By Greg Boyd
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Season 1, Episode 14: “Buddy, Can You Spare a Job?”
Original airdate: Dec. 26, 1961
“Buddy, Can You Spare a Job?” is one of the funniest and most memorable episodes of Dick Van Dyke’s first season, and not just because of the “this is an arm, this is a rib” scene. True, this scene never fails to elicit huge amounts of laughter from me, but the episode as a whole is almost as great. From the moment Rob begins to do his impression of a “nervous, doddering old man”, the humor pretty much never lets up. I’ve been waiting to get to this installment ever since beginning these reviews, to the point where I started to get concerned that it wouldn’t live up to my memories of it (particularly since a number of the early episodes have been a bit underwhelming). As it turns out, there was no reason to worry. It’s still a brilliant episode of comedy television.
The “doddering old man” impression is Rob’s way of telling Laura that he was offered the head writer job on The Dan Howard Show, but that he turned it down because of what he believes it—and star Dan Howard—would do to his health. It’s a terrific bit on its own, and one that also serves to set up the rest of the episode’s plot. Because when Rob turned down the job, it was offered to Buddy, who actually wants it in spite of the rumors about Howard. But he can’t accept the offer because of his current contract with The Alan Brady Show. After a few brief attempts by Sally and Rob to talk him out of it, Rob calls in Mel to ask for Buddy’s release.
What’s so great about the ensuing scene is how it relies on our knowledge of the mutual disdain Mel and Buddy have for one another, as well as Buddy’s habit of making jokes about Mel’s baldness. One of the funniest moments in the episode is the close-up shot of Mel’s face as he contemplates being “able to walk into this office without the fear of being verbally assaulted.” He says all of this as though in a trance, clearly excited by the proposition. And we all know why, having seen over a dozen episodes’ worth of Buddy/Mel interactions at this point. But when Rob asks if that means it’s okay, Mel’s calmer and more businesslike side kicks back in and says no. You see, Alan thinks very highly of Buddy. So unless he isn’t contributing in the office, there’s no way Mel can fire him.
Buddy’s solution to this dilemma, of course, is to have Rob lie about the quality of his work. Rob’s of course opposed to the idea on ethical grounds, but also because he doesn’t think Mel will believe it. At this point, Mel walks back in, reveals that he’d been listening at the door the entire time, and says that he’s more than willing to go along with the plan. He even dictates the memo after Rob proves incapable of providing the necessary amount of meanness necessary to get Buddy fired. After a little pressure from Buddy, Rob signs it. Mel’s delighted, and Buddy’s happy. The two exchange one final insult and “yuck”, and all appears to be well.
But what Buddy forgot was that the contents of the memo could find their way to Dan Howard before he’s signed his new contract, which of course they do (as it turns out, Howard is friends with Alan). So now he’s out of work, and it’s left to Sally and Rob to find a way to get him his job back. They first decide to pretend they’re so overwhelmed with work, and upon seeing this Mel agrees to let them hire a third writer, as long as it’s not Buddy. Rob speculates that Mel’s refusal to let Buddy back on the staff is because Buddy was too nasty to him during their final encounter. Sally responds that he “couldn’t have been nastier if he made a living at it.” This in turn gives Rob the idea to hire someone who does make a living at it: a nightclub comedian named Jackie Brewster (guest star Lennie Weinrib).
What follows is one of the single funniest scenes in Dick Van Dyke’s debut season, and maybe in its entire run. Sally and Rob’s plan is to introduce Jackie as the new writer, then have him insult Mel until he’s begging for Buddy to come back. And that’s exactly what happens, in an extended comic sequence that can’t really be described very well, other than saying that it contains one great line after another. Jackie begins by comparing Mel’s hand to “five fat worms”, then proceeds to top that initial joke with even funnier ones over the next few minutes. It’s really pretty cruel when you think about it (even if it is “for a good cause”, as Sally puts it), but it’s also ridiculously hilarious. I’ve seen this scene a number of times, and I still laugh every time Jackie shows Mel the difference between an arm and a rib, and at numerous other moments in it. If that’s not great comedy, what is?
In addition to the hilarity (or perhaps one of the main reasons for it), “Buddy, Can You Spare a Job?” is one of the most well-constructed episodes the series has done so far. Some of the show’s early episodes have been a bit predictable, but this one—much like “My Blonde-Haired Brunette”, which not coincidentally is the only other true masterpiece we’ve seen to this point—never goes quite where you expect it to go, preferring to keep us slightly off-balance throughout. This adds an element of surprise to some of the scenes that makes them even more effective. So many current comedies do this brilliantly on a weekly basis, but Dick Van Dyke at its best did it better than any of them. This episode is an example of Dick Van Dyke at its best. There will be plenty more of them in the weeks to come.
– Mel really used his “good old-fashioned hatred” in that memo, didn’t he? Loved Buddy’s reaction to it: “Curly, if I ever want to get sent to the chair, you’re gonna be my lawyer.”
– “Well, it’s just like my mother always says: the sun isn’t always shining just because there are sparrows.” Sally quoting her relatives’ bizarre sayings is an ongoing joke, although I’m not sure how many other episodes it appears in. At least a couple, I think.
– Praise Weinrib’s performance and Walter Kempley’s script all you want (and they both certainly deserve it), but the reactions of Richard Deacon—as Mel’s initial confusion at Jackie’s behavior quickly turns to outrage—are equally important to the success of that scene. The way he screams “Get me Buddy!” before running out of the room is just priceless.
– I’m taking the next week off, but I’ll be back in two weeks to talk about “Who Owes Who What?”