It almost makes you wanna trip over an ottoman, just for the hell of it.
Today marks fifty years since the premiere of The Dick Van Dyke Show, one of the most iconic and influential sitcoms in television history. The Dick Van Dyke Show, starred (you probably don’t need us to tell you) Dick Van Dyke as Rob Petrie, a family man and comedy writer for a New York City-based variety TV show. TDVDS seems to have all the facets of your standard workplace comedy—tyrannical boss, wisecracking coworkers, put-upon errand boy — but there’s something that differentiates this series from others of its type: it was the first of its kind.
In fact, TDVDS was a pioneer not just as a workplace comedy (seriously—name one that came before it), but also in its portrayal of woman and minorities. One of the main characters, Sally Rogers, was a brash, single woman and professional comedy writer. TDVDS was nearly unprecedented in its portrayal of a black family as economic and societal equals to the Petries. And finally, it was one of the first shows to include a number of Jewish characters.
But in addition to these important sociopolitical steps, it was also the foundation for several types of comedic characters that have stood the test of time. We may not realize this, but characters from our favorite sitcoms today—workplace, family, all genres—draw inspiration from the cast of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Liz Lemon is the hapless head writer of TGS with Tracy Jordan, a sketch comedy show on NBC. Since the series’ start, Liz is illustrated as a career woman who has let her work addiction, and (often ironically counterproductive) measures to advance the depiction of women on television, stand in the way of her personal life. However, Liz’s mission is to “have it all.” She wants to meet a good man and start a family, but is in no way willing to give up her demanding job. Additionally, the scattered attempts Liz does make at finding love are always ill-fated, either by her own abrasive personality or by her attraction to terrible men.
Each and every one of these characteristics can be traced back to Rose Marie’s character, Sally Rogers, on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Sally’s lack of apparent femininity led her to often be jokingly referred to as “one of the guys” by coworkers Rob and Buddy. She was a markedly successful professional writer, but she often lamented her inability to find a husband. The few men that Sally was seen with over the course of the series never offered much promise: her on-off love interest Herman Glimscher was immature (much like Liz’s recurring boyfriend, and the best character in the history of television, Dennis Duffy). Furthermore, Sally often drove men away due to her unbridled personality and sense of humor.
Tom Haverford (
While he was employed at the Parks Department of Pawnee, Indiana, Tom Haverford was rarely seen contributing to anything but the office vibe. Tom is an incurable wiseass. At every waking opportunity, he goofs off and makes fun of his coworkers (specifically Jerry…and Leslie…and Ben…and Jerry). There have been many quick-witted slackers over the years, but Tom is one we are pleased to have with us today. And, of course, we might not have Tom if we never had Morey Amsterdam’s character, Buddy Sorrell, on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Although Buddy’s work ethic was slightly more impressive than Tom’s (after all, he was a comedy writer, so technically, making fun of the producer was part of the job…right?), he was not exactly a model employee. Buddy never let an opportunity to snark at producer Mel Cooley slip by, usually vying for the obvious target of his baldness. Like Tom, Buddy was shown to be a decent guy underneath his attitude — still a jackass, but a decent jackass.
Every fan of Community (that I know) cheers whenever Greendale Community College’s Dean Craig Pelton struts into the library to deliver what will inevitably be unappreciated, irrelevant, and annoying news to the study group. The dean is the biggest victim of the eightsome’s constant barrage of mockery due to his overzealous embrace of everything that he has to say. Somehow, despite his laughable appearance and incredibly peculiar personality, Dean Pelton takes himself incredibly seriously, and takes great offense to anyone who insults him or his job.
In this case, there are as many physical similarities between Pelton and Richard Deacon’s Dick Van Dyke character Mel Cooley as there are personal. The bald, bespectacled Mel cherished his position of authoirty over the fun-loving gang of writers. However, his authority was strictly in title; he rarely commanded any respect from the trio, especially Buddy. Mel was the victim of endless abuse from the wisecracking comedians. Still, he carried out his position with great pride, much like Dean Pelton does his. Of course, Mel was never shown to be a pansexual deviant…maybe Community got that from Leave it to Beaver.
Ah, the horrible boss. Beyond every other staple in workplace comedy has this one pervaded. Now, one might find it curious that, in use of The Office, we wouldn’t highlight the iconic Michael Scott as the ‘bad boss.’ The thing is, Michael, while bumbling, insecure, immature, and ill-equipped for his position, was actually a pretty decent guy…underneath it all, anyway. Ryan Howard, however, during his reign as Michael’s superior at Dunder Mifflin Corporate, was very much the opposite. He embodied perfectly the ‘evil boss.’ He was seflish, egotistical, insensitive, and obsessed with own success over others’ and the company’s. He was not above belittling, berating or manipulating his employees if it meant getting what he wanted.
Over the years, there have been many, many terrible bosses. But they all date back to creator Carl Reiner’s character Alan Brady, star of the in-universe Alan Brady Show for which Rob, Sally and Buddy were writers. Alan originated as a faceless character, much like the George Steinbrenner character we saw in Seinfeld. Once the show made a transition into depicting Brady as a full-fledged character, he got meaner, ruder, more narcissitic and less compassionate — especially to his own brother-in-law, Mel.
Phil and Claire are a classic formula. Goofy husband, high-strung wife. Both good-hearted and devoted to one another. Unlike some other series of recent past, it is easy to see why Phil and Claire love each other. Their differences are not played to extremes in the interests of laughable chaos. We actually see plenty of their similarities, as well. While Phil’s bumbling nature often causes Claire grief, and Claire’s flusterability (just go with it) might upset Phil, we never doubt that they’re right for each other.
And this is something we definitely find in Rob and Laura Petrie, played by Dick Van Dyke himself and the great Mary Tyler Moore. They started it all: the great married couple. Not perfect to the point of inhuman like the Cleavers. Not flawed to the point of “Well, why are they even married?” like the Barrones. Totally real. Totally lovable. Totally memorable. Like the show itself, a true legacy.