Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The best part about being Rob Petrie

I wanted to become a comedy writer because of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.  I wanted to be Rob Petrie when I grew up.  The idea of being in a great marriage with a son and writing television comedy seemed like the dream life. When my partner, David Isaacs and I were starting out, writing spec scripts, we would watch reruns of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW every afternoon for inspiration. We became such aficionados that we would try to guess who wrote each episode. Unlike today, the writing credits were at the end.

Our favorites -- and the easiest to identify -- were always the ones written by the team of Garry Marshall & Jerry Belson. They were just a little more off-beat, a tad sharper and funnier. Our goal was to become the next Marshall & Belson – to have people think that our scripts were just a slight cut above all the rest.

I can’t say for sure that we accomplished that goal, but I did become a comedy writer. And I did get to work with the great Jerry Belson. I was writing and producing CHEERS and he was consulting. And then, 29 years ago today, my son Matthew was born and I realized, “Ohmygod, I am living THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.” The only difference is this: on the show, their kid is just a side character. In my real life, kids are the whole world. Awards and credits on the various “Alan Brady Shows” I’ve worked on pale in comparison to raising two spectacular kids.

Jerry Belson sent Matt a baby gift along with the following touching note:

Dear, Matthew,
Always remember I was funnier than your father.

He was, but then so were most of the writers on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.

Happy Birthday, Matt. Thanks for being my “Richie” but not nearly as dopey. I love you.

There’s a great new book out called THE OFFICIAL DICK VAN DYKE SHOW BOOK by Vince Waldron. I’m guessing it’s about the show.

In my recent poll of your all-time favorite sitcoms, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW was number one. What makes that all the more remarkable is…

It’s fifty years old.

It’s in black-and-white.

Rob’s job no longer exists. There are no primetime variety shows starring nightclub comics.  Are there even nightclub comics?

Not everyone in the cast was twentysomething and hot.

Writers had to bang out 39 episodes a year. At the most today shows produce 25.

The mores were so different back then. For standards & practice purposes, Rob & Laura (a married couple) slept in separate beds.

So why does THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW still resonate today? Because Carl Reiner created a show about real people, facing relatable problems, and behavior that is as true today as it was back in 1961. The comedy comes out of the characters, astute observation, and human nature not high-concept ideas or stylized formats. It seems like such a no-brainer but you’d be surprised. When the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW premiered it was considered positively ground-breaking. People acting like people was ground-breaking? Yep, when you consider this was the comedy era of talking animals, flying nuns, witches, bimbo robots, genies, Munsters, affluent Hillbillies, and favorite Martians.

It’s scary how fast time flies. I still can’t believe it – not that the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW is fifty. It’s timeless. How can my son be 29??? In any event, Carl Reiner and I are two proud parents. Although  how can Carl Reiner be 89???

56 comments:

LouOCNY said...

Just think Ken - next year he's 30! Happy Birthday, Son of Ken!

WV: 'recotaxi' - what would have happened if they had decided to totally revamp TAXI

LouOCNY said...

Also - fess up Ken - you have had Debbie go "Oh Kennnnnn" just like Laura Petrie.....

WV- 'ofsider' - how a DUI suspect addresses the cop arresting him

Chris said...

Here's a question for friday: how ok do you find it that 30 Rock basically reshot a scene from Joey, where Paulo Costanzo tries to change the water container and spills it all over the floor before managing to do it, especially noting that Robert Carlock (very funny writer) was/is a writer and producer on both shows?

Is it more important that it's funny or that it's been done before on another show?

Mike Barer said...

Although I was a fan of the talking horse, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Gilligan's Island. I loved watching the Dick Van Dyke Show. I think Dick's smooth personality and Laura's beauty made the show enjoyable. It was like an extended living room.

cam.robbins said...

I discovered The Dick Van Dyke Show about a year ago thanks to a local station playing a zillion black and white shows. It's 20 years older than I am, but I love it.

Nat G. said...

