I first watched an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show when I was around seven or eight. My dad had checked out a copy of the season one DVD set from the library and was eager to share the series with me. As my memory recalls it, he wanted to skip to a few highlights from later in the season first. I, already proving myself a TV obsessive at a very young age, told him I wanted to watch the pilot first. He protested a bit, knowing that the episode didn’t exactly capture Dick Van Dyke at its absolute best. But eventually he agreed. And after watching “The Sick Boy and the Sitter”, my reaction did indeed go something like this: “oh, that was pretty good, but it wasn’t exactly fantastic”.
My reaction to this opening episode after viewing it again is fairly similar. It does a lot of important things right, but also doesn’t bring nearly the same level of humor that many later episodes will. And that’s okay. Few comedy pilots manage to pull that off, seeing as they’re faced with the challenge of establishing a world that’s both instantly engaging and allows plenty of possibilities for future hilarity in less than a half hour. Dick Van Dyke’s episodes do run a few minutes longer than today’s comedies, but this is still an issue the first installment has to deal with. It’s the reason why I’ve seen only one comedy pilot that I adored without any reservations whatsoever. So it’s not like this one is in bad company. In this case, it’s enough that the good far outweighs the not so memorable.
Where “The Sick Boy and the Sitter” definitely succeeds is in its most essential objective (and the most essential objective of just about every pilot), which is of course making us want see more of the show’s universe. As it so often does (at least for many comedies), that starts with characters that are generally likable, funny, and endearing from the start. The main character is of course Dick Van Dyke’s Rob Petrie, but we meet his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) and their son Richie first, in what is probably the episode’s worst scene.
One of the kids at Richie’s school has gotten sick, and now Laura’s worried about him. Her concern increases when he refuses to eat a cupcake. That’s basically all that happens in the sequence. And yes… it is about as boring as it sounds, maybe even more so. One of the problems is that it features arguably the show’s two least funny individual characters solely with each other, which not exactly a recipe for comedy success. Now being the least funny characters on a sitcom that features such brilliant creations as Buddy Sorrell and Sally Rogers is of course nothing to be ashamed of, and what keeps the scene from feeling too tedious is that Laura and Richie certainly have the other two attributes (likable and endearing) I mentioned above. Nonetheless, it’s neither creative nor particularly funny, and certainly nothing that suggests the future classic Dick Van Dyke would become.
The later scenes between Rob and Laura work quite a bit better, thankfully. Part of the reason for this is that Van Dyke and Moore play off each other incredibly well as they depict this happily married couple. Though they spend much of the episode in an argument about whether or not to go to a party that evening (Laura’s afraid to leave the potentially sick Richie), their chemistry is so good that there’s always a sense of stability underscoring the argument. None of this is especially funny either, but it serves to establish an enjoyable dynamic between the two that will lead to funnier moments in the future.But the scene that truly delivers the most laughs here is the one in the office where head writer Rob and his staff of two, Sally and Buddy, work on The Alan Brady Show, as well as a later sequence where they entertain at the party. This material is funnier, better written, and much stronger overall than anything going on at the Petrie house. That’s going to be true much of the time (though not always) as we look at subsequent episodes, mainly because Sally and Buddy are more reliably entertaining supporting characters than Laura and Richie. They get most of the best jokes, and Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie deliver those jokes with perfection almost every time: starting from the very first episode. Great moments include Sally’s quips about her “what have you”and Buddy’s insults of producer Mel Cooley.
And then there’s our main character. If I were to describe Rob’s role within just this episode, it would be as the glue that holds the show together. Up until the final party sequence, he’s more of a center for the series to revolve around than a consistent source of hilarity himself (although his reactions to the other characters are brilliant from the start). However, the skit he and Sally do at the party provides a glimpse of Dick Van Dyke’s remarkable gift for physical comedy and impeccable sense of timing: two things that will play a role in many of the classic installments to come. True, Rob doesn’t steal as many scenes as Buddy does initially, but he’s also far more than just the guy in the middle of the action. Rather, Van Dyke is able to fill the role of center while also providing numerous great comic moments at the same time.
-Buddy’s antagonistic relationship with Mel is something that will continue throughout the show’s run, as I'm sure we'll see in the coming weeks.- Didn’t mention Buddy’s joke machine bit and Sally’s “I wish I could sing like Durante” number during the party sequence. Both were great.
- The comedy pilot I'm referring to is Modern Family, by the way. As flawed and uneven as that series (which due to lack of time I recently stopped watching) has been recently, that is one terrific first episode.
- Maybe it’s ridiculous to include spoiler warnings for a series that’s as old as Dick Van Dyke, but I’m going to do so anyway because I think they’re always a good idea.
- Newbies should beware, however, that while I'll never discuss specific events of subsequent episodes, I may occasionally reference them in very general ways. I'm a major spoilerphobe myself, and as such I would never consider putting anything in my reviews that could impact others' enjoyment of upcoming episodes without first giving a clear warning. So this shouldn't be an issue for most people, especially since anyone who's frightened of even vague allusions to future events probably isn't reading this. Just thought I'd give you a heads up, though.
- Next week we’ll look at “The Meershatz Pipe”. I hope to see you then.