone with her own mah-jong game shrillness. Is Millie a recent,emigre from the Bronx? Once again the marketing concerns of the medium seem to be masking a parochial subtext.
If Millie is a house mouse, Sally is a bull in a china shop. Too assertive, too aggressive, too willing to use her 'unfeminine' powers, Sally is the career woman whom Laura wisely chose not to be. She suffers much more for her excess than Millie suffers for her passivity. The only men who can accept her are her coworkers; they know how to harness her sexually ambiguous eccentricities for productive purposes. Some of the single men Sally encounters are emasculated by her verbal powers; others can only see her as a source of the valued commodity of humor. None can accept her as a woman. Both Sally and Millie are static and incomplete compared to Laura. The balance of female sitcom power would not shift decisively toward career women until the 1970s.
The critic John Cawelti has written that the development of a popular genre occurs as various authors synthesize the genre's familiar characteristics ('conventions') with innovative characteristics that freshen, surprise, and recontextualize ('inventions')(37) The Dick Van Dyke Show lends itself to this kind of schematic view of generic evolution quite well. Perhaps more than any sitcom that preceded it, the series incorporated an eclectic variety of elements from the sitcom canon while adding significant innovations in plot content and structure. The homogenous suburban family at home is familiar; the heterogeneous extended family at the office is new. The broad, physical comedy of Van Dyke is right out of I Love Lucy; the sophisticated early sixties dialogue is unique.
Symmetrical, premodemist morality-tale plotting may be built right into the formal constraints of situation comedy, but Reiner and the half dozen writers he collaborated with over the course of the show - Sam Denoff and Bill Persky, Ben Joelson and Art Baer, David Adler, Lee Erwin - at least had the virtue of being self-conscious about their didacticism. The commitment to achieving a modicum of racial integration and ethnic representation distinguishes the sitcom from other early sixties prime-time hits such as The Beverly Hillbillies and The Flintstones. A viewer who doubts the relative 'hipness' of The Dick Van Dyke Show might remember that Hazel (NBC, 1961-65; CBS, 1965-66) was exactly contemporaneous with it. I a no en an instant it. Facing a strong Western ( Laramie) and a sitcom featuring teenagers ( Bachelor Father), the show struggled in its original 8 p.m. Tuesday night time slot, not winning Nielsen numbers among the preadult viewers who dominate that period. Wisely, Sheldon Leonard and Danny Thomas lobbied the network tenaciously and the show was moved at midseason to a later slot, 9:30, on Wednesdays. This did the trick. Having finishing fifty-fourth during its first season, the show catapulted into the Nielsen Top Ten the following year, finishing ninth in 1962-63, third in 1963-64, seventh in 1964-65, and sixteenth in its final season.
It is worth noting that the cancellation of The Dick Van Dyke Show was never ordered by CBS, but rather by Carl Reiner. Having watched too many of his old colleagues from the comedy variety days overstay their welcome on network television, Reiner, with the approval of the cast, decided to bow out gracefully while still on top. The exact timing of this rare sitcom suicide (future examples would include The Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H) was most likely tied to a CBS policy decision to go over to an 'all-color"'prime-time schedule in 1966-67. The Dick Van Dyke Show had been shot in black and white and the expense of gearing up for such a radical technological production change could not be justified for a limited run.
The decision to voluntarily end the show rather than wait for the inevitable but otherwise unpredictable network ax gave Reiner the opportunity to create a macrocosmic climax to the five-year, seventy nine-hour narrative. In "The Last Chapter", Rob reveals to Laura that he has finished an autobiographical novel that he has been working on for the last five years. Laura sits down to read it, providing a flashback framework for a series of senti-mental 'greatest hits' scenes recapitulating the show's etiology: the marriage of Rob and Laura, the birth of Ritchie, and so on. The episode and the series reach completion as all the members of the cast - Buddy, Sally, Mel, Alan, and Ritchie (possibly a double; he speaks no lines and is seen only in profile) - join Rob and Laura in the Petrie living room:
Rob (to Laura): You want to hear a bit of good news? I heard from the publisher today.... He hates it. He said it reminds him of about fifty other books.
Buddy (ecstatic): One editor said it stunk.
Laura: Then why is everyone so happy?
Rob: Because Alan read it and he loved it.
Alan: What do I know from style?
Rob: Alan wants to produce it as a television series ...
Alan is going to play me.
Sally: The three of us are going to write it.
Leonard Delshod is going to produce it.
(Close-up of Rob and Laura embracing and kissing.)
Reiner's bone to pick with the genteel traditional arts remains a primary theme to the bitter end. It doesn't matter that editors and other such pretentious creatures reject Rob's work. Alan likes the, book, and though he knows nothing about 'art', whatever that is, he will make a sitcom out of it and that means fame and fortune, success and redemption. Such are the consolations for the unappreciated writers who make the millions smile.
Perhaps more impressively, Reiner achieves elliptical closure for the series in this final episode. The narrative had commenced six years previously as an autobiographical work, with Carl Reiner playing Rob. The role was then taken over by Dick Van Dyke who became Rob in the eyes of the world; Carl Reiner, meanwhile, became Alan Brady. Rob/Dick Van Dyke then writes an autobiography, which Alan decides to produce as a television series. In the new series, Alan/Carl Reiner will play the part of Rob/Dick Van Dyke, who, in turn, will write the show. Or, as Weissman and Sanders put it, "The Dick Van Dyke Show was complete, indeed 'coming around full circle': Carl Reiner (as Alan Brady) would portray Rob Petrie-in essence, himself-in a television situation comedy, as Reiner had done in Head of the Family years before, which then became The Dick Van Dyke Show." (38) In any case, Reiner has a last laugh, exiting as the Rob he had originally wanted to be.
