1. "Never Bathe on Saturday," 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's not about their honesty or dependability. It's about how they get their kicks. To paraphrase 30 Rock's Jack Donaghy, I would not go with a sitcom hater to a second location. Sorry, Paul Krugman (who calls sitcoms "a cultural form that’s very, very stupid"), but we won't be spending much time together.
We all like entertainment that causes discomfort. I'm socially awkward and easily embarrassed, so I get a vicarious thrill out of seeing sitcom characters deal with those same feelings. If you're outgoing and self-confident, you may need something more intense, like horror movies, to get the same thrill. If you're Krugman, you may prefer to get angry at idiots saying predictably stupid things on cable news.
I am not saying that all people who hate sitcoms are incapable of human empathy. (Some are just pretentious.) I'm just saying that I don't need to see the Saw movies when I can squirm at the thought of getting my big toe stuck in a bathtub tap.
Rob: Honey, what is your foot stuck in?
Laura: The faucet.
Rob: The... the faucet?
Laura: You know… the little pipe that the water comes out of…
Rob: Well, honey, that’s… that’s not the faucet, honey…
Laura: Rob, I don’t care what you call it, my big toe is stuck.
Rob: Well, how did… how did you do it?
Laura: I was playing with the drip…
I never considered a single-camera series for the top slot on this list. The multi-camera model is still what most of us think of when we hear "sitcom," and the laughter from a live audience is part of what makes the sitcom feel so communal. (Sorry, Parks and Recreation, though you come pretty close to the ideal for a single-camera show.)
And picking an episode from The Dick Van Dyke Show felt right. (See my essay on the series as a whole at the A.V. Club.) DVDS is to sitcom plots what Ella Fitzgerald is to the Great American Songbook. Fitzgerald didn't sing the definitive version of every Porter or Gershwin tune, but in almost every case she set a benchmark that few can match. Similarly, sitcom writers have spent decades trying to rework storylines that were already done to perfection on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Finally, I decided on a "one false move" episode, in which a small, impulsive action causes big problems. In "Never Bathe on Saturday," Laura Petrie's false move is to wedge her big toe into a bathtub tap in the fancy hotel where she and Rob are spending a romantic weekend (with the bathroom door locked from the inside). This is the kind of "what if I did this?" impulse that we usually fight off but that sitcom characters are often powerless to resist — as in pulling the emergency cord on a train, which Lucy Ricardo repeatedly does in "The Great Train Robbery."
What makes "Never Bathe on Saturday" significant is that the characters are more important that the situation, something that would become the norm on American sitcoms by the 1970s. It's easy to imagine Lucy Ricardo getting her big toe stuck in a bathtub tap, but I Love Lucy would have gotten laughs by escalating the situation so that Lucy gets other body parts stuck in things, or has to ride the subway dragging a bathtub behind her.
The script for "Never Bathe on Saturday," by DVDS creator Carl Reiner, instead establishes a simple comic situation, then focuses on the reactions of a couple of very well-defined characters. This would eventually become the template for most sitcoms, which is why there have been so few successful slaptick comedies in the style of I Love Lucy. What makes Laura (Mary Tyler Moore)'s dilemma so funny is that regular viewers of DVDS know how much she's mortified by what we would now call YouTube moments. (See her battle with the blow-up boat in "The Curious Thing About Women," reviewed by Greg Boyd at the blog This Was Television.) We also know that Rob (Dick Van Dyke) is prone to acts of bravado that are undermined by his klutziness.
(The key to the bathroom doesn't work and the maintenance staff is otherwise occupied with a stuck elevator.)
Rob: Laura, I'm going to bust down the door.
Laura: Rob, isn't that kind of drastic?
Rob: You want to get out, don't you?
Laura: Not at the expense of a broken husband!
Rob: (feeling around the door) I'm not going to break myself.
Laura: But it's a very heavy door!
Rob: I know, but that doesn't make any difference, honey, if you hit it right.
Laura: But, Rob, you'll hurt yourself!
Rob: No, no, honey, no way to hurt myself. (as he walks some distance from the door, clearing a path for a run at it) There's a technique to these things. (to himself) I wish I knew what it was.
Reiner takes his time getting Laura into that bathtub. "Never Bathe on Saturday" begins with the Petries limping home from their frustrated attempt at a second honeymoon. An interrogation by neighbor Millie Helper (Ann Morgan Guilbert) reveals that a.) the Petries did not have a fight, and b.) Laura is waiting for the "throbbing" to stop. With that salacious crumb dropped, we flashback to Rob and Laura entering their hotel suite. (Such framing devices were often used on The Dick Van Dyke Show to hook viewers without having to give away too much of the story at the outset.)
