Monday, October 3, 2011

One in 50 Million :: That's My Boy?? or My Contribution to The Dick Van Dyke Show Blogathon!

When you consider his exhaustive (and exhausting) comedic credits both in front of and behind the camera, I'm not really going out on much of a limb when I declare that Carl Reiner is, was and ever shall be one of the funniest people on the face of the planet. He could be the merry jester, sure, but where he really left his mark was as a straight-man / sounding board, who rode herd on many a stampeding funny-man and woman, letting them run as fast as they could, seemingly out of control, but always reined them in just enough to steer them toward the big payoff. Be it for Sid Caesar or Mel Brooks, Reiner, I think, is kinda under-appreciated as a straight-man -- as most straight-men are. And off-shooting from that Reiner also perfected the long suffering every-man, caught in the eye of a hurricane of chaos and hilarity that would often overtake him and then spit him out, leaving him frayed, flabbergasted and flummoxed in its wake, much to the audiences' delight.
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"You have to imagine yourself as not somebody very special but somebody very ordinary. If you imagine yourself as somebody really normal and if it makes you laugh, it's going to make everybody laugh. If you think of yourself as something very special, you'll end up a pedant and a bore. If you start thinking about what's funny, you won't be funny, actually. It's like walking. How do you walk? If you start thinking about it, you'll trip."
-- Carl Reiner xxx
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Taking those notions and combining them with the comedic potential found in the deceptive mundane-ness of everyday life, mostly his own, Reiner wrote and starred in a familiar sounding TV pilot called Head of the Family (1959), about a head-writer for variety show, his kooky co-workers, and the trials and tribulations of family life with his long suffering wife and recalcitrant son. The pilot didn't sell but Reiner didn't give up on it. And with a little re-tooling and a massive cast overhaul, Head of the Family became...

And though Van Dyke brought a lot to the table, that's still Carl Reiner's life being channeled through him into Robert Petrie. Combining their comic sensibilities (Van Dyke's physicality and Reiner's impeccable timing), along with a pitch-perfect supporting cast, the results, as they say, speak for themselves as their sit-com has never been topped in the last fifty years as far as I'm concerned. It's definitely the best (though not my favorite -- for that we'll have to head to Fort Courage sometime...), the formula worked and it seldom strayed. It didn't need to.

That's My Boy?? is fairly typical episode: meaning, hilarious. And like any good joke or skit, it starts slow and then gains momentum with plenty of gags along the way, each laugh louder and longer than the last, as circumstances keep feeding the main thread, building more and more momentum, escalating exponentially with each earned laugh, until the ultimate payoff.

Like I said before, the episode starts slow with another Petrie house party winding down. Apparently, Rob's long suffering producer, Mel Cooley (Richard Deacon), is bacheloring it for a few days since his wife is out of town, visiting his sister-in-law who just welcomed home a new baby girl. The conversation about who the baby resembles the most brings chuckles from Rob's wife, Laura (Mary Tyler Moore), and the other guests, neighbors Millie and Jerry Helper (Ann Morgan Guilbert and Jerry Paris, who also directed this episode -- in fact, Paris directed precisely half of all TDVDS episodes), and an embarrassed sigh from Rob. Seems that when the Petries brought their own son home from the hospital, things went a little awry...

With the set-up now safely tucked away, we hit the ground running. And things are already highly chaotic as an exhausted and overwhelmed (and, therefore, not thinking straight) Rob, with an assist from Jerry, gather up Laura, the baby, and all the gifts to take home.

Here, the first seeds of the main thread are planted, when the harried nurse confuses the Petries in room 203 with the Peters in room 208. Luckily, Laura realizes the error and the right valuables are returned to her before the laden Rob and the burdened Jerry, after one last check, declaring they haven't forgotten anything, quickly vacate the premises...

"Oh, Raaaaaahhhhhhbbbbb."

Once home, things continue to unravel for poor Rob, who is highly confused by the new presence in his house (-- or, as my brother likes to refer to them, a "poop grenade" --) and is on the verge of cracking up due to the overwhelming pressure and responsibility of fatherhood that is no longer a notion but a stark reality. And for the free-swinging Petries, that's gonna be quite an adjustment. I mean, look at how hard they party post-Ritchie? Can you imagine what kind of nightlife they had before? Woot. Woot. Anyways...

When he can't get anyone to admit or agree that the baby doesn't look anything like either him or Laura (-- funny, he did yesterday, but they do all agree he looks just like the bald and pudgy cab driver who brought them home), Rob begins to fear the worst.

The worst being a hospital mix-up has sent the wrong baby home with them!

