Popularizes Situation Comedy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Dick Van Dyke Show helped mature the situation comedy through its strong scripts, believable characters, focus on adult family and work issues, realistic approach to light comedy, and good ensemble performances.

Summary of Event

To Carl Reiner, the writers’ room of Your Show of Shows, Your Show of Shows (television program) the popular comedy-variety television show starring Sid Caesar, was “the most interesting room I’d ever been in.” Reiner wrote and performed on Your Show of Shows, but in 1959, when he was considering offers for a new television project, he was disappointed by the quality of the material he read. Dick Van Dyke Show, The (television program) Situation comedies Comedies;television Television;comedies [kw]Dick Van Dyke Show Popularizes Situation Comedy, The (Oct. 3, 1961-June 1, 1966) [kw]Situation Comedy, The Dick Van Dyke Show Popularizes (Oct. 3, 1961-June 1, 1966) [kw]Comedy, The Dick Van Dyke Show Popularizes Situation (Oct. 3, 1961-June 1, 1966) Dick Van Dyke Show, The (television program) Situation comedies Comedies;television Television;comedies [g]North America;Oct. 3, 1961-June 1, 1966: The Dick Van Dyke Show Popularizes Situation Comedy[07070] [g]United States;Oct. 3, 1961-June 1, 1966: The Dick Van Dyke Show Popularizes Situation Comedy[07070] [c]Radio and television;Oct. 3, 1961-June 1, 1966: The Dick Van Dyke Show Popularizes Situation Comedy[07070] Reiner, Carl Leonard, Sheldon Van Dyke, Dick Moore, Mary Tyler Paris, Jerry Persky, Bill Denoff, Sam Amsterdam, Morey Rose-Marie Deacon, Richard Guilbert, Ann Morgan

Deciding that a situation comedy would be a better vehicle for him than the older format of the variety show, Reiner began searching for a premise. He fell back on the first rule for writers: “Write about what you know.” Reiner later recalled that he asked himself, “What ground 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. That’s a different milieu: the home life of a television show writer.” From that concept came The Dick Van Dyke Show.

The program was to be called Head of the Family, and Reiner would play Robert Petrie, whose work life and home life the show would explore. Until then, television had often focused on one or the other. Mel Brooks Brooks, Mel , another writer from Your Show of Shows, has said that every memorable television show is about a house and a family; Reiner’s new comedy would explore two family situations—one at home, one at work. Reiner wrote thirteen scripts for the prospective series before a pilot was filmed.

Although the sponsors later rejected the pilot episode (at the time, Westerns were the most popular shows on television), producer Sheldon Leonard saw potential in Reiner’s idea. Leonard read Reiner’s other twelve scripts and told him that he wanted to “rewrap the package” by recasting the lead and tailoring the show to the studio-audience, three-camera format pioneered by I Love Lucy. Reiner agreed, and they began redesigning the show. Leonard and Reiner saw Dick Van Dyke on Broadway and chose him over Johnny Carson for the part of comedy writer Rob Petrie. Leonard completed the rest of the cast, choosing Mary Tyler Moore to play Rob’s wife Laura, Morey Amsterdam and Rose-Marie to play his writing partners Buddy Sorrell and Sally Rogers, Jerry Paris and Ann Morgan Guilbert to play the best friends next door, and Richard Deacon to play the producer of the fictional program The Alan Brady Show, for which Rob and his staff would work.

The program debuted on the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System;comedic programming (CBS) network on October 3, 1961, but did not develop a loyal following until its second season. Sheldon Leonard (who remarked that “the more realistic the show, the more honest the characters, the longer it takes to become part of your lifestyle”) talked the sponsor, Procter & Gamble, into reversing the network’s decision to cancel the show after the first season. When the series began its third year, the writing team of Bill Persky and Sam Denoff, attracted to the show by its quality, contributed a number of scripts and eased the writing duties of Carl Reiner.