Despite the commercial success of The Dick Van Dyke Show, it inspired no spin-offs or even any obvious imitators. Instead, shows such as Paul Henning's The Beverly Hillbillies and William Asher's Bewitched (and their spin-offs and imitators) came to dominate the sitcom throughout the sixties. This is not surprising. As the sixties hit civil rights and Vietnam in high gear, the very concept of sophistication was suddenly up for grabs and the networks sought to retain as high a degree of least objectionability in this polarized atmosphere as possible. The sitcom, a representational art committed to harmony and consensus, found refuge in visions of America's premetropolitan past and fantasies of witches, genies, and nannies who could do the vacuuming by magic. The legacy of The Dick Van Dyke Show would not be redeemed until the 1970s, when shows such as All in the Family, M*A*S*H, and especially The Mary Tyler Moore Show would revise and revive the genre as a historically based comedy of American manners.
I. As quoted in Ginny Weissman and Coyne Steven Sanders: The Dick Van Dyke Show. New York 1983, p.1.
2."Draw Me A Pair", The Dick Van Dyke Show, CBS, October 20, 1965.
3. See Daniel Czitrom and David Marc: "The Elements of Lifestyle". In: Atlantic Monthly, May 1985, pp.16-20.
4. See Roy Medvedev: Khrushchev, trans. Bxian Pearce. New York 1983, pp.153-55.
5. Caesar was bom several miles away from Reiner in inner-city Yonkers.
6. For a dimmer view of Jewish suburban flight, see Philip Roth: Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories. Boston 1959, especially "Eli, the Fanatic" and "Goodbye, Columbus"
7. The Imogene Coca Show (NBC, 1954-55) was a pathetic casualty of the conflict between comedy-variety and situation comedy. The show premiered as a kind of autobiographical sitcom modeled after The Jack Benny Program. After two weeks it was changed into a comedy-variety showcase composed of blackout sketches, stand-up routines, and Broadway-style production numbers.
Three months later, it reverted to a sitcom fon-nat. The show was not renewed for a second season.
8. Milton Berle with Haskel Frankel: Milton Berle: An Autobiography. New York 1974, p.3.
9. Val Adams: "Newhart to Star in CBS-TV Show." New York Times, July 11, 1960.
10. Ibid., July 13, 1960.
11. Tim Brooks and Earl Marsh: The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows, 3rd ed. New York 1985, p.937.
12. Ibid., p.446.
13. Carl Reiner: Enter Laughing. New York 1958, p.5.
14. According to show-business legend, "Sturdy" became "Brady" after Morey Amsterdam observed that "Alan Sturdy" could be mistaken for "Alan's dirty". See Weissman and Sanders, p.2.
18. Ibid., p.5.
19. See Garry Wills: The Kennedy Imprisonment. Boston 1982, pp.66-67. 20. The term "Failure Theatre" was used by Robert Klein on Late Night with David Letterman to describe programs like Comedy Spot (NBC, July 24, 1986).
21. Harry Castleman and Walter Podrazik, Watching Television: Four Decades of American Television. New York 1982, p.150.
22. Weissman and Sanders, pp.5-6.
23. F Score or "Familiarity" Score, is computed by the Performer Q company of Port Washington, New York. Each year the company does an extensive survey that attempts to rate the public's familiarity with TV performers (actors, game-show hosts, athletes, anchormen, etc.) by asking a sample group to identify pictures. These scores are then used by the networks and production companies in casting decisions.
24. Ibid., p.6.
26. The sitcom is inconsistent on the point of Rob's hometown. In one episode, an old high school girlfriend from Danville shows up looking for an audition with Alan Brady. In another episode, Rob's parents come from Danville to visit. But in yet another episode, a male school friend (played by Jack Carter) appears and the two reminisce about their childhood in Westville, which seems like a composite of West Plains, Missouri (where Van Dyke grew up), and Danville, Illinois (where he moved as a young man to seek his fortune).
27."Comedy on Television: A Dialogue." In: Television Quarterly, Summer 1963, pp.93-103.
28. Weissman and Sanders, p.17.
29. Ibid., p.58.
30. A third opening, used only during the first half of the first season, differs completely from these: we see abstract still photographs of the cast members with the theme music playing.
31. Martin was the highly successful producer of such action series as Barnaby Jones, The F.B.I., The Streets of San Francisco, and Cannon. His signature was the introduction of each segment after each commercial as "Act I", "Act II", etc. There was even an "Epilogue."
32. Robert S. Alley, address, University of Iowa Interntional Television Symposium, Iowa City, lowa, April 25, 1985.
33. "The Last Chapter," The Dick Van Dyke Show, June 1, 1966.
34. Weissman and Sanders, p.26.
35. The first notable attempt at a Jewish-Gentile sitcom marriage was Bridget Loves Bernie (CBS, 1972-73).
36. Theodore Sorensen: Kennedy. New York 1965, p.381.
37. See John G. Cawelti: "The Concept of Formula in the Study of Popular Literature." In: Journal of Popular Culture, 3, 1969, pp.381-90.
38. Weissman and Sanders, p.85.back