83. "It May Look Like a Walnut," The Dick Van Dyke Show (1963)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
Dick Van Dyke Show executive producer Sheldon Leonard (the same guy threatening Gracie Allen at No. 95) did not like the script for this episode. "He thought it was a little too bizarre, and he didn't think it would be funny," recounts the show's star in Vince Waldron's indispensible Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book. But scriptwriter (and series creator) Carl Reiner insisted on filming it, and it became one of the best-known sitcom episodes of all time. (Another tidbit from Waldron's book: The cast and crew got constipated from munching walnuts throughout the week this episode was taped.)
Leonard was right to be wary. There were already two Dick Van Dyke Show episodes with dream sequences before "Walnut": "Washington vs. the Bunny" and a candidate for the show's worst entry, "The Bad Old Days." But in both of those, Rob's dreams were clearly designed to teach him some kind of lesson, in the tradition of the many sitcom episodes that rip off A Christmas Carol. "It May Look Like a Walnut" is closer to the way we really dream, with inexplicable images and an increasing sense of paranoia. It makes a common object seem threatening just by multiplying it and putting it in places we don't expect — in the same way a common word can suddenly seem strange if we stare at it long enough.
The scenes with Mary Tyler Moore are probably better remembered, but I think it's the office scene with Buddy and Sally that allows the story to sustain itself. How can Rob know what's real when he's talking to two people who never take anything seriously?
Rob: (explaining how he teased Laura the night before) I was pretending that I was this guy Kolak, who breathes water.
Sally: Oh, yeah. The four-eyed monster they threw out of the UN. He came from the planet Twilo.
Rob: You see that picture too?
Sally: No. They made a picture out of that?
Rob: Last night, on television.
Sally: Nooo, I was at the UN the day it happened!
Everyone behaves just slightly out of character in this episode (Laura could have tried to scare Rob to get even, but she seems to be carrying things a little far...), which makes it more fun than a dream sequence with elaborate costumes. And the only lesson here is not to watch TV in bed when you've got Mary Tyler Moore lying just inches away.
• Rob and Laura Petrie's twin beds are often invoked as a symbol of how prudish TV was in the 1960s, but they also seem to make the blocking in DVD's bedroom scenes more effective. In the first scene of this episode, Van Dyke uses the beds as props — repeatedly leaping over them and jumping in and out of the space between them. I don't think he'd be as funny with a queen-size bed.
• Mary Tyler Moore sliding down the mountain of walnuts in her capri pants is one of the most iconic images in sitcom history. But I doubt that Playboy ever ripped it off for a centerfold spread. Maybe a closet full of tribbles instead?
• Also see my essay "Examining The Dick Van Dyke Show’s sophisticated comedy in just 10 episodes" at the A.V. Club.