First and Last: How The Dick Van Dyke Show Smartened Up the Sitcom Formula

Tristan Ettleman
10 min readFeb 1, 2024

This is First and Last, an essay series examining my favorite TV show debuting each year through its first and last episodes. The ninth installment features THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, created by Carl Reiner. The show ran for five seasons from 1961 to 1966 across 158 episodes, the first being “The Sick Boy and the Sitter” and the last “The Last Chapter.”

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW looms large in the history of television and the sitcom, holding up at a different level than some of the more nostalgic and endlessly rerun shows of its day. The reason for that is its nexus of exquisitely written and calculated jokes with a broad physicality stemming from the series’ titular star and his silent film comedian inspirations. It’s not that THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW is “cerebral,” exactly, but it smartened up and enriched the formula of both the family and office sitcom, fusing them into a phenomenal, lasting display of TV comedy. Its premiere “The Sick Boy and the Sitter” held promise for the heights of the series, and while its finale “The Last Chapter” attempted to reflect on those heights, it didn’t quite fulfill a nostalgic intent.

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW was created by Carl Reiner, who had worked with the pioneering TV comic Sid Caesar on YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS (1950–1954) alongside other future comedy luminaries like Mel Brooks. Reiner was that series’ head writer as well as a performer and his original intent for what would become THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW was that he would star in what would be called HEAD OF THE FAMILY. A pilot was produced but Reiner and executives were dissatisfied with it and TV titan Sheldon Leonard was brought in to refine the idea. That refinement, helped along by the creator’s role as writer/producer, made the series that cemented Reiner’s legacy early in a career that was to be filled with even more accomplishments.

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW also made household names out of its cast, who weren’t necessarily previously. Dick Van Dyke was made into a recognizable figure across the nation by the series, but he had already been feted with a Tony Award for his role in the original 1960 stage production of BYE BYE BIRDIE. For the show that launched him even further, Van Dyke played Rob Petrie, head writer of the fictional Alan Brady Show and a fictionalized version of Reiner. Reiner himself would end up playing Rob’s boss, although he wasn’t depicted on-screen until the last two seasons. Alan was an amalgamation of Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason in his overbearing characterization, but other than the working relationship with his boss (Caesar was apparently not so mean), Reiner based THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW on his time with YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS. The inside baseball approach of the series allowed for mediated discussions of good joke-writing and rapid-fire gags, including when the writers pitched things then immediately regretted their attempts.

Those moments were distilled in Rob’s work with The Alan Brady Show’s other two writers, Sally Rogers (Rose Marie) and Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam). Rose Marie had been in show business since she was a child in silent movies. Amsterdam was a veteran writer and comic who was discovered by Reiner when the former was doing a “Human Joke Machine” gag, where he would take topic suggestions from the audience and improvise a one-liner, a bit recreated in “The Sick Boy and the Sitter.” In any event, Sally’s presence as a female writer and hound for the opposite gender at a time when such roles were almost exclusively reserved for men was not only a representative victory, but also allowed for a diversity in jokes’ perspectives and situations, which is important for a situation comedy. The Manhattan workplace, which also included straight man producer Mel Cooley (Richard Deacon), was a disparate realm yet complementary crossover to the household dynamic.

That household, set in New Rochelle, New York, was anchored by Laura Petrie, played by Mary Tyler Moore. Moore had done some guest television spots for a few years before THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, but it shot her to stardom and arguably even more groundbreaking sitcom territory for THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW from 1970 to 1977. Finally, the regular cast is rounded out by Rob and Laura’s son Ritchie (Larry Matthews). But as with a lot of series of its day, and especially because this one aimed for a more ambitious sitcom structure and joke quality, the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW child became more and more marginalized as the show went on, just kind of shooing him off into situations where he didn’t have to be on screen.

That’s not the case, however, with the series premiere “The Sick Boy and the Sitter,” which revolves around Ritchie. As far as kid actors go, Matthews (who would go on to have a non-showbiz childhood and life after the show ended) isn’t terrible, but he’s not exactly electrifying either and he wouldn’t get much better. But even though I just said the first DICK VAN DYKE SHOW episode revolves around him, that’s more in premise than screen time. The episode opens with Laura talking with Ritchie and getting a bit anxious that he’s sick. It then transitions to Rob, Sally, and Buddy in what would become the frequent set-up of agonizing over coming up with good jokes and failing even by their own estimations. The appeal of the show, though, is that even though the corny jokes the writers come up with aren’t truly terrible, the moment is made even funnier and more realistic by their reactions and perfectionism.

Mel arrives to the office, which sets up the ongoing feud between Buddy and the nepotism hire producer (Alan is his brother-in-law, another extremely realistic depiction of show business). He invites the writers to Alan’s house for an important dinner with executives. When Rob returns home, he excitedly tells Laura to get ready, but she refuses because Ritchie could be getting sick. An exasperated interaction ensues that is somewhat typical of the husband-wife fight humor seen in many sitcoms of the day. But there is a certain tone to it all that toes the line of pure “ol’ ball-and-chain” cliches.

