Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Final thoughts on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW

Here’s the second part of my conversation with Bill Persky about my spec DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.   Yesterday was the first.  Tomorrow I jump onto other things.

First: some of my observations. Whenever I write a TV script I always visualize the final product on the air. I don’t pictures the actors on the stage with cameras and crew hovering. Imagining the final product helps me think of the characters, not the actors who play them. Doing the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW I realized this was the first time I had ever pictured a script in black-and-white.

I also felt that the tone was very different if I was writing a scene in the Petries’ house vs. the office. At home all of the humor is character-based. The laughs come from attitudes and behavior. At the office, however, because of Buddy and Sally and the nature of what everyone’s job is, there are lots of jokes.

So later in my script, when I had Buddy and Sally in the house, it was like a hybrid.

When Bill Persky said I captured the style and rhythm of the show, that’s what he meant. Especially at the house where writers couldn’t just rely on “jokes” to get their laughs. A home scene can be extremely funny but it requires constructing a situation conducive to comedy. For me, I was careful to make sure everyone had an attitude and a point-of-view. Otherwise, it’s just talking heads firing off one-liners. At the office however, Buddy could take shots at Mel, Sally could rattle off self-deprecating quips, and everyone could chime in with jokes and schtick as if they were pitching for the Alan Brady Show.

Finally, I asked Bill, “If this were just a spec you read on a pile of specs, what would your reaction be?” He said he would call me in, they would either send me out with a revised version of my story, or they would give me another story. So either way I would get an assignment. Now, for me that’s like winning the Triple Crown, an Oscar, and the Espy Courage Award. The number one goal for any spec script is to get you work.  Too bad my timing was off by only 50 years.

Bill said that he and his partner, Sam Denoff broke in the same way. They wrote a spec DVD Show. Carl did not like the story but did like their writing. He invited them to come in with ideas. One they pitched was based on a real life experience that happened to Bill. When his child was born there was a mix up at the hospital over flowers. That led to the THAT’S MY BOY?? episode – a genuine classic. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but the payoff produced the longest laugh ever. And that was their FIRST episode. Yikes. You can see it here if you haven't already.

Bill talked again about how my script reminded him of how innocent the times were back then. We all know about Rob & Laura sleeping in separate beds (even as a clueless callow lad I knew that was wrong on every possible level). But the whole spirit of the show was of a different era. And yet, it’s a real testament to how universal and relatable the themes were and how exceptional the writing and acting was that the show still resonates a half century later. Even in black and white (which is Millennial-repellent).

We speculated on how they’d do the show today. I said first of all there would be no Buddy Sorrell. Former Borscht Belt comics no longer exist – except for maybe Billy Crystal. Bill thought today they would have to go diversity for Buddy. I said Sally would become “Amy Schumer.” She wouldn’t be talking about all the losers she dated; she’d be talking about all the losers she slept with. Mel would be openly gay. And there are no primetime variety shows – Alan Brady might be a late night talk show host. Laura would be a working mom. And the Army flashbacks would be in Afghanistan.

For me this experiment has been a huge success. I always wanted to write a DICK VAN DYKE SHOW episode, and talking to Bill Persky, batting around ideas – for a few precious moments it was like I was in an actual DVD Show story conference. So how cool was that?  And my fingers are crossed that Carl Reiner will weigh in at some point and it’ll get even better. I hope it was fun for you guys too (and God forbid educational). My sincere thanks to Bill Persky for his time and wisdom. And to everyone associated with THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. You provided a lifelong inspiration, a career path, and more laughs and exploding hormones than an impressionable wise-ass teenager should be allowed to have. 

55 comments:

Mr. Hollywood said...

Pure gold Ken ... thanks to all for their wisdom and humor and being able to go down memory lane with one of the greatest comedies ever to appear on TV! It doesn't get better!

Oat Willie said...

"Final thoughts..." Is this like Sheldon Leonard dismissing the writing staff? "Petrie, Rodgers, and Sorrel, final meeting."

Bradley said...

It was certainly fun to read your spec and interesting to hear Bill's comments. I though it was a neat experiment and thoroughly entertaining way to create content for the blog. Then you sneaked up on me at the very end, and suddenly it went from interesting to brilliant. Your observations about how The Dick Van Dyke Show characters would be developed today are 100% on point. Funny how the 1961 version IS universal to everyone, while your vision of a 2015 network version would TRY to be universal to everyone. In some small way, I think you put your finger on the reason why I'm so disillusioned with much of what I see on TV these days.

Jim S said...

