Back in 1961, in the first season of the once popular “Dick Van Dyke Show,” an episode aired (#14, to be exact) entitled “Sally is a Girl,” in which Rob’s wife, Laura, scolds her husband because he and Buddy don’t treat Sally — with whom they work as comedy writers for a TV variety show — properly. And by “proper” she means they fail to treat her like a lady.
“Just remember,” Laura tells Rob — after they’d hosted a small dinner party where, for the umpteenth time, they unsuccessfully tried to set Sally up with a date (the recurring theme of Sally’s single life), during which Buddy and Rob kept bragging that she could tell jokes as good as a man — “that Sally is a girl!”
If Hulu plays where you are then you can watch the whole episode here.
The comedy, of course, results from Rob going over the top in his adjusted behavior — holding a chair for her, putting the paper in the typewriter for her, buying her flowers, taking her to lunch, even kissing her hand — and giving Buddy the impression that he and Sally are having an affair. Of course the typical sit-com “mistaken identity hijinks” ensue but get resolved, all in the span of the half hour episode.
If you want to take seriously that the past is a foreign country, as David Lowenthal entitled one of his books — a line taken from the opening of The Go-Between (1953), by the British novelist L. P. Hartley (d. 1972) — then have a look at this episode. Not only is there an overriding notion of gender that will likely strike many today as oddly alien (but, really, it’s not all that unfamiliar, is it?), but, as his corrective, Rob engages in behavior that, in workplaces today, would be classified as a form of harassment; for, in many places, it is no longer acceptable for a man to compliment a women on how she looks or how sweet her perfume smells. As for kissing the hand of a colleague in the workplace….
While it may be obvious that standards change, watching a more than 50 year old episode like this, and taking seriously that this was popular culture and middle class light comedy at its finest back then, prompts you to take seriously not only how things have changed but, perhaps, opens the door to considering how strange the norms we now take for granted will one day look to those in our future, those who will one day be looking back on us as the distant foreigners, those who will one day be judging the problems with what we once took for granted today.
After all, we’re living in someone else’s “good old days” right now.