Friday, March 09, 2012

Dick Van Dyke

So every evening I watch a few episodes of TV with my mom. We've worked our way through quite a bit so far. Angel, Buffy, Firefly, Castle, Burn Notice, Doc Martin, Downton Abbey, The Vicar of Dibley, Mad Men, Sherlock, and White Collar. Mom's always had this weird thing where she's uncomfortable stealing stuff, so we've been taking advantage of Netflix on my XBox. Which means we only have to steal most of what we want to watch, if we want to stay current with time-shifted viewing. Recently she learned that The Dick Van Dyke show was on there and wanted to watch it.

We watched the pilot last night. For her it was a trip down memory lane, watching a show that first aired when she was sixteen. For me it was cultural anthropology (like Mad Men).

First up: Seinfeld Is Unfunny. Now, I'm not actually saying that Seinfeld wasn't funny. I never really watched the show, so I can only assume it was incredibly popular for a reason. However, if I were to go back and watch it I'd probably find it amusing, but a little clich├ęd and formulaic because it's been copied so much since then. Also, as with anything else, humor develops and is improved upon. A joke can be spun and wrung through dozens of themes and variations, and it can be paired and combined and and looped so that, rather than standing on its own, it becomes part of a humor symphony of a dozen jokes all supporting each other for a much funnier effect than each would achieve on its own. What I'm trying to say is that, ground-breakingly funny as the DVD show was fifty years ago, the ground it broke has since been rebroken and retread and ground up to the point that half its stories are so formulaic* as to be boring and the other half so formulaic that the formulae aren't even used any more.

For example, Bob is complaining volubly about Alice. Alice walks up behind him and hears the whole thing. Bob doesn't know this, but the audience does, creating dramatic irony. For years this was played straight. However, that started to get tired, so people started setting it up only to subvert it by realizing that Alice was right behind Bob. But even that got tired, so now it's being subverted. No, Bender, Morgan Proctor (bureaucrat grade 19) isn't right behind you she's right in front of you.

So the DVD show's pilot gives us a team of comedy writers** (on The Allen Brady show) invited to a work party, only the head writer's son might be coming down with something. Mom's worried, dad wants to hurry out the door to get to an important dinner party to shmooze with rich folks. They get there and are delayed as dad "entertains" and mom wants to rush out the door. They get home to find that the doctor is there! A gasp of shock and alarm! It's okay; the babysitter hit her head on the freezer door. All in all, fairly formulaic, with jokes here and there. I never had any laugh out loud moments, but quite a few smiles of amusement.

Second: Cultural anthropology. While watching, I kept trying to figure out "How would this have been seen fifty years ago? Funny? Trite? Pushing the envelope?". Apparently one of the more radical elements was that Mary Tyler Moore wore pants. Women just didn't do that back then. On television. Something else I probably would never have noticed while surfing past the show on Nick at Nite, the subtle things they did to indicate that Rob finds his wife sexy. Okay, not all that subtle, but subtle enough when you consider that, compared to what came later, they weren't allowed to show much. Perhaps the most suggestive was at the end when she says, "I'm a woman." while taking off her pearl necklace... wow, actually.

Another thing you don't really see too much of; physical comedy. Okay, we still get physical comedy in our shows, but not to the degree you see in the pilot here. DVD was damn good at it, too, doing a bit at the dinner party of a guy who doesn't normally drink who's had a few too many and is hiding it from his wife. The humor comes from the rapid shifts back and forth between a loose-limbed, stumbling, mumbling drunk and an upright, dapper, sober fellow. Of course, given that you haven't seen that kind of comedy on big or small screens in fifty years, it's dated. Also, jokes as jokes don't really appear much any more, especially not one after the other. Part of the "entertainment" Rob and his fellow writers provided was a bunch of corny jokes.

All told, I don't really want to watch the show every night, but it's interesting to see how TV has changed in fifty years.

* I assume. You can't really expect a pilot to really go new places; you have to lay groundwork. But still, we're talking about a fifty year old TV show.

** I know they say "write what you know", but come on, Hollywood!
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