Friday, June 19, 2020

Happy Juneteenth

The occasion of remembering slavery emancipation in this country made me want to trot out one of my old favorite hymns with a few renditions I found online.

Friday, April 10, 2020


"You now have sorrow, but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you." - John 16:22

Thursday, March 19, 2020

EMMYS 1967: The Monkees (season 1)

SPONSORS: Kellogg's, Yardley

"We're the young generation, and we've got something to say."

Image result for the monkees season 1 opening

By the time of the 1966-67 season, television comedy was still continuing in the "lives of entertainers" milieu, but the show that won the Emmy this year was drastically different from the traditional formula of Dick Van Dyke and Lucille Ball. The youth culture was on the upswing, and television was no longer just following middle-aged folks and their work issues. It was the height of the Beatles' popularity at the point where they finally stopped touring. And it was a time of shakeup in film techniques and comedy. Popular music was a synthesis of folk, country, and rock and roll, with eastern influences just coming in. Annette Funicello was no longer the little girl in Mickey Mouse ears, but a teen idol doing beach movies. Into this cultural sea emerged a strange sort of parody/commentary on the times, The Monkees.

Conceived partially as an American response to The Beatles (but only partially), The Monkees was a series about a struggling fictional four-man teenage rock band as they tried to make it big and had wacky adventures in the meantime. Unlike long-take 3-camera sitcoms of the day, The Monkees was shot on film with lots of rapid cuts. People like to blame MTV for the shortened attention span of the young folks, but the rapid-fire editing was being done on The Monkees 15 years earlier. Heavily influenced by both the Richard Lester Beatles movies (A Hard Day's Night and Help!), as well as older comedy groups like the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges (and I would argue a dash of the contemporary Beatles cartoon), The Monkees was a unique exploration in comedy that combined wordplay, parody, satire, slapstick, sight gags, onscreen text, improv, camera tricks, funny props, and just about anything you can think of into a wacky musical stew that somehow worked.

The four boys eventually cast would be Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, and Peter Tork. Jones had been a child actor on the Broadway stage who played Artful Dodger in the original cast of Oliver! and had recently started his own music career. In fact, his debut album, David Jones, makes a brief appearance in one episode. Mickey Dolenz was also a former child actor, having starred in the TV series Circus Boy. Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith both came more out of the folk music scene, and Nesmith at the time was recording and performing under the pseudonym Michael Bessing. This strange assortment of performers with their variant personalities formed to create the personalities of the characters The Monkees who shared their names. The Monkees were never real... until they sort of were.

Like other Emmy-winning series we've looked at, there was a musical component to the show and every episode featured at least one song performed by the band. Many of the songs were written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, but other of their popular songs had writing credits from such names as Neil Diamond and Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Nesmith would contribute a few songs of his own in the first season as well. One was rejected as a Monkees tune, but Mike performs a quick version of it anyway on the show in one scene. That song, "Different Drum", would go on to be a success for The Stone Poneys and a young Linda Rondstadt. On most of the early recordings the songs are played by studio musicians and The Monkees only provide vocals (though the boys do play some instruments on a few tracks). When the songs started charting, an eventual backlash started that The Monkees were a phony band who didn't play their own stuff. The truth is complicated because yes, The Monkees are a fake band, a television fiction, but the members of the band are actual performers and musicians who absolutely can sing and play instruments. But once the group started releasing actual records, and then they started actually touring as a band, the lines got very muddy. The final episode of the first season is actually a sort of documentary following one tour stop for the band and showing them as a performing group. The line between the television personalities and the actual personalities of the boys is very strange here, but in a way it best captures the curious fiction and reality of The Monkees as a band.

The music in the show is good and has a definite sound of that era, particularly with a flavor of that sort of Beatles "Rubber Soul" sound, and other music circa 1965. The theme song is reminiscent ofTthe Dave Clark Five's "Catch Us If You Can". The musical sequences are often irrelevant to the plot, featuring lots of edits, strange locales, costumes, and gags. They are very much stylistically a bridge from the Beatles films to modern music videos. They are often a lot of fun.

The storylines themselves are also often ridiculous. For example, in order to make money the boys might find themselves working for an evil toy manufacturer. Or Davy might fall in love with some girl who is actually an heiress or princess. Or the boys might find themselves in the middle of a haunted house or ghost town. It has the real flavor of a cartoon or the old 1930s serials where characters might just show up in random places.

But unique here is that the Monkees all live together in one beach-front apartment with no adult supervision. Apart from a manager character in the pilot episode, the Monkees are their own men. They live by themselves, take care of their own lives, and try to deal with the hassle of adults who want the rent, won't give them jobs, won't let them date. They are a kind of ultimate fantasy for their teenage audience. They aren't beholden to an adult; they make group decisions and Mike is the de facto leader. They are also not wealthy superstars. They just want to have fun and make a living. On their wall is a framed embroidery reminding that "Money is the root of all evil". They aren't the Beatles; but they would like to be. They are sweet guys who want to help people in trouble. It's very much a show about the youth of America and for them.

