The laughs were no accident on The Dick Van Dyke Show
By the time Dick Van Dyke had his own show, he was already a bona fide star in the entertainment industry. He was a multi-hyphenate talent known for his radio, stage and small-screen work. Van Dyke was first a successful radio DJ before moving into comedy performance. His nightclub routine led to a stint on Broadway, first in The Girls Against the Boys, then later, and more famously, as the lead in Bye Bye Birdie. By the time the latter netted the actor a Best Featured Actor Tony award, Dick Van Dyke was also a mainstay on TV, frequently appearing on talk shows and variety programs like The Phil Silvers Show and The Polly Bergen Show.
So, with American audiences primed for a sitcom starring a newly-minted Dick Van Dyke, the challenge was ensuring the program's material rose to the actor's level of stardom. Enter veteran comedy writer Carl Reiner, who based the show and its scenarios around the time he spent working on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. Reiner orchestrated a superstar team of writers. Rather than the show coasting on Dick Van Dyke's stardom, or relying on the celebrity value of guest stars, the emphasis was placed on quality writing, which wasn't exactly the norm at the time.
In addition to the ways the show broke the mold from a writing standpoint, The Dick Van Dyke Show utilized a series of innovations during production. Many other comedy shows at the time employed Charley Douglass, a sound engineer who invented and implemented a laugh track, or "canned laughter." This was not the case for Van Dyke, which instead did everything possible to earn the audience's real laughs.
Among these techniques was a unique production schedule. According to a 1961 article in the Meriden, Connecticut Record-Journal, the show would have two complete run-throughs of each script on consecutive nights, with a full audience in attendance. The first evening would tell the writers where jokes hit and where they were left wanting. The following evening, with the scripts punched up, the show would be again performed for a crowd, this time with a three-camera setup recording the episode. While this style of "dress rehearsal" attended by an audience would later be used in shows like The Carol Burnett Show and Saturday Night Live, back in '61, The Dick Van Dyke Show was the first.
Though it may be no surprise, it was also no accident that The Dick Van Dyke Show became so successful, eventually winning 15 Emmy awards over its five-season run. The sitcom is frequently cited in lists of the greatest TV shows of all time and, recently, inspired an episode of Disney's WandaVision.
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