I agree, very interesting. I was the guy who wrote would people use the term stripper. I asked that because I assumed in this exercise that not only was the story taking place in in 1965, it would have been filmed in 1965. As you pointed out, Rob and Laura slept in separate beds, so I thought it was a valid question. As you can tell, I am not overly sensitive at all.

Now, Friday question. You pointed out that the the Dick Van Dyke show has two main locations - Rob's home and the office. So did Fraiser. When there's, say a heavy office episode and the home people don't have much to do, is there an effort to make up for it next week so that the home people are more involved and the office people might get a rest. Or is just assumed that over the course of a season, everyone will have their light episodes and their busy episodes?

Stephen Robinson said...

Ken --

You were one of my comedy giants growing up, so to see you interact with the people and programs that fill that role for you is a wonderful experience. Thanks for sharing. One day, when I've worked up the courage, maybe I'll try that spec script of CHEERS.

Micah said...

Here is a question I can't help but ask. How long did it take you to actually sit down and write the episode?

KING OF JAZZ said...

This blog's episode should somehow be attached onto DVD's legacy, since it has so much integrity in its creation and authentic feedback from Persky.

Michael said...

Ken, not only was it educational, it was a lot of fun. And it took us back to what is certainly one of the greatest shows in television history. Thanks, and thanks to Mr. Persky.

Wayne said...

Interesting observation that home and office have different styles of humor.

Thanks.

McAlvie said...

I think this show is a testament to all those people who think a tv show today has to include someone sleeping around, foul language, and fart jokes. Honestly, other that working in some diversity - Sally as a Latino would be great, and Mel as Alan's black (or any ethnic group) brother in law would work well, too. Yeah, Laura could be working, but she could also be working from home so we would still have lots of in the home situations.

Basically, this show could still work really well. You could write it with strong assist by Persky. Of course, the networks would never buy it today because it doesn't involve sleeping around, foul language or gratuitous naked body parts.

Tom Berg said...

FYI...Carl Reiner will be featured on CBS Sunday Morning next week. I can't wait!

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

A treasure. An absolute treasure. Thank you Ken. You're Boss. :)

villagedianne said...

I enjoyed the spec episode.

I don't think there would be Army flashbacks in a modern DVD show. There is no longer a draft, and Rob would not volunteer to join the Army. There would instead be college flashbacks, with college theatricals.

Howard Hoffman said...

You took us on an impossible time travel adventure. Brilliant, Ken.

I'd still be interested to hear how Annie and Jon would approach the same kind of project with a non-Levine sitcom. That is, if they weren't so busy working on INSTANT MOM.

The DVD experience made me wonder when and why producing/writing/directing credits got moved to the top of the show rather than at the end. Friday question?

BIll Persky said...

As always you came up with an unusual , funny and informative adventure on your blog, thanks for letting me be part of it. bill

Johnny Walker said...

Wow. Great to see Bill commenting here!

Thanks for a great ride, Ken. It was surprisingly inspirational and, yes, educational, too. I thought it was just going to be fun to read a script that you wrote for a show that I love, but actually it got my brain thinking about story and writing. And then having the genuine response from Bill just took it to a whole new level, and made me realise just how many different directions a story can take, and how one simple twist can elevate something.

Anyways, thanks again.

Now... MARY TYLER MOORE? :)

Jerry Krull said...

Ken, an excellent spec script adventure. For a comedy writing fan like myself, who used to look for the writer names of my favorite shows, having yourself and Bill Persky talk through your spec DVD script was pure joy. Thanks for sharing this Ken and thanks for participating Mr. Persky.

Bob in the UK said...

(Stupidly left this comment on the Sitcom Room post by mistake...)

This has been a unique experiment, and other than Ken making such a fuss over the comments on the script itself (I guess we have to make allowances for a grumpy artist) it has been fascinating.

Best of all is that, having never watched any of the show in question, I followed Ken's advice to check out 'Coast to Coast Big Mouth' on Youtube. I haven't laughed so much in months - the line about "needy bald people" almost made me choke. And all this without having a clue who these characters were, other than from reading Ken's script.

Any other recommendations for episodes to watch?

There was a comment earlier about how tighter discipline forces writing to be better - something that I have believed for years - and this episode with its 60s sensibilities really makes that point. There is no need to play the game of genital bingo most modern sitcoms do when the writing, characters, and situations are as good as this.

Mark Fearing said...

