By Greg Boyd
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Season 1, Episode 17: “Punch Thy Neighbor”
Original airdate: Jan. 17, 1962
Unless there’s an episode I’ve forgotten (or else haven’t seen, although I believe I saw almost all of them as I was growing up), “Punch Thy Neighbor” is probably the most Jerry-centric episode of Dick Van Dyke‘s entire run. Since I happen to think Jerry is a very funny character, I like it quite a bit, although it’s obviously not nearly as incredible as the best installments of season one. But it has a strong premise, some terrific moments of both verbal and physical humor, and of course the utterly hilarious “singing message” scene. These three things alone—though they’re not the only good things about it—make this a very solid episode.
One of the things we know about Jerry Helper is that he loves to tease people. He proved this in one of the earliest episodes of the series when he made several jokes about Rob working with Valerie Blake, and this aspect of his personality is back in full force at the start of “Punch Thy Neighbor.” He and Millie are over at Laura and Rob’s house watching Rob’s show, and after it’s over he begins to make comments about how awful it is. Immediately we sense that this is going to cause problems with Rob, although the real issue doesn’t start until the next day, when Jerry starts going completely overboard with the kidding. First Freddie (Millie and Jerry’s son) says the show was bad, and then the milkman does the same. Neither of them actually saw it, of course, but Jerry has told them all about it.
Rob quickly grows furious with Jerry, partly due to his own distaste for people saying anything less than positive about his show (as seen in the scene with Mrs. Billings in “Forty-Four Tickets”), and partly because Jerry is completely out of line. He may be kidding, but people are starting to take it seriously. Then the singing message guy shows up, which doesn’t exactly soothe Rob’s anger. It’s also the first truly laugh out loud moment in the episode. The preceding scenes are all solid and feature a number of small laughs, but like many episodes of Dick Van Dyke, “Punch Thy Neighbor” takes a while to build. Sometimes the payoff isn’t entirely worth that long build-up, but in this case I think it is.
First we find out from Richie that Rob has apparently punched Jerry. As Rob explains to Laura that the blow wasn’t intentional, he winds up accidentally hitting her as well. Richie is there to witness this, and he informs Millie (who shows up just a second later) what happened. She’s soon telling Jerry that he needs to intervene, as Rob suddenly appears to have started punching everyone he knows in the nose. Jerry of course walks in right as Rob is yelling and throwing one of Richie’s toys after tripping on it, and wrestles his seemingly out of control neighbor to the ground in an inspired piece of physical comedy.
This is the type of scene the show usually chooses to end an episode with. But “Punch Thy Neighbor” instead elects to end on a quieter note than we’re used to from Dick Van Dyke, as Jerry finally realizes that he’s gone overboard with the teasing. Personally, I enjoyed this. The previous scene functions as the climax to the episode’s comedy, and here we get a strong resolution to the premise from which that comedy stems. It’s not especially funny (though it certainly has its moments), but it makes the story feel complete. While I obviously prefer the astonishing concluding scenes of episodes such as “The Curious Thing About Women,” an understated ending such as this works as a nice change of pace—particularly when it’s followed by a hilarious tag scene that involves Jerry resuming his kidding and getting a pie in the face from Rob as a result.
Like a number of episodes before it, this is a very minor installment of Dick Van Dyke, but it’s far more successful than most of these types of episodes have been. It’s a fast-paced, well-written, and often very funny piece of television comedy, and one which only looks weak when it’s compared to the show’s very best episodes. But let’s face it, almost anything looks weak compared to those. On the whole, “Punch Thy Neighbor” is really quite excellent, and has some legitimately brilliant moments. Much like the show Jerry’s making fun of, it’s definitely not “rotten.” It’s thoroughly entertaining, actually.
Next Week: “Where Did I Come From?”