Rob and Laura may have slept in separate beds (Rob, you fool!), but not only does the existence of a son prove they had sex... but that they had sex without being legally married. I remain surprised that they slipped that into the show, given the time period.... even if it's seen as a technicality.

Bill White said...

Ken, EVERYBODY who watched the DVD Show wanted to be Rob Petrie. I know I did. It was quite the bitter wake-up call when I realized later life isn't like that.

At least in my case, I got the hot wife part right!

John said...

Almost forgot Leonard's (and Reiner's) other major contribution to the memories of later-period baby boomers -- because their CBS prime-time shows were doing so well for General Foods, whose Post cereals division was a major sponsor of kids shows of the period, Sheldon ended up lending his voice to the title character on "Linus the Lionhearted", part of a major marketing campaign Post had creating a new cereal in 1964.

Leonard and Reiner (who voices many of the supporting characters) weren't the creative brains behind this -- ad exec Ed Graham and animator/writer Irv Spector were the ones running the show. "Linus", because all of its main characters were pitchmen for Post cereals, also had the dubious distinction of spawning enough complaints from children's TV advocates that the FCC in 1968 banned shows from using the same characters within them to do commercials and also star in the cartoons.

John said...

Here's a Friday question relating to the end credits -- did you write an ending differently if the final scene simply faded to black, as M*A*S*H did in Seasons 1-5, or if you had a 'freeze' on the end shot for the titles (Seasons 6-11), or where the end credits are detached from the scene, as with Dick Van Dyke, or later with Cheers?

I think something like the ending on "Out of Sight, Out of Mind", with the non-blind Hawkeye being shooed out of the nurses' tent, works better as just a simple fade-out from the scene. Had the same script been done a season later, the film editor and director would have had to have found a moment to freeze the image and then pop up the credits before we get into the main part of the final titles and theme (final titles and theme? What are these strange things of which you speak?).

olucy said...

Please tell me that Matt's middle name isn't Rosebud.

RCP said...

Best wishes for your son's birthday.

Although my life is nothing like Rob Petrie's, I do have a couple of things in common with him (or the show): I was born in 1961, and my name is nearly identical to his - well, if you switch a couple of letters in the surname and add two "t's". No autographs, please!

Michael said...

Don't forget the risk--and it was a risk--they took by having the episode where Rob thinks they brought home the wrong baby. The punch line still resonates.

DanTedson said...

"Writers had to bang out 39 episodes a year. At the most today shows produce 25."

Crazy. Reminds me of the second season of Batman, which had 60 episodes. That impresses the hell out of me despite lines like, "Holy Bill of Rights, Batman!" and "This could get rough, old chum. Warm up the Bat-traceptive."

On the other end of the spectrum you have UK shows that will power out a grand total of 6 eps a series. They'll run 3 series, maybe 20 episodes, declare they're creatively burnt and end the show, even if it's a hit. Drives me crazy.

Naz said...

Although I loved the show, the kid who played his son aggravated me to no end. Bad kid actor all the way around.

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday, Matt! And congrats on how you raised him, Ken. Good fathers love their sons, but great fathers like the people they have become.

I would run home from school in the late 60s to catch the DVD show in the afternoon before my mom came home (to insist I do my homework instead of watching tv). I found the dvd sets at Sam's Club for a very reasonable price and now I own all 5 seasons. Dear Hubby & I both love to watch them. I think my favorite episodes are the home based ones. Laura's curiosity, while annoyed with the sexual stereotypes, is one of the funniest ever.

Pam aka SisterZip

CharlieH said...

It's HAIR!

Johnny Walker said...

I discovered the Dick Van Dyke show when I moved to LA in 2002 at the age of 24. I knew Dick Van Dyke, of course, but I'd never heard of the show. It immediately grabbed me, and my ex-wife and I got into the habit of watching TV Land whenever it was on before bed.

It was such a sweet and genuinely funny show.

Johnny Walker said...

