By Greg Boyd
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Season 2, Episode 12: “Gesundheit, Darling”
Original Airdate: Dec. 12, 1962
Certain performances in individual episodes are pretty much destined to become legendary. Great performers are great across the entirety of the series, of course, but there are always these individual moments that come to define a given role: Mary Tyler More in “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” Christopher Lloyd in “Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey” and (more recently) Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm in Mad Men‘s “The Suitcase.” Dick Van Dyke’s portrayal of Rob Petrie has many such defining moments, of course, and his best is still ahead of him. But of all the standout comic performances he gives over the course of this series, his work in “Gesundheit, Darling”—in which he elevates sneezing to a level of artistry and hilarity rarely glimpsed either before or after—stands out as something special.
What makes his sneezing in this half-hour so awe-inspiring? Well, I think one of the keys is variety, and the way in which his considerable sneezing talents are used in the episode’s story. It first becomes noteworthy at the bridge table, and Jerry takes the opportunity to do some amateur psychology, stating that Rob is sneezing because he’s angry at Laura. If there’s one issue I have with the episode, it’s how quickly Laura comes to believe what he’s saying, despite all evidence to the contrary. But I suppose the show has to move the plot forward within a reasonable period of time, and (as with “The Secret Life of Buddy and Sally” a few weeks ago) it’s hard to be too upset when that plot is just so funny.
And the couple’s argument in their bedroom that night is more than funny. It’s utterly hysterical, with Rob dreaming about ragweed and Laura refusing to give him a handkerchief, which she interprets as another sign of Rob’s repressed “hostility” towards her. At this point, Rob is actually starting to get angry, which brings us to great sneeze #1: in which he sneezes normally but adds a sarcastic laugh to the end of it, not once but twice.. It’s such an unexpected and inspired idea, yet one completely logical given Rob’s current state of justifiable irritation. And it’s pulled off brilliantly by Van Dyke, who injects the end of the sneeze with just the right amount of sarcasm. Rob then goes off to sleep in the den, with Laura accusing him (in one of many terrific lines here) of doing so in order to “sneeze thoughts that I can’t hear”.
In the morning, he’s still searching for answers, getting tested for a bunch of different allergies by his doctor. Nothing, but he does get the idea that he might actually be allergic to Laura. And upon his return home, Van Dyke takes the sneezing to new comic heights: sneaking whiffs of Laura’s hair and attempting (in masterful sneezes #2, 3, and 4) to stifle the ensuing nasal onslaught just long enough so he can do it out of her sight and earshot. The first time he’s successful. The second and third. . . not so much, which leads to the incomparable image of Rob Petrie mid-sneeze, trying to pretend everything’s fine.
What follows is a comic mystery similar to the end of the last episode, with Rob trying to deduce what’s making him sneeze, after discovering that Millie, Richie, and Jerry all do as well . Rob Petrie as detective was fun in “A Bird in the Head Hurts”, but his sleuthing in “Gesundheit, Darling” is even better, as his detective work is accompanied by yet more hilarious sneezing. To said sneezing Carl Reiner’s script then adds a series of equally inspired moments in which the character is about to go near one of the other people in the room, only to recoil violently after remembering what’s happening. These Van Dyke executes with even more precision than the sneezes, leading to a comedic conclusion for the ages: one of the greatest scenes of the series so far.
The episode’s hilarity—and Van Dyke’s virtuoso performance—literally never lets up. On top of everything else, it features one of the show’s funniest tag scenes, in which Richie plans to shave the kitten he and Freddie have been caring for (revealed in the previous scene to be the source of Rob’s allergy troubles) so they can keep it. (What’s so great about this scene is the way it allows us to recognize what Richie is thinking a second before Laura and Rob do, which makes their sudden looks of realization—and subsequent chasing of their son—absolutely priceless.) A standout half-hour of the show, and one of the standout comic performances in its history.
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