And it's funny! Because the humor is so varied in style, there's always something to laugh about. The one bit that cracked me up so much this time around is when they are throwing a party and just randomly at one point Mr. Clean walks in and starts washing the windows. It's never commented on, he just shows up.
 Image result for monkees mr clean
It's so bizarre and random and ridiculous, but that's what you get with this show. An episode might end in a sword fight, or a character might break the fourth wall and walk off backstage to check the script. There's a magical sense of realism where they will suddenly be in different outfits just for a bit. Peter might be able to shoot a man with his finger, or Mike might talk a computer into self-destructing. There's one episode that features a prolonged parody of the Adam West Batman series. And a lot of personality, dialogue, or character comes out of improvisation. That kind of energy really keeps the show alive and sets it apart from other shows of that time.

One negative about the music in the show though is that the same song tended to be used a lot for a block of shows, so if you watch a lot in a row, you'll hear "Last Train to Clarksville" in five episodes in a row, and then never again. I suppose it's due to not having many songs recorded early on, but it would have served the series better to have banked at least 10 songs before shooting. Once the hit single comes out, you hear it in a number of shows. But I suppose this would be less of a problem watching it week to week, especially if you tuned in because you hoped to hear "I'm a Believer" again. In later syndicated reruns, sometimes some songs were swapped out for others.

When I was a kid, this was briefly run on Nick at Nite for one summer. I remember at the time my favorite was Peter, but watching it again now I really connect to Mike. Mike always wears a wool hat on the show. Why? Because Mike wore it to the audition and somehow it stood out so much to producers that they thought of him as the "wool hat guy". In several early episodes, they even call him Woolhat. This sort of became an annoyance to Nesmith. In looking back, Nesmith seems like the George Harrison of the group. He has a different energy, but he's got a lot of talent and by his own admission he didn't always understand what was happening here. But he's a bit of special sauce for the show because even if he's not the teen heartthrob or the one doing as many wacky voices, or the lovable idiot, he's got a folksy playful sense and contributes a lot to the music of the show.

It's also interesting that they let a shorter man like Davy Jones be essentially the "cute one" in the group. Funny to think about, but usually the girls are falling for Davy in episodes and in a culture where there's often an expectation that the boy be taller than the girl, it's nice that it plays out that way. Not that they don't address his height; they do, and sometimes with good-natured teasing, but all in good fun and never mean-spirited.

At the end of some episodes that come up short, there would be improvised interview segments between creator Bob Rafelson and the band. The boys would sometimes drop character a little bit in these segments, and the audience could get to know a little bit about who these guys are. Sometimes they were just playing around and giving joke answers, like the Beatles or Bob Dylan would do in interviews, but at other times things might creep a tad into the serious. There was one particular episode where they were discussing youth demonstrations or riots that were in the news of the day. And these young men just shared their honest opinions about it. That sort of encapsulates the new sense of the late 1960s that The Monkees as a show was presenting; they times they were a-changin'.

Of course, it was the 1960s, and some of the content is something you couldn't really do today with modern sensibilities. The biggest offender is "Monkee Chow Mein" in which the a Chinese restaurant is actually a front for nefarious foreign spies. Though Asian actors are used as background characters, the leads are white men in broad yellowface makeup doing stereotypical "so solly" accents. It's a shame this puts such a sour taste in the mouth today, because the episode is basically a riff on contemporary comedy series Get Smart (which would win the Emmy the following year).  The gypsy episode also wouldn't fare too well today. Another mark of how times have changed is in NBC's censorship of "Davey and Fern". In this episode, the Fern character appears in one scene in a bikini and NBC must have found it too revealing because they smear every shot where you can see anything below the shoulders in a blur effect. This was back when Barbara Eden wasn't allowed to show her bellybutton on I Dream of Jeannie, but it's weird seeing a character's torso randomly obscured by what looks like vaseline all over the lens.

Winning the Emmy Award for Comedy Series over standbys like The Andy Griffith Show or new fare like Bewitched shows that the time was right for new comedy, that ostensibly a children's show could be taken seriously for doing something so different and yet contemporary. They also won an Emmy for Best Directing. But apart from awards, perhaps the best praise the show could get is that apparently John Lennon watched and was a fan. The final moments of the first season are Mike Nesmith at radio microphone, after The Monkees had "taken over" a local radio station during their tour, thanking various groups and performers who they like, ending with "We'd like to thank The Beatles for getting this whole thing started." That about sums it up, Mike.

