Was watching some old episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show late last night and realized a sad truth.
Rob Petrie ruined my life.
Actually, coveting his life ruined my life. The show was a pernicious influence on me. Convinced me it was possible to live conflicting lives. Bohemain by day, suburbanite by night and weekend.
Rob Petrie's a writer and a homeowner, husband, and dad. He spends his working days in New York City collaborating with other artistic types, then comes home to his tract house in New Rochelle to mow the lawn, go to PTA meetings, and play bridge with the neighbors.
He divides himself more completely than Don Draper on Mad Men.
For one thing, Rob’s coworkers are actually creative and very good at their jobs.
For another, Rob comes home to a hot ex-dancer wife who is clearly crazy about him.
But serving two masters never works out well in real life.
You can’t serve both Art and Scott lawn care products.
On the other hand, it seems to have worked for Carl Reiner the show’s creator who based it on his own life.
So maybe the problem was with me. Having a mortgage isn’t the problem. It's not having had the talent.
Or the courage.
Or the luck.
Still a great show.
Watched a terrific episode in which Alan Brady browbeats Rob into punching up a Broadway play Alan’s starring in. Rob has to do the work in secret because Alan doesn’t want to offend the play’s author, Tennessee Williams.
Ok. It’s not actually Tennessee Williams. It’s a Tennessee Williams-esque playwright named Harper Worthington Yates.
Played by Strother Martin of all people, looking more dapper, plumper, less degenerate than you remember him from Cool Hand Luke.
Maybe it’s not Williams but a composite or somebody who was famous at the time but whose work and reputation have faded in the collective memory.
Funnier if you think of him as Williams though.
Of course, it’s television, in the 60s, so you have to picture a Tennessee Williams who doesn’t drink, keeps his hair combed and his tie tied, and focuses his affections on his dog, Mister Ben, rather than on rough trade.
But…Southerner, courtly, thin mustache, prolific writer, Pulitzer Prize winner. Gay.
The episode includes two obviously gay characters.
Well, obvious to adults at least. I doubt I caught it when I was I was a little kid watching the show in syndication on days when I was home sick from school.
The characters’ gayness is not treated as the joke. There are only two gay jokes and neither one is primarily a gay joke. The first is part of the set-up to a joke about people who worship their pets.
The Tennessee William character explains his devotion to Mister Ben by telling Alan that the dog is all he has left since “I lost Blossom.”
And Alan responds, slightly incredulously, suddenly thinking he has to revamp his whole impression of the playwright, “I didn’t know you were married.”
The playwright gives him a startled look as though he can’t believe Alan’s that obtuse. “Blossom was Mister Ben’s wife.”
The other joke is a follow-up to Rob’s run in with the costume designer for the play. Buck Brown. That’s his name. Which I guess is a gay joke in itself. But it’s a throwaway. Alan has called Rob out to Connecticut where the play is having a try-out but to keep the secret Alan introduces Rob to the director as his tailor Vito. The director happens to be having an argument with Buck Brown over one of Brown’s designs and he asks “Vito” for his professional opinion. Rob takes the director’s side, which brings Brown storming into Alan's dressing room to confront the nobody who’s dared to criticize a Buck Brown original!
Brown is more flamboyant that Harper Worthington Yates.
Yates might---might---have been passed off as a soft-spoken, excessively well-mannered, slightly fussy, sexually diffident straight man.
There’s no mistaking Buck Brown.
But his flamboyance isn’t a signifier of his homosexuality. It’s the angry song of his art and his artistic pride. This is the award-winning costume designer for seventeen Broadway shows, an artist who will bedeck a leading lady with apricot bows and then defend his design choice fiercely against the casual, middlebrow judgment of an ordinary men’s tailor named Vito.
The joke in the scene isn’t a gay man throwing a hissy fit. Buck Brown’s tirade is far from that anyway. The joke is on Rob, a show biz professional in his own right, for his being unable to stick up for himself because of the ridiculous position Alan’s put him in and having to stand there, stammering an apology, as a fellow pro berates him and dismisses him as a philistine.
Later, though, back in New Rochelle, after he’s mentioned that a man named Buck Brown essentially beat him up, verbally, Laura says, “Buck Brown the cowboy star?” and Rob says grumpily, “Hardly.” Which is a sissy joke but turned on its head, because Rob isn’t expressing contempt for Brown, he’s letting out his anger at Alan for putting him on the spot like that where he was more or less in the traditional sissy’s predicament of having to submit to bullying and he’s confessing his self-loathing for having submitted.
Rob thinks he should have stood up for himself. To Alan, not to Brown.
The Dick Van Dyke show was a very enlightened and sophisticated and even subversive show for its time and context, on a number of issues. That’s another way it’s an argument against Mad Men. Through the lives of Rob and Laura it shows the great social changes of the the 1960s arising out of the lives of the Northeastern creative middle class, which is of course the very class Mad Men posits the 60s were necessary to destroy.
But the 60s wiped out Rob and Laura and left us with a more stylish but simultaneously more self-indulgent and more conservative class of Dons and Bettys with careers.
That’s another post.
What was the point of this post again?
Oh yeah. Rob Petrie ruined my life.
Him and his damn briefcase.
In that episod, as Rob is about to head off to Connecticut, he piles all the drafts of the script he’s been working on into his briefcase.
A real briefcase. Leather covered. Hard. Brass-trimmed. With locks that snap.
Do any writers carry briefcases like that anymore?
Jeezus. Do they even have any papers to put in them?
A present day Rob Petrie, summoned by her boss to Connecticut, would stuff her netbook into a backpack.
If she’d even think of actually going to Connecticut. She and her Alan Brady could deal with the rewrites over the internet, with her emailing her drafts to his Blackberry.
Who needs a briefcase?
I still want one though.
Which is the problem.
Rob’s briefcase is symbolic.
That’s a lawyer’s or an insurance man’s briefcase.
In those days a writer would have carried a soft-leather attache. The battered one he’d been given as a gift for his high school graduation. If he carried anything. He’d have been more likely to just roll up his pages and stuff them in his jacket pocket.
The briefcase was a signifier. It was there to reassure the audience that despite his spending his day among television stars, Pulitzer Prize winning playwrights, flamboyant costume designers, and other writers, not to mention beautiful actresses bedecked in apricot bows, that Rob was still a regular guy. Just like the folks at home. Another nine to fiver with a wife and a kid and a mortgage and a lawn to mow and boring, uncreative neighbors who were dentists and dentists’ wives and members of the PTA for whom a night of bridge was the highlight of the week.
But I hadn’t studied deconstructionism when I was eight. I probably didn’t know who Tennessee Williams was, let alone Jacques Lacan. In fact, when I did become aware of Tennessee Williams I probably thought he was like Harper Taylor Yates.
I learned a lot about real life from The Dick Van Dyke Show.
I took it all literally.
Like that briefcase.
I learned the wrong lesson from that.
It convinced me that it was possible to own a briefcase like that, and all the middle-class accoutrements, and encumberances, that it symbolized, and still hope to be a writer and spend my working days in the company of other writers and beautiful actresses with or without apricot bows.
You know what, though? I got a birthday coming up next month? Maybe I could ask for a briefcase.
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