For one, as Van Dyke and Moore have pointed out themselves in later years, there’s a certain chemistry between the actors that makes it feel like Rob and Laura actually like each other. In fact, they even went so far as to say, in spite of the television standards that relegated them to separate twin beds, they gave off the vibe that Rob and Laura actually have sex. That is totally reinforced by the premiere’s ending, when all is made up and Moore enticingly leaves the kitchen and Rob gives a kind of, well I don’t know how else to say this, horny look. There’s maybe a little bit too much reading into that scene here, but I totally see the actors’ interpretations and it adds another level of complexity to THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW’s treatment of the contemporary sitcom formula.

In any event, Rob convinces Laura they can hire a sitter and they go to the party. This part of “The Sick Boy and the Sitter” introduces another recurring aspect of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW’s structure. Per Laura’s suspicions, the writers were indeed invited to entertain the guests, just one aspect of how they are domineered by Alan throughout the series. They launch into a series of vaudeville-esque bits, including singing, the aforementioned recreation of Amsterdam’s Human Joke Machine bit, and Van Dyke’s already established drunken acting routine. The latter especially showcases the star’s physical humor capabilities stemming from the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. Laurel was especially a great hero of Van Dyke’s and you can see that throughout the series.

When Rob and Laura return home, they discover the doctor is tending to someone…but it’s not Ritchie. After a bit of a freakout, they learn the babysitter hit her head on the freezer door and everything’s OK. It’s all wrapped up neat and tidy and Rob and Laura’s positive relationship, as mentioned earlier, closes “The Sick Boy and the Sitter.” The DICK VAN DYKE SHOW premiere is a solid episode of the series, but almost every aspect of it would be improved in short order. The initial chemistry was firing for Van Dyke and Moore and for Van Dyke, Rose Marie, and Amsterdam, but every relationship would loosen up as everyone got more familiar with each other and did 30-plus episode seasons for five years. The disembodiment of Alan Brady served THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW for years, but when he was introduced in the flesh by Reiner, the dynamic with the put-upon writers got even funnier. But there’s a sense that, even with a slightly more reined in tone both intellectually and goof-ily, the premiere is setting up something special.

And something special indeed sprang from “The Sick Boy and the Sitter.” THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW has a number of episodes that rein supreme in the sitcom realm of “remember that one where…?” conversations, such as the iconic “It May Look Like a Walnut” and my personal favorite “That’s My Boy??” The latter is an example of a recurring premise for THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, where some storytelling leads to flashbacks of earlier parts of Rob and Laura’s relationship. That also defines the series’ finale “The Last Chapter,” but unfortunately it’s all flashbacks to the flashbacks and doesn’t capture the full scope of what made the show so great.

Indeed, “That’s My Boy??” factors into “The Last Chapter,” even though most of its double flashbacks come from “The Attempted Marriage,” which shows how Rob and Laura got together while the former was stationed with the Army. This reliance on at least two prior episodes is the vast bulk of “The Last Chapter’s” runtime. The original material sets up the narrative device of reflection. Rob arrives home and tells Laura that he’s finally finished writing his book, an exploit that had come up a few times throughout THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. She begins reading his manuscript and remembers the moments depicted in the aforementioned episodes. The reverie is only interrupted once before it is concluded with Rob’s reveal that the publisher hated the book…but that Alan Brady will be buying the rights to the book and adapting it into a series starring him. This full-circle meta closure to an already meta show (remember, Alan is played by Reiner himself) is actually a brilliant idea, but unfortunately it comes at the end of the episode full of old material, which by the way excludes the other characters us viewers have come to know and love. It’s a clip show of notable omissions, even if it could only have been 25 minutes.

But everyone is ultimately included, if only for a brief time. The whole cast comes into the Petrie household and celebrates, including the recurring neighbors Millie (Ann Morgan Guilbert) and Jerry Helper (Jerry Paris, also a frequent director of the series) who were absent in “The Sick Boy and the Sitter;” in their place were the nondescript neighbors with the babysitter daughter. In any event, at least there is a culminative moment with all the characters at the end of “The Last Chapter,” but the whole thing feels dissatisfying and out-of-step with the way THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW revolutionized sitcom storytelling and structure tropes.

But you know, sticking the landing for a long-running and beloved show is tough. And the creative team of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW wasn’t exactly alone in not quite knowing how to end things at a time when TV shows were just starting to create intended finales instead of ending on another routine episode of the series. I think watching a show is often more about the journey than the destination, and while “The Last Chapter” is disappointing, it doesn’t disrupt the enjoyment, characterizations, and tone of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. That tone was one of “smarter” comedy that nevertheless knew how to lean into accessibility, stellar physical humor, and heartwarming character relationships anchored by a husband-wife dynamic that never really felt oversimplified into aggressive schtick, although the series didn’t bat 100 for avoiding marital sitcom cliches of the time. Ultimately, though, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW is still an immensely rewarding sitcom and a great example of how the greatest comedy misdirects expectations.