“The Dick Van Dyke Show”: 60 Years of That Ottoman

classic sitcoms

The year was 1961, an era more innocent and restrained than what was to follow later in the decade. The nuclear family was standard, the husband went to work, the wife looked after the home. But within this format was the ability to laugh uproariously, screw up hilariously and love fiercely. And the sitcom that exemplified this was The Dick Van Dyke Show.

The Dick Van Dyke Show ran from 1961-65, the creation of the legendary Carl Reiner, who had the idea of taking the humor from his own life (working as a comedy writer in New York City and going home to his wife and son) and making it flesh for the TV audience. It didn’t pan out quite as expected. His 1960 pilot Head of the Family, starring himself, didn’t make the cut. So he reworked it with actor/comedian Dick Van Dyke in the main role as comedy writer Rob Petrie. It took a while to find its audience but emerged as an enduring hit.

Van Dyke, still a national treasure today in his mid-90s, famously begins most of the series with a spectacular trip over an ottoman. He’s happily married to Laura, played by a young Mary Tyler Moore with the exquisite comic timing and acting/dancing chops that heralded the iconic status that awaited her. They have a spirited kid named Ritchie (Larry Mathews) who stirs up gentle chaos. A running joke was his race to Rob when he came home from the office, asking, “Did you bring me anything, Daddy?” Rob would obligingly produce a rubber band or a paper clip and Ritchie was thrilled.

Their neighbors Jerry and Millie Helper (Jerry Paris and Ann Morgan Guilbert) were true-blue buddies who occasionally stirred the friendship pot. That was the home front.

The office front was a peek into the world of comedy writing and workday skirmishes. Rob had two other writers on staff, Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam) and Sally Rogers (Rose Marie), and this witty threesome made for comedy gold. Buddy (loosely based on a young Mel Brooks) is a glorious New Yawk nutcase. Sally’s dearest desire is to get married. The three of them wrote a show for the cantankerous Alan Brady (played with snark by Carl Reiner in a nod to Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason).

At home and at work, Van Dyke was the witty focal point, the loving family man at home and generous mentor at the office. In both contexts, he was responsible but had a refreshing sense of fun. Rob and Laura’s marriage is a great mix of passion and chemistry (both he and Moore copped to a crush on each other in their respective memoirs.) Laura was the beauteous USO dancer who gave up her career to be an at-home mom. She was content in this role but was clearly the one who wore the (Capri) pants in the family. Her signature tagline (“Ohhhh, ROB!”) was a bit of a red herring – she understood her husband better than he did himself. She was coiffed much like Jacqueline Kennedy throughout the series but was very much her own woman.

The Dick Van Dyke Show utilized dance and music in a way done far less often today – the series is liberally sprinkled with bright musical performances in people’s homes. It reads as charmingly dated but was a fine way to utilize the skills of the highly musical cast. Rose Marie was a great chanteuse; Morey Amsterdam was a skilled cellist. And of course Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore were gifted dancers and singers.

The humor is mostly that of recognition: a kiddie birthday party gone awry, an overheard scrap of criticism from the neighbors, office politics, quirky in-laws, high-maintenance guests. The gentle observational laughs were served up regularly, but at times, went deliciously wonky. In the 1963 episode “It May Look Like a Walnut,” a sci-fi movie the Petries are watching morphs into “reality” culminating with Laura popping out of a closet, sliding down an avalanche of walnuts.

In 1964’s “I’d Rather Be Bald Than Have No Head at All,” Rob tries a hair-loss treatment that yields him a full, healthy head…of lettuce. In another episode, Laura spends much of it offscreen when she gets her toe stuck in a bathtub faucet. Stories are often told in lively flashbacks.

The level of sustained entertainment for five seasons is consummate. Reiner made a point to avoid using current slang expressions because he didn’t want to date things unduly; he was prescient enough to know that this was a show that would hold up with the years. While it is, indeed, a time capsule of the 1960s, it also remains relatable.

The Dick Van Dyke Show lives on, on Hulu, Amazon, YouTube and elsewhere. It remains a masterpiece of the sitcom genre, a show that celebrates the wit of daily living and also provides great musical entertainment. And it goes down as easy as Rob Petrie flying over that ottoman.

-Ellen Fagan





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Ellen Fagan is a forever New Yorker, long-time Greenwich Village resident and vintage Duke University graduate with hippie-esque leanings. The best description of Ellen was given to her by a sardonic lawyer during the voir dire of one of her myriad Jury Duty stints: "...housewife, mom, voracious reader, freelance writer, copy editor, jewelry designer and frequent cyber-sleuth."

12 comments on ““The Dick Van Dyke Show”: 60 Years of That Ottoman

  1. This is a very well-written summary of one of my all-time favorite sitcoms. As I read the descriptions of the highlights, I could almost immediately hear and see them, even though my DVD player isn’t switched on at the moment. The opening titles were amazing – first season with a bunch of mock 8×0 glossies being tossed about with a souped-up jazz arrangement of the title theme, complete with bongos (love it) – the other seasons were more or less the eccentric cool jazz-loving cousin of Father Knows Best as dad not only trips on his own furniture, but is helped back up on his feet by his co workers who were in his house ahead of him. This is just as clever a parody of then-typical sitcom title sequences as was that of The Munsters. The good old days in which the COM in sitcom actually stood for and offered COMedy. Please don’t get me started on Diff’rent Strokes OR Growing Pains. I wish to focus on happy, positive thoughts today.

  2. Ellen C Fagan

    Right on! Many thanks…I too got a kick out of the early headshot array but grew to love the more lasting “let’s get everyone in the cast in the frame” shot. 🙂

  3. Gary M Theroux

    Excellent. insightful analysis.

  4. Ellen Fagan

    Thank you so much!!

  5. Lisa Sansone

    Another wonderful trip down sitcom memory lane from Ellen Fagan.

  6. Dwayne Gobin

    Thank you so much for the pleasant positive review that you gave on this timeless tv series! It is one of my favorites!

  7. Rob tripped over the ottoman in less than 1/2 of the total openings.

  8. Nice piece. Thanks for not mentioning the later incarnation of the Dick Van Dyke Show, early or mid Seventies I think. Like Godfather III, you wish it had never been made.

    • Ellen Fagan

      I recall it ever so vaguely from my childhood…kind of an empty husk of the original.

  9. So nice to revisit the show, and thank you for being the guide! A couple points: Alan Brady is firmly based on Reiner’s real-life boss/co-worker, Sid Caesar. And Sally Rogers is based on Selma Diamond, the only woman I know holding her own in writers’ rooms back in the day. Reiner, Brooks, and Diamond, along with Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, and Woody Allen, all worked on Sid Caesar shows. And wandering the Internet, I stumbled (no pun intended, well ok: yes, intended) on this tidbit about the ottoman:

  10. Ellen Fagan

    Thanks so much, Nita! Love the link to the ottoman lore. Spectacular show on every level…

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