By Greg Boyd
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Season 2, Episode 9: “The Night the Roof Fell In”
Original Airdate: Nov. 21, 1962
John Whedon’s script for “The Night the Roof Fell In” unfortunately backs itself into a corner. On the one hand, it’s largely terrific, using its Rashomon-like structure for frequently tremendous comic effect. If the episode can’t quite match the brilliantly escalating humor of “My Husband is Not a Drunk”, the joke writing here is still some of the smartest and funniest we’ve seen from the series so far, which is really saying something. But here’s the problem: the ending was always going to have a hard time measuring up to what came before it, and it doesn’t. I’m not saying it’s impossible to craft a great conclusion to a half-hour comedy episode with this type of structure (there are probably episodes out there that have pulled it off), but it’s very, very difficult, and Whedon can’t quite manage it.
Why? It all basically boils down to a lack of stakes in the story he’s chosen to tell. Narratives told in this fashion generally require some sort of framing story, both to explain the unusual structure and to provide some sense of closure to the various flashbacks. “The Night the Roof Fell In” has no trouble on the first count, putting forth three different versions of a big fight Laura and Rob have just had: an objective one told by one of the couple’s fish to its tank companion (or at least, we assume it’s objective, as I’m pretty sure the fish has no reason to lie) and the two told by each of the participants to their friends. It’s a perfectly logical way to set up the episode, and works just fine. So that’s no concern.
Where the episode runs into trouble, however, is when it is required to return to the framing story and resolve the issues it’s raised. Here Rashomon has no problem whatsoever. Its stakes are nothing less than questions of human nature, and whether or not people are capable of being decent. I won’t spoil Kurosawa’s masterpiece here, but suffice to say his film ends on deeply profound and powerful note that addresses this theme perfectly. “The Night the Roof Fell” is of course an episode of a sitcom rather than a haunting cinematic drama, so its ending is going to be significantly different in terms of tone. But after an episode that features some delightfully sophisticated and clever humor, am I wrong for expecting more than just a treacly and predictable make-up scene? I don’t think so, even as I’m not sure there was any way around it. Maybe a few more jokes would have helped make it a little less cloying. But as is, it simply pales in comparison to the intelligence and wit of rest of the installment. If in Rashomon the ending is a moment of quiet grace that you can’t imagine the movie without, here the conclusion is a heavy-handed, saccharine dose of sugar that hits you over the head with its sweetness in a decidedly ungraceful fashion.
It’s a problem inherent in the form, given that comedies (network ones, at least) tend to want to leave you with the status quo largely unchanged. And in an episode as unusually structured as this, the straightforward resolution designed to reassert that status quo just feels so disappointing, in a way it perhaps wouldn’t have had the entire episode been similarly straightforward.
And that’s too bad, because up to that point “The Night the Roof Fell In” is a very, very funny and smart episode. It inverts the Rashomon structure by having the most seemingly objective story take place first, so as to heighten the comedic impact of Rob and Laura’s following exaggerations. Rob remembers himself as behaving just like Fred Astaire, while Laura envisions herself as basically a saint and Rob as “wild”. Incidents and lines of dialogue recur in all three stories, but are given substantially different meanings depending on the storyteller. In Rob’s retelling, for instance, he avoids tripping on an ottoman and tells Laura how much he loves it, while in Laura’s he trips and starts ranting about how “you like my ottoman better than you like me”. (In the objective version he trips but doesn’t rant nearly as much.)
I wouldn’t exactly call the comedy densely layered (Dick Van Dyke is not the kind of show where you’re ever in danger of missing a joke), but the connections between the three stories are very clever and a lot of fun to watch. “The Night the Roof Fell In” may go south later on, but it’s still another solid addition to the show’s impressive second year, particularly coming on the heels of last week’s season-worst episode. The contradictions between the various tales produce solid laughs (as do the performances, with Moore and Van Dyke playing the different versions of their characters in hilariously over-the-top fashion), making it an extremely successful early attempt to apply Rashomon‘s influential structure to television comedy. It would not be the last, of course, as countless other sitcoms have done an episode of this type. Every one of them owes a debt to The Dick Van Dyke Show, as they do for so many things.
Next Week: “The Secret Life of Buddy and Sally”