They call them “situation comedies” — or “sitcoms” — because the humor in the program comes from the situation, the story.
In this staple of television, and radio before that — and, shoot, all the way back to at least Shakespeare — the laughs often don’t come from pratfalls or rapid-fire jokes.
What’s funny is the plot and how the characters interact, often in a way that involves miscommunication, deliberate or otherwise; mistaken identity, deliberate or otherwise; and romantic tension.
Which means that, in order to repeat something you found funny in the best of them, you must be willing, as must whoever is forced to listen to you, to go through practically the whole story rather than just a line or two.
The 56th episode of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” first aired on March 27, 1963, finds comedy writer Rob Petrie (Van Dyke) and his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) at a New York City cocktail party surrounded by serious — or, at least, self-important — writers and artists. Transplanted Midwesterners, they feel out of place and at a loss for what to say.
It gets even more embarrassing when Laura tries to impress a few party-goers by telling them that her husband writes for a popular television show. Which elicits only blank stares from the Kennedy-era intelligentsia.
“I’m sorry,” one goateed beatnik type says with an odd accent. “I do not own a television machine.”
You’re not laughing?
Oh, wait. I forgot to tell you why that line is funny. (I told you you had to endure a long set up to get the jokes.)
The odd man who is far too cool to own a TV is played by Carl Reiner.
Reiner, who died last week at age 98, was a writer and actor on one of the first big hits in the medium, Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” and went on to create and produce the Van Dyke show and write many of its episodes, including the teleplay for that one.
The suggestion that the man who practically invented television as we know it (with all due respect to Utah’s Philo T. Farnsworth) didn’t own a set is pretty funny. It would be like Donovan Mitchell affecting some kind of New England accent and insisting he had no idea what a basketball was.
Or not. I guess you had to be there. And appreciate the meta aspect of the situation.
In this day of long-overdue social upheaval, it is worth noting that Reiner’s “Dick Van Dyke Show” was, for its time and its medium, pretty progressive socially. The fact that it was set in the world of show business made it easier to get away with portraying women as having careers and assuming that Blacks are real people, beyond the stereotypes of domestic servants or street hustlers.
Well, not every week. But a couple of episodes stand out. In one, Rob is obsessed with the idea that he and Laura have mistakenly brought the wrong baby home from the hospital. Until he finds out that the other family he was sure was part of the confusion was Black.
It is a situation in which the apparently middle-class suburban Black parents find no end of amusement. It’s the white guy, not the Black man, who is the butt of the joke.
Show business lore has it that, when Mr. and Mrs. Peters walked into the living room of Mr. and Mrs. Petrie, the laugh from the studio audience went on so long that they had to edit half of it out to make the show fit its prescribed half hour.
Another episode has Rob meet up with an old buddy from the Army, who just happens to be Black, and absolutely nothing about it is said. He just happens to be Black and happens to be a friend of a white man. Well, not a close friend. And they had met in the Army which, at the time, was among the more integrated sectors of society.
It might also be a sign of how limited this progressiveness was that both Black characters were played by the same actor — a pre-”Mission: Impossible” Greg Morris. As if there were only one suitable Black actor available.
Still, you note whatever progress there is and give credit where it is due.
Toward the end of his life, Reiner was mostly seen doing interviews about the good old days with friends Van Dyke and Mel Brooks and weighing in on Twitter, mostly about how much he hoped to see the end of the current occupant’s presidency.
The fact that this president is a creation of “reality” television and Faux News also suggests that, despite all of Carl Reiner’s accomplishments in that field, we might be better off if no one owned a television machine.
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is available for TV appearances. He is known for a bit of comic relief.