This week, Vulture ranked all 158 episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show from first to worst. Doing that with any series is a big undertaking; making that effort for a series that began 58 years ago is a testament to how timeless and enduring that sitcom remains. So, hats off to Vulture.
The author of the story, Donald Liebenson, chose the 1965 gem “Coast to Coast Big Mouth,” written by Bill Persky and Sam Denoff, as his No. 1 episode. It is generally the consensus choice. That’s the one where Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore) goes on a daytime talk show and gets tricked into spilling the beans that Rob’s boss, Alan Brady (series creator Carl Reiner), is bald. It’s certainly a funny episode, and Reiner gives a crackerjack comic performance, with Moore perfect as his foil. It’s just not Dick Van Dyke’s best episode, so I’m going to make a different choice.
Below are my Top 10 Dick Van Dyke Show episodes. I’m a pretty obsessive fan and have over 50 16mm prints of the series in my own film collection to prove it. Whenever I’ve projected these shows in front of an audience the episodes hold up like feature films. Ask me in a week or a month or a year and I might pick 10 different titles (leaving “Uhny Uftz,” “101 Terrible Hours,” “Father of the Week,” “My Husband’s Not a Drunk,” the second “Stacey Petrie” two-parter and all the great musical number episodes off my list is already bugging me), but for the sake of argument, here are my picks today:
10. “All About Evesdropping” (No. 4 on the Vulture list): Thanks to Ritchie’s live walkie-talkie, Rob and Laura accidently overhear their neighbours Jerry and Millie dissing the Petries. What’s great about this episode is a) neighbourly trash talking goes on in every household, every day; b) it dares to show the Petries as just as petty and insecure as the rest of us; c) how much fun it is watching Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore excelling at the pissiest game of charades ever.
9. “Who and Where was Antonio Stradivarius?” (No. 40 at Vulture): This is where owning a full network print on 16mm — with commercials — sways my judgement. It is an unusual episode, written by Reiner, and relying on the old amnesia device (Rob suffers a concussion from a prop that didn’t break-a-way). The ending has one of those too-swift and too neat conclusions and, well, Rob is kinda cheating on Laura (!) but the trip way out to Red Hook is so worth it, mainly thanks to stellar guest star Sallie Janes.
8. “Too Many Stars” (85). Moved this one way up thanks in part to a great scene with Ann Morgan Guilbert as Millie Helper. This is one of three episodes where Rob gets hoodwinked by Mrs. Billings (veteran character star Eleanor Audley) into directing the annual New Rochelle talent show. Millie kills it with her audition, singing what’s billed as a sentimental love song (“…and then I’ll kill myself/ I’m funny that way…”). Richard Deacon also shines with his hilariously sad dummy routine. Added bonus: Moore dancing in Capri slacks.
7. “Washington vs. The Bunny” (16). An early episode featuring Rob on a plane sitting next to Jesse White (The original Maytag repairman) and venting about how his wife guilted him over skipping out on son Ritchie’s big break at school as the main bunny. The nightmarish scene where Rob prances about as Laura’s puppet lets rubber-limbed Van Dyke do what only he can do.
6. “Bad Reception in Albany” (10). A late series gem from Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson. Rob has to scout a female singer on TV on the same day he’s accompanying Laura to a wedding. Packed with great moments from extraneous characters, from the hotel maid to the TV repairman to the two guys in the hotel bar to the lady who wants to audition in the next room to the happy newlywed. Van Dyke’s reactions to them all amplifies every laugh.
5. “Very Old Shoes, Very Old Rice” (49). I like this second half of a two-parter a lot more than Vulture did. In the first part, Laura reveals she lied on her wedding day, adding a year to her tender age. That invalidated her marriage licence, and the couple have to do it all over again. The nuptials are almost derailed, however, as the couple are fighting — something you seldom saw other sitcom couples do in TV’s black and white days. The scene before the minister and especially the two witnesses — Batman‘s Aunt Harriet, Madge Blake, and old, reliable Burt Mustin — leads to a sweet reconciliation. Script by Reiner, direction, his last on the series, by John Rich.
4. “The Impractical Joke” (30). Morey Amsterdam moves closer to centre stage as Buddy sets up an elaborate prank on Rob. Van Dyke getting punked on the phone off the top is very funny, but the build-up to Buddy’s comeuppance is even funnier. Comedian-impressionist Len Weinrib made the most of his three TDVDS appearances and scores here as the sneaky practical joke artist. Added bonus: Alvy Moore from Green Acres as the man from the IRS.
3. “It May Look Like a Walnut!” (3). Danny Thomas, a producer on the series, made the most of his one and only appearance (as did Sheldon Leonard in the list-worthy “Big Max Calvada”). Reiner wrote this script where Rob has a nightmare after watching a late show thriller. Thomas plays the mysterious Man fro Twilo who has eyes in the back of his head. So, at one point, does Moore, who seemed to relish these scenes where she torments Rob; she also slides down a closet full of walnuts like no other.
2. “Coast to Coast Big Mouth” (1). Laura spills the beans on Brady’s lid. Another good cameo by Morgan Guilbert as Millie. Ritchie telling the unlisted banana joke — and Buddy’s impatience to hear it — always cracks me up.
1. “Where Did I Come From?” (32). That’s what Ritchie asks his parents in this laugh out loud, first season episode. Buddy and Sally (Amsterdam and Rose Marie) put on a clinic in timing and delivery — as does Richard Deacon as Mel Cooley — in the chaotic office scene where Rob surrenders his pants. Van Dyke later dropping the phone in his shorts left the studio audience (and viewers at home) in stitches. His finest moment, however, is when he springs from bed fully clothed when he thinks the big moment has arrived. And that practice move with the hat behind the bed — pure Van Dyke.