By Greg Boyd
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Season 1, Episode 20: “A Word A Day”
Original airdate: Feb. 7, 1962
The thing I most like about “A Word a Day” is how it limits the number of scenes involving Laura and Rob trying to figure out how to handle the fact that Richie’s been inadvertently swearing. These scenes are quite solid, but an entire episode full of them would probably not have worked. We’ve already seen a number of episodes which have spent the vast majority of their time at 148 Bonnie Meadow Road, and many of them just haven’t been as strong as the ones which have spent more time in the office. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but when your show has Sally and Buddy (two of the funniest characters in television history), having them mostly sit on the sidelines while you focus entirely on Laura and Rob’s problems often proves to be a bad idea. There are some exceptions (“My Blonde-Haired Brunette” would be one), but by and large there’s more of a spring in the show’s step when Rob’s coworkers get an ample amount of screen time. They do here, and the episode fares very well as a result.
Because let’s face it, there’s only so much you can do with two people facing a parenting dilemma. We get the inevitable debate between Laura’s tactic of “ignoring the issue” and Rob’s proactive approach, the apparent success of the latter, Richie continuing to use new curse words that he’s picked up from somewhere, and of course the series of events leading up to the delightful final reveal about the profession of Tommy’s father. All of this is engaging and funny material, made even stronger by its focus. Unlike, say, the motel trip debate in “The Unwelcome Houseguest”, there’s nothing boring or unnecessary about it. Even when it’s not funny (which is rare), it holds our attention in a way it probably wouldn’t if it had to be stretched over a longer period of time. Again, this isn’t just theoretical. We’ve seen previous episodes of the series do just that, and suffer in quality for it.
No, many of the very good to great episodes of Dick Van Dyke maintain a very solid balance between the show’s various characters, giving Sally, Laura, and Buddy (and often Mel and Richie as well) something to do. In other words, just focusing on Rob and his co-workers isn’t necessarily a recipe for success, either. “A Word a Day” gives plenty of screen time to everybody, alternating between office and home scenes brilliantly so as to prevent either of them from getting stale. As I’ve mentioned before, Sally and Buddy are my two favorite characters on this series, and I tend to enjoy the scenes in the writers’ room a bit more than the scenes which take place outside of it. That’s certainly the case in this episode, with the funniest scene being the one directly after Rob’s first attempt to talk to Richie. As usual, there are just so many memorable lines (see below for some of my favorites), plus a great running gag of Sally getting cut off every time she tries to explain her idea for the desert island bit they’re writing. Also, Van Dyke’s reaction to being told that Richie wrote another curse word on the school blackboard is brilliant.
But then comes the following scene, which is not quite as ridiculously funny but is still outstanding, and builds wonderfully to that great final reveal. Obviously great writing is vital (it always is), but the scene also succeeds because of how well-rounded the rest of the episode is. The scenes up to that point are just beautifully sequenced: each contrasting with the previous one in terms of the type of comedy (the scenes between the family members tend to be rather subdued, while the office scenes are a little broader in their humor) but contributing a great deal to the overall flow of the narrative. Plus, they’re all very, very funny. Pretty much every moment—including seemingly throwaway ones such as Richie’s desire to make soup out of Tommy’s turtle—that seeks to make us laugh does just that. Even the mostly perfunctory final conversation between the two couples that closes the episode features a few humorous moments.
Though it doesn’t contain any of the show’s most iconic scenes, “A Word a Day” is to me one of the better episodes of Dick Van Dyke‘s first season. Every character gets her or his fair share of laughs, and the jokes are frequently magnificent. This is a story that could have been extremely unfunny, but the excellent pacing, writing, and acting instead result in an outstanding installment, and one which definitely showcases the increasingly confident nature of the series—a confidence which has resulted in some tremendously entertaining comedy—over the past seven or eight episodes.
- One of my favorite Buddy insults of the season, and possibly of all time: “Look, beach-head. I don’t use bad language in front of children. But in your case, I’ll make an exception.”
- But Mel has an equally funny comeback: telling Sally and Rob that “this door slam is not directed at either of you” before slamming the door with an amount of force that causes everyone to wince.
- Also loved Sally’s remark that Alan is “a lot older by now” as she’s attempting to explain her desert island idea for the third time.
Next Week: “The Talented Neighborhood”
Ed. note: This series of reviews follows the order in which episodes appear on DVD/Netflix Instant, which differs from the original production and airing order.