Fun experiment to follow. I have felt for years that sitcoms sort of had their day, like etching and calligraphy. That there would be an ever narrowing place of where they would fit in the media world. I wish I felt differently and I do love the DVD show. I was trying to remember when I watched it, I'm not old enough to have seen it first run. But I guess it was rerun on cable at some point because I do know the episodes you mention.

flipyrwhig said...

If the Dick Van Dyke show were being made today, wouldn't it be... 30 Rock?

Dalton said...

It seems odd to me that THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW spent most of its run paired with THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES on the CBS primetime schedule. Not that this was a bad thing for THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. Say what you will about it, but THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES was a huge, huge hit in its early seasons, and THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW could only have benefitted from the pairing.

Anonymous said...

"If the Dick Van Dyke show were being made today, wouldn't it be... 30 Rock?"

Isn't 30 Rock more the Mary Tyler Moore show?

Oat Willie said...

"30 Rock" is "The Larry Sanders Show" crossed with "The Saragossa Manuscript".

Glen K. said...

Friday question: If there is a scene where an actor is required to drink or eat something in a large quantity, how is it done if multiple takes are required? Doesn't the actor get full, maybe even sick? I recently saw the scene from Seinfeld where Kramer guzzles a full glass of beer (These pretzel are making me thirsty!) and I thought about this question.

Anonymous said...

Loved this Petrie Dish experiment, Ken. The closest I came to being a part of the DVD Show is being related to my mother who was related to Sam Denoff which led to me eventually meeting Sam at my first job - Taft Entertainment in 1984. I feel fortunate just for that. What a show, what a guy!

Caroline said...

Glen K., that's an interesting question. I've noticed that most of the time, when actors are supposed to be eating, they're usually just pushing the food around on their plates. Little of it ever seems to hit their mouths. When actors really have to eat something or drink something, though, it would be different.

You can watch the ladies on THE GOLDEN GIRLS, who were forever doing kitchen scenes requiring them to scarf down cheesecake, get forkfuls of the desserts that rarely reach their mouths. They generally have as much on their plates at the end of the scenes as they did at the beginning.

Johnny Walker said...

I don't think there's a show on TV like DICK VAN DYKE anymore. I would say that, at its heart, it was about a successful marriage. The fact that Rob worked on a TV show just opened the door to some great situations and characters.

Johnny Walker said...

Glen, I'm sure Ken will have a better answer than me, but I think if you're demanding "realism" (like a movie often will), then you're looking at stuffed/sick actors. If it's a TV show, they can generally get away with shoveling food around their plates :)

Marc said...

A couple of years ago, a local station aired reruns of THE NEW DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, which ran on CBS from 1971 to 1974. Again created and produced by Carl Reiner, it proved the truth in the old cliché that lightning never strikes twice. Not a bad show, but not a patch on the original DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.

Shocked! said...

“Mel would be openly gay.”

Wait. Mel Cooley was gay?

Anonymous said...

Yes, the father of Lumpy Rutherford was gay. Apparently all colleagues were aware. But sadly for bald men they do not fall into a protected class (designs/ideas are welcome for a flag, parade, or specific laws dedicated to the eradication of discrimination against baldies). One can only pray, for bald men everywhere, that one day the Dick Van Dyke show and its bald-hate will go the way of Amos and Andy. Because our goal as a comedy-loving society needs to be that the only ones to be made fun of are white, middle-aged parents who, by virtue of being white and middle-aged, are obviously stupid -- oh wait, the Disney channel has a big head start on this. So please watch Disney shows now for the future comedy of NBC, ABC and CBS.

thomas tucker said...

Mel Cooley wasn't, but Richard Deacon was.

Glenn E said...

Thank you once again Mr. Levine and Mr. Persky. To quote Martin Mull in the 1980 film, Serial, “it’s been a slice.”

Powerhouse Salter said...

If the Mel Cooley character were openly gay, and presumably never married to Alan Brady's sister, what would become of the nepotism angle that explained Mel's getting the job as producer of The Alan Brady Show?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Powerhouse Salter: Obviously, Mel was married to - or at least long-term living with - Alan Brady's brother.

wg

Anonymous said...

The other Dick Van Dyke episode mentioned (THAT’S MY BOY??) is here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PR89h0A82Y

-Paul

MikeK.Pa. said...

"Now, for me that’s like winning the Triple Crown, an Oscar, and the Espy Courage Award."

Would you really be willing to get implants just to get that last award?

"I always wanted to write a DICK VAN DYKE SHOW episode, and talking to Bill Persky, batting around ideas – for a few precious moments it was like I was in an actual DVD Show story conference."