Yikes. According to Wikipedia, Carl Reiner was responsible for writing 19 episodes in the first season, and 21 in the second... How is this humanly possible?!

BigTed said...

I'm guessing five or 10 years from now the creative kids will be going into advertising, because they want to be Don Draper or Peggy Olson. (Minus all the character flaws and sexism, of course.)

Anonymous said...

I think Rob Petrie is the most likeable sitcom character of all time. He's talented, has a great job and a hot wife, but he can still be insecure, awkward and a total klutz. How can you not identify with a guy like that? Dick Van Dyke can never get enough praise for bringing that character to life!

Bob and Rob Professional American Writers said...

As a writer (a few years behind you), I had the same dream. When my son was born I tried to convince my wife to name our son Alan Brady...we compromised with Brady Alan!

We had a connection to Carl Reiner who sent a copy of his book as a baby gift. He inscribed the book, "Brady Alan, I can't believe your parents named you after such a son-of-a-bitch!"

See ya Ken, Bob

Roger Owen Green said...

olucy - I know what Rosebud means, and I haven't seen that ep in years.

Greg said...

Dick Van Dyke is my #1 and Garry Marshall & Jerry Belson were also favorites. The giveaway to me that it was one of their episodes was their use of extra characters beyond the core five actors, as well as their frequent use of physical gags. Their shoe store script has to be one of the funniest half-hours in TV.

404 said...

I think for me, also, it's because Dick Van Dyke is so great at physical comedy as well. And for my money, when it's done right physical comedy is about as funny as it gets.

I know everyone won't agree with that, but that's one reason it's still a great show. A hilarious pratfall 50 years ago looks the same as a hilarious pratfall today, except it's in black and white.

Cap'n Bob said...

I was a big fan of the show, too, but I'm with Naz regarding Richie. What an annoying presence. Fortunately, in most shows he was shuttled out of the room as soon as the adults came in.

Jake Mabe said...

Happy birthday, Matthew!

And, yep, I wanted to be Rob Petrie, too, not only because of his job but because he got to come home to Laura every night!

Thanks for the post, Ken. "The Dick Van Dyke Show" is a true, true gem. I unwind by watching the episodes at night sometimes (Netflix streaming, baby!) and just love them -- and the show was canceled a decade or so before I was born!

thomas tucker said...

Not me. I always wanted to be Buddy Sorrell. Now that was a character!

Jake Mabe said...

Speaking of child actors, I've watched a few episodes of "Dennis the Menace" recently because they are streaming on Netflix and I'd been wanting to give them a look since I read an article about the DVD releases in The New York Times. Haven't seen it in about 25 years.

As annoying as he was (although, of course, that was the point), I think Jay North nailed Dennis, whereas I tend to agree with the other comments that Richie (Larry Mathews) was annoying -- unintentionally in the case of his character on "DVD Show." (Although that Rosebud thing made me laugh out loud when I first saw that episode.)

Watching "Dennis the Menace" as an adult, I find myself really liking the performance of late, great Joseph Kearns as the put-upon "Good Ol'" Mr. Wilson. When he died and Gale Gordon replaced him, the show was never the same.

Pat Reeder said...

Ken, you sound exactly like me, except I might have outdone you a little by actually realizing my childhood DVD Show dream of marrying a hot chick named Laura and, for a brief period in the late '80s, having a mailing address in New Rochelle. And Laura is my comedy writing partner who watched DVD as a little girl and decided she wanted to write comedy and marry a klutzy comedy writer, so she achieved her dream, too.

BTW, to Jake Mabe: In my book, "Hollywood HiFi," I wrote a rave review of an album cut by Jay North when he was a kid. I normally hate celebrity kid singers (and children's choruses are the bane of my existence), but the Jay North LP was terrific. The songs were specially written for a Dennis the Menace-style kid to sing, and he knocked them out of the park. But when I tried to interview him about it, he was very polite but said that that was all part of a childhood he'd rather forget. He declined even to talk about it. Take from that what you will.

