Interesting Ideas

The Dick Van Dyke Show:

Gentiles in Paradise

You didn't notice that Dick Van Dyke was one of the most Jewish shows ever seen on network TV, at least until Seinfeld?

Granted, only Buddy was officially Jewish. (Remember the episode when they thought he was having an affair; it really was bar mitzvah lessons). But consider the milieu the show's Jewish creator, Carl Reiner, was trying to portray: the heavily Jewish New York comedy scene out of which came Your Show of Shows, the program that gave Reiner his TV start.

The other characters? Richard Deacon is surely Jewish, and since Mel Cooley is married to the wife of Alan Brady (that is, Carl Reiner) and since miscegenation would have been unacceptable, we can bet Mel is Jewish too. Rose Marie's ethnicity is indeterminate, but she dates a man named Glimcher. Once again, we can reasonably exclude the possibility of miscegenation and guess that Sally, too, is Jewish.

What about the Helpers? Evidence is that Jerry Paris, who directed many of the shows as well as playing the neighborly dentist, is Jewish, and we know Millie's maiden name is Krumpermacher. Is it likely that Jerry the Westchester dentist was intended to be Irish or Italian?

Into this milieu lands a supremely gentile couple — Rob and Laura. (Note that in Rob's case the association with Jews goes back at least to his army days, when buddy Sol Pomeroy taught yiddish to the lanky kid from Danville, Ill., including the later-to-be-key word, bupkes.

The casting may partly have been commercial; the WASPish Petries had broader audience appeal than an ethnic family would have possessed. But making them the show's focal point also represented a brilliant artistic strategy. It let Reiner combine the long-running stream of Jewish comedy represented by the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, etc. with the wholesome family humor then in TV ascendance.

Everyone knows the show's funniest bits derive not from Rob and Laura's doings but from Buddy, Jerry, Millie, Sally and, especially, Mel and Alan. Yet the family angle buffers the harder edges of the urban comedy elements while giving the show a strong suburban identity essential for the 1960s.

In such a comedy environment, the interplay of Jew and gentile was an inevitable element, even if rarely made explicit. But it did occasionally come through. Take the revealing episode when the Staggs moved in next door. They are as wholesomely gentile as the Petries, and the immediate rapport between the two families sends Millie and Jerry into a panic of jealousy and loss.

At one level, the episode amounts to nothing more than another serving of the Helpers' neurotic insecurity. But it also addresses the continuing status uncertainties of Jews making their way in the middle-class mainstream, as well as the problems of maintaining a friendship across ethnic lines.

The Helpers' Jewish-immigrant fears about social acceptance are contrasted with the Petries' wider options. It seems apparent to Millie and Jerry that Rob and Laura will gladly dump their frumpy Jewish friends for the suave, accent-free newcomers. And when the Petries invite the Staggs rather than the Helpers to the theater, Jerry whines that maybe they'll just go to the movies — with the "Steins."

Case closed.

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Copyright William Swislow 1991