FAVORITE EPISODES: Royal Flush; Monkee See, Monkey Die; Monkee vs Machine; The Chaperone; I've Got a Little Song Here; Davy and Fern; I Was a Teenage Monster; Find the Monkees; Monkees a la Mode; Monkees at the Movies

UP NEXT: Get Smart

Friday, January 31, 2020

EMMYS 1966: The Dick Van Dyke Show (season 5)


The fifth season was the final year for The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the final year that it once again took home the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. While not always as strong as some of the seasons that preceded it, season five has some standout episodes and closes out the series on a good note.

One unfortunate thing about season five is there seems to be a bit less attention paid to continuity than before. It's not a big deal, but there are a few little inconsistencies or lingering questions here and there. The season opens with a great show in which Laura unwittingly reveals on a nationwide game show that Alan Brady is bald and wears a toupee. This of course hurts Alan's ego until he's eventually convinced it's time to give it up and just go bald from now on. I suppose Alan, being the sort of man he is, changes his mind between episodes because this bit of character growth is completely ignored for the rest of the season and Alan continues to fret about his hairpieces. This is not to say there is no continuity with previous seasons, though. We get a sequel to an earlier story this season when Laura's maid, Maria, returns with her new boyfriend.

As with season 4, there's also a lot less of Ritchie in this season and it starts to become noticeable. In one episode, when an FBI stakeout uses Ritchie's bedroom, they have to explain his absence and tell us he's away on a cub scout retreat. This allows them to use his room and toys without dealing with the character. However, in other episodes there is no mention of him, or none that I can recall. As I mentioned last time, it starts to strain credibility as you wonder sometimes who's babysitting Ritchie. Not that parents can't have a life outside of their children; it just begins to feel like he's only in the episode if they have a story for him. The most glaring instance for me is an otherwise great episode where Laura is home alone at night while Rob is on a fishing trip and is afraid of a burglar. I start wondering where Ritchie is, and I don't believe it was said. When they do finally choose to write Ritchie into an episode, they do a good job of it. The standout Ritchie story this season involves the age-old issue of were babies come from, and what nonsense story Ritchie has been passing around school.

Multi-part story arcs continue this season. In particular, one two-part story involves Rob running for city council. He wins the election in the end, but this is also one of those threads that is dropped for the rest of the season and there's no indication of Rob serving his term.

The supporting cast all get great episodes this season. I thought Mel Cooley particularly got shown more love this year. There's a very nice episode revolving around him being fired and the gang rallying around getting his job back. This season has a very moving episode for Buddy as well. When the gang suspects he has been stepping out on his wife, it turns out that he's actually been secretly taking lessons to finally have his bar mitzvah for his mother. Not only is it a great character piece for Buddy, allowing him to play more than the comic relief, but it's a lovely focus on Judaism for a network show of that time to a largely Gentile audience. It's easy to forget that though many of the folks behind the scenes are Jewish, there's a anti-Semitic undercurrent in the country and there's a lot of pride that exudes from this episode. The ending scene is played completely straight and very respectfully.

Most television series of the day didn't get a "final episode" the way shows nowadays do. You found out you were cancelled, and whatever the last show was in the can was the last one broadcast and that was that. But The Dick Van Dyke Show was an exception. Though the final show is mostly a clip show, it did provide an appropriate ending. All throughout the series, Rob had been writing a memoir. Usually his book was used as a jumping off excuse to do a flashback story. In the final episode, appropriately titled "The Last Chapter," Rob has finished his book. He submits it for publication, but is rejected. However, Alan Brady loves it and decides to buy the rights in order to make it a television series. Much of the episode replays early flashback stories while Laura reads Rob's book. If I had one complaint beyond it being mostly a clip show, it's that the clips are all from prior flashback stories (Rob and Laura's wedding, the birth of Ritchie, etc.) and none from the era of the show. It would have been nice to see at least one with an older Ritchie or something like that. But it's funny to look back and see how many big sitcom finales today still incorporate flashback clips in their story. The final scene, with the entire cast gathered to celebrate Rob's success and discuss the future TV plans is a great ending for the series. It leaves things on a meta-textual note, especially Alan saying he will play Rob. In the initial pilot for this series, Carl Reiner played the lead himself so this was a fun commentary on that. And in yet another lovely bit of closure, Rob once again tumbled over the ottoman. Overall, despite being light on story, "The Last Chapter" was a satisfying wrap-up to the series.

Times were changing in television and it was time to close the book on this classic black-and-white sitcom. At the Emmys that year, The Dick Van Dyke Show went up against such new fare as Get Smart and Bewitched. But the series went out with a bang, once again winning the award not only for Comedy Series, but for Comedy Writing, as well as awards to both Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore for their performances. Moore even beat out legend Lucille Ball in her recent television revival The Lucy Show. What a nice way to say goodbye to a great series.

