As sitcoms go, 38 years is an awfully long time between episodes. But that's the span separating episode 158 of "The Dick Van Dyke Show," first broadcast May 25, 1966, from what its creators are calling "episode 159," which airs tonight on CBS -- the series' ancestral home -- under the title "The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited."
The new episode, which you are free to regard as a special, departs from the last in several respects. It's in color, it lasts an hour and three of the main players are dead, while the rest of them -- and they are all here -- are 38 years older. There are a few words and jokes of a sort you never would have heard, or could have heard, on the original program. And it has a host, Ray Romano, who has been enlisted to give the program context, and perhaps provide it some contemporary cred, for viewers not schooled in the TV classics.
But it's also very much in the spirit of what came before. Written by Carl Reiner -- who not only created and produced the series but also wrote many of those 158 previous episodes and took the occasional role of Alan Brady, the egocentric TV star for whom Van Dyke, as comedy writer Rob Petrie, worked -- it bears the inarguable stamp of authorial authority. (Reiner has already twice revived the role, for an episode of "Mad About You" and a computer-animated special, "The Alan Brady Show," which ran last year on Comedy Central.) As was the original, it has been shot three-camera style before a live audience -- no TV movie-style production values, as with the "Mary and Rhoda" reunion or "Rescue From Gilligan's Island." The show is still set in New York: Although Rob and Laura have moved to Manhattan, where Laura teaches dance and Rob makes animation on his computer (Van Dyke's own work is shown here), their son, Richie (Larry Mathews), has bought the old house in New Rochelle, giving us access to its immaculately re-created living room. As in episodes of old, occasion is found to sing, and to dance, and to remember when. (The flashback was an essential tool of the original.)
And as with the episode that preceded it, back in 1966, there are no immediate plans for a follow-up.
"We had been approached about it many times over the years," Van Dyke says. "And Carl used to say, 'Well, I don't know; I don't think you can go back.' "
That changed last year, when Reiner stood onstage with Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore and Rose Marie to accept a legend award as part of the first TV Land Awards. "I looked around," he remembers, "and I said, 'Hey, we could do a show with these people.' I just said it as a joke from the stage, and the next day I got a call from CBS. It was an offhand remark, but offhand remarks are sometimes the best remarks you make."
"What took us so long?" was Moore's first reaction to the project. "I'd been waiting to do this for ages." Only the eponymous star had doubts. "I did have some misgivings about it," says Van Dyke, "because it's 40 years since the show went off -- maybe that's 20 years too long. Plus the fact that we were literally down to a skeleton crew -- only about half the cast is still alive."
Indeed, it was the absence of series regulars Morey Amsterdam, Richard Deacon and Jerry Paris that led Reiner to his premise. He started to think of the show in terms of a memorial, "and then I got the idea of Alan Brady, who hasn't seen Rob or Sally for years, searching them out to do his eulogy."
"People said, 'I wonder what happened to them?' " Reiner says of the Petries and company. "Or maybe I asked myself that question. The characters stay alive in my head." And it's the characters that fans will tune in to see. The actors have, after all, remained relatively visible. Van Dyke and Moore even teamed last year in "The Gin Game" for PBS; Reiner has shown up on "Bernie Mac" and "The Bonnie Hunt Show"; Rose Marie appeared on "Caroline in the City" and "Suddenly, Susan." But what we really want to know is: How are Rob and Laura getting on, and what's up with Sally, and does Alan Brady still wear a toupee?
Reiner also wrote parts for Ann Morgan Guilbert, as neighbor Millie Helper, and Dick's brother Jerry Van Dyke, as Rob's brother Stacey; also appearing are Bill Idelson as Sally's longtime boyfriend -- now husband -- Herman Glimsher, and frequent bit player Sandy Kenyon as Brady's butler. "We tried to sneak in everybody we could," Reiner says. Even original announcer Frank Butler is on board.
And when they reconvened, Reiner says, "It was like a time warp. I had seen every one of those people through the years, but never in the same milieu as before, including sitting around a big table in the studio and reading the script for the first time. It was thrilling. And it was nice to be able to reminisce; the first few days were just laughing and talking and remembering things." Former story editors Bill Persky and Sam Denoff were also there for the reading and rehearsals, throwing out ideas.
Watching Van Dyke and Moore work together, Reiner says, "was the biggest thrill of all. They just knew where they were." Van Dyke says it compares to when he and Moore first worked together in 1961. "We just fell right into it. She had never done comedy, and she picked it up so fast. We worked together so well I think we could have improvised scenes if we had to."
That electricity defined their on-screen relationship. "It was the first time you saw two people who were really very much attracted to each other," Moore says. "The Dick Van Dyke Show" came at a pivotal time in relations between the sexes -- Laura was a housewife and mother but also an equal partner, with modern ideas and modern style. (She wore the capri pants in the family.) As for Sally, "I've had young girls come up to me and say, 'It was because of you I became a writer,' " Rose Marie says. "I worked with the guys, I made the same money -- I was the first woman's libber on television."
Moore would, of course, soon explore that territory in her own show. It's not surprising that Laura is the one character here who seems altered.
"The real challenge in this role," Moore says, "was keeping some continuity and yet allowing for changes in my character -- allowing her to be a little more cynical than she was, and allowing her to have an edge that wasn't there before."
Other changes are, of course, more cosmetic, given a cast that ranges in age from 48 (Mathews) to 82 (Reiner). "Everybody takes on a different patina as they get older," Reiner admits.
"I was aware that all of us are older, and also these characters when we did them were very young. And we tried to re-create the youth of it; but it's trying to stop time, and you can't stop time." He deals with this by meeting it head on:
"You look good," Rob says to Stacey.
"No, I don't," Stacey replies. "I look old. And so do you."
Obviously, there is a high bar set here, given that they are in competition with their younger selves and a series one could not reasonably expect to better or even equal. "We never did a show in color," marvels Rose Marie, "and yet people watch the show as if it were a new show. And they say, 'I wish the show were on now, compared to what's on the air.' "
But they have done an honorable, amusing and lovely job. It is an odd thing to say, but "Dick Van Dyke Revisited" is best watched twice: The first time to get your expectations out of the way, to get used to the characters in their current skin and station. And the second for fun and to admire the gift you've been given and remember that there are no friends like old friends.
'The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited'
When: 9-10 tonight
Rating: The network has rated the program TV-G (suitable for all viewers).
Dick Van Dyke...Rob Petrie
Mary Tyler Moore...Laura Petrie
Rose Marie...Sally Rogers
Larry Mathews...Richie Petrie
Ann Morgan Guilbert...Millie Helper
Jerry Van Dyke...Stacey Petrie
Carl Reiner...Alan Brady
Host: Ray Romano
Executive producer, writer, Carl Reiner. Director, Ken Whittingham.