72. "That's My Boy??" 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.
This episode has one of the most famous twist endings in any sitcom, which prompted one of the longest laughs from a studio audience in TV history. (Don't time it; most of it is edited out.) But unlike many "most memorable" TV moments, it's not a gimmick propping up a mediocre episode. The Dick Van Dyke Show don't roll that way!
"That's My Boy??" (spoiler below the jump, in case you're the kind of person who also doesn't know the significance of "Rosebud") is a great example of how Van Dyke and the show's producers managed to create a central character who's both a straight man and a clown. Rob Petrie isn't exactly an Only Sane Man (the rest of the characters aren't that nutty), but he's often a voice of reason. He's intelligent, polite, and considerate, representing none of the deadly sins (greed, vanity, lust) that motivate so many memorable sitcom characters.
And yet he regularly gets in trouble. One reason is his lanky, unstable physique, which makes him a spectacle even when he tries to do ordinary things (Exhibit A: falling out of a jury box in "One Angry Man"). Another is his Midwestern friendliness and eagerness to please that sometimes goes too far. (Wife Laura correctly calls him on this in "My Husband Is a Check-Grabber.") Then there is Rob's overactive imagination, which is handy at his job as a comedy writer but which also leads him into all kinds of weird fixations. In "That's My Boy??", for example, he is seized by the fear that his newborn son was switched with another baby at the hospital.
Even with the character tics noted above, it sometimes takes a little extra to nudge Rob into nuttiness. In "My Husband Is Not a Drunk," it's hypnosis; in "Who and Where Was Antonio Stradivarius?", it's a minor concussion; and in "One Hundred Terrible Hours," it's sleep deprivation. (This Was Television points out that sleep deprivation also plays a part in another classic flashback episode, "Where Did I Come From?") In a lesser sitcom, these might be cheats, but because Rob never behaves completely out of character, here they serve more as reminders that it doesn't take much to push any of us over the brink. In "That's My Boy??", it's noted more than once that Rob has barely eaten anything since he brought Laura and the baby home, a factor in his becoming increasingly unhinged.
Rob: Laura, do you know that one out of every 50 million women has the wrong baby?
Laura: Well, that's a cute trick. How does she manage it?
Rob is convinced that their baby has been switched with that of the similarly named Peters family. All is finally resolved when Mr. and Mrs. Peter show up at the house and turn out to be... black.
This would have been an easy and predictable punch line on All in the Family, but when The Dick Van Dyke Show was on the air, African-Americans were virtually invisible on TV. As Vince Waldron reports in The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book, CBS and the show's sponsors almost vetoed the ending — though, in a sign that times were changing, it was because they feared that African-Americans would see the twist ending as a form of ridicule. To which DVD executive producer Sheldon Leonard replied, "It's going to look like we're making fun of Van Dyke, because he's an idiot! The black man is smarter." (In the tag of this flashback episode, Rob even observes that the Peters's son turned out to be a better student than Ritchie Petrie — something that longtime viewers of the show did not find implausible.)
The progressive nature of Rob's comeuppance aside, "That's My Boy??" is no morality tale, but just a funny take on how big life changes can shake our grip on reality.
Rob: Say, guys, don't you want to see the baby?
Buddy: Of course we want to see the baby. I've been practicing funny faces all day.
Sally: (to Buddy) The one you're doing now is hysterical.
• "That's My Boy??" is the first DVDS episode written by Bill Persky and Sam Denoff. They went on to write 24 more, including "Coast to Coast Big Mouth" (at No. 18 on this list), then co-created the Marlo Thomas sitcom That Girl.
• Also see my essay "Examining The Dick Van Dyke Show’s sophisticated comedy in just 10 episodes" at the A.V. Club.