Oh, Rob, It Really Wasn't A Simpler Time: 'Dick Van Dyke' Turns 50

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the premiere of “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Naturally, there were outpourings of love from all corners of the blogosphere -- particularly from contemporary TV comedy writers who insist that they were inspired as kids by the smart writing of the series. I tend to believe it. There’s no doubt that the series had a level of character-driven comic sophistication that was missing from a lot of television at the time. Was it a paradigm shift in television comedy? Maybe. We can certainly see the DNA of the series in many of the shows that followed it.

Why has the series lasted so long? (Viewer demand seems so strong that TV Land has opted to run the series on its network, even though there are many online options out there, including Hulu.) The great thing is, regardless of the platform it appears on, the show begs to be watched. I think it’s because the fundamental cultural changes we’ve experienced as a nation in 50 years don’t matter when your characters are so solid, and your story premises are just within the realm of possibility. Who hasn’t had an egocentric boss like Alan Brady? Whose curiosity hasn’t gotten the best of them when a package is delivered to someone else? Who hasn’t wanted their very own “Oh, Rob!” catchphrase of frustration/happiness/anger/love?

When you look at the year 1961, you can see there are many parallels to today’s political and media landscape. 1961 was the year Newton Minow gave his “Vast Wasteland” speech condemning the violent and vacuous nature of TV. It was not a “simpler time.” Racism, economic inequities, and segregation were very much in the forefront of 1960s culture. Some will condemn shows like The Dick Van Dyke Show for not doing more in this respect, but watch “That’s My Boy,” a brilliant episode where Rob believes that his baby was switched at the hospital, only to find that his proposed “real” son was parented by an African-American couple! It’s so easy to picture the same thing happening today on a show like “Modern Family” -- the naturalness of the minority couple being in on the joke when they arrive at the door….

It was through these subtle stories, devoid of references to current events, and often based on real-life premises, that made the show so good. Carl Reiner, like so many of today’s top showrunners, was an auteur who knew what he wanted – and wrote most of the first season scripts himself. His son Rob Reiner discusses those perils in this clip from his Archive interview.

So when you’re sitting down to watch a finely crafted “Modern Family” or another one of today’s great series, take a moment to trip over the living room ottoman (yup, 50 years later we still have those) in honor of one of the forebears of great TV.

3 comments about "Oh, Rob, It Really Wasn't A Simpler Time: 'Dick Van Dyke' Turns 50".
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  1. Ellen Lebowitz from Ellen Lebowitz Press, October 12, 2011 at 12:39 p.m.

    You hit the nail on the head, Karen. No, the "Dick Van Dyke" era was not a better, simpler or easier time.

    Maybe people are so nostalgic now because, ofcourse, they're older now. It's called aging.

    Sitcoms like "Dyke Van Dyke" were scripted shows with story lines. They were funny. They had memorable characters.

    Maybe that's what people miss. It cannot be the sexism or racism.

    Thank you.

  2. Christopher Hosford from BtoB magazine, October 13, 2011 at 12:03 p.m.

    Great show. I definitely was in love with Laura. What a cutie! In those pedal-pushers!

  3. Jim O'neal from Independant Media Consultant, October 13, 2011 at 12:12 p.m.

    Yes, it was a great show, with smart, funny writing and cast...and you correctly refer to Modern Family, which is the best series on now (not dumbed down to L.C.D. viewer) Thank you Chris Lloyd/Steve Levitan, cast and crew for bringing back truly funny tv...

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