Weird VW sychronicity: "jamath" - a combination of Jay North and Larry Matthews.

Harold X said...

Coinciding with the book release and the new DVD run on TVLand, a tribute was held at the (sold-out) Egyptian a few weeks ago.

Dick Van Dyke and Carl Reiner were there for a Q&A session by Garry Marshall, who also hosted.

Garry Marshall should host everything.

Frank said...

The Beverly Hillbillies weren't real?
Damn there goes my dreams of Hollywood and Elly May.

Mary Stella said...

I love the Dick Van Dyke Show. I think Rose Marie was great in that ensemble. As a kid, most women I knew were housewives, teachers, nurses like my mother, secretaries or worked in stores. Sally Rogers was a television writer! That made a huge impression. She also more than held her own on a team of men.

Kirk said...

I prefer the shows with Sam Denoff and Bill Persky's names on it, but all the writers were good.

Ironically, while Rob and Laura slept in twin beds, Herman and Lily shared theirs. Standards and Practices must not have a problem with monsters having sex.

Chrispy said...

Loved the TDVDS. Yeah, the kid wasn't great, but most kids in three-camera sitcoms aren't great - they come across as "stagey". There are a few exceptions, of course, but I think kids come across much more naturally in single-cam shows (shot without an audience).

Anyone remember DVD's 1970s show with Hope Lange as his wife? It was also created/produced by Carl Reiner. It was a pretty decent show on its own merits, but just paled in comparison to the original.

Pumpkinhead said...

Carl Reiner isn't 89. He's timeless.

Jim McGrath said...

Great post Ken! My wife loves the Dick Van Dyke show and makes me watch it on the fn network every night. I had to read your post to her out loud. A timeless classic!

Johnny Walker said...

*dons Cliff Clavin hat*

Actually it was standard in Shakespeare's time for married couples to have *three* beds. One each to sleep in, and a "marital" bed.

We may laugh when we watch those old shows now, but maybe they were onto something...

Mac said...

Happy Birthday, Matt!

"Not everyone in the cast was twentysomething and hot."

Louis De Palma (short, bald, mid-30's going on 50) made me laugh more in Taxi - before he opened his mouth - than anything "Two Broke Girls" (20's, gorgeous) ever came out with.

Paul Duca said...

If Annie never needed therapy before, this may push her over the edge...

danTedson...you think the BATMAN workload was something? They were making two (and sometimes three) episodes of PEYTON PLACE 52 weeks a year.


Someone once told Dick Van Dyke that he modeled his life after Rob Petrie's as closely as possible. He reminded the man that it also included becoming an alcoholic.

DanTedson said...

you think the BATMAN workload was something? They were making two (and sometimes three) episodes of PEYTON PLACE 52 weeks a year.

Ah, that explains their "Andy Warhol's Sleep" tribute week.

j gillespie said...

@Paul Duca "Someone once told Dick Van Dyke that he modeled his life after Rob Petrie's as closely as possible. He reminded the man that it also included becoming an alcoholic"

That was a story from Alan Zweibel in the Doug Hill/ Jeff Weingrad "Saturday Night Live: A Backstage History" book- Zweibel thanked Van Dyke for being an inspiration and He responded with (roughly) "After 5 years the show was cancelled and I became an alcoholic"

Barry Traylor said...

Among the many high points of this show was the bantering between Morey Amsterdam and Richard Deacon as Buddy Sorrell and Mel Cooley. I am also in the camp of finding the kid annoying.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

How bizarre. I was thinking about Jerry Belson just before I opened up this post to read it.

Michael said...

I think Dick Van Dyke is modest enough that he doesn't want people to think he was a model of perfection. Maybe it's also worth noting that Van Dyke to this day is a big Democrat and was active in the civil rights movement, and Mary Tyler Moore is a fan of Bill O'Reilly. I wonder if Rob and Laura would have had political debates someday!

