I remember the old Dick Van Dyke television show very well; I watched it as a prime time evening program when I was a young child. Decades later, as a young mom at home with kids, our local independent TV station reran episodes every weekday at noon. I used to challenge myself to name the episode within the first thirty seconds - and was pretty darn good at it. I watched consistently until Ted Turner bought up the rights, and my free daily fix disappeared deep into cable land.
Though I knew the episodes so well, and could quote dialog along with the characters, I still laughed. The quips were still funny, even when repeated.
For example, in one episode Laura Petrie goes to work for her husband Rob as a temporary secretary for the "Allen Brady Show" comedy writers. Misunderstandings ensue, prompting a loud argument between Rob and Laura, which she ends by shouting, "I'm fired!"
Rob's frustrated response still makes me giggle: "You can't fire! I quit you!"
(If you have never seen the show, that episode is available at Hulu.com:
Throughout the five years that the program ran, Dick Van Dyke took several opportunities to do something other comedians didn't do: he used his character - a comedy writer - to explain to the audience how comedy is created.
In the "Father of the Week" episode, son Richie brings home a note announcing that Rob is Father of the Week for his class. Rob is thrilled, until Richie explains that Rob is the LAST father to be invited - and one other father has already come twice. The embarrassed boy says that being a comedy writer isn't a career that third graders would be impressed with. And impressing his classmates is high stakes for an 8-year-old!
Nonetheless, Rob pushes onward and appears in the class at the appointed time. Things start very awkwardly, until Rob accidentally trips and the kids in the class laugh at him. That incident prompts Rob's explanation, complete with hilarious demonstrations, of core components in comedy - the "unexpected" being number one.
Several other episodes contain similar explanations in different situations, all which flowed effortlessly into the plots of this classic show written by the great Carl Reiner. (Does anyone think it's a coincidence that Carl's son is named "Rob"?)
I had no idea as I watched, re-watched, and enjoyed these episodes that I was absorbing one foundation for my future career as an author.
Now as I write my books, I listen to my characters. When they respond after misunderstanding what was said to them, get in an awkward physical situation, or snap something snarky, I put it in. I let them be funny, even if it's only for the briefest moment, such as in the middle of an argument or other tense situation.
Why? Because that is what real people do. Humor releases stress. In some cases, it can deflect anger. And some characters just have good senses of humor as part of who they are! Adding humor - where it fits and isn't forced - adds another level to our stories and deepens our characters.
Fifty years after the first "Dick Van Dyke Show" episode aired, I give grateful kudos to both Dick Van Dyke and Carl Reiner. Because of their expertise and dedication to their craft, I have a better understanding of how to let my characters laugh.