The Dick Van Dyke Show, which ran from 1961 to 1966 on the CBS network, ushered in the golden age of the situation comedy (even more than I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners), poised as it was on the threshold between the comedy-variety star vehicles of the 1950s (frequently still grounded in vaudeville) and the neorealist socio-comedies of the early 1970s (whose mainstay Mary Tyler Moore carried its pedigree). It was among the first network series to electively bring itself to closure, in the manner of M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or Cheers, and has proven one of the most resilient in syndication. And more than any other social document, it managed to operate largely contemporaneously with the New Frontier and the thousand days of the Kennedy presidency.
The show was largely the autobiographical exegesis of Carl Reiner, whose previous tenure in workaday television had been with the legendary stable of writers surrounding Your Show of Shows and the Sid Caesar sketch vehicles of the mid-1950s. This same group went on to literally redefine American humor: on the Broadway stage (Neil Simon); dominating the high and low roads of screen comedy (Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, respectively); and in television, both early and late (Larry Gelbart, M*A*S*H). But first and foremost was Dick Van Dyke, based loosely on Reiner's 1958 novel Enter Laughing (he directed a tepid screen version in 1967), in which his Alan Brady is a thinly veiled Caesar--a comic monster, sporadically seen but ubiquitously felt.
Brady's writing staff comprises the college-educated Rob Petrie (the eponymous Dick Van Dyke), assigned to interject new blood into his team of more experienced subordinates, Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam) and Sally Rogers (Rose Marie), loosely patterned after Show of Shows writers Mel Brooks and Selma Diamond. This sense of autobiography even stretched to the Petries' New Rochelle address (Reiner's own, save for a single digit), as well as his immediate family (son Rob Reiner in turn became the archetypal early-1970s post-adolescent as Michael Stivic on All in the Family, raising certain intriguing Freudian possibilities in the evolution of the sitcom.) Rounding out the domestic American Century optimism is Rob's wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore).
As author David Marc has noted, for all intents and purposes, the movies destroyed vaudeville once and for all, and as a form of penance, made it into a kind of "biblical era of modern mass culture." This impulse was inherited wholesale by television of the 1950s (a quick survey of I Love Lucy reruns should suffice), and in turn carried forward rather elegiacally in the many blackouts built into this show within a show. Van Dyke, a gifted physical performer, never missed an opportunity to reprise his mewling Stan Laurel, or engage in a bit of Catskills schtick (invariably veiled in nostalgia). Entire episodes were given over to aging radio scribes or vaudeville fixtures who had been brushed aside by the space-age wonder of broadcast TV. Even sidekicks Buddy and Sally, real-life vaudeville veterans often seemed little more than human repositories of the history of formalist comedy ("Baby Rose" Marie was a child singer on radio; Amsterdam, a cello prodigy whose act recalled Henny Youngman or Jack Benny, co-hosted the Tonight Show forerunner Broadway Open House in 1950, and--in a bit of New Frontier prescience--wrote the paean to U.S. imperialism "Rum and Coca-Cola" for the Andrews Sisters).
Yet perhaps to counterbalance these misted reveries, the show just as often displayed an aggressive Kennedy-era sophistication and leisure-class awareness. Initially competing for the central role were Van Dyke and that other Brubeck hipster grounded squarely in Midwestern guilelessness, Johnny Carson (and if truth be known, another prominent casualty of afterhours blackout drinking). Meanwhile, all the hallmarks of the Kennedy zeitgeist are somewhere in attendance: Laura as the Jackie surrogate, attired in capris pants and designer tops; the Mafia, via the imposing Big Max Calvada (executive producer Sheldon Leonard); Marilyn Monroe, represented by the occasional Alan Brady guest starlet or lupine voluptuary; intelligence operatives who commandeer the Petries' suburban home on stakeout. Camelot references abound, with a Robert Frost-like poet, a Hugh Hefner surrogate, Reiner as a Jackson Pollack-modeled abstract painter, or Laura's praise for baby guru Dr. Spock.
Sophisticated film homages appear throughout: Vertigo's "Portrait of Carlotta" becomes "the Empress Carlotta brooch"; Citizen Kane's "Rosebud" turns up as son Richie's middle name. (According to confidante Peter Bogdanovich, Orson Welles reportedly took a break every afternoon to watch the show in reruns.) Civil rights are often squarely front and center as well, with Leonard claiming that one racially themed episode, "The Hospital," specifically allowed him to cast I Spy with Bill Cosby, in turn the medium's first superstar of color. Even Van Dyke's own little brother, Jerry Van Dyke, is afforded a brief nepotistic berth from which to triumph-- in his case, over painful shyness, social ineptitude, and a somewhat pesky somnambulism, rather than innate ruthlessness and the reputation as White House hatchet man. And for purists, there's even a working conspiracy of sorts--the name "Calvada," scattered portentously throughout (Big Max "Calvada," "Drink Calvada" scrawled on a billboard, the name of their production company)--which is, in fact, a modified acronym for the show's partners: CA-rl Reiner, Sheldon L-eonard, Dick VA-n Dyke, and DA-nny Thomas.
But more than vague inspiration, the Kennedys provided direct participation as well. In 1960, Reiner wrote a pilot titled Head of the Family, virtually identical in every way, save for casting himself in the lead role. The package made its way to Rat Pack stalwart Peter Lawford, a burgeoning producer and brother-in-law of the future president. Family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, seeking to oversee family business during the campaign, read the pilot personally, and in turn volunteered production money. Although the pilot was unsuccessful, its recasting led directly to the later series.
The Dick Van Dyke Show ended in 1966 with a final episode surveying Rob's "novel"--a collection of favorite moments from the five-year run--which Alan Brady dutifully agrees to adapt as a TV series, thus reupping the autobiographical subtext one more level and providing Reiner the last laugh. This was perhaps in light of CBS's decision to enforce a full-color lineup the following season. As such, the series' cool, streamlined black-and-white mirrors perfectly the news images of the day, and functions as one of the few de facto time capsules on a finite and much-celebrated age.
Rob Petrie.......................................... Dick Van Dyke
Laura Petrie..................................... Mary Tyler Moore
Sally Rogers............................................. Rose Marie