By Greg Boyd
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Season 1, Episode 22: “Father of the Week”
Original airdate:Feb. 21, 1962
“Father of the Week” is is elevated from an average episode to a good one almost entirely due to the performance of Dick Van Dyke. The lengthy scene in which Rob talks about comedy to a group of children at Richie’s school works not because of the physical comedy he performs (much of which is little more than amusing), but because of how confidently and effortlessly he performs it. It hints at a tremendous scene we’ll see in an episode later this season, where his skills as a physical comedian are combined with far funnier jokes. Here we have a scene that features only one of those two elements—and is therefore not quite as brilliant—but is still worth your time thanks to the talents of Van Dyke.
My favorite part of the scene (and of the episode) actually occurs before Rob starts gaining confidence, as he gets introduced and starts talking. He discovers a number of things as this is happening, among them the fact that he’s expected to live up to the high standard set by Captain Harper (the father of one of the other children), that none of the kids besides Richie watches The Alan Brady Show, and that you can’t use a phrase like “a series of comedic ideas with an underlying theme” to explain what a sketch is to a group of first-graders and expect them to know what you’re talking about. You can see him start to panic a little bit, and it only gets worse when one of the children asks him “why?” in response to his description of the comedy writer’s job. And after he attempts to reply to this question by saying that people “like” laughing, the child again asks him: “Why?” At this point we can see blind terror on the face of Rob Petrie. Mrs. Given doesn’t help matters when she tells him how hilarious Captain Harper was. This is clearly not going well, which is of course what makes it so funny.
Then Rob accidentally trips, which causes the children to laugh. Seeing this gives Rob an idea, and he spends a moment briefly explaining the reason for their laughter: they were taken by surprise. He then proceeds to demonstrate this idea by doing things like pretending to slam his hand in the door and writing incorrect math problems on the blackboard. Again, most of this isn’t particularly hilarious, but it’s entertaining enough just to watch Van Dyke work: particularly when Rob moves on to pantomime. The tightrope routine is made to seem so effortless, but if you watch his legs you’ll see that it requires some serious agility. The scene goes on for quite a while, but it never stops being wonderful.
It also never switches to another scene. The comedies of today tend to rely on cutting between two or three (three is typical, I believe) different stories. Dick Van Dyke, on the other hand, doesn’t even have B-stories. Sometimes two stories will intersect, but everything is part of the same overall plot. I doubt this was a conscious creative decision (it seems reasonable to assume it had everything to do with the audience expectations and technology of the time period), but what it leads to is a number of scenes that go on for much longer than those on today’s shows (although usually not quite as long as this particular scene). This obviously has its advantages and disadvantages, but on the whole it works far more often than it doesn’t. And it certainly works here.
The rest of the episode is, unfortunately, rather dull. Among its problems is that it (ironically) treats everything so seriously. Obviously Richie’s fear of Rob embarrassing him is a serious situation for Laura and Rob, but so was his swearing in “A Word A Day,” and that episode still managed to be very funny. The early scenes of “Father or the Week” simply aren’t, with a couple of exceptions. Laura silently looking at Rob when he initially refuses to go is good for a few laughs, since everyone (including both of them) knows who’s going to win that debate. There’s also the brief scene in the office where Sally, Buddy, and Rob try to rearrange meetings, which is unsurprisingly excellent. It’s not enough to overcome the mediocrity of everything else.
But the classroom scene alone is enough to make “Father of the Week” a worthy installment of Dick Van Dyke. There’s something to be said for an episode that devotes around half its running time to a character simply doing physical comedy in front of a group of people. Particularly when the character in question is played by an immensely talented individual, which is certainly true here.
Note: I’ll be taking the next week off. See you in two weeks, at which time we’ll discuss “The Twizzle”.