Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Dick Van Dyke Show - "The Curious Thing About Women"

Season 1, Episode 16
Original Airdate: January 10, 1962
Writer: David Adler
Director: John Rich
Executive Producers: Ronald Jacobs, Sheldon Leonard, Carl Reiner, Danny Thomas
Cast: Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam

The wonderful thing about “The Dick Van Dyke” show is that it never seems to push its audience. Almost every other sitcom seems to shove into its punchlines and gags, but this show operates at an even pace. The characters say funny things to one another, but there never seems to be an exclamation point at the end of their sentences to lead into audience laughter. The characters have big personalities but never go over the top like every other sitcom from that era, from “I Love Lucy” to “Leave it to Beaver.” It all feels…well…real. Like we are actually watching an American family going through their trials and tribulations, which makes the climax to “The Curious Thing About Women” one of the definitive moments in all of television comedy.

 The episode concerns a quick marital spat between Rob (Dick Van Dyke) and his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) after she keeps opening his mail without his permission. Rob turns the spat into a sketch for “The Alan Brady Show” where a caricature of Laura (who shares her name) receives a box addressed to her husband and can’t stop herself from opening it…only to discover there is an inflatable raft inside. Laura is teased by all her friends about the sketch and yells at Rob, only to discover a suspicious box in the mail the next day addressed to him.

It’s interesting to note that most sitcoms follow the classic two-act structure. Lucy wants to be on television (1) and then she gets drunk while practicing the commercial she has been cast in (2). Mary admonishes people for laughing about Chuckles’ death (1) and then laughs at his funeral (2). Michael is encouraged to set up a “diversity day” at the office (1) and ends up being extremely racist (2). But “The Dick Van Dyke” show is different. In almost every episode, it follows a three-act structure instead. Here, you have Rob writing the sketch as Act One, Laura melting down as Act Two and the mysterious package as Act Three. This structure allows the show to have a faster pace than most sitcoms and, as a result, throw in some twists and turns on the way to the climax…

…which, of course, is Laura verses the box. The episode’s writer, David Adler, is brilliant in the way he sets this moment up because we have already heard a variation on this routine twice. Incredibly, the moment is much funnier because of its long set-up, not watered-down because of its repetition. When we first heard Rob pitching out the story he talks about how the box is almost magnetic to the wife -- a bit we see come to life with Laura when she exits the living room and then we see the swinging door swing fully just once before Laura reenters to stare at the box again. When Laura is actually watching the skit with her neighbors, they mention that the female is using her teeth to desperately pull open the box, and later that’s exactly what Laura does. The familiarity of the details make it so much more funny, especially considering the high horse Laura put herself on only moments before.

Also of note is the fact that Adler has made us wait almost twenty minutes for this moment, circling back to it and, in some ways, pounding us over the head that it’s coming, but only to underline how much we’ll enjoy it when it actually gets here. A lesser writer (and most modern sitcoms) would try to put some kind of twist on Mary opening the box, but Adler was smart to just give us the payoff we were expecting in the way we were expecting it. It makes the laughter more genuine because it doesn’t feel like a cheat.

Aside from the three-act structure, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” was quick and eager to embrace (at the time) daring storytelling techniques. It was quick to use frame stories, or create stories within stories if it served the characters and humor well. This was a much more adult show than most other comedies on television and the writers trusted that the viewers would be able to follow along when they tried something a little different or took the story in a surprising direction. It was also very successful at being both a work sitcom and a family sitcom. Other shows, most notably “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” tried the same juggling act before finally giving in and becoming one or the other. “The Dick Van Dyke” show, on the other hand, always kept the balance and, as a result, some of its best comedy came when the two world collided in twisted, uncomfortable ways. Look at this episode or when Laura accidentally lets it slip that Rob’s boss is actually bald.

Anchoring everything is Van Dyke and Moore, who share an easy, charming chemistry with one another that is never more evident than when they are arguing. Their speaking patterns and delivery allows them to deliver long mouthfuls of sentences from the script, and the fact that they are both tall and lanky results in some create physical comedy throughout the episode, first with Rob pretending to be Laura and later when Laura is fighting with the box. More than that, they never seem like anything less than smart, intelligent people, a trap so many great sitcoms fall into regularly by dumbing down their characters.

Though I only laughed once during “The Curious Thing About Women,” it was a long and fulfilling belly laugh that had been building the entire episode. And the rest of the time I was smiling widely. “The Dick Van Dyke Show” isn’t classic television because of its punchlines, but because it’s smart enough to know that punchlines are only part of what makes a great comedy.

“The Curious Thing About Women” is available on the first season DVD of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” on iTunes, Hulu and Amazon Prime.

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