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Q&A: ‘Dick Van Dyke’ Writer Reveals His Favorite Episodes

by Adam Buckman | December 9, 2012 at 3:57 PM | Interview, The Dick Van Dyke Show, TV News

Bill Persky (inset) co-wrote some of the best episodes of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” starring Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore (Photos: Getty Images, Bill Persky)
Bill Persky says Carl Reiner is the most important person to ever come into his life.

Apparently, Reiner feels the same way about Persky, who Reiner hired in 1963 as a writer for “The Dick Van Dyke Show” — along with Persky’s writing partner, the late Sam Denoff. “I daresay that had Bill Persky not come into my life in 1963, I would most certainly not be here today writing a heartfelt and glowing foreword to this highly entertaining memoir,” Reiner wrote in a foreword to “My Life is a Situation Comedy,” Persky’s memoir, released just last month, of his life as a writer, director and producer at the forefront of television comedy.

In 1963, Reiner was producing and writing “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which was due to start its third season that September on CBS. As he writes in the foreword to Persky’s book, Reiner needed help if he was going to get through Season Three and beyond.

As it happened, Persky and Denoff stuck around for the remaining three seasons of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” writing 48 episodes (according to Persky’s own reckoning) and, as story editors and story consultants, having a hand in scores of other episodes produced until the show ended its run in 1966.

Watch one of Bill Persky’s favorite “Dick Van Dyke” shows — “That’s My Boy?” right here:

Later that year, Persky and Denoff went on to create Marlo Thomas’ groundbreaking comedy series “That Girl” (though Persky acknowledges the driving force behind that show was Thomas herself). Persky went on to work on other shows too, including directing episodes of “Kate and Allie,” for which he won an Emmy in 1984, his fifth out of 13 nominations (including two Emmy wins for the “Van Dyke” show), according to the Emmy Awards’ own Web site.

Persky, now 81 and living and working in New York, is a widely sought-after speaker who loves to talk about the history of television, and understandably, his own history in TV. We caught up with Persky the other day on the phone, and he schooled us in the fundamentals of comedy writing, and told us what it was like to write for Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie on one of TV’s most revered shows, “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” And he recommended two episodes in particular that you can watch, one above and one below.

Here’s what he had to say:

Xfinity: How do you know good TV writing when you hear it? Well, people keep asking, What is comedy? And George Burns said, If you laugh, it’s comedy. And good writing, I think, is that you don’t notice it, that it just seems to be what people should be saying in those circumstances rather than what they’re being ‘forced’ to say. I learned at the knee of Carl Reiner who said, ‘You gotta start with honesty, you have to be honest.’ And really good writing, especially in comedy, takes chances. It’s about revealing universal truths through yourself and the ability to be willing to show how stupid and foolish you are. So many ‘Van Dyke’ shows – all the ‘Van Dyke’ shows – started with something that really happened to one of the people who wrote or produced the show.

Please tell us an episode or two that really stand out, for you, among the ones you wrote? And why do these stand out? Well, I would have to say there were two. One was the very first one that we wrote, which was about [Rob and Laura Petrie — Van Dyke and Moore] having the wrong baby because that was a landmark show in that, at the end of it, it was the introduction of an African-American couple who had the child that they thought they were mixed up with. [The episode, titled “That’s My Boy?,” premiered on Sept. 25, 1963. It had Rob telling the story about the time they brought their baby son home from the hospital and Rob was certain they had the wrong child.]

And it was revolutionary at that time. And the network refused to let us do it. They said, ‘You can’t do that. The world is not ready for a white couple to make a black couple the butt of a joke.’ And we said, ‘No, it’s the black couple that’s making the white couple the butt of the joke.’ And they said, ‘We’re certainly not ready for that.’

And yet, it was one of the longest laughs when that couple [one of whom was Greg Morris] walked through the door. [First,] there was a deadly silence long enough for Carl to say to me, Oh, God, because we didn’t know if the audience would accept it. And then there was a laugh that literally went on for 20 minutes. Also, I won an Emmy so I won’t forget it for that.

How did the network eventually come around to airing it? They said that we needed an alternate ending if it didn’t work. I don’t even remember what the alternate ending was, but we roughed something together. But once they saw the response, there was no question.

And the other show — I would have to say ‘Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth,’ which is the show where Mary Tyler Moore was tricked into [revealing] on a [TV game show] that Alan Brady – Dick’s boss, Carl Reiner – wore a toupee. [The episode premiered on Sept. 15, 1965, to usher in the “Van Dyke Show’s” fifth and final season.] That scene where Mary goes up to Carl’s office and he has all his toupees on the little Styrofoam heads and he’s talking to them like they’re people — that’s my favorite. [The “toupee” scene is justifiably famous and is often cited when experts compile lists of the best comedy scenes in the history of television.]

