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Monday, April 30, 2012


Back in the early 60s, probably the one sitcom that came closest to being that era's equivalent to "Seinfeld" was "The Dick Van Dyke Show."  Winner of 15 Emmy awards, it was the pinnacle of razor-sharp, sophisticated, yet sometimes delightfully lowbrow television comedy from 1961-66, running for 158 episodes before bowing out while the show was still a success. 

Twenty of those episodes, spanning the show's five-year run, have been chosen by creator-producer Carl Reiner for Image Entertainment's 3-disc DVD set THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW: CARL REINER'S FAVORITES.  While the series has already been mined for other collections of this type, you could probably pick any number of episodes at random and still come up with a worthwhile set. 

Here, Carl Reiner (who plays the abrasive and egotistical TV comedy star "Alan Brady") has assembled a solid lineup of comedy gems, most of which he wrote himself, which tell the story of TV comedy writer and family man Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) and his zany experiences both at work and at home. 

As a writer for "The Alan Brady Show" Rob's workday is already a gagfest as he sits around the office trading barbs and ad-libs with  his co-workers, joke machine Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam) and brassy broad Sally Rogers (Rose Marie).  At home, he never knows what complications will pop up next with his beautiful but flighty wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) and mischievous son Richie (Larry Mathews), with neighbors Jerry and Millie Helper (Jerry Paris, Anne Morgan Guilbert) always getting into the act.

The pairing of the two leads was a match made in TV heaven.  Moore, who would go on to star in yet another long-running classic of her own, is not only gorgeous to look at here but is an expert comedienne who can evoke howls of laughter from the show's live audience not only with her expert line delivery but her facial expressions and body language as well. 

Dick Van Dyke, of course, is quite simply one of the most brilliant comic actors of all time.  A consummate performer, he never fails to amaze with his great depth of talent and ability and seems to bring something new and exciting to every scene.  His talent for rubber-jointed physical comedy and slapstick is on par with the great silent comedians, while his knack for verbal humor enables him to get laughs even from the less outstanding gags.  When he and Moore are together, their perfectly-matched performances are like the comedy equivalent of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

"Never Name a Duck" starts things off with one of the series' kookier episodes when Rob gets stuck with two baby ducks that grow up to be big trouble.  "The Attempted Marriage" is one of several flashback episodes dealing with Rob and Laura's early romantic difficulties.  Dabbs Greer, Sandy Kenyon, and director Ray Kellogg appear along with the great Allan Melvin as Rob's old Army buddy.  "A Bird in the Head Hurts" focuses on Richie's claims that a giant woodpecker is stalking him.  This is followed by one of the best episodes in the set, "Hustling the Hustler", in which Buddy's pool-shark brother Blackie (Phil Leeds) takes an unsuspecting Rob to the cleaners.  "Gesundheit, Darling" finds Rob in fear that he's suddenly become allergic to Laura.

"Will You Two Be My Wife?", another flashback episode, forces Rob to break off his engagement with a volatile Barbara Bain ("Mission: Impossible", "Space: 1999").  In "Ray Murdoch's X-Ray", Rob's nervous revelations about Laura's private goof-ups on a TV interview show has her steaming.  "Don't Trip Over That Mountain" features one of Dick Van Dyke's funniest performancs when Rob "bruises his body" during a skiing trip and must pretend to Laura that he's uninjured.  "The Sam Pomerantz Scandals" is the inevitable "let's put on a show" episode, with Rob and the gang filling in for the injured headliner at a friend's new nightclub.  "Divorce" gives Morey Amsterdam center stage with a sudden crisis in his marriage to Pickles (Joan Shawlee, THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT).

"Laura's Little Lie" and "Very Old Shoes, Very Old Rice" form a two-parter in which a fib Laura told Rob many years earlier could mean that they aren't legally married.  Rob runs into one of Laura's old flames (Michael Forest, "Apollo" in ST:TOS' "Who Mourns for Adonis?") in "The Life and Love of Joe Coogan", but his jealousy turns to shock when he makes an unexpected discovery. "The Plots Thicken" concerns a blow-up between Rob and Laura's parents about whom their offspring will be buried alongside when the time comes.  Rob has an idea for an episode of "The Alan Brady Show" featuring old-time radio stars in "The Return of Edwin Carp" but his plans go awry when Carp (Richard Haydn) refuses to go on at the last minute due to stage fright.

Flashback episode "Pink Pills and Purple Parents", has Mary Tyler Moore slaying the audience with her hysterical antics when a nervous Laura takes some of friend Millie's nerve pills to get her through an awkward dinner with Rob's parents and goes bonkers.  Carl Reiner appears as Alan Brady in "Baby Fat", in which Rob must punch up the script of a play Alan's appearing in by a famous but untalented playwright (Strother Martin). 

"The Green Hornet" star Van Williams guests as a handsome soldier who has Laura questioning her engagement to Rob in the final flashback episode,  "No Rice at My Wedding."  In "A Day in the Life of Alan Brady", Alan crashes Millie and Jerry Helper's anniversary party with a documentary film crew.  "Obnoxious, Offensive, Egomaniac, Etc." ends the set with more great physical comedy when Alan is inadvertently given a private copy of his next show's script which the writers loaded with insults aimed at him.  Their attempts to steal it back from him before he reads it are hilarious.

The DVD from Image Entertainment is full screen with Dolby mono sound.  No subtitles or extras.  Image quality is good with only the occasional specks and scratches. 

"The Dick Van Dyke Show" reconstructs rather than deconstructs the traditional sitcom--it was still too early to start being all ironic and self-aware about the whole thing as later shows would do.  So what Reiner, Van Dyke, and company did was to create an example of the form that was as sleek, contemporary, sharply written, slightly quirky, and expertly performed as was humanly possible.  THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW: CARL REINER'S FAVORITES gives us a pretty good idea of how successful they were. 

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