I would have liked 'The New Dick Van Dyke Show' much more if it hadn't stood in the long, long shadow of the original 'Dick Van Dyke Show', one of the greatest series in the history of television. Both sitcoms featured the ingenious premise of casting Van Dyke as someone connected with a television programme, thus setting up almost unlimited possibilities for episode premises that didn't fit the regular cast of characters but DID fit the show "within" the show. After famously playing the head scriptwriter for an egomaniac comedian on his first series, Van Dyke was cast as the host of an Arizona-based chat show in his second series.
A flaw in the second series was that Van Dyke (who had nothing further to prove) just didn't want to work as hard anymore. The opening credits of this series show a brief clip of Van Dyke doing an impressive soft-shoe dance while wearing scuba flippers! I wish that Van Dyke had done more dancing and physical comedy on this show. The tall lanky Van Dyke was an extremely physical performer, who used his long-limbed body in a style unlike anyone else except (just barely) John Cleese, another lanky performer.
This review is specifically for the episode "Who Do You Want to Be?", originally aired in the U.S. on 12 November 1972. It's a clever example of the versatility of the show-within-a-show framework, and this episode also spotlights the performing abilities of several regular cast members.
Dick Preston (Van Dyke) and his wife Jenny (Hope Lange) are entertaining a couple of guests for the evening, including their accountant Elliott (Elliott Reid). Amid the small talk, Dick poses an interesting though slightly ungrammatical question: If you could be anyone you want, who would you want to be? "Living or dead, real or fictional," he adds helpfully. "Male OR female?" asks Elliott, leaving us wondering what he's got in mind.
Jenny wants to be Lena Horne, although Jenny is merely the little wifey in a male-centred sitcom, so nobody really cares what she wants. That night, while Dick and Jenny are asleep (they share a double bed, refreshingly, unlike Rob and Laura Petrie of New Rochelle), Jenny dreams that she's Lena Horne. Hope Lange (in a black wig, and wearing tastefully under-stated body make-up) performs a song as Lena Horne, and is actually quite good. I was astounded that a 1970s series would depict a white person impersonating a black performer: after the initial shock, this sequence is delightfully entertaining. Jenny accidentally wakes up Dick with her rendition of 'Stormy Weather'.
Later that day at his production company's office, Dick pitches the idea to his office staff: who would they like to be? Dick's sister Mike (Fannie Flagg, whose face and accent don't remotely resemble Van Dyke's) decides she wants to be Lady Bird Johnson. In real life, Flagg first came to public attention as a nightclub performer, doing an elaborate monologue impersonating Lady Bird ... so, this script was clearly tailored to her talents. We see Flagg's Lady Bird routine here: in a thick Texas accent, she gives a speech on behalf of conservation ... while flinging the pages of her speech all over the landscape. I didn't find this very funny, but I'm only mildly familiar with the real Lady Bird from old news clips.
Dick decides to devote an episode of his chat show to the 'Who do you want to be?' premise. Accordingly, he trots out Bernie (Marty Brill) in a slap-headed wig and a cod German accent as bullet-headed Erich von Stroheim! "Von Stroheim" proceeds to introduce the guests ... including Elliott, who has apparently abandoned his desire to become a woman and has chosen the radically different option of becoming Noel Coward. Elliott Reid proceeds to perform a Noel Coward pastiche ('leisure girl, pleasure girl, buried-under-treasure girl') in a sangspiel voice: he never quite breaks into song, and he never quite attempts an English accent. I envisioned Jenny Preston at home watching this on television, wondering why her husband has booked their accountant on his programme to do a bad imitation of Noel Coward instead of bringing his wife on the show to do her excellent Lena Horne impression.
At this point, everyone else has done their impersonations, so the spotlight falls (not literally) upon Dick ... who announces that he couldn't decide whether he wanted to be Mark Twain or Fred Astaire, so he's decided to be both! Van Dyke enters in heavy Mark Twain make-up as Mark Astaire(!), who proceeds to alternate between standing still while reciting Mark Twain's aphorisms (in a fair approximation of Twain's accent) and bursting into elaborate dance routines from Fred Astaire movies.
It's always a pleasure to see Dick Van Dyke dance. However, this episode would have been far more enjoyable if he had impersonated Mark Twain and THEN Fred Astaire, rather than trying to be both at the same go. Also, Van Dyke's unique dancing style isn't really very similar to the technique of the much shorter Astaire. Here, Van Dyke makes a creditable attempt to match the moves of the great Fred Astaire ... but he's a pale imitation, and Van Dyke copying Astaire's moves isn't nearly as interesting as Van Dyke dancing the way only he can.
I'll give this episode credit for trying something different and imaginative, lifting 'Who Do You Want to Be?' slightly above the level of an average episode of 'The New Dick Van Dyke Show'.
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