Friday, June 27, 2014

Did The Dick Van Dyke Show Make a Semen Joke?

Without even hearing my argument, most people remotely familiar with The Dick Van Dyke Show would answer, “No, of course not, because it’s The Dick Van Dyke Show,” but here I go anyway.

You see, I have this problem with media from before I was born — and before censorship standards on mainstream entertainment got more lax. Sometimes I’ll hear or see something that seems sexually suggestive. Part of me wants to say that this piece of media — a song or a TV show or a movie or whatever — comes from a more innocent time when risque was rare. The other part of me counters that, no, the people who made this thing had the same plumbing as we do today and therefore would have understood the implications.

And in this one instance, I can’t decide which seems more likely.

A little context before the clip: In the episode “The Ballad of the Betty Lou,” Rob and his best friend, Jerry Helper, decided to go halvsies on a sailboat. The idea immediately is vetoed by their wives, Laura and Millie, on grounds that it will tear their friendship apart, but the men proceed with the plan anyway, to Laura and Millie’s dismay. In this scene, Rob and Jerry are talking themselves into why this is a good idea. And during that conversation, the following exchange happens.



Jerry corrects Rob’s nautical terminology: “No, no, Rob. I’ll be the captain and you’ll be the seaman.” Cue laughter. And then Laura and Millie shoot each other a knowing look.

If you assume that The Dick Van Dyke Show was an exceedingly wholesome series that had Rob and Laura sleeping in twin beds, you could interpret the exchange fairly innocently. Laura and Millie’s reaction is simply them already seeing that they were right: Differences in opinion over the boat will ultimately cause a fight between their husbands, just like they predicted.

The person arguing for the more risque reading of the scene, however, would point out that Jerry simply correcting Rob is not very funny, even though there’s a laugh cue immediately after Jerry pronounces the word “seaman.” What about that line should get a laugh other than the fact that “seaman” is pronounced exactly like “semen”? And Millie and Laura don’t just roll their eyes, “Here we go again”-style. In fact, Laura arches her eyebrow.


If actors and comedy writers in 1963 functioned more or less like they do today, I have to think that everyone involved would have realized how close they were coming to making a big, goopy cum joke. (I mean, someone at some point had to make a joke about the show’s name.) But then again, I wonder why a censor didn’t object to the line, if only to avoid the possibility that any puritanical-minded viewer would think that filth was invading primetime TV… unless back then such a joke was so unheard of than no one would have read smut into it, reproductive plumbing notwithstanding.

I’d ask the guy credited with writing the episode, Martin Ragaway, but he died in 1989. What do you think?

And while you ponder that, perhaps also have a think about the time Elizabeth Montgomery was on Password and the secret word ended up being “vibrator.”

EDIT: And if you want to see the joke in the context of the whole episode, here you go. The line comes around the 2:30 mark.



8 comments:

  1. Anonymous9:47 AM

    Whoa, Jerry Helper looks EXACTLY like a young David Wain.

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    1. Oh, hey -- he kind of does. How about that.

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  2. You just reminded me that I had a dream about DvD last night! I ran into him in a hallway, tap dancing, and had a short conversation. This dream short conversation went a lot better than the real life conversation we had when he spilled my wine.

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  3. I think it's pretty unlikely that the writers of that program missed the risqué resonance of that word. And I know, from reading a book about the history of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, that TV writers would deliberately put things in to see if it would get past the censors. Sometimes putting a more obviously taboo line near the line they really wanted to sneak in would divert attention from the latter. Also (again, according to the Laugh-In historian's research), a hip censor would sometimes officially be satisfied by the "clean" explanation of a line that could be taken two ways: that is, even if the censor knew darn well it was a double entendre, if everyone could point to the non-risqué interpretation and stick by it, the joke might survive getting cut. Granted, DVD was early rather than late sixties, but I bet a lot of the same strategies applied. One more point: reading about radio days taught me that a successful show was less likely to be troubled by the censors, for obvious reasons. (Obviously, when it came to popular but "controversial" programs like Laugh-In and Smothers Brothers, that could cut the other way.) So perhaps the DVD Show got the kind of tolerant treatment big comics like Bob Hope used to get.

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  4. Anonymous10:11 AM

    The scene opens with them singing "blow the man down" and then adds a reference to "salty talk". Sounds absolutely filthy throughout to me.

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    1. I'm encouraged by your additionally filthy reading of this script.

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