18. "Coast to Coast Big Mouth," The Dick Van Dyke Show (1965)
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.
It must be tough to write for a sitcom without moronic characters. With The Dick Van Dyke Show, the challenge was to put reasonable people in ridiculous situations, and series creator Carl Reiner, along with the show's other writers, succeeded brilliantly. (See my essay "Examining The Dick Van Dyke Show’s sophisticated comedy in just 10 episodes" at the A.V. Club.)
In some episodes, such as "That's My Boy?" (No. 72 on this list), the usually level-headed Rob Petrie becomes obsessed with a just-plausible-enough notion (such as bringing the wrong baby home from the hospital). In other episodes, Rob or Laura make one false step, or blurt one thing, that gets them in deep trouble. "Coast to Coast Big Mouth — with an Emmy-winning script by Bill Persky and Sam Danoff, who also wrote "That's My Boy?" — is the sitcom genre's best example of a Gaffe Episode, and it's a lot more fun than anything that happens in a presidential campaign.
Host: Have you ever been to Alan Brady's house?
Laura: Oh, yes. Many times.
Host: Does he wear his toupee at home?
Laura: Oh golly, yes. He wears it all the time.
Host: You mean that Alan Brady is really bald?!?
Host: Then why does he wear a toupee? (to audience) That's it, ladies, the secret is out. She knows, and she said it! How about that, folks?
There are a lot of great lines in this episode, but its classic status depends on two perfectly written and performed scenes. In the first, Laura confesses to Rob that she's let slip Alan's secret on national TV. By this point, Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore have created what is still one of the most fully realized married couples in TV history. You can imagine a back story to almost everything they say to each other.
Rob: You knew that was a secret, didn't you?
Laura: (in tears) Yes!
Rob: Yeah, that's right! What's the fun of telling if it's not a secret?
Laura: But, Rob, he tricked me!
Rob: Oh, he tricked you? Oh, he's very tricky, but telling the whole world about Alan's wig! [...] I'm surprised you didn't blab about his nose being fixed! (immediately realizes his mistake)
Laura: I didn't know Alan had a nose job!
Rob: Up to now it was a secret.
Laura: (indignent) Rob, I thought we had no secrets from each other!
Rob: (apologetically) Well... Wait a minute! You're mad at me for not telling you a secret right in the middle of an argument where I'm mad at you for telling a secret!
Then there's the climax of the episode, in which Laura tries to apologize to Alan (Carl Reiner), sitting at a desk surrounded by his now-useless toupees. ("Fellas? There she is. There's the little lady who put you out of business.") On top of this, Alan has a bandaged foot (giving Reiner another prop to play with), and his toady assistant Mel Cooley is on hand to take abuse. (Mel: "I've always felt—" Alan: "You never felt anything, Mel.")
The scene between Moore and Reiner is so memorable because the two characters had little interaction up to this point in the series, and it's startling to see anyone but Rob get angry at easily flustered Laura. It's also a precursor to the marvelous scenes between Moore and Ed Asner on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, right up to Alan's grudgingly admitting that Laura might be right after all.
Laura: I think you look very nice without your, ah....
Alan: (doffs his hat) Hair?
Laura: Well, yes, for instance — now I'm not saying this just because I'm in trouble, although goodness knows I am —
Alan: Oh, yes!
Laura: But believe me, really sincerely, Alan, and you can ask anybody, I have always said that I like you so much better without your, um...
Alan: (throws his hat on his desk) It's hair, hair! You didn't have any trouble saying it on television! (suspicious) When have you ever seen me bald?
Laura: Remember that time on your boat when you fell overboard?
Alan: (accusingly) You bumped into me!
Laura: No, no, you tripped over Rob.
Alan: (to toupees) You hear that, fellas? The whole family is out to get me!
• Laura's suggestion when Alan asks what to do with his toupees: "There must be some needy bald people."
• Fifteen years before Airplane!:
Rob: (after Sally says Laura is in Rob's office building) Where?
Sally: I don't know where, but I saw her get into the elevator.
Rob: The elevator?
Sally: Yeah, you know, that little room in the lobby that goes up and down.
• There's an oral history by writer Sam Denoff at the Academy of American History website. He doesn't have much to say about "Coast to Coast," talking more about his love of episodes in which visuals were left to the audience's imagination (such as "October Eve," in which Laura is the subject of a nude painting). But "Coast to Coast" is definitely an episode made funnier by actually seeing Alan and his hairpieces.
• Alan Brady was also an early example of a sitcom character who was referred to but never seen, at least during the show's first few seasons. When he finally appeared on camera, he was as funny as anyone could have imagined, but very few sitcoms have dared to follow the example. All in the Family showed Stretch Cunningham (James Cromwell) after years of his being an off-camera character, but I can't think of many others.
• There are two clever bits of misdirection in this episode. One is Laura's first interview with the game show host, in which she avoids stepping in it (despite some I Love Lucy—like "uh-ohs" from the studio audience), giving her — and us — a false sense of security. The other is when Rob comes home and doesn't seem that upset about what Laura's done; it turns out he doesn't know about it yet. (He evidently wasn't checking Twitter at work.)
• "Coast to Coast Big Mouth" is on Hulu and, for now, on YouTube. Part One below and Part Two here.