Watch the classic “Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth” episode of “The Dick Van Dyke Show”:

Those two episodes both contained scenes that were positioned almost as visual “punchlines” that provided a real payoff at the end of each of them. But what was it like writing the rest of these shows and others, and writing the dialogue for the show’s cast of characters? One of the great things about the ‘Van Dyke Show’ was that the people who worked with Dick worked as comedy writers. [The show was about the writing staff on “The Alan Brady Show,” a fictional variety show starring the Reiner character for which Rob was head writer.] It wasn’t a guy who runs a drugstore who was saying funny things. It was people who were supposed to say funny things, so that was easy to write for Rose Marie and Morey.

And again, I go back to [Reiner’s rule that the show’s scenarios be about] real life. What would your experience be? [Reiner would ask]. And Carl would always say, ‘[The characters] won’t do anything that you wouldn’t do.’

Bill Persky’s book is available through the usual outlets — including and

And if you want to see more “Dick Van Dyke,” we have every single episode of this beloved show on this site — right HERE.

More on These Topics: Bill Persky | Carl Reiner | Dick Van Dyke | Greg Morris | Kate & Allie | Marlo Thomas | Mary Tyler Moore | Sam Denoff | That Girl | The Dick Van Dyke Show | XfinityTV News

Next Story: Watch: Jamie Foxx Takes the Cake as ‘SNL’ Guest-Host

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When the cat pees in your hat

“When the cat pees in your hat…….

…is it time to say that is that?” Where is Dr. Seuss when you need him? As all who own pets will understand–and those who don’t never will–how much do you endure and spend before putting the family pet to sleep? “To sleep” a comforting euphemism that makes the decision seem less final, as if you can change your mind and wake him. My wife Joanna and I are at that point with 20 year- old Bart, “The cat who peed in my hat”, the latest pit stop since his loss of direction, instincts and common decency in finding his litter box: actually boxes, we now have 3, strategically placed at new locations he has marked for his relief, but not ours. When you factor in the countless bottles of sprays and potions: Pee No More; Boundaries; Miracles Stain and Odor Remover and Kitty Pads, our apartment is beginning to look a lot like a display case at Petco.

I can hear the chorus of “He’s only a cat”, and I know there are more important issues to occupy our thoughts and concerns; more meaningful places to spend our money and time. But this is Bart we’re talking about; the 4 month old matted clump of fur I found rummaging through the garbage, at a house we rented in St Barths one Christmas. I made the mistake of feeding him a saucer of milk, a snack that has thus far cost us about $20,000. He adopted me, before I did him, becoming my irresistible and constant companion for the next 2 weeks–following me everywhere, curling up on my lap wherever I sat and endearing himself to my family, so when it was time for him to leave, how could we abandon this helpless loving creature to the garbage pile of life. After a $300 trip to the local vet for shots and a certificate of health he was cleared for the trip to his new home in New York.

I quickly realized this furry phony had planned it from that first saucer of milk, and to this day continues to charm and manipulate his way into everyone’s heart. People who hate cats, love Bart, Joanna, who is allergic to cats, falls asleep reading, with his paw marking her place, and wakes red eyed and sneezing but insistent that Bart needs that time together. He had a trouble-free run for about 15 years, the normal end for a cat. But this is Bart we’re talking about, and as he pushes the limits of life expectancy, and our common sense get pushed right along with it, the costs financial and emotional never end.

His heart problem, which is controlled by two pills a day, administered with scratching, gagging and spitting out in various locations, found at random, has cost about $4,000 to date: The over active thyroid, treated with a nuclear iodine injection and quarantine for 10 days, was $5,000; Arthritis, diagnosis, x-rays and medications another $2,000; Dentistry, he only has two teeth left, $1500; now the carpet and upholstery cleaning; a new hat, and the inconvenience of closing off various rooms of the apartment are reaching a point of absurdity.

It gets down to a quality of life issue, his and ours. Though he sleeps 95% of the time and is pretty much out of it when awake, he still enjoys a good meal and eating ice cream (my personal barometer of whether life is worth living). He still looks at you like he knows more then he is telling and manages to sleep in a variety of positions that are adorable, but that’s about it for the up side. The down side hit bottom when he peed in my hat. But having reached the practical conclusion that’s it’s time, you get the feeling that you don’t really have the right to be the Kevorkian of cats. At 79, I have a living will, a Do Not Resuscitate and a wish that when I become a burden and stop being me, someone loves me enough to “put me to sleep”: maybe with an overdose of Hagan Daaz Rum Raisin. But this is Bart we’re talking about, so I’m sure the saga and the damp spots in new places will continue because we keep saying, “how Long has he got?” We started saying that 2 years ago.

PS. Since writing this he has also peed in my slippers. Fortunately I was not wearing them at the time.

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who do you think you are?

