All noises become a single hum at the center of summer, and, should you squint at the center of the center of that local hum, you will see me bent into the shape of an s with one dog crooked under an arm and the other dog crooked behind my legs, watching The Dick Van Dyke Show.
I’m not looking for escapism. I am trying to keep hold of my sense of humor with both of my sweaty strong little hands. To do that with alacrity, I need to reach into my secret arsenal of books and movies and stories told with the curtains closed and the fans going strong and the dogs panting.
In short, I need everything I’ve have to give everything I’ve got.
The Dick Van Dyke Show makes me so ridiculously happy that it’s the first thing I consider when I am trying to keep my sense of humor intact.
It’s funny because it’s a show I never had any interest in watching. As far as classic television goes, The Dick Van Dyke Show remains overlooked in the most obvious places.
Syndicated television programmers tended to pass this show over in the 1970s in favor of other, quirkier offerings from the same period. I would have been too young to experience any early syndication, and I never did catch The Dick Van Dyke Show on current cable revival channels.
I’ve only had cable television twice in my life for brief instances because I just don’t like cable TV. I have no valuable qualifiers to offer. It’s preference at work here.
Know also that I didn’t watch TV much at all until I was an adult.
When I finally did watch TV (on DVD, from the video store, and, later, Netflix), I tried a little bit of everything at least once.
It was only a matter of time before I worked my way into the early 1960s world of Dick Van Dyke.
The show itself is a simple situation comedy based on the ensemble-comedy model that had started to come into vogue in the early 1960s. (No single character dominates the plot lines in an ensemble sitcom.)
The ensemble of The Dick Van Dyke Show proved to be a great mix of people who knew how to play well with one another and play off of one another, beautifully.
Dick Van Dyke plays Rob Petrie, head writer of The Alan Brady Show (vaudevillian-type variety comedy based around a single star— very popular in the 1950s), who splits time between home and the office.
At home are his wife and his son. At work, Rob Petrie interacts with his two writers, Buddy Sorrel (played by “The Human Joke Machine,” Morey Amsterdam, veteran vaudevillian and TV pioneer) and Sally Rodgers (the aptly casted Rose Marie, another veteran vaudevillian and multi-talent).
After watching one or two episodes five years ago, I realized three things:
First, The Dick Van Dyke Show is shockingly modern. You had women in the workplace like Sally Rodgers and the various professional performers who provided color to bigger stories.
You have two married adults, Rob and Laurie Petrie (the ingenue Mary Tyler Moore) who defer to each other over large matters. The Petries have one son, Ritchie (Larry Matthews), who, while not dumb, is not some cute, wisecracking adult-in-miniature.
Second, to understand comedy’s evolution from vaudeville to contemporary TV offerings, you need to watch the places where vaudeville transitioned from the stage to the small screen, which was vaudeville’s natural jumping-off point. The Dick Van Dyke Show is a great example of the second wave of television (after, say, the late, great Ernie Kovacs).
While less broad experimentation in the medium happened in the early 1960s, more refined offerings, like The Dick Van Dyke Show, started to emerge in unexpected places.
Third, my friend Phillip pointed out recently that the vocabulary of comedy is as closely guarded as the techniques of stage magic. And he’s right. Like stage magic, there are tricks and techniques and these all have names— but we, the audience, don’t know them. Unless you’ve delved deep into that world, you won’t know what goes into the making of a joke.
In both stage magic and comedy, knowing how it’s done tends to kill the sustained illusion of effortlessness.
However, should you want to learn the techniques of comedy— the set-up/knock-down joke; the triple; the straight man; the pratfall— you don’t need to go any farther than The Dick Van Dyke Show. Van Dyke himself was a self-taught wunderkind who could do everything from tap dancing, to playing the piano, to playing the straight man, to pratfalls and pantomimes so open and expressive the genius of it is stunning.
Then you have Mary Tyler Moore, a dancer with excellent comic timing, great at a set-em-up/knock-em-down joke, and capable of playing the straight man or the comic. Rose Marie, who played Sally Rodgers, was a former baby vaudevillian who was known for her gorgeous, throaty voice, but she also danced, played the piano, did imitations, and could also play the straight man or the comic.
She, along with Morey Amsterdam, who played Buddy Sorrel, perfected TV’s first experience of “the triple”— where the straight man sets up a joke, the comedian gives a funny unexpected answers, the straight man gives another funny unexpected answer, and then the comedian completes the triple by giving the one answer you’d never expect.
Back to the couch, the hum, the dogs, the s-shaped me and the summer heat— should ever I forget my sense of humor, The Dick Van Dyke Show is there to urge me to sit up a little straighter, to take my overheated state a little more lightly, and to consider all the possibilities that are in front of me, right on this magical TV screen.
While I’m not looking forward to the brutal temperatures of South Texas summers, I am leaning into what I have learned— humor is powerful, my friends. It can turn the crankiest overheated Bluebird into the grand imaginer of pratfalls, of perfectly-executed jokes, of song and dance routines, of ordinary, everyday, interpersonal magic.
Why did I not watch TV most of my life? Mash Note Dept.: My Friend Phillip will answer this odd question once and for all time!
Should you want to read more on The Dick Van Dyke Show— because there is SO much I haven’t discussed here about its progressive politics and its techniques, you can go to the Museum of Broadcast Television. For more tidbits and factoids, IMDB has done a great job of putting together the fundamentals of this seminal sitcom.