Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"The Dick Van Dyke Show": Historic, Sophisticated & Very Funny

A happily-wedded husband and wife would watch The Dick Van Dyke Show during its initial run (on CBS from 1961 to 1966), and be gleefully vindicated. Upon viewing the comic adventures of Rob and Laura Petrie (as so pristinedly performed by Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore), the merry married would turn to one another, and vow, "Now there's a attractive, upper-middle class couple. He has a great job. She enjoys being a housewife and mother [to Larry Mathews' little Richie]. But, sometimes, they act kind of goofy. Just like us, honey. That means they're not perfect, which means we aren't either. And that's okay."

With a little help from first Nick at Nite in the early 1990s, and more recently, TV Land (which, in 2004, produced the reunion special, The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited), and other sagacious syndicators, that same real-life viewing duo (now, with more salt, than pepper, but equally as wise), continue to enjoy The Dick Van Dyke Show (alongside younger contemporary TV twosomes, foursomes and moresomes).

Today's bonded lovebirds still find it difficult to reject the handsome Mr. Petrie, a refined, respected, and well-established husband and father fashion staple with a good job (as a comedy writer for fictional TV variety hour starring Alan Brady, played to perfection by Carl Reiner). But he's also the guy who's the little kid at heart, unafraid to admit that he doesn't have a workroom that's seething with machismo, courageous enough to reveal that he's always wanted to be Perry Mason or an operative for the FBI. He's in touch with his feminine side, that is, his wife, his prettier better-half; the one to whom he's not embarrassed to divulge emotions, or admissions of physical inferiority (Laura once flipped a drunk in a bar in self-defense, when Rob, alas, just flipped).

Laura is cultivated, sophisticated and, like her twin-TV-counterpart Mary Richards (also played by Moore on the aptly-titled The Mary Tyler Moore Show), she "can turn the world on with her smile." With her elegant intelligence and sometimes (but not too often) subtle irreverence, her appeal with viewing husbands and wives alike, becomes multi-dimensional. In a good way. Right before our eyes. With her Capri pants and Jackie O hair, Laura established a model trend in the fashionable 1960s, in apparel and demeanor. She and Rob were the first self-effacing hipsters of the television age. They made it okay to laugh at oneself. They allowed humor to metamorphasize into an attractive trait, instead of an inopportune burden.

Friends and co-workers of the Petries were also milestone, by nature. Rob's under-writers for the Brady show, Buddy Sorrell (the late, great Morey Amsterdam) and Sally Rogers (Rose Marie, who's performed since birth and had appeared with Amsterdam in Vaudeville), were joke-meisters but, they too, had other sides. Buddy was the first real character of the Jewish faith to have ever been presented on a mainstream television situation comedy. Sally was just as groundbreaking as the first female character on a TV show, and actually considered "one of the guys."

When she did behave in a way that was then considered more acceptable for a woman, Sally still waxed more dimensional. She just didn't cry. She dealt with her tears. Ms. Rogers explored her lack of knack to find the love of her life but, still, she survived. She had her own apartment, was a member of a male-dominated work force, and was independent. She, not Buddy, was the true threat to the hen-pecked Mel Cooley (played with great sportsmanship by also-gone Richard Deacon, who later appeared on the CBS sitcom, The Mothers-in-Law).

At home, Rob and Laura lived next door to dentist Jerry Helper, played by Jerry Paris, who also directed many of the show's episodes (and who died way too young, though not before helming numerous segs of The Odd Couple, Happy Days, and so many more great sitcoms, including the famous episode of Here's Lucy featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton). Alongside Jerry there was his meddlesome, though caring, wife Millie (Ann Morgan Gilbert, who later became a semi-regular on The Nanny). At work, around his in-home dental chair, Jerry was a sincere and trusting professional. Once across the fence with Rob, however, he would let loose and get silly. Along with his fellow Van Dyke characters, Dr. Helper adapted to his situation. He wasn't always a dentist or ever a neighbor. He wasn't always serious or ever laughing. He was a little everything, the good with the bad, all the time, just like real people.

The Dick Van Dyke Show was ahead of its time, in execution and display of three-dimensional characters. Mislead 21st Century viewers may think they're screening a contemporary sitcom that is being filmed in black and white, and accuse it of being artsi. But no way. It isn't artsi. It's art. As with any cultural masterpiece, albeit TV classic, The Dick Van Dyke Show's appeal rests with its stoic period representation, social influence, and timeless appreciation of non-insulting, marriage-encouraging, friendship-bonding and work-ethic-inducing scripts.


Matt said...

As a 7 year old boy watching re-runs in the 1970's I had my only celebrity crush on Mary Tyler Moore.

Herbie J Pilato said...

And what a grand crush that was. Thank you for sharing your memory.