By Greg Boyd
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Season 2, Episode 1: “Never Name a Duck”
Original airdate: Sept. 26, 1962
“Never Name a Duck” ends with a conversation between Rob Petrie and his son Richie that is one of the most moving things I can remember ever seeing on a television sitcom. They’re talking about Richie’s pet duck Stanley, who Rob has taken to a local lake and set free. Richie is of course upset, and planning to run away from home to live by the lake. Rob’s response to this is remarkable in its understanding and wisdom, at once consoling his distraught son while teaching him a lesson about the responsibilities that accompany loving someone, be it a person or animal. The dialogue is utterly beautiful: at once simple enough to be understood by a young child and profoundly universal in its themes. Dick Van Dyke, meanwhile, is completely believable as this compassionate parent, while Larry Matthews is absolutely heartbreaking as an initially devastated child who learns the difference between real love and the selfish, one-sided love that perhaps led to the other duck’s death. (His reading of the line “he’d die” when Rob asks him what would happen to his goldfish if he removed it from its bowl had me on the verge of tears.)
This extraordinary conversation comes at the end of an episode that, without it, would still have ranked among the show’s finest half hours to date, thanks to a series of comedic highlights revolving around Rob’s decision to bring a pair of baby ducks home. To begin with, we have the scene where he and Laura attempt to hide them from Richie: a short-lived charade that forces them to imitate the ducks’ chirping. Then there’s the sight of Stanley sitting in the kitchen sink: a hilarious image that is topped a little bit later by Rob vividly describing a dream he had where he turned on the garbage disposal while the duck was sitting in the sink.
But it’s not all hilarious duck-releated jokes, as there is an undercurrent of seriousness underneath this seemingly uncomplicated and lightweight comic situation. “Never Name a Duck” is really an episode about parenting, so even as Rob is doing ridiculous things like searching for Stanley’s pulse, it’s out of genuine concern: for the duck, yes, but even more so for his son, who would be absolutely destroyed if Stanley were to meet the same fate as Oliver. And in that terrific father/son scene, we see him articulate his love for Richie, and how that love has led him to make the responsible choice for Stanley. Ultimately, he simply has to hope Richie understands, and that he will grow into an equally responsible adult one day. I’m spending a lot of time discussing this one scene, but it truly is one of the more beautiful moments I’ve witnessed on TV recently. Growing up, I tended to overlook anything that wasn’t funny on Dick Van Dyke, but revisiting the series a decade or so later allows me to appreciate a scene like this—and how the show subtly builds to it during some of the jokes—much more.
Other jokes, of course, are just flat-out funny. and that’s fine too. The scene in the pet store, for instance, is just delightfully goofy, as pet owner after pet owner laments the way people treat their pets as people, then proceeds to do exactly that with their own animal ( my pet needs that kind of human touch, I think). Then, at the end, a guy is revealed to have a pet kangaroo, because why not? This is a comedy, and a pet kangaroo is funny. (I’m not being sarcastic. It is, and made even more so by the way it just comes out of nowhere.) Everything in the episode just works, be it laughter or pathos. The weakest scene is actually the initial one in the writers’ room, but even that has some terrific jokes, courtesy of Sally and Buddy. Really, the only complaint I have with “Never Name a Duck” is the same one I have with a number of Dick Van Dyke episodes: it could use more Sally and Buddy.
But I can’t complain too much when the episode is as close to perfect as this one is. I wouldn’t call it one of my absolute favorites (there are four or five episodes from season one alone that I prefer, and that’s the show’s weakest year by far), but it’s a brilliant start to the second season. As I recall, this is the year that Dick Van Dyke really came into its own, and “Never Name a Duck” is certainly an example of a show that’s operating at an extremely high level.
- Welcome to season two of The Dick Van Dyke Show. I’m back after a few months off due to college, and am looking forward to discussing this great show once again. We’ll be sticking with one episode a week for now. I’ll let you know if I decide to increase it to two, but right now that seems unlikely.
- This is the first appearance of the new opening credits, of which there are three different versions. This version—Rob tripping over an ottoman in a moment of slapstick comedy that would make Happy Spangler proud—is my personal favorite.
- Best Buddy insult of the episode: “Hey, look who’s here, Jeanie with the Light Brown Scalp!”
Next Week: “The Two Faces of Rob”