Unlike so many comedy icons who rose to prominence in the mid-20th century, particularly those born to Jewish immigrants and raised somewhere in New York City, Carl Reiner never played the Catskills. In fact, he was never really a stand-up comedian at all except when maybe after he already had become famous he was asked to emcee various show biz functions. The facts are murky, but Reiner seems to have started out as a straight actor. Somewhere along the way a now-forgotten Broadway casting director thought he might make a good straight actor in comedies--that is, a straight man, the guy who feeds the lines to some clownish character who then turns the whole thing into a joke. The more successful of these comedies were "revues", collections of skits and musical numbers, including Call Me Mister, which dealt with returning World War II vets (Reiner himself happened to be one in real life.) Television came along about this time, and the revue format made the transition to the new medium, where it soon became known as the "variety show". Texaco Star Theater, starring Milton Berle, was one early example. Another was Your Show of Shows.
Sid Caesar wasn't just content to act in these sketches but also wanted some say in how they came to be written. And he thought, or hoped, his costars might want some say also. To that end the entire cast had an open invitation to the writer's room. Reiner took this invitation very seriously, so much so that, long before this week's obits appeared, he was regularly described as having been a member of the Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour's writing staffs, alongside such future comedy legends as Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Larry Gelbart. Yet he never received any onscreen credit. His contribution would have been hard to pin down anyway. Caesar's sketches were room written. A single person may have come up with a central concept (often Caesar himself), but then a dozen or so writers added jokes. That is, if they could be heard above the din as this highly competitive bunch weren't known to politely take turns (a young, introverted Woody Allen, who worked on specials Caesar did toward the end of the 1950s, hated the atmosphere, preferring to write a ton of jokes at home and then see if he could fit them in somewhere.) Watching the old kinescopes on YouTube, it's fun to speculate that "This joke could only have come from Brooks" or "That gag has Simon written all over it" but they were just as likely to have been written by Head Writer Mel Tolkin, well-respected in his field though never a household name. And even once the sketch was put down on paper, Caesar wasn't above ad libbing. Getting back to Reiner, since he wasn't listed in the credits, and there were enough writers already, could his be contribution have been exaggerated? I would say yes if it weren't for the fact that onscreen proof of his writing talents in a non-Caesar project was right around the corner.
Ironically, Reiner the non-writer writer was the first of Caesar's crew to write a book, an autobiographical novel titled Enter Laughing, which fellow Your Show of Shows writer (and future Fiddler on the Roof librettist) Joseph Stein turned into a hit Broadway play that Reiner himself adapted for the big screen. But Reiner hadn't yet given up playing straight man. In fact, he was primed to play straight man in one of the most celebrated, if intermittent, comedy teams of the postwar era.
as among the least sophisticated. To that end I wonder if there was some strategic decision behind Van Dyke tripping over the ottoman at the beginning of the second season (the first season's opening credits just showed photographs of the stars), a way of assuring the yahoos watching Hillbillies that nothing too hifalutin was about to follow. Actually, compared to later sitcoms such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, MASH, Cheers, and Seinfeld, The Dick Van Dyke Show may not seem as sophisticated as it once did. But it remains quite funny, a mélange of workplace comedy, domestic comedy, physical comedy, and musical comedy, along with being a show biz satire (but then satire is merely a hifalutin form of comedy, isn't it?) In this revamped version of Reiner's original concept, Van Dyke's Rob Petrie is a smart, decent, but accident-prone family man whom, it's suggested, derives comic inspiration from his own klutziness. In fact, I sometimes think the slapstick may have been the most truly sophisticated aspect of the series, a reminder that no matter how good a joke a Rob Petrie can come up with on a typewriter, God, Fate, or Chance will come up with an even better one, that you can sidestep the ottoman, but stumble on the carpet anyway (as happens in later seasons.) Van Dyke was assisted by a terrific acting ensemble (none of whom were in the Head of the Family pilot.) The aforementioned Mary Tyler Moore as the pretty, now downright sexy capris pants-clad wife, Borsht Belt comic Morey Amsterdam as Borsht Belt comedy writer Buddy Sorrell (reportedly based on Mel Brooks), gravel-voiced Rose-Marie as the wise-cracking comedy writer Sally Rogers (reportedly based on Selma Diamond, who wrote for Caesar), Richard Deacon as the stuffy, sycophantic producer Mel Cooley (reportedly based on Mitch McConnell--no, just joking, that would be impossible), Ann Guilbert as the excitable next-door-neighbor Millie Helper, Jerry Paris as Jerry Helper, Millie's more laid-back husband (he has to be, he's a dentist), and Larry Mathews as Rob and Laura's son, who showed up every now and then to remind everyone that Rob was indeed a family man. Carl Reiner wrote over 50 episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, including such classics as "Never Bathe on Saturday" (in which Laura gets stuck in a bathtub--you had to be there), and "It May Look Like a Walnut" (an Invasion of the Body Snatchers parody in which a zombified Buddy Sorrell asks "Did you hear the one about the nearsighted turtle who fell in live with an army helmet?") Eventually, Reiner handed over the writing to others, including writing teams Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson (who later co-created the 1970s TV version of The Odd Couple, and, separately, the former created Happy Days and the latter wrote the screenplay for the 1970s feature film Smile, a beauty pageant satire), and Bill Persky and Sam Denoff (who later co-created That Girl.) Reiner stayed on as a producer. And made one other, in my opinion, huge contribution to the series.