Who do you think you are?
Bill Persky

Ethelred the Unready was crowned King of England in 987 A.D. at the age of 9, after the murder of his older brother Edgar. Contrary to Mel Brooks’ declaration in “The History of the World, Part 1”, for Ethelred, “it was not good to be King” because the word was out that he was Unready.

Historically, throughout his 39-year reign he lived up – or is it down – to the name with everything he did. Shortly after his coronation, the Danes attacked England and succeeded because Ethelred was…Unready; He bought off the invaders for 10,000 pounds, but they went on to besiege London, a turn of events for which Ethelred was of course, through no fault of his own…Unready; In 1013 King Sweyn of Denmark was proclaimed King of England, forcing Ethelred to flee, and he almost missed the boat because he was, once again…need I say it. In his defense had he been dubbed, “Ethelred the Young” or “Ethelred the Boy King”, people might given the kid a chance to Get Ready
What’s in a name? Think about it. Who knows how brave Richard would have been without “the Lion Hearted”; how victorious William, minus “the Conqueror”; vicious Ivan, sans “the Terrible”; wise Solomon, or great, Catherine. Their names said it all, and there was poor Ethelred…Unready. He never stood a chance.
Those royal names created an image – a medieval spin- that let you know what to expect from a leader. Maybe it’s time to resurrect the naming thing in our current political culture; it would be boon for online dating. Think of all the time and emotion that would be saved if Audrey the Needy knew, no matter how attractive he appeared, that Len the Wounded wasn’t going to be there for her, and how much better her chances with Monty the Giving even though he didn’t like musical theater. And poor Len the Wounded was so close to happiness with Evelyn the Healer, if he could have just gotten past her being a vegan.

I know it would have saved me a lot of pain if my first wife had been know as Ellen the Angry, my accountant as Ralph the Shifty, and my agent, Lenny the Inept. In all fairness, though I think of myself as Billy the Nice, I’m sure my friends and family would have some more colorful suggestions.
So. Who do you think you are?

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Forgot Your Password?

Yes!!! And so has everyone else as the number of sites keeps growing along with the number of people using them as the number of “takens,” and “unavailables” keeps popping up along with the new and insulting “weak.”

What does that mean? And who gets to decide?

For 65 web-less years, I had managed to get by with just one password: “Ace Of Aces,” as a member of the Tracey Avenue Tigers, a secret society with a hideout constructed of cardboard boxes and an old mattress in my cousin Jerry’s basement. It was forgotten until recently when I reached back to a simpler time to register on a new website and was shocked to see “Ace of Aces” was taken; obviously Jerry had succumbed to torture and given it up.

I tried aceofaces1, also taken, and finally was accepted with aceofaces9. It was only a momentary victory because I realized that, along with countless others, it would be forgotten and I’d have go to Forgot Your Password Hell and try to remember the hint: my pet’s name, my favorite food, mother’s birthday, maiden name, or countless others I have accumulated to the point that I have no idea what hint goes with which password.

In the beginning, it was simple: I was “sillybilly,” which worked through five sites. On the sixth, it was taken. I immediately went to “sillybilly1.” Finally, at sillybilly4, it was accepted.

Then there was a period of “cute” ones: “bigbucks” for my bank, “clicker” for my cable service, and a few others I can’t begin to remember. I sailed along up to “sillybilly10” when I was confronted with a numbers-only site. I started with the year I was born…taken. I shouldn’t have been shocked given that 1,989,364 people were born in 1931. (That from a Census Bureau site, no password required.) I added the month… taken. Day, age, address…taken. Finally, my license plate: my accepted password was 193,109,091,303,683.

I never even tried to revisit the site.

I’m sure there is a website to find the average number of passwords needed to function in today’s cyber world, but I would need a password to get in, and, with 35, I’m already fighting for my web life. To help, I compiled a password-protected list of the date I made the list, but then I saw the movie Swordfish where John Travolta was a computer wiz who could break anyone’s passwords since everyone uses birthdays, pets and children’s names, so I created one that was so random that no one could figure out…which, of course, includes me.

Things are only going to get worse unless someone comes up with a solution and I think I have it. At birth, in addition to a name, every child should be given a password. It’s on a tape recorded by Bob Johnson, the voice on the tapes in the TV series Mission: Impossible. To get it, parents have to climb a mountain and memorize it before the tape self-destructs, leaving the parents as the sole possessor of the information. When the child is 13, an appropriate age to be using the Internet responsibly, the parents whisper the password into the child’s ear and immediately it is wiped from their memory. This is followed by dinner, dancing, and gifts. If the kid happens to be Jewish, to save money it can be added to the Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

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this is weird…does anybody care that I’m here?

I have just started this  with the hope that people care what I have to say…I know they care about what I have done, but at 80, am  I still worth checking out.

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