Friday, March 27, 2015

Favorite TV Show Episode Blogathon -- "The Dick Van Dyke Show: Scratch My Car and Die"

This is part of the Favorite TV Show Episode Blogathon sponsored by Terence at A Shroud of Thoughts.

"Scratch My Car and Die" aired on March 25, 1964, approximately midway through the five-year run of "The Dick Van Dyke Show," and by no means is it the best episode of the series.

And that, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is EXACTLY my point!

Because even though it might not be the best, it's still pretty great. It's a perfect example of the kind of supreme sitcom splendor that "The Dick Van Dyke Show" pulled off on practically a weekly basis -- the kind of polished, well-written, perfectly performed, quietly revolutionary stuff that we can still watch and admire 50 (50!) years later.

In the event that you just emerged from a Maori encampment, here's the show's basic setup -- Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) is head writer for "The Alan Brady Show," a New York-based TV variety series. He lives on Bonnie Meadow Road in New Rochelle, NY with wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) and son Ritchie (Larry Mathews) and he works with professional wisenheimers Sally Rogers (Rose Marie) and Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam) and priggish producer Mel Cooley (Richard Deacon).

"The Dick Van Dyke Show" was created and largely written by Carl Reiner, a longtime writer and performer with Sid Caesar on "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour."  Reiner took elements of the show from his own personal and
professional life -- he named Rob Petrie after his son Rob, and Laura Petrie was based on his wife, Estelle. He even included the street where he lived -- except in Reiner's case, it was Bonnie Meadow Road in Scarsdale, not New Rochelle.

Despite critical acclaim, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" wasn't an immediate hit; in fact, due to low ratings it was almost cancelled after one season. But executive producer Sheldon Leonard wangled new sponsor support and the show was moved from Tuesdays to a Wednesday night time slot immediately following TV's new number one show, "The Beverly Hillbillies," thus inheriting a massive audience. So the survival of the Petrie family was due largely to the ratings success of the Clampett family.

But "The Dick Van Dyke Show" had little in common with "The Beverly Hillbillies," or, for that matter, almost any other sitcom on TV in the early 1960s.

For one thing, it combined slapstick humor and witty dialogue with a skill that would be unequaled until "Frasier" came along in the mid-1990s. For another, the show was grounded in reality. Reiner's philosophy, and the advice he would give to other writers on the show, was simple: "Tell the truth." "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was life according to life, not life according to other sitcoms.  

All those people! No wonder Rob and Laura slept in separate beds.
As a result, partly by happenstance and partly through intention, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was as revolutionary as a sitcom could be for the time. Rob and Laura Petrie were a realistic married couple who were clearly attracted to each other even as they had the occasional argument -- and even though they slept in censor-mandated twin beds.

Laura dressed more like a realistic housewife than, say, June Cleaver -- Mary Tyler Moore's wardrobe choice of capri pants rather than a dress caused a mini-fashion stir at the time.

Also, the show's structure utilized dreams -- Rob's nightmare about aliens in "It May Look Like a Walnut," for example -- and flashbacks to Rob's Army days and his courtship and marriage to Laura.

Finally, by using African-Americans in "normal" roles as equals -- Godfrey Cambridge as a government agent, Greg Morris as Rob's Army buddy -- the show made subtle statements about racial equality in the midst of the civil rights era. (There's also, of course, the memorable flashback episode in which Rob was sure that the newborn Richie actually belonged to another couple, who turned out to be black (Morris again, as the husband).) And finally, Buddy Sorrell -- a central figure in the series -- was unmistakably Jewish. (There was even an episode about his belated bar mitzvah.)

On the set, 1963. Director Jerry Paris, who also played next-door
neighbor Jerry Helper, is wearing the cardigan sweater and tie.
(Photos are from Look magazine and posted on one of my favorite
sites, www.shorpy.com.)
Still, this was a situation comedy and not a documentary. So there were instances when Rob and Laura acted scatterbrained. But the behavior was always rooted in real reactive behavior -- they were never silly just for silliness' sake. And despite Laura's catchphrase of "Oh, Roooobb!," endlessly cited by people who don't know much about the show, the goofiness was distributed evenly between Rob and Laura, and "Scratch My Car and Die" offers a great example.

