(art by Aireen Arellano / to view larger version, click here)
SHOW: The Dick Van Dyke Show
EPISODE: “Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth”
FIRST AIRED: Sept. 15, 1965
Most enduring sitcoms stick in our collective consciousness because their central concepts play on some sort of universal yearning. The king and queen of social issue comedy, All in the Family and Roseanne, reigned due to their ability to cut through the pundit-speak bullcrap that permeated all spheres of class, race, and political party. On the extreme end of the kitsch factor, even the saccharin Technicolor nightmares that were The Brady Bunch and Full House were about families rebuilding themselves in the face of unexpected grief.
And then there’s The Dick Van Dyke Show, which despite its adult-oriented wit, exists in a kind of sitcom nether-universe. It’s half a workplace show and half a family show, but there’s very little struggle here. Rob and Laura Petrie love and respect each other and have a well-behaved son in a lovely little apartment. At Rob’s day job as a television writer for a popular show, his main task is to lob joke ideas back and forth with snappy co-workers Buddy and Sally. Even more than Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best, which “tackled” several at-the-time taboo issues like alcoholism, sex, and theft, The Dick Van Dyke Show was probably the most frictionless that sitcoms ever skewed.
It’s all too fitting, then, that “Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth,” one of the hallmark episodes of the show, revolves around the wild insecurities of Rob’s irascible boss Alan Brady. By pitting his vain-angry-schmuck act against the studied and earned perfection of the Petries, it spins the middle-class “nothing is wrong” fluff of The Dick Van Dyke Show into brilliant comedy.
Laura stumbles onto a game show with a slick and smarmy host who has a reputation for coaxing contestants into spilling embarrassing secrets. Rob, his co-workers, and his boss watch in suspense to see if Laura will say anything unfavorable against The Alan Brady Show or Alan Brady himself. She holds her own against the host’s probing questions… until the very end of the program, when she inadvertently reveals that Alan Brady is bald, apparently a long-standing burning question among the entertainment gossip rags.
Fearing for her husband’s job, Laura visits Alan’s office to deliver a profuse apology, one that the dyspeptic grump is less than willing to accept. The extended two-hander between them forms the bulk of the second act. As the embarrassed Laura, Mary Tyler Moore displays her knack for playing flustered with an exquisite yet grounded charm. It’s a sort of anti-poise, like Audrey Hepburn through a prism of nervous desperation.
Meanwhile, Carl Reiner calls and raises her deft comedic skill with the relentless gruff he infuses into his portrayal of Alan Brady. The Dick Van Dyke Show was originally supposed to be The Carl Reiner Show – the whole show is a loose adaptation of his life, after all. The network, however, didn’t want him in the lead role, so they cast Dick Van Dyke, though Reiner still held the title of executive producer and writer. In other words, Carl Reiner was found unfit to portray his own life. That he inserted himself into his own show to be the insecure, vanity-obsessed fly in the Petries’ ointment seems to be the ultimate self-deprecating joke on the idealized harmony of the Petries.
The spiky undercurrent of “I’m the punchline on my own damn show” runs through every bit of dialogue and sneery facial tic that Reiner brings to the character, and the extreme juxtaposition between her charm and his disdain comprises a large part of why the scene ranks among the most memorable of sitcom episodes. It’s not difficult to conjecture that this very scene might have formed the basis for the winning Mary Richards-Lou Grant dynamic that would emerge five years later.
As a footnote, watching the episode in 2012, it’s difficult to ignore the pre-feminist earmarks of the show. Of course, Laura and her pal Millie shiver with glee at the thought of winning such game show prizes as… a vacuum cleaner! More pressingly, the whole plot rests on how a housewife has screwed up and endangered the job of her household’s sole breadwinner. Much is made of what Laura’s “place” is, like when she concedes that it’s “not her place” to comment on Alan’s appearance, or when Rob runs in to rescue his wife from the clutches of his boss, saying “It’s a man’s place to take the blame and possibly get fired! I’m responsible for you!” It’s not so much that the show was aggressively sexist – certainly, the writers showed more respect for Laura Petrie than the “aren’t wives stupid?” plots too often written for the shrill and childish Lucy Ricardo.
But damn was she dutiful. The thing is, so was everyone else on this show. Most smart comedies by nature end up being comedies of manners, works of fiction designed to prod at and question social conventions. While The Dick Van Dyke Show traded in smart double entendres and scholarly humor that could rival the best punchlines from Some Like It Hot or His Girl Friday, in the end, it had nothing but reverence for the manners.
~ C.J. Arellano
About the Art: I loved the visual of Alan Brady gathering his wig mannequin heads on his desk as he told them, “Fellas, there she is; there’s the little lady that put you out of business!” I also fell in love with Mary Tyler Moore’s nervous, charming energy as she fearfully squeaked her apology to the seething and vain TV show host. I thought this imagery was a fun, eye-catching way to display the two personalities at the extreme ends of the spectrum. ~ Aireen Arellano