Mr. Waldron, if you're checking back in, I have the earlier edition of your book and it's terrific.

Anonymous said...

I read that book about Saturday Night Live, and I always doubted the accuracy of Alan Zweibel's anecdote. The DVD Show was never canceled -- Reiner and Van Dyke had agreed to end it after five years. The network did everything possible to change their minds. Zweibel's story makes it sound like Van Dyke became an alcoholic because the series ended unexpectedly. In actuality his alcohol problems were building for years.

Harkaway said...

I have always enjoyed this show, but in many ways it was a hybrid of two genres: the workplace comedy and the family comedy. Most other shows which tried to marry the two ended up dumping one part or the other after a while as it was really hard to integrate the two. (Think how Barney Miller's family was ditched pretty quickly.)

But it worked because Rob's workmates were often over for dinner, because Milly & Jerry weren't too overused, and because Richie's life was not central to the plot. In an age before helicopter parents, kids were not the central interest of their parents' lives. They were just one aspect and weren't allowed to keep adults from having their own interests.

People often comment on the casual parenting depicted in Mad Men, which is set exactly when The Dick Van Dyck Show was at its height. Richie is a boring character because this is a show about grownups and the entertaining lives they lead. Perhaps that's why we still enjoy it so much. It reminds us of a time when adults had lives of their own.

Chris Hobbs said...

About a year ago Dick Van Dyke played the 'Not My Job' game on NPR's quiz show 'Wait Wait'. At the end, he sang the lyrics to the theme song for the show (did you know they existed?). A really funny ten minute segment, and his wit is sharp as a tack. You can listen to it here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130739954

BrigittaV said...

Like Mary Stella above, it was Sally who made a big impression on me. She was single working woman, which when I was growing up, was practically unheard of. Even more impressive, she didn't have a subservient position in the writing room. I think I really took her example to heart, and in large part it is because of her spirit that I work in a field mostly dominated by men (engineering) and am still holding my own after 30 years. Thanks, Rose Marie!

David K. M. Klaus said...

My favorite episode is the one in which Buddy studies for his long-missed Bar Mitzvah and proudly says "Mother, today I am a man."

It made me cry as a child and it makes me cry as an adult.

Happy Birthday to your son. I've no doubt that with a father like you that today he is a man, too.

Mazeltov!

Greg Ehrbar said...

Re: Chris mentioning that DVD sang his theme song -- the lyrics to the Earle Hagen theme were added afterward by Morey Amsterdam. Van Dyke and his Vantastix a cappella group sing it on their superb CD, "Put on a Happy Face."

http://www.amazon.com/Happy-Face-Dick-Dyke-Vantastix/dp/B001FHFWSM/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1320451690&sr=1-1

HogsAteMySister said...

The DVD Show also made me want to be a sitcom writer. In particular, I wanted to be Morey Amsterdam. Instead I ended up in PR. Sad, huh?

Paul Duca said...

Johnny Walker...in his will, Shakespeare left his wife his "second-best bed", giving the top one to his daughter and son-in-law, figuring they would have more use for it.

cadavra said...

Count me as another for whom Buddy was a role model. Not surprising, though, considering that Reiner based him largely on his dear friend (and my idol) Mel Brooks.

Paul Duca said...

I just realized you have another connection with Rob Petrie...your Halloween/Matt's birthday rainout turned kiddie riot is just like the episode about Ritchie Petrie's birthday fiasco.
(which, incidentally, was the only one filmed without an audience...on the day of JFK's funeral).

Anonymous said...

jkinpa

several years ago I was living in a small town and going to a hairdresser next to my office. I asked for and got a "Rob Petrie" haircut. I continued there and several months later the hairdresser told me she had suggested it to several men and now has at least two clients a week who want the "Rob Petrie"

Anonymous said...

I was about 15 when I saw the show about the artist having painted Laura nude, although she posed with clothes. The nude Laura image wasn't shown, of course. I'm afraid my male friends and I spent much time imagining the unseen portrait.