I've heard LA is small town. Is lunch out of the question for you two? Dick Van Dyke used to drop over to Stan Laurel's house all the time.

Gary said...

To Bob in the UK,
The Dick Van Dyke Show was so good, you almost can't go wrong no matter which episode you pick to watch. The show did take a while to hit its stride, so the episodes in the first season are probably the weakest. After that it's all gold. The weakest entries are still much smarter and wittier than anything you'll see today. Do I sound like an old crank? Guilty as charged!

Unknown said...

Now that you are done with your experiment, get to the real test. Get drunk, and do a spec for Two Broke Girls. It would be way better that what is done now. You also have a HUGE group to help you edit it (The blonde would never say "Hi"... no one makes pink cup cakes.... the blonde would never date a TV writer...)

Charles H. Bryan said...

Ken, first, thanks to you and to Bill. This has been such fun to follow. Second, as if I didn't know this already, I would stink as a writer. Not only due to a lack of talent, but also craftsmanship. Bill and you were able to identify real story and character strengths and weaknesses that blew right past me. It's like listening to an automotive engineer discuss a car's design from the engine to the body when all I noticed was the pretty paint job. That was a valuable lesson to learn.

I'll just have to be content knowing that I am a sensitive and generous maker of love.

Kane said...

A couple of years ago, a local station aired reruns of THE NEW DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, which ran on CBS from 1971 to 1974. Again created and produced by Carl Reiner, it proved the truth in the old cliché that lightning never strikes twice. Not a bad show, but not a patch on the original DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.

I've seen a number of episodes of that and you're right. It's not bad, but lord knows, it isn't very good, either. I guess CBS was hoping that since they struck comedy gold once with Reiner and Van Dyke, it might happen again by reteaming them. Just goes to show how hard it is to recreate that special blend of talent that results in a classic.

"The New Dick Van Dyke Show" did create problems between CBS and Carl Reiner, when CBS refused to air an episode that had the daughter on the series walking in on her parents having sex. CBS objected, insisting that this was inconsistent with Van Dyke's "family friendly" image, and refused to run the episode. Reiner was furious, accusing CBS of having a double-standard, since such a plotline would have been acceptable on a Norman Lear series. Just not on a Carl Reiner-Dick Van Dyke series.

But can you imagine an episode about Richie walking in on Rob and Laura having sex?

Pat Reeder said...

If Ken wrote a script for "Two Broke Girls," the commenters would object to every funny line by saying, "Those characters would never say anything funny!"

For those asking about other great episodes of the DVD Show, you can't go wrong with any of them, but some particularly famous ones are "It May Look Like A Walnut," "That's My Boy," and "Never Bathe on Saturday," the one where Laura got her toe stuck in the tub faucet while bathing and fueled a million young boys' fantasies.

On the question of actors having to eat during multiple retakes, most I know try to swallow as little as possible (a good thing, considering some cold, aging prop food). I'm currently working on an update of my book "Hollywood Hi-Fi" and doing further research into the movie version of "Guys & Dolls" with a singing Marlon Brando. I've found reports that Brando and Sinatra didn't get along (Frank called Marlon "Mumbles" and hated Brando's demands for endless retakes). Brando supposedly got even by deliberately screwing up his last line in the scene where Frank is sitting with him in a deli and eating cheesecake. By the time it wrapped, Frank had eaten enough cheesecake to supply an entire season of "Golden Girls" and had a whole new reason to hate Marlon Brando, aside from his rendition of "Luck Be A Lady." Ironically, had it been 20 years later and Sinatra forcing Brando to scarf down endless cheesecake, Brando probably would've loved him for it.

Dave Arnott said...

Could not have enjoyed this more, Ken. Thank you.

Kim said...

One of the books that's been published about THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW reported that Mary Tyler Moore was a little unhappy about "Never Bathe on Saturday" when she read the script because, while Carl Reiner had told her Laura played a major part in the episode, he didn't tell her that the part required Laura to be off camera for most of the show

Mark Murphy said...

Ken:

Many thanks for the past week's posts. The DVD script helped get me through a not-too-fun week, and I learned a lot in the process from the comments.

And if I may address Mr. Persky;

Thanks so much, sir -- for everything you've done.

Anonymous said...

Re: That's My Boy
I was watching an old Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the plot was about a woman who kidnaps a baby and the parents look for the baby. One of the mistaken leads they get is for a baby who turns out to be African-American.
I looked at the 1963 air date and it was only a couple of months before the TMB air date. I was wondering if perhaps Bill and Sam watched it and used the ostensibly serious Hitchcock plot line it as the punchline, either consciously or unconsciously.