But it wasn't *quite* goodbye. In 2004, CBS aired a one-hour special, The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited. Hosted by Ray Romano, it took the Petries to present day and gave us a kind of future look into the lives of the characters. The entire surviving cast returned for a story that has Ritchie living in the old house, Laura running a dance studio, and Alan Brady hiring Rob to write his eulogy. The entire program is on YouTube.

I went into this series having never seen a single episode, and am happy to say it has made me a fan. I still have to go back and see the first season, but I found these four seasons very enjoyable and it was nice that it ended on a pretty good note. I look forward to seeing the direction comedy goes in as we head into the late 1960s.

FAVORITE EPISODES: Coast to Coast Big Mouth; Go Tell the Birds and the Bees; See Rob Write, Write Rob Write; The Bottom of Mel Cooley's Heart, Buddy Sorrell Man and Boy; Bad Reception in Albany; Obnoxious, Offensive, Egomaniac Etc.; The Man From My Uncle; The Last Chapter

UP NEXT: The Monkees (season 1)

Monday, December 30, 2019

EMMYS 1965: The Dick Van Dyke Show (season 4)


The fourth season saw The Dick Van Dyke Show continue at the height of its popularity to find new ways to tell stories, introduce more backstory for Rob and Laura, and continue to provide serious public service commentary packed into a hilarious comedy shell. The season opens with a classic sitcom questioning of gender norms. Laura beats up a guy for Rob, and this causes him to question his masculinity and wrestle with how he feels about how "feminine" is wife is or isn't. You've probably seen similar episodes on other shows since then, but what's interesting about this one is that it calls out a real-life behind-the-scenes issue. It was very unusual to see women in slacks on television back in the mid-1960s. Famously, Gene Roddenberry put his female officers in pants in his original Star Trek pilot, and one of the network's notes was insistence they wear skirts. (Just as a side note, it wasn't misogyny to blame for how short they were, though costumer Bill Theiss did like to play with as little fabric as possible. The miniskirts were a request from actress Grace Lee Whitney who wanted to show off her legs. ...Of course, on some other cast members they end up so short as to barely be a skirt -- there's a matching uniform panty under it which is prominently displayed on a few crewwomen! But I digress.) Mary Tyler Moore told the network that she wanted to wear slacks around the house on the show because she was a housewife and that's what she would wear. There's a moment in this episode where Rob comes in and complains that his wife is always in slacks and why can't she be more feminine. Laura retorts, "I thought you liked me in slacks!" And the episode eventually ends with Rob realizing he was talking nonsense, borne out of insecurity. The rest of the episode is a hoot too, as Rob privately engages a judo tutor (why was judo such a thing in the '60s?), culminating in his desire to fight his wife to prove he can beat her.

In a similar story about gender issues, Ritchie begins coming home from school with black eyes given to him by a female bully. The show dances around the question of whether it's ever okay to hit a girl. I like that it came down to, against their better judgment and with much equivocating, Rob and Laura instructing Ritchie that if she attacks him again he can defend himself. We also get a brief couple looks at the girl's parents, and from what we see of their marriage it seems the child is just mirroring what she sees at home. The final solution to the episode is that Ritchie does avoid hitting the girl, but gets her to leave him alone - by kissing her. While I really dislike the trope that children are violent because they have crushes, it's hilarious that the girl wanted him to kiss her only to drop him once she decided he was a bad kisser!

One criticism that I do have for the series, however, is that sometimes for the sake of story it seems to forget that Rob and Laura have a son. Every now and then the Petries will run off and do something with their friends and I just wonder, "Who's watching Ritchie?" Or they'll be home and he's nowhere to be seen. Granted, they do hire a babysitter in one episode, but sometimes it seems like there's no time to even line one up. It's not a big deal, but it's something that would become much more of an issue in the future for a series like Everybody Loves Raymond. Thankfully, young Larry Matthews gets a few episode too and another standout this season is "Boy#1, Boy #2" in which Rob is tasked with writing a commercial for two kids, and ends up casting his son and the neighbor boy. Laura and Millie's inner stage moms come out and get competitive and the whole exercise proves the old W.C. Fields advice to never work with children. Kudos to the writers, actors, and directors for making good kid actors look like bad kid actors.

We get more celebrity guest stars this season as well. The first is comedian Don Rickles who appears in a two-part episode. First, he is introduced in a flashback episode revolving around the old "pregnant woman stuck in an elevator" cliche. But the clever bit here is that he's attempting to rob the Petries when the elevator is stopped. Part two has him in jail as a convict, and he's invited the Alan Brady Show to come perform a special show for the boys in the clink, which he emcees.