The series ran five years (158 episodes), until June 1, 1966. The last first-run episode, “The Last Chapter,” brought the show full circle by having Alan Brady buy Rob’s autobiography for a television project to be written by Rob, Buddy, and Sally. Dick Van Dyke and Carl Reiner both agreed that the crew had decided when the show first became popular to quit after five years to safeguard quality. By that time, many cast members wanted to pursue new projects. When the show left the air, it had received fifteen Emmy Awards Emmy Awards , two Golden Globe Awards Golden Globe Awards , and three Writers Guild of America Awards.

A good one-word description of the Van Dyke series can be found in Sheldon Leonard’s remark: honest. Reiner stressed to prospective writers for the show that they should never have Rob Petrie do anything that they themselves would not do. This honesty permitted the show to narrow the distance between life as shown on television and as experienced by everyday people. Norman Lear praised the program as being “the first situational comedy to deal with authentic human behavior in the context of a real marriage.” Moreover, Reiner’s background in 1950’s television extended the authenticity into Rob’s workplace, giving The Dick Van Dyke Show a genuine behind-the-scenes show-business flavor.

Viewers often saw the writers working on script ideas. In one episode from the first season (“The Curious Thing About Women”), the two settings of home and work blend perfectly. Rob politely chides Laura at breakfast for opening his mail. Later at work, he tells Buddy and Sally about the incident, inspiring a frantic writing session in which the mild disagreement from that morning becomes an exaggerated sketch about a wife who cannot resist opening a mysterious package addressed to her husband. After the skit airs, Laura’s patience is tested when her neighbors assume that the zany wife on the show is really her. The strength of the episode—and of many in the series—lies in the distance between the false television reality of what plays on The Alan Brady Show and the “real” reality of Rob and Laura’s world. With a touch of superiority, Laura points out the difference between her behavior and that of the woman caricatured on television. The episode concludes with a large package arriving that Laura finds she cannot help but open—the “life” of the Petries imitating the “art” Rob had written for Alan Brady.

Significance

In the earlier days of television, a number of arbitrary distinctions existed between comedy and drama. Television;dramas Many dramatic genre shows featured characters—policemen, lawyers, doctors—whose private lives were barely suggested. Did Joe Friday date? What did Perry Mason’s home look like? The implication was that viewers who asked such personal questions were expecting the wrong things from the shows. On the other hand, audiences could regularly watch home-based situation comedies such as Father Knows Best and My Three Sons and not know that Jim Anderson (Robert Young) made his living selling insurance or that Steve Douglas (Fred MacMurray) worked as a consulting engineer at an aviation plant. The Dick Van Dyke Show presented a believable picture of both environments and deepened the genre by showing its protagonist equally convincing and comfortable at home and at work. Quality shows now had to measure up to a new level of excellence. Over the years, the greater viewing expectations of audiences added to the plausibility of new shows, so that it became less likely that a series would virtually ignore half the star’s life. The quality of The Dick Van Dyke Show in part helped accomplish this.

More important, however, by not stooping to the easy laugh and thereby violating the integrity of the characters, the series also fostered a more realistic approach to light comedy. This influence can be seen best in shows that featured the later work of some of the Van Dyke crew, such as That Girl (created and produced by the writing team of Bill Persky and Sam Denoff), My World and Welcome to It (produced by Sheldon Leonard), The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its many spin-offs, and Kate & Allie (coproduced and sometimes directed by Bill Persky).

In these series, the depiction of character usually superseded comic situations and jokes. The opposite end of the comedy spectrum, where everything is subordinated to the jokes, would include the early years of M*A*S*H (in the show’s later years, the characters became more rounded, and the writing was less anchored on the quip), Barney Miller, Taxi, Cheers and its clone Wings, and Murphy Brown. The history of the genre has become rich enough to contain a number of good examples of both types of shows.