More fuel is added to this stoking fire when the new parents discover some of the flowers they brought home belonged to the Peters in room 208. (Remember them? And do we all see where this is going on? You bet. Now hang on ...) Laura doesn't help Rob's growing paranoia when she admits that kind of thing happened during her whole stay in the hospital, and how easily it would be to confuse Petrie with Peters and room 203 with 208. It's a simple mistake to Laura, but simply terrifying to our boy, Rob. But before the matter can be explored any further, the couple is interrupted by the noisy arrival of Rob's co-workers, Buddy and Sally (Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie)...

... Who only reinforce Rob's mixed-up notions when Buddy confirms the baby looks nothing like Rob. Sure, Buddy's cunning observation is based on the current height differential between father and son, but, between you and me, I don't think Rob is listening anymore.

And that's why later, after Laura has gone to bed, Rob, convinced he has the wrong baby, enlists Jerry's help to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, the only reasonable thing to do is to check the baby's footprint against the one in the hospital records. And that's just what our two amateur sleuths do. Once the ink is slathered on and the footprint is taken, with the mysterious sixth toe quickly explained away as Rob's errant thumbprint, after careful examination, Jerry declares that both footprints match.

All well and good, but, upon closer examination, the records they're matching against belong to the Peters' baby! Meaning the hospital made another, slight error with the paperwork, like with Laura's valuables, or, adding it all up, they committed a really, really big baby-sized blunder.

That's tears it for Rob, who, despite Jerry's protests, heads to the phone to call the Peters with the bad news and every intention to set up a baby-swap to set right what the incompetent hospital got wrong. But the Peters beat him to the call. Seems the mix-up worked both ways and they have some gifts belonging to the Petries that they'd like to return. To this, Rob declares it was more than flowers and candy that got mixed up at the hospital and agrees to the let the incredulous caller come over to discuss the matter further. So, with the Peters on the way, Rob must break the bad news to Laura before they get there...

And I'm sure we can all agree on how well that will go...

Of course, she doesn't believe him and sides with Dr. Spock, chapter and verse, but Rob will not be swayed and is totally convinced that the little person in the cradle is most definitely not their son.

And with all that mounting circumstantial evidence to back him up, the audience can probably empathize with the unhinged father, a lot, who only wants to set things right no matter how wrong-headed his intentions be, right?

Thus, with all that build up, convinced that they have the Peters' baby and vice versa, with that central joke now a runaway train, barreling into the station, the engineer gone mad, with the brakes failing and the wheels coming off, we reach the denouement with the sudden peel of the doorbell.

And what happens next, well, lets just let the pictures and the ultimate punchline speak for themselves...

"Hi. We're the Peters."

Now, That's My Boy? isn't my favorite episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, p'rolly not even in my top ten, but that moment, the big payoff, was the hardest I ever laughed at any of them -- it was so funny, Greg Morris (Mr. Peters) couldn't keep a straight face. And the laughs didn't stop there, as the episode winds down with a few more barbs at poor Rob's expense.
(Why couldn't you tell me over the phone, says Rob. And miss the look on your face, answers Peters.) And that is what made The Dick Van Dyke Show so special. It could take almost any situation like a simple mix-up, innocent, even innocuous, amp it up to ludicrous speed, and spin pure comedy gold out of it.

And with master alchemist Reiner behind it all, that should come as a surprise to absolutely no one.

This post is my contribution to The Dick Van Dyke Show blogathon, originating over at Ivan's truly magnificent Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. Now, I know I also promised to take a look at another classic (but aren't they all) episode, The Ghost of A. Chantz. And I have every intention of doing just that, since it's October and Halloween is rapidly approaching. So, as they say in the TV biz, Stay Tuned. And until then, follow the handy link above, without tripping over the ottoman, if you please, and check out the other fantastic entries.


Stacia said...

I love this episode, I only wish Greg Morris had more screen time, although part of the reason this is so classic is that it doesn't hammer the punchline home. Another great write up, can't wait for the next one!

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Everybody remembers the punchline to this episode but everything in it as a whole is just rib-tickling funny...I think my favorite sequence might be when Rob and Jerry put ink on the baby's foot so they can continue with their "investigation." "That's My Boy??"'s payoff, however, made me laugh the hardest that I ever have at a TV show, which is probably why it's usually included in a list of fan favorites.

I'm very much looking forward to the second half of your doubleheader, W.B...and I also want you to know that if you want to go in on a blogathon when "Fort Courage" turns fifty, I am at your disposal. Thanks for the contribution!

W.B. Kelso said...

My favorite throwaway bit is when Rob freaks out over the sixth toe, only to realize it was just his thumbprint.

I think this might be Van Dyke's best episode, too. His slow burn over the mounting evidence as things barrel along is a thing of beauty.

Thanks, and I'll get cracking on part II as soon as humanly possible.

Vinnie Bartilucci said...

Van Dyke sells the payoff to this episode perfectly. Greg Morris essentially gets one line in the show, it it's a doozy. Rob stares at the Peters as the enter the house, everybody starts laughing uproariously. Rob says "You could have told me this over the phone" and Greg says "And miss that look on your face?"

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