Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Dick Van Dyke Show Blogathon Bonus

As a Dick Van Dyke Show Blogathon bonus, I have written a second article consistent to my blog's ongoing efforts to recount the history of gags and routines.

Carl Reiner, who ran the daily operation of The Dick Van Dyke Show for its entire five-year run, was determined that the series never be a conventional sitcom that relied on standard plots.  This attitude was reflected by his on-screen surrogate, Rob Petrie, who made it his goal as head writer of The Alan Brady Show to produce material that was new and different.  This is evident in writer meetings between Rob, Buddy and Sally.  Buddy is always quick to offer an old vaudeville joke, but Rob invariably dismisses these jokes and encourages his staff to come up with something better.  It is the height of embarrassment for Rob when, in the 1963 episode "When a Bowling Pin Talks, Listen," he learns that a sketch idea he got from his son is not original at all and in fact came from his son's favorite series, The Uncle Spunky Show.  Still, as much as Reiner was determined to be original, I can think of at least two Van Dyke episodes based on old tropes that went as far back as silent films.

The script to the first season episode "The Curious Thing About Women" was written by Frank Tarloff.  The plot was simple.  Rob, looking to discourage Laura from opening his mail, arranges for a mysterious package to be delivered to their home.  Laura, unable to contain her curiosity, opens the package and a self-inflating raft bursts loose.

Reiner was reluctant at first to accept the script.  According to Vince Waldron, the author of The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book, Reiner believed the script "hewed a bit too close to traditional sitcom conventions for his somewhat less formulaic sensibilities."  Reiner's reluctance is explained at length in the following excerpt from Waldron's book:

"I didn't love the fact that we made Mary so silly that she had to open the package," says Reiner, who confesses that his biggest problem with Frank Tarloff's script was that he simply couldn't imagine his own wife - or anyone else's, for that matter - behaving as Laura Petrie does in the episode.  "I made Laura a little sillier than my wife," explains Reiner, "but I was still basing things on Estelle.  And I never liked that show particularly, because that wasn't my wife."  

But, despite his reservations about the script, Reiner was willing to loosen his standards as needed to produce 30 episodes that season and this meant occasionally accepting scripts less than faithful to his principles.

Reiner's instincts were correct about "The Curious Thing About Women" because, in fact, the script was not new and different.  It was a story that had been handed down from generation to generation.  I do not know how far back the story goes exactly, but I can point to a silent comedy that made use of the premise.  In Canned Curiosity (1915), a man is determined to prove to his friends that all women are curious.  He fills small tin cans with smoke from his uniquely scented cigar, attaches a note demanding that the cans not be opened, and then leaves the cans at the homes of various women.  As the man expects, every woman winds up opening the cans and allowing the smoke to escape.

Tarloff was partnered with Arthur Stander and Phil Sharp when he originally made use of this idea for a 1950s sitcom, I Married Joan.  The writers took the idea of a man trying to make a general point about women's curiosity into a specific disagreement between a husband and wife and, by making it that the package contained a raft, they put something more substantial and laugh-provoking in the package than scented smoke.  The finished episode, which was titled "Joan's Curiosity," was broadcast on December 3, 1952.

Reiner was likely unaware that he was remaking an old I Married Joan episode.  It didn't matter though.  Regardless if the episode was unoriginal, or if the material failed to meet Reiner's standards, or if a lead character was depicted in an inappropriate manner, the episode has remained a favorite among fans of The Dick Van Dyke Show for half a century.

An episode titled "That's My Boy??" (1963) deals with a trope that can at least be traced back to a Biograph comedy called The New Baby (1912).  Rob Petrie is nervous bringing his wife Laura to the hospital to give birth and, in time, he allows his nervousness to get the better of him.  Problems begin when a nurse admits to Rob that she keeps confusing the Petries with another couple in the maternity called the Peters.  Rob later questions if his baby looks like either him or Laura and becomes convinced that the nurse mixed up their baby with the Peters' baby.  He invites the Peters to his home to discuss the matter, but he has a big surprise when he opens the door to greet the Peters and he discovers that the couple is black.

The old trope essentially involved a white baby getting mixed up with a black baby and a nervous new father reacting with shock and outrage.  By Stork Delivery (1916), a Keystone retelling of the story, had the white father (Mack Swain) and his uncle (Vin Moore) throttling the black father (Bobby Dunn, in blackface) and battering him with chairs and dresser drawers.  The routine in its original form had a father realizing that he had the wrong baby because the baby is black. The routine in its updated form had a father realizing that he had the right baby because the baby isn't black.  Van Dyke said that, when he opened the door and revealed the black couple (Greg Morris and Mimi Dillard), they received the biggest laugh in the history of the show.

The attitude expressed towards the black characters in the earlier versions of the routine was less than kindly.  This is evident in the plot description provided by The Moving Picture World for The New Baby.  The plot description reads as follows: 

The nervous expectant papa leaves for the office in a fever, for the stork is expected at his home.  On the same day a new cook is engaged.  She is a colored woman with a small baby, which she brings with her and ensconces in the kitchen.  The gardener, hearing the cry of the picaninny, runs off to the nearest telephone and calls up the expectant papa, informing him that the baby has arrived.  A few moments later the proud papa, rushing into the kitchen, followed by a crowd of friends he has collected en route, finds the cause of the excitement to be a little human "chocolate drop."  His gloom, however, only lasts a moment, and the joys carry the day.

Fifty-one years after the "chocolate drop" days of The New Baby, the entertainment business had gotten a lot more sensitive about the portrayal of black characters.  The script for "That's My Boy??" had to be submitted to a number of people in authority for approval.  The NAACP raised no objections, but the script was initially rejected by all other parties - CBS, Procter & Gamble, and Benton & Bowles.  It was only because the show's executive producer, Sheldon Leonard, stood firm on the matter that the episode eventually got made. 

The episode's director, John Rich, made sure to cast attractive actors to play the Peters and he set up the scene to, in words, "give control of the moment to the black man."  Rob is embarrassed, awkward and foolish while his guest is cool, calm and collected.  Rob asks, "Why didn't you tell me on the phone?"  Mr. Peters replies, "And miss the expression on your face?"

In time, the routine reverted back to its original form in several films, including The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult! (1994) and Due Date (2010).

1 comment:

  1. As much as I enjoyed your "My Blonde-Haired Brunette" post, I have to confess I liked this one even more because I love to read about the origins of gags and routines (what you may call "the funny parts"). I love both episodes you write about (I know "The Curious Thing About Women" goes against the Dick Van Dyke Show grain, but funny is funny) but have a special place in my heart for "That's My Boy??" because the first time my sister Kat and I saw it we laughed until both of us were quivering heaps of hilarity passed out on the floor.

    Thanks for contributing both of these pieces to the blogathon, my friend. You "classed up the joint" in so many ways and did the event a tremendous service.