In the hotel, Rob and Laura flirt with each other in front of the bed for two they don't have at home. (Even CBS in 1965 couldn't insist on putting twin beds in a honeymoon suite.) Rob hints at an erotic dream he had the night before, but he's interrupted by Laura pulling her new negligee out of her suitcase.
Rob may be getting excited, but he's still a comedy writer. So when he leans in for a kiss before they're alone and Laura asks, "But darling, what about the bellboy?", he responds, "You first." And he finishes an order to room service with this:
Rob: Oh, and one rose. Thank you! (hangs up phone)
Laura: Aww, Rob…
Rob: (innocently) Did you want a rose too?
Laura exits to take a hot bath, and Rob kills time by giving himself a "David Niven" mustache with a marker he finds in Laura's purse. He's interrupted by a maid (the sublime Kathleen Freeman) bringing in the towels and the bellboy bringing in some fruit, making him more eager to be alone with Laura. Then he hears the familiar "Roooob..." from behind the bathroom door.
So we've got an amorous couple separated by a locked, impossibly heavy door. And Reiner makes it clear in his script that Laura is naked, naked, naked. She tells Rob that she can't reach her bathrobe, and she hasn't got any towels (remember the maid?), and we can imagine the soap suds slowly disappearing...
It's an absurd situation, made more so by the unhelpful hotel staff. But it evokes feelings — embarrassment, confusion, anger, and, of course, sexual frustration — that I experience on an (almost) daily basis. So I empathize with Rob and Laura, and if they can get through their fiasco of a weekend, I feel better about whatever I have to go through. Now, I love TV shows with life-or-death stakes (Breaking Bad) or literate social commentary (Mad Men), but I can't put them on a higher plane than sitcoms whose characters deal with... well, what most of us have to deal with every day. The opinion of Paul Krugman nothwithstanding, that would be very, very stupid.
Rob: (holding the hotel detective's gun, addressing the detective and bellboy) Only a
husband can blow the lock off a bathroom… with his wife in a bathtub with
nothing on… and her… her toe stuck in a pipe! Now call me a prude if you
like… (shoots the lock) Now you stay
right there and don’t make a move… (enters the bathroom) Honey,
are you all right?
Laura: (offstage) Oh, Rob…
Rob: (offstage, laughing) I’m sorry, you look so funny…
Laura: Well, gee…
Rob: (emerging from bathroom) You guys want to see something ridiculous?
• There’s a great scene-by-scene breakdown of the episode on the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear blog.
• Classic TV History's Steven Bowie includes "Never Bathe on Saturday" on his list of greatest TV episodes. He writes: "Never was this series’ frank, hip attitude toward sex more evident than in this episode."
• "Never Bathe on Saturday" merits its own chapter in Vince Waldron's essential The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book*, thanks to the episode's backstage drama.
"Mary walked out in the middle of a rehearsal," recalls Bill Idelson, who played the hotel bellboy in the episode. "She didn't want to do the show, because she said the camera was never on her."
But though Mary Tyler Moore might have been physically out of sight during much of the episode, [staff writer] Sam Denoff maintains that the actress was hardly ever out of mind -- at least not so far as the show's many millions of male viewers were concerned. "Mary didn't get the idea," observes Denoff, "that during the whole episode, people in America were fantasizing seeing Laura Petrie naked in sudsy water in a bathtub! What a picture! But she didn't get that."
The story goes that Moore was trying to quit smoking when this episode was shot, so she was in an unusually combative mood. I would also note that Reiner had been secretive about an upcoming episode that would prominently feature Laura — and maybe an acclaimed comic actress like Moore was not wildly happy to discover that her role was going to be an imagined sex object. But she does a great job keeping in character as an offstage voice, plus Van Dyke and Moore are such a fantastic couple that "Never Bathe on Saturday" does not come off as being only about Rob's sexual frustration.
• This is so Rob Petrie:
Laura: (from the bathroom) Where's that stupid maid with the key?
Rob: She's right here, honey.
Maid: Stupid maid, huh?
Rob: (apologetically) Well, we had a stupid maid once.
• Thanks to everyone for reading! Special thanks to the A.V. Club's TV editor, Todd VanDerWerff, and to Maclean's TV critic, Jaime Weinman, for recommending this blog to their readers at the start of the project. There will be more posts on television old and new, as well as other topics, in 2013. But not another Top 100 list for a while.