Season four finally breaks with tradition and Alan Brady, as portrayed by Carl Reiner, is finally shown onscreen no longer obscuring his face. It's good, but I do sort of miss the old mystery gag. Still, the episode really wouldn't have worked that way. There's a great story where he's cast in a Tennessee Williams-type play and can't help from secretly hiring Rob to punch it up to be more his brand of humor.

Another great message episode is a hilarious story about an intoxicated Laura trying to entertain her in-laws for the first time. Moore is phenomenal in this episode. We watched it as a family over Thanksgiving, and the humor still plays just as well today. The smart thing though is, while we are laughing at the situation, the episode had an important message: never take another person's prescription medication. This is not a subject that gets a lot of television attention even these days (there were a few shows that did stories about Ritalin a decade ago), but it's just as important an issue today. With the present opioid epidemic, it's fascinating to see a message like this on network television in 1964.

As in previous seasons, the series loves to play with structure. Not only do we have the usual flashback episodes, but we have one this season which is framed as a court case. It's a very fun story revolving around faulty pillows, with an unexpected culmination. Ed Begley guest starts as the judge.

The changing music scene also gets lampooned in this season. There's a take on the contemporary Beatlemania, when a hugely popular British invasion musical duo are guests on The Alan Brady Show and Rob is forced to hide them out at his house and try to keep it a secret. In another episode, Rob learns that a terrible song he wrote in the army is now a hit pop record. It's a good episode about the importance of making good deals regarding music publishing rights. As usual, the show has writer's perspective on show business and how it can rook good people out of their due.

In another sign of the times, an old friend of Rob's has become something of a Hugh Hefner type and offers Rob a job at his "gentleman's magazine." While tamer than Playboy, it's amazing how much this episode was able to get away with given censorship of the time. It helps that so much is implied rather than outright stated, but it's still very clear there's something salacious going on.

There's a hilarious episode with a great message called "Show of Hands," in which Rob accidentally stains his hands black on the same night he's supposed to accept an award for the show. This might not be too big a deal were it not an award from the Committee for Interracial Integration. With good humor, the series makes a wonderful statement about race relations that sadly remains as important and relevant as ever.

Finally, I want to mention another two-part episode with an important guest star. In "Stacey Petrie," Rob's brother Stacey comes to town, played by Dick Van Dyke's real brother, Jerry Van Dyke. It gives Jerry a good character to play, though I'm not sure I was ever as engaged in the story as I perhaps should have been.

The 1965 Emmy Award ceremony was the most bizarre one arguably in the entire history of the Awards. They drastically changed the way the awards were done, eliminating most categories and throwing everything into four broad categories: directing, writing, acting, and overall program. In each category, several awards were given. So, comedies were competing along with dramas and variety shows. It's a bizarre footnote in history. While in earlier years there were sometimes too many categories (dramas were sometimes split into as many as three categories), this seemed a bizarre over-correction. Dick Van Dyke won in the "Actors and Performers" category alongside such various personalities as Barbra Streisand and Leonard Bernstein. Rather than clear genre categories, The Dick Van Dyke Show was one of four programs awarded "Outstanding Program Achievement" and the only comedy to win (two other winners were variety programs or specials).

Also due to the strangeness of that year's categories, the award for writing went to the drama series The Defenders, and The Dick Van Dyke Show lost in that category for the only time in its run. I believe that had it been in a designated comedy writing category, Carl Reiner's nominated episode, "Never Bathe on Sunday" would have won him another Emmy. It's a classic episode in which Rob and Laura go away on a second honeymoon only for Laura to get her toe caught in the faucet will taking a bath. For most of the show, Laura is an offstage voice in the bathroom (since she's naked in the tub) and the situation is really smart and funny. Mary Tyler Moore is great in it, though at the time of filming she was annoyed at being off camera for nearly the whole show and she flipped out at Reiner over it (she was on edge, as she was quitting smoking at the time). Despite the backstage drama, what resulted was a standout half-hour of television.

FAVORITE EPISODES: My Mother Can Beat Up My Father, The Lady and the Baby Sitter, 4 1/2, Pink Pills and Purple Parents, It Wouldn't Hurt to give Us a Raise, The Death of the Party, The Case of the Pillow, Girls Will Be Boys, Your Home Sweet Home is My Home, Never Bathe on Sunday, Show of Hands

UP NEXT: The Dick Van Dyke Show (for the last time!)

Sunday, November 24, 2019

EMMYS 1964: The Dick Van Dyke Show (season 3)


Let us return to Wednesday nights on CBS for the second consecutive Outstanding Program in the Field of Comedy Emmy for The Dick Van Dyke Show. The series is now in its third season at the height of its popularity. What had already been a great show took some more chances in the third year to explore some more contemporary themes and issues.