The idea of a comedy series featuring an ensemble cast in which the star is not always the source of the humor also became more prevalent in later situation comedies. To some extent, Jack Benny’s Benny, Jack radio and television programs established this practice. Benny, though a famous comedian, would often play the straight man to announcer Don Wilson, singer Dennis Day, costar Mary Livingstone, bandleader Phil Harris, or one of the many voice characterizations of Mel Blanc, his sound-effects man. The fun came from hearing or watching Benny’s growing exasperation as he was confronted with situations out of his control. In a less caricatured way, The Dick Van Dyke Show also explored the acting abilities of its ensemble by building episodes around each member of its talented players; by so doing, the show influenced the practices of other ensemble series (Mary Tyler Moore’s later show is a good example).

Although the three-camera technique of filming each episode before a live audience was not new when the Van Dyke series aired, neither was it common (as it later became for situation comedies). Sheldon Leonard and Carl Reiner’s work on the series helped popularize and perfect this style. One of the requirements for such a method is a good script. If the reactions of the live audience lack enthusiasm, then the sound track has to be “sweetened,” that is, electronically enhanced with “canned” laughter. Van Dyke claimed that his show never resorted to such artificiality.

Another necessity for a successful three-camera approach is a skilled cast. Good performers draw energy from both the other actors and the live responses of the audience. Reiner’s script from the fourth season “Never Bathe on Saturday,” for example, confines Laura offstage behind a locked bathroom door, her big toe caught in a bathtub faucet. This idea elicits more laughs because, as in a filmed play, the camera records only Rob’s comic efforts in the outer room to unlock the door, and the audience must imagine trapped and frustrated Laura inside. Mary Tyler Moore used the same three-camera technique for her own later situation comedy, as did many other series. She described the method as partaking of the best of film and the best of theater.

Another legacy of the show that elevated the quality of television comedy was the careful editing of the series’ scripts. Not only did Reiner insist that writers for the show avoid slang and contemporary references that would date the program in syndication, but each script was also collectively scrutinized and edited by the entire cast during the weekly read-throughs. Since the actors knew their characters so well (most admitted to essentially playing themselves), they could make productive suggestions about what would sound real for their roles. Sometimes lines written for one character were reassigned to another; a wisecrack that would make Rob sound cruel would be witty coming from Buddy. Reiner pushed in the direction of the new and experimental (as in some of the dream episodes he wrote), while Leonard trusted proven situations. Together, they formed a good mix. Script supervisor Marge Mullen made note of good but discarded jokes that would fit better in some future episode. In short, everyone understood the type of quality the show sought and worked to realize it. Dick Van Dyke Show, The (television program) Situation comedies Comedies;television Television;comedies

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamamoto, Darrell Y. Nervous Laughter: Television Situation Comedy and Liberal Democratic Ideology. New York: Praeger, 1989. Part of the Media and Society series, Hamamoto’s work makes scattered references to The Dick Van Dyke Show but is convincing about the way television explains American society to itself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Gerard. Honey, I’m Home! Sitcoms: Selling the American Dream. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1992. A lively, always interesting account of the way situation comedies from the beginning of television to the 1990’s have mirrored society. Jones notes that the sitcom has been a “primer,” a “mirror,” a “daydream,” a “teacher,” and, of course, a corporate entertainment product.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marc, David. Comic Visions. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989. Good comments on The Dick Van Dyke Show and on the situation comedy in general. Marc shows how Carl Reiner’s work on his series and Norman Lear’s on All in the Family had some interesting parallels.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reiner, Carl. Enter Laughing. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1958. Reiner’s autobiographical novel, written in the hiatus between his work with Sid Caesar and the start of The Dick Van Dyke Show. In 1967, Reiner directed a film version of his book starring Shelley Winters, Jose Ferrer, and Elaine May.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waldron, Vince. The Official “Dick Van Dyke Show” Book: The Definitive History and Ultimate Viewer’s Guide to Television’s Most Enduring Comedy. New York: Applause, 2001. Includes an episode-by-episode guide to the show, as well as a behind-the-scenes history of its production. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weissman, Ginny, and Coyne Steven Sanders. The Dick Van Dyke Show: Anatomy of a Classic. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983. Includes an essay on the inception and development of the show, a complete episode guide, a script of one show, numerous photographs, a list of awards won by the show, and a foreword by Carl Reiner. A good book-length study of the program.

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