Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.
According to Carl Reiner, the script “Coast to Coast Big Mouth” was specifically chosen to serve as the premiere episode of the fifth season of The Dick Van Dyke Show because they could immediately tell it would be an especially strong outing for the program. It’s telling that the episode isn’t that much of a showcase for the star who gives the program its name. One of the reasons The Dick Van Dyke Show was arguably the first sitcom that truly perfected the model — and inarguably set that standard that all quality sitcoms would be judged by for at least the next thirty years — was its exceptionalism in setting its pieces on the board in such a way that the winning move could come from just about anywhere. In the case of “Coast to Coast Big Mouth,” the comedy came from an ideal merging of the show’s domestic side and its workplace side, and the friction between bullying bluster and wailing fluster.
The narrative’s dilemma is set into motion when Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore), the wife of the head comedy writer portrayed by the title star, goes onto a nationally televised quiz show and is tricked into spilling a secret about her spouse’s employer, a secret that cut straight to his monumental vanity. Laura blunders into revealing that Alan Brady (played by Reiner, in a recurring role) wears a toupee. It was a gag drawn from Reiner’s own experience as a fellow with fewer follicles than he might have preferred on the top of his noggin, as well as his own dalliances with hairpieces.
“If I was on national television and I wanted to be handsome, I’d wear it,” Reiner told Vanity Fair. “When I went on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson would never know if I was coming with or without it.”
The comedy clicks all the way through, in part because of the crack timing of all the performers and the way the script plays to Moore’s astounding ability to charm while skirting emotional meltdown. The centerpiece of the episode is the scene where Laura attempts to address the problem, hopefully sparing her husband his boss’s wrath, by going straight to Alan to apologize. Despite some physical schtick with Alan slapping around toupees that grow shabby through his manhandling, the scene is largely bereft of hijinks. Instead, the scene works wonders because of the snap of the interplay between well-established and sharply drawn characters. As a bonus, they were characters that didn’t interact all that often, providing that jolt of fresh invention to the scene.
Bill Persky and Sam Denoff are the credited writers on the episode. When they were called to the stage to collect a writing prize at the Emmy Awards that honored that year in television, they were no strangers to the experience. They’d shared the previous writing win, with Reiner, for The Dick Van Dyke Show, two years before. And they were part of a team that took a writing Emmy the following year, for The Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris Special, a program that reunited the troupe from Your Show of Shows, Reiner’s previous place of television employ that was a significant inspiration in creating The Dick Van Dyke Show in the first place.
Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.