The series opened with another flashback episode, this time to the day Richie was brought home from the hospital. A typical sitcom trope now, Rob comes to believe that their baby has been switched with someone else's at the hospital. Similar to the episode of Full House where Jesse doesn't know which twin is which, Rob resorts to taking a footprint of the baby and comparing it with the hospital records. After the Petries receive a gift meant for the other family (the hospital had frequently gotten their rooms confused), Rob arranges a meeting with the other couple to return it and, he believes, to swap babies. Boy, is he surprised when it is revealed the other couple is black! It's a great laugh moment and shows he was just being paranoid (though it's worth pointing out that, depending on a number of factors, African American babies can look a lot lighter at birth). Not only is this a hilarious resolution to the story, but a subtle statement about civil rights in the country. In 1963, the American South is still segregated and white characters on television don't interact with black ones as equals quite so frequently. It is also worth considering that the entire story hinges on both couples being in nearby rooms at the hospital. So although the integration in the episode exists predominantly for a gag, its presence serves as an unobtrusive message of tolerance.

Exploration of marital issues also goes further in season three, this time broadening to characters beyond Rob and Laura. In "The Lady and the Tiger and the Lawyer," a nice unmarried neighbor moves in next door and so Rob and Laura each try to set him up with someone. The story takes an unexpected turn at the end when the man, though he enjoyed both dates, decides not to pursue a relationship with either of them, not because there's anything wrong with either of them, but because he has a history of spousal abuse and is in therapy to deal with his anger issues. He isn't ready for another relationship, realizing he needs to work on himself first. What began as sitcom hijinks of "which girl will win out?" ends on a sobering and mature discussion of divorce and domestic violence, while allowing him not to seem like a monster but a self-aware man who doesn't want to hurt anyone else. It's a surprising but excellent episode.

Similarly, there's an episode where Rob begins to suspect that his neighbor Jerry is stepping out on his wife with another woman. This as it is would be a bit of a mature subject for a TV sitcom, but as the story unfolds we find that the other woman is not a mistress but a psychologist who was recommending a marriage counselor for Jerry because he and Millie have been having problems. The audience is led to believe initially that the marriage is in trouble because Jerry's being a cad, but in the end it's just that marriage is hard and he's being proactive by finding someone to help them. This is the first sitcom episode I'm aware of to suggest marital counseling. And it seems to work because Jerry and Millie stay together.

It's not all serious, though. There's a typical sitcom plot where Rob and Jerry go in together on buying a boat, much to the chagrin of their wives, and strain on their friendship. In another, Rob fears he is going bald (to which I relate), which leads to some fun scenes with Mel Cooley, since he too is bald. Laura has her own little secret exposed when she finally reveals to Rob that she's been lying about their age the whole time and she was only 17 when they got married. This leads to the first of several two-part episodes this season where they worry their marriage may not be technically legal (another sitcom trope), and run off to get remarried.

Another two-part story gives us another fascinating look behind the scenes of the comedy world. Sally is a guest on a late night talk show (think Johnny Carson), and Buddy and Rob lose a day's work helping her write material for it. That one appearance turns into a return appearance, and soon they are losing work writing their own show, a situation that worsens when Sally is offered a sort of permanent fixture role on the talk show, leaving her to abandon writing duties for The Alan Brady Show. Things get even more uncomfortable when Laura takes a job as their secretary/stenographer of sorts to help them in Sally's absence. Rob finds it difficult to work alongside his wife, and ultimately Laura exhausts herself trying to hold that part-time job and maintain all of her regular household work to keep Rob happy.

The art world is lampooned in a few different episodes. "October Eve" finds Laura unwittingly being painted nude and the painting being displayed in a gallery. In "The Masterpiece", Rob accidentally spends an absurd amount of money on a painting. When it is discovered it's painted over something else, they strip away some of it to see what's underneath: a version of American Gothic with smiling figures. They consult an art dealer to see if it's worth anything, only to learn that the painting on top which they destroyed was actually painted by Frank Sinatra under a pseudonym, but is now ruined. That same episode contains one of my favorite bits, where Laura allows herself to buy one thing at the auction, and she chooses some bizarre sculpture that no one is able to identify or explain. They just call it "a thing", and she knows immediately that she wants it until she gets it home and doesn't know what to do with it.

The series also had a special Christmas episode, presented almost entirely as an episode of the fictional Alan Brady Show. There's a flashback to explain the premise (which I think was a mistake), but the basic idea is that the writers (Rob, Buddy and Sally) and their families join Alan for a series of sketches and songs for the holidays. Carl Reiner appears again as Alan Brady, his face this time obscured by a Santa Claus beard. The cast perform "I Am a Fine Musician" for the second time, having done so previously last season. Speaking of recurring bits, there was another episode focusing on Rob again being roped into directing the annual community variety show. This episode guest stars character actress Eleanor Audley, whose voice is immediately recognizable to Disney fans: the previous decade she had voiced both Cinderella's wicked stepmother and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty.

