By Greg Boyd
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Season 2, Episode 7: “What’s in a Middle Name?”
Original Airdate: Nov. 7, 1962
Have Laura and Rob had their blood pressures checked recently? I ask because The Dick Van Dyke Show sure likes to put them through a lot of stress: in the present, certainly, but especially in the past. Between Richie’s birth, their wedding, and Rob stepping on Laura’s foot, not one milestone in the couple’s life seems to have gone by without at least a few things going wrong. If all of those episodes weren’t so busy delivering huge laughs, I’d feel a bit sorry for them. But sitcom characters have to sacrifice for the sake of us viewers, I suppose. I doubt they’re complaining, as the fact that most of them (these two included) are apparently well-off enough to never have to worry much about money seems like a more than fair tradeoff for, say, the aggravation of having to deal with a bunch of friends and relatives all wanting you to name your baby something different.
This is the scenario that occurs in the terrific “What’s in a Middle Name?”, yet another winner of a flashback episode. As these episodes are wont to do, the flashbacks are a result of questions by Richie, who in this instance has discovered his birth certificate. His parents have been hiding it in an iron box, and we soon discover why: Richie’s middle name is Rosebud. Obviously that this is meant to be viewed as such a humorous thing is appalling, as it suggests that there’s something wrong with a name that doesn’t conform to pigheaded gender stereotypes (as if having more sensitive qualities is somehow a bad thing for a male). Thankfully, this idea is used mainly to set the flashback scenes—always the main event in these types of episodes, both in terms of laughs and running time—in motion.
Once those scenes begin, “What’s in a Middle Name” is off to the races, starting with a fantastically funny and highly enjoyable scene in which Laura goes to the office and tells Rob she’s pregnant. Much of this scene is basically just characters acting excited, which means there’s not really much else to say about it, other than that it’s played perfectly by all concerned and is just a joy to watch. But it doesn’t get seriously hilarious until the talk turns to baby names. Sally and Buddy have several in mind, which they excitedly reveal to the delightfully bemused couple. Meanwhile, in the scene’s most hilarious bit, Mel suggests Alan (a choice Mr. Brady of course likes when he’s told about it off-screen), then proceeds to list numerous different spellings for the name amidst the general din of everyone talking at once.
This discussion of names sets the stage for the second (even better) flashback, involving the future grandparents and great-grandparents of Richie, all of whom have a different name in mind. Whereas the previous scene’s chaos is joyful, what makes this scene work so well is just how seriously the topic is viewed by everyone. It starts innocuously enough, with Laura’s mother mentioning the idea of naming the baby Oscar. That opens the floodgates, and suddenly everyone has a suggestion, and in many cases an antagonistic response to someone else’s suggestion. The comedic highlights are numerous, particularly as the conversation becomes more heated. Laura’s grandfather literally and repeatedly spells out the name Edward, and at one point brings up actor Edward G. Robinson as an argument in favor of the name, to which Rob’s mother (who favors Benjamin) responds by saying that Robinson “also played Little Caesar, a vicious gangster”. And on and on it goes, with great line after great line, as well as a general sense that this initially calm talk is about to descend into complete mayhem. (It may very well, in fact, as we return to the present while the debate is still going on.)
The solution Rob comes up with (as he explains to Richie) is to combine all the different name ideas into the name Rosebud. Laura wanted to name him after Rob, hence the R. Rob’s father Sam liked his own name, which gives us the S. The first letters of Oscar, Edward, and Benjamin all fit, leaving only U and D. These are for Rob’s grandfather’s selection, Ulysses David. And there you go: Rosebud. Richie’s happy, running off to brag to his friends about his seven middle names, then (in a superb tag scene) comes up with a middle name for his future child via the same method. Extremely clever and quite funny, “What’s in a Middle Name?” is another highlight of this excellent second season.
- Rob’s grandfather is responsible for two or three of the funniest moments in the episode, including bringing up his own mortality in an effort to guilt people into accepting his choice: “Or don’t you care about sending an old man to his grave happy?”
- We of course know that the baby is going to be a boy, but all the people suggesting names don’t. And yet almost all the names suggested are male. Next season on Dick Van Dyke: the Petrie family uses their clairvoyant powers to solve crimes! (Seriously, this could have been a great spinoff.)
- Richie’s idea for a middle name: Rat (which stands for Richie, Alan, Teddy). His parents are understandably not a fan of this idea, and seek to rearrange the letters, coming up with Art and Tar as the other two possibilities. Definitely one of the finest tag scenes we’ve seen from the show so far, and ends on the perfect note of Richie blowing his whistle (Grandpa Petrie style) and telling his parents, “It’s my kid and I like Rat!”
Next Week: “Like a Sister”