37. "All About Eavesdropping," The Dick Van Dyke Show (1963)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 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 on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
Not most of the time, but they have their moments of asshattery, just like the rest of us. And in "All About Eavesdropping," they're as petty and passive-aggressive as... well, as we imagine TV stars to be. The Petries are usually so perfect that there's a comic charge in seeing them ruin a dinner party because their feelings are a little bruised. It's like one of the periodic winks to the audience on The Office that Jim and Pam are a little too pleased with themselves.
"All About Eavesdropping" uses the sitcom gimmick of having characters overhear what others say about them behind their backs. In 1963, the trick is done through an intercom system that little Richie and his friend have installed at the Petries' and at the Helpers' next door; today, it would be through an accidentally forwarded email.
In a snit after overhearing this "betrayal" by their friends, Rob and Laura reluctantly go to the Helpers' long-planned dinner party. They must go "for Buddy and Sally," Rob says. "Why should they suffer because we're not there?" (Hmm, Jerry and Millie have got their neighbors pegged pretty good.) What happens next is, I submit, the most cringeworthy social gathering in sitcom history — and I didn't forget the over-the-top "Dinner Party" episode of The Office.
The best moment comes in a game of charades. Keep in mind that Laura is pantomiming through this dialogue; I'm not even going to try to come up with all the stage directions.
Jerry: OK, it's a song title. First word. Over. Beat. Pat.
Rob: Crush. Destroy.
Jerry: (to Rob) What? (to Laura) Oh, second word! A little word, a small word.
Rob: Petty. Hypocritical. Two-faced.
Jerry: That's a song title?
Rob: Second word is petty two-faced.
Jerry: (to Laura) Oh, you're going to do the whole thing? The whole thing? OK. (thinks) March.
Rob: Walk. Stomp. Stomp all over people. Walk all over people. Goose step! Treachery, treachery. Two-faced, two-faced. Stab, stab in the back, stab in the back.
Jerry: Point. Finger.
Rob: Accuse. Indict. Malicious accusery! That's right, Pearl Harbor! I got it!
Jerry: What is it?
Rob: "On the Street Where You Live."
By the end of the episode, the friends have all reconciled in a reasonably believable way, but I like to think that Jerry and Millie bring up the intercom incident whenever the Petries get too smug.
• This episode also has a great example of the idea of a joke being more important than the joke itself. After a few minutes of Rob and Laura's drop-dead rudeness to their neighbors, Buddy tries to break the ice. But actor Morey Amsterdam can only get out "I haven't had laughs like this since—" before the audience laughter completely drowns out the rest of his line, "the St. Valentine's Day massacre." (Rose Marie seems to crack up at the audience upstaging her co-star.) It's a pretty bland joke, but there would have been little point to coming up with something better, as the comedy was in the character dynamics.
Jaime Weinman has a good post on the primacy of scenes over individual jokes on some of the best sitcoms:
...even in a lot of comedy that superficially looks like setup/punchline comedy, the one-liners are really just the warm-up to the big moments. They keep the rhythm going and they keep us in the mood to laugh, and so they are necessary to the comedy, but the one-liners don’t define the quality of the comedy, and they’re not, ultimately, what we remember the most.
• "All About Eavesdropping" is one of the infrequent episodes in which Rob smokes a cigarette — to accompany the bowl of Wakey Flakeys he needs to satisfy his hunger because he was too "sincere" to eat much at the party. (He tries to "accidentally" turn the intercom back on by stamping out his cigarette on it.) DIck Van Dyke Show cast members, in character and with a laugh track, filmed several commercials for Kent Cigarettes; see here and here.
• Also see my essay "Examining The Dick Van Dyke Show’s sophisticated comedy in just 10 episodes" at the A.V. Club.
• Part 1 of "All About Eavesdropping" below; part 2 is here.