Other notable guest stars pop up in an episode about old-time radio stars, and feature some faces you might not know, but voices you very well may. One of these is Richard Haydn (playing a character called Edwin Carp here), whose voice I immediately recognized as the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, and whose face you might recall as he would go on to play Max in The Sound of Music. I also recognized guest actor Michael Forest from Star Trek; he doesn't play a Greek god here, but rather an old boyfriend of Laura's who is now a priest.

Not only did The Dick Van Dyke Show win it's second Emmy for Comedy Series, but both Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore won Emmys for their performances, the show won an Emmy for Direction, and another Emmy for writing for the episode "The Plots Thicken". In this story, Rob's father buys a cemetery plot for both Rob and Laura, only for Laura to remind Rob that her father already gave them a plot for their wedding. The argument over who would be laid to rest with who brings out underlying strife and resentments between the in-laws. The writing of the series continued to be strong, headed by Carl Reiner, along with other solid writers including new to the writers' room, Garry Marshall, another television veteran who would go on to create his own sitcom staples, including Happy Days.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the introduction of yet another footstool gag this season. Now Rob might not only tumble over the footstool during the opening or smartly sidestep it, but he sometimes notices, steps to avoid, and then trips on the leg and stumbles anyway.

The third season builds on the successes of the second season, keeping the show funny and fresh, expanding stories across several episodes, going further into the lives of the characters, and also making time to explore relevant cultural issues. Indeed, I could go on about many other standout episodes, but this is meant to be an overview, not an episode guide! The Dick Van Dyke Show continues to be worthwhile viewing in its third season. It was a good year for a show at the top of its game, and a good year for Dick Van Dyke who of course would appear a few months later in Disney's Mary Poppins.

FAVORITE EPISODES: That's My Boy??, Laura's Little Lie, The Alan Brady Show Presents, The Third One From the Left, My Husband is the Best One, My Part-Time Wife, A Nice Friendly Game of Cards, My Neighbor's Husband's Other Life, I'd Rather Be Bald Than Have No Head at All, Teacher's Petrie

UP NEXT: The Dick Van Dyke Show (it's on a roll!)

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

EMMYS 1963: The Dick Van Dyke Show (season 2)


Finally we ease out of the variety show format and back to classic sitcom territory, though by way of a character writing for a variety show. After making a splash in a number of guest appearances over the late 1950s, Dick Van Dyke's star rose enough to headline his own series, allowing him to showcase both his versatility has a comic performer and song and dance man, but for the first time on this blog, a sort of normal guy. No longer is he a broad caricature, but a portrait of a loving husband and father, veteran of the army, working in a somewhat unconventional field.

The Dick Van Dyke Show title card

The Dick Van Dyke Show was created by veteran comedy writer Carl Reiner, who based it on his own experiences in writing television. His original pilot starred himself in the title role, but the series was retooled for Van Dyke instead. As a series, it's kind of a return to format of the early 1950s sitcoms with one foot in variety entertainment. Just as Ricky Ricardo was a nightclub performer and Danny Thomas was a working comic actor, The Dick Van Dyke Show centers around the character of Rob Petrie, head writer for the fictional comedy/variety series The Alan Brady Show. Similarities to Danny Thomas' show are perhaps not so coincidental, as Thomas serves as a producer on the show as well. Also of note, it was shot at Desilu studios where the three-camera model began. Like other classic sitcoms, The Dick Van Dyke Show lives in that happy medium between relatable domestic life and the minor thrill of a peak backstage at how Hollywood works. But rather than focus on the performer, Carl Reiner wisely shifts focus to the unsung heroes of the medium, the writers. No more are we in the realm where Red Skelton would joke about firing a writer when the joke doesn't land. Now the writer is the central character, and Reiner clearly has lifted story ideas from real life experience. What happens when writers aren't getting along? Or when you are just stuck for an idea? Or that worst thing to happen in comedy writing, the threat of having plagiarized a joke? What's it like when the guest celebrity is actually a heel in real life? Joining Rob are his writer friends, Sally and Buddy. Cleverly, just as would be their actual role, they mainly serve to punch up the show with jokes. But it's not just that. There are interesting undercurrents like Sally feeling like her femininity is overlooked by the male work environment, and she starts to resent being called "fella".

One of the more contentions things in comedy writing in recent years has been the scandal of "stolen jokes" and whether certain comedians have plagiarized material. Reiner makes clear this was a problem even in 1963, when Petrie inadvertently steals material for a sketch from another show and the trouble that creates. It was interesting watching this episode now, and remembering how difficult issues of ownership and copyright are in the realm of writing, especially comedy.

