When legendary comedian, writer, actor, director, and all–around mensch Carl Reiner died this past summer, most of his legacy was far too antiquated for many to comprehend. Most of our generation is aware of him through his son Rob’s many famous films or cameos in modern shows as a legend from the past. We probably haven’t been thinking about how impressed we are with his writing for Sid Caesar, or his 2000 year–old man routine with Mel Brooks. But what we’ve been missing out on the most is certainly The Dick Van Dyke Show. Reiner created, wrote, produced, and performed in this masterpiece that defined the sitcom genre in the ‘60s.
Old sitcoms get a bad rap—and often for good reason. TDVDS began sixty years ago, and its writing is often dated to a far higher degree than programs that were airing just ten years later. Most noticeable is the show's reliance on sexism. Additionally, TDVDS rarely featured any non–white characters, and never any explicitly or implied gay characters. This meant that the other prejudices of the time weren’t as glaring. But then again, there never was a chance for them to show.
On TDVDS, despite the character of Sally (Rose Marie) being a comedy writer, a clear belief of the time was that the role of women was in the house. The perfect housewife is found in Laura Petrie, played by Mary Tyler Moore, the wife of Dick Van Dyke’s protagonist, Rob Petrie. Laura married Rob at 17, and, as she eventually reveals to him, gave up a dance career to run the house and raise their son Ritchie (Larry Matthews).
Ultimately, the small ways in which TDVDS ere progressive are overshadowed by other issues. Laura’s occasional wearing of capri pants instead of skirts is great, but her subservience to Rob and role as an emotionally fragile stereotype isn't. Sally being a working woman is practically revolutionary, but less revolutionary is her role as the unofficial secretary of the writing team comprised of herself, Rob, and Buddy (Morey Amsterdam), and her constant desperation to find a husband that changes her life.
Sometimes, entire episodes end with sexist lessons such as, “Don’t let your wife tell you what to do — you’re the man, and you’re in charge." But it’s the subtext of smaller moments that are the most cringeworthy. I was recently watching the first season episode, “Empress Carlotta’s Necklace." It's the one where Rob buys Laura a necklace that looks expensive yet hideous. He got a deal on it, which she doesn’t know, and as he thinks it’s gorgeous, he makes her wear the necklace at all times.
The very “sitcom–y” plot of Laura not wanting to hurt Rob’s feelings by rejecting his gift isn’t the problem—it’s the power he holds over her as he all but forces her to put the ugly piece of jewelry on time and time again. Much of Laura’s pained helplessness is rooted in her guilt over feeling the need to appreciate anything the “working man” in her life does for her. As Rob clasps the necklace around her neck, it feels as if he’s locking a chain around a prisoner. These scenes are painful to view, and truly difficult to stare backwards at from the 21st century.
Despite all this, I believe we should not hide, ban, or ignore media from the past that clashes with today’s societal expectations, but instead learn from it. When I watch TDVDS, I can appreciate just how far women have come, and be grateful for the small deviations the program was able to make from television’s standards for women.
If you can look this tough past in the face, you get five seasons of extremely sharp and original comedy writing, amazing performances, and some of the best physical comedy in history, courtesy of Van Dyke himself. Just because the jokes of the time play by a different set of rules than ours today doesn’t mean they don’t land. Most of them are timeless. Frankly, even the occasional ones based on sexist prejudices aren’t so far removed that we wouldn’t understand them. If you can take a step back into the shoes of a '60s television viewer, you’ll understand how well these quips landed.
If it’s not for you, that’s alright too. Luckily, we live in a world that has built on the work of television pioneers like Carl Reiner. Nowadays we have lots of programs of a similar caliber—most of which honor the work he did in perfecting the sitcom while championing the progressive spirit of our new era.