The episode was written by John Whedon, the grandfather of Joss Whedon, he of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "The Avengers." John Whedon's writing career dated to the 1940s radio series "The Great Gildersleeve," and he wrote quite a few episodes of "The Donna Reed Show." But "Scratch My Car and Die" gave him the chance to include more satire -- and more examples of honest behavior -- than an average Donna Reed script. The episode's director, Howard Morris, was also a performer with Reiner on "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour" and also played Ernest T. Bass on "The Andy Griffith Show."

We open at the Petrie home, where Rob can't quit looking out the front door at his new car in the driveway. "Laura," he says, "will you look at that shaft of moonlight shining on our Tarantula?"

Rob: Do you know what the great thing about this car is?

Laura: That you can't bring it into the house.

Rob loves the styling -- even the ashtrays are teardrop-shaped -- the power and, most of all, the STATUS. He immediately calls next-door neighbor Jerry to brag about it, but Jerry can't come over. Rob is disappointed. "What's the sense of having a new car if you can't have your best friends envious of you?"

Then he gets even worse news from Laura -- she has to do carpool in the morning, and her car is in the shop, so she has to borrow the Tarantula. Rob is disconsolate -- he's bought a driving hat and everything:

Rob: [The kids will] ruin the new car smell with their peanut butter sandwich smell!

Laura: I'll put the sandwiches in the trunk.

Rob: There is no trunk -- that's the auxiliary motor!

Rob (to Ritchie): "This car is not the old station wagon. I don't want any candy wrappers or gum or lollipops on the seats
and I don't want any taffy or gunky stuff in the ashtrays. Rich, are you listening to me?"
Laura: "Darling, if you want him to listen to you, you're going to have to take off the hat."
The next day, Laura drives the kids to school and stops at the market. She comes home and confides to her best friend Millie (Ann Morgan Guilbert) that while the car was parked, someone scratched it:

Millie: Front or back?

Laura: Yes!

Classic sitcom conflict, right? Yes, but the way it's handled demonstrates the genius of "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

Unlike many a sitcom wife, Laura doesn't tell Rob about the scratch -- she gets moral support from Millie: "Look, it wasn't your fault the car got scratched, right? But is Rob gonna believe that? No, he's gonna use it as an example against women drivers, and you'll be giving our whole wonderful sex a black eye."

Laura tries to persuade Rob to let her have the car for one more day for carpool -- actually, so she can get it fixed. But he sneaks out and drives the car to work. Now Laura is positive that she needs to tell Rob, but Millie holds tough: "Look, before you tell him the truth, give lying another chance, okay?"

At the office, Rob enters furious and frazzled. He can't even speak, which leads to a game of charades with Buddy, Sally and Mel:

Sally: Rob -- you gonna cry?

(Rob nods)

Mel: What's the matter?

Sally: Well, he's either got a toothache or somebody stepped on his Tarantula.

(Rob stamps desk affirmatively)

Rob thinks the scratch happened in the parking garage.  He comes home furious and zooms off to see his attorney. Laura feels worse than ever. Rob returns home sheepish -- in his anger, he has run the car into a couple of concrete posts in his attorney's driveway.

So the situation that drives the comedy ends up being largely irrelevant, and the humor comes from recognizable behavior -- Rob's obsession with his new car. From his silly hat to his instructions to Laura -- "Don't park it under a tree. Or under a bird." -- Rob is the comic center of this episode. As I said, it isn't perfect -- there are a few jokes about women drivers that don't date very well. But there's so much that's good here -- and, again, on a consistent basis for more than 150 episodes, that's how they rolled at "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

Rob and Laura Petrie have been reunited on several shows, including the absolutely terrible 2004 special "The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited." Here they are on a 1979 episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Hour" (which featured Michael Keaton as a regular):