On the domestic side of things, Rob has a wife and son, as well as friendly neighbors next door who make frequent appearances. We get some good old-fashioned "father knows best" kinds of stories, as well as "having a misunderstanding with the wife" stories. Gracing our sets as Rob's wife, Laura is Mary Tyler Moore in her big break. Moore is radiant in this series, and the perfect match for Van Dyke's charisma. She is the queen of comedic histrionic crying. Laura is not Lucy Ricardo. She's a former dancer, and a bit more of a modern domestic woman, but is prone to overreacting. Moore is endearing and charming and capable of standing up to Rob when he's being an idiot. Their marriage has its problems, but their relationship is great. In the second season, we get to see the crazy circumstances of their wedding.

The opening titles of the series are classic. Rob arrives home to his loving wife, turns to greet his visiting friends, and tumbles over an unseen footstool. Toward the end of the season, the show plays with our expectations with Rob sidestepping the stool instead. The first time this happens is a lot of fun. Like Simpsons couch gags or X-Files taglines, it becomes a bit of bonus fun to see what might happen with the fall this episode. About midway through season two, they also started putting the episode titles onscreen at the end of the opening.

This was my first full-episode exposure to The Dick Van Dyke Show, though of course I had been aware of it from Nick at Nite and seen little bits. But until now, I had never watched a whole show, and now after having gotten through a whole season, I'm a fan. It's clear that Carl Reiner's experience informs the writing, and the best episodes are written by him. He also appears as Alan Brady, Rob's boss, but always seen from behind and his face isn't revealed, very similar to Wilson on Home Improvement. One of the things that's been enjoyable about reviewing these old sitcoms is seeing how much groundwork later shows of the '80s and '90s were indebted to. I started to realize how much Full House follows similar tropes, for example, of peppering in musical performances.

But just as it's got similarities to the '50s shows that preceded it, The Dick Van Dyke Show is a series of the '60s and you can tell how society is slowly shifting. We're still in the Kennedy years, and married couples still sleep in separate beds, but women are wearing pants more frequently, humor is changing a little, and they even slip in a few mild curse words! The series is also commenting on the world of its day, and not just variety shows. An entire episode, "It May Look Like a Walnut," was a parody of creepy science-fiction films, the type gaining popularity in the late 1950s and early '60s. It's a fun episode, though the gag about Rob losing his thumbs was rather spoiled for me when certain shots clearly showed thumbs still there. But how was he to turn doorknobs without them? I guess we can let it slide because it's all a dream in the end, but it's a shame that the writing is a little smarter than the final execution. A great gag in the episode though is an alien who "looks like Danny Thomas" played by Thomas himself.

Another hilarious episode involved Rob suddenly having an allergic reaction in Laura's presence. She is convinced by a recent magazine article that this proves he's subconsciously mad at her. While Rob tries to get to the bottom of the mystery, Laura grows increasingly hysterical. The episode smartly strings out the mystery for the audience to figure out without revealing too much too early to give it away. Not only a fun jab at pop psychology, it also showcases Van Dyke's comedic sneezing. Van Dyke also plays a good comedy drunk in an episode where he is hypnotized to think he's completely hammered whenever he hears a bell. There are also a good number of episodes focusing on the humor of marital squabbles, like discovering a secret checking account, or that terrible moment when you ask your wife what's wrong and she just says, "You know what you did."

There were a lot of episodes I enjoyed and it would be difficult to name or describe too many of them. I quite liked learning the backstory of Rob and Laura's ill-fated wedding day in "The Attempted Marriage." Both Moore and Van Dyke are at the top of their game, and Reiner's script is very smart. It also plays to the strengths of television, with a flashback structure. This also helps break up the typical sitcom monotony of the show existing mainly on two sets. When the season ended, they took the next month to show four flashback episodes from the first two years in rerun that documented Rob and Laura's first meeting through the birth of their son.

It is easy to see why The Dick Van Dyke Show was an Emmy favorite. It's got all the usual ingredients of classic sitcoms, with a dash of novelty and perfect casting. I quite enjoyed watching it and look forward to future episodes to come. Interesting note though for anyone seeking it out on DVD: the DVD set I obtained put a season 3 episodes at the end of the season 2 set and left it off the season 3 set. A mild annoyance, but worth pointing out. I still haven't seen any of season 1 and am tempted to watch them. But no time to look back, we only look forward in this project!

FAVORITE EPISODES: The Two Faces of Rob; The Attempted Marriage; My Husband is Not a Drunk; What's in a Middle Name; Gesundheit, Darling; It May Look Like a Walnut;, My Husband is a Check-Grabber; When a Bowling Pin Talks, Listen

Up Next: The Dick Van Dyke Show (again!)