Jon H said...

This has been fun reading the script & Mr. Persky's review of it. Thanks to both of you.

It's funny that I was reading about "Two Broke Girls" as I was watching a recording of Jeopardy! It included a promo for "Two Broke Girls", which is now going to be on "5 Nights a Week" this fall on the same station. I think I'll find something else to watch. At least it's given Garrett Morris steady work almost into his 80s.

Friday Question for Ken: I've noticed, from attending tapings myself, that a lot of sitcoms now seem to have a lot of prerecorded scenes, a lot of the warmup guy telling the audience to"look at the monitors" for the next scene. Do you find that prerecorded scenes help or hurt a show? Is it hard to get the timing right, in case the audience laughs too long or too short, or can that all be controlled in post-production now?

Barry Traylor said...

I loved this idea that you had and it also reminded me (as though I needed that)of what a treasure the Dick Van Dyke Show was and is.

One comment about a modern version, no Buddy Sorrel? O' No!

tim said...

As one of those pinheads who offered what was apparently an offensive "network type note" on continuity, I have to say this episode would have played successfully in the 1960s. The audience would not have seen a difference in quality or tone - even with what I perceived as a minor anachronism.

Jack Terwilliger said...

Loved this exercise. Learned so much from it. Mr. Persky's comments on story structure and character raised a Friday question: is writing for the stage closer to writing for television than for film? It seems as if lots of playwrights write for TV. Maybe that's just where the work is, but I'm wondering if their skills transfer more readily to one medium than the other.

Brian Phillips said...

Thanks for the script and the notes by Bill Persky. You mentioned that "That's My Boy??" being Persky and Sam Denoff's first script. It was also produced at the same time that they took over production of the show, which was not a popular decision around the set, however, with scripts like that, the cast was soon won over.

Silly trivia note: the woman who played the nurse, Amzie Strickland, ended up playing Edwin Carp's (Richard Haydn) mother, which shows you that the health care profession can really put the years on you!

As for "if it was produced today, Mel would be gay", you're probably right, but that might have looked like gay-bashing if Buddy insulted him, so I would have argued against that if I had a say in the matter. Cooley's marrying into Brady's family sets up a better dynamic.

As it was the case with Black people years ago, there seems to be a need to cast for LGBT whether it is helpful to a show or not, which also means the same missteps are and will be made for LGBT folks as they were/are for people of ANY color.

Graeme said...

I still think you should do this experiment again. Do a spec Mary Tyler Moore Show episode and get Jim Brooks or someone on the show to comment on it. Or do a Cheers and get... oh, wait, right, forgot about that.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Congratulations, Ken. Now if there was only a Time Machine without a hot tub, you'd be all set.

As to the "modern day" DVD, I recall that Laura was a dance instructor in TV movie, so she could work from home in a converted part of the house. That way, they wouldn't always have to have another workplace set. But stories about the chaos surrounding out of town dance recitals for Laura's students and the complications it could cause for Ron might be comedy fodder.

It occurs to me, reading your workplace vs. home observations, that The Mary Tyler Moore Show had the same dynamic. You had Mary's co-workers and her home friends, and often they would combine (most amusingly at her disastrous dinner parties). A case could also be made that there were DVD and MTM character parallels:

Mary = Rob
Lou Grant = Alan Brady
Ted = Mel
Murray = Buddy
Phyllis = Millie
Wes Callison = Stacy Petrie
(and on a similar note, Joe Warner = Donald Hollinger)

Rhoda is like Sally, but the interesting thing is that she also has a different dynamic between being Mary's home friend and her occasional work friend (there were even shows when Rhoda worked with Mary on projects).

This is not to suggest copying on anyone's part, just to examine how these shows work so well when the chemistry, writing and talent are right.

Chester said...

Like Micah, I really want to know how long this too you to write. How much outlining did you do before you sat down to go at the script?

Really well done, Ken. Enjoyed the exercise immensely.

...And I agree with @villagedianne. Rob would not volunteer to join the Army. There would instead be college flashbacks, with college theatricals.

DyHrdMET said...

I know it's over a year later, but i finally got to reading this series of posts. it was a great episode. i could hear the voices and see the visuals in my head while I was reading it. i could tell it had your brand of humor in it, but it was also a genuine DVD show. but i really loved reading your thought process on how you got from point A to point B and so on in the story. and the network notes and feedback tied it all together. well done with the whole thing.