Remembering a sure-footed comedy

May 23, 1994|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

Rob Petrie, the man who did more for the ottoman than anyone since the empire, returns to prime time tonight, nearly three decades after he, his family and his fellow writers for "The Alan Brady Show" ended their five-year run as the kings and queens of television comedy.

"The Dick Van Dyke Show Remembered," airing at 8 p.m. on WBAL-Channel 11, opens with a scene from Rob and Laura Petrie's aborted wedding ceremony -- the one Rob missed because he had to hop there on one foot after his jeep ran out of gas and he sprained his ankle tripping over a rock. But the program soon shifts to the familiar opening sequence and Rob trips over the ill-placed ottoman.

For the next hour, "The Dick Van Dyke Show Remembered" takes viewers on a frenetic romp -- partially leavened by the avuncular presence of host Charles Kuralt, who tries to put the show into its historical and cultural context -- through the years DVD and his cohorts ruled TV sitcoms.

And what cohorts they were. Guided by the comic genius of creator/writer/producer Carl Reiner, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" featured one of television's great ensemble casts. Mr. Van Dyke, who idolized Stan Laurel, was an extremely gifted physical comic who never tried to upstage his co-stars. Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie, as comedy writers Buddy Sorrell and Sally Rogers, essentially played themselves -- and were cast perfectly.

And if for no other reason, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" would be revered for showcasing the heretofore undiscovered talents of Mary Tyler Moore.

Not that the show had all that much competition in its day. When "The Dick Van Dyke Show" debuted in 1961, the two classic sitcom pioneers -- "I Love Lucy" and "The Honeymooners" -- had been off the air four and five years, respectively. While the intervening years had been filled with such enjoyable efforts as TC "Leave It to Beaver," "The Danny Thomas Show" and "The Andy Griffith Show," sitcoms had yet to extend themselves beyond the limits Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason had established.

"The Dick Van Dyke Show" was different. As Mr. Kuralt intones in his narrative, the show "took television a giant step closer to real life." For the first time, a sitcom split its time equally between the main character's home and workplace (a formula to be applied with equal success nine years later, when "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" debuted). And few would argue that Rob and Laura Petrie, as portrayed by the attractive and likable Mr. Van Dyke and Ms. Moore, were the sexiest couple on TV.

"For the first time on television," Mr. Kuralt explains, "these two people were obviously in love." While that may overstate the case a bit -- Lucy and Ricky certainly loved each other in their own way -- sparks definitely seemed to fly between Rob and Laura. The show even caused a minor scandal when Ms. Moore opted to wear Capri pants around the house. Mr. Reiner laughs as he recalls that at least one sponsor was worried Ms. Moore's shapely backside could prove too much for network television.

"It was the dumbest thing I'd ever heard," Mr. Reiner says.

Like many shows of its ilk, "The Dick Van Dyke Show Remembered" will be most appreciated by those already familiar with what it honors. The dozens of seconds-long clips on display tonight, while funny in their own right, are best used as teasers that trigger memories of an entire show. Mr. Van Dyke, Ms. Moore, Mr. Reiner and Sheldon Leonard, the series' executive producer, offer the best commentary, while Mr. Amsterdam, Rose Marie, Larry Matthews (the Petries' son, Richie) and Ann Guilbert (next-door neighbor Millie Helper) show up basically so viewers can see what they look like today.

Not everything about tonight's show works. A seven-minute block that's basically a Reader's Digest version of one of the series' best shows -- "Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth," in which Laura reveals to a national television audience that comedian Alan Brady, Rob's boss, wears a toupee -- could have been better used to showcase more clips or extended interviews. The episode is a classic (it's even been enshrined in New York's Museum of Broadcasting), but why couldn't the special be expanded to include the entire show?

And the decision not to even mention, by name, Richard Deacon (Mel Cooley, Alan Brady's brother-in-law and much-put-upon producer) or Jerry Paris, who not only played next-door neighbor Jerry Helper but also directed many of the shows, seems at best ungrateful.

But at least this reunion show avoids the pitfalls of some of its predecessors -- like the banal chit-chat among surviving cast members that marred a reunion of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," or the extended production number that ended a reunion of "The Carol Burnett Show" by reminding viewers not of how funny the show was, but how limited some of the performers on it were.

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