Wait for Your Laugh at the Egyptian: Dick Van Dyke, Dan Harmon, and Jason Wise Discuss Rose Marie and The Dick Van Dyke Show
February 26, 2018
“This story has been sitting in Van Nuys for 90 years,” Jason Wise, director of Wait for Your Laugh, declared of his subject, Rose Marie, at a Q&A at the Egyptian Theater on November 18, 2017. I for one am certainly glad that the almost century-long story was captured on film (actual film – both 35mm and 16mm) and even more so that Marie was able to witness its release and appreciate all the lovely praise the movie received before she passed away on December 28, 2017.
Like many people, I was first introduced to Rose Marie on The Dick Van Dyke Show (not the initial release but reruns on Nick at Nite). The writers were my favorite characters, Sally (Marie) in particular. Though I fully recognize how influential and iconic Sally was for women who wanted to break into the writing biz, I found myself admiring her confidence, work ethic, wit, and ability to hold her own more than anything.
Rose Marie with fellow TV scribes Dick Van Dyke, left, and Morey Amsterdam, right, on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Turns out, Sally wasn’t a far cry from Marie. Back in March 2013, I attended a screening of International House (1933) during UCLA’s Festival of Preservation. Marie, who was about nine years old when she appeared in the movie (still credited as ‘Baby Rose Marie’), graced us with her presence, and it was a hoot. For some reason, I only remember her up there on stage – I don’t recall anyone conducting a Q&A with her – but I’m assuming that oversight must be attributed to how grandly she commanded the room. Sadly, that was about one year before I debuted this blog, and I regrettably didn’t have the foresight to record her conversation.
So when I heard the Egyptian Theater would be showing Marie’s documentary Wait for Your Laugh in November, I had to see it, especially because Dick Van Dyke was scheduled to appear along with Wise and writer Dan Harmon (Community). As Marie actively promoted the film on Twitter, I secretly hoped she’d make a surprise appearance, and though it turned out she did indeed attend a screening that same evening, it was one in Encino, not Hollywood.
As for the documentary itself, I think it wonderfully captures Marie’s spirit, honesty, and sharp humor. The poster’s tagline, in list form - “Vaudeville, Radio, The Mob, Vegas, Broadway, Heartbreak, Film, Television, Love” - manages to encapsulate the incredible breadth of her nine (yes, nine) decade career, from her start on the airwaves (1920s) to her last credit for a voiceover on an animated TV show (2010s), while acknowledging that it wasn't all, well, roses. That said, Wait for Your Laugh definitely merits a second viewing for me, to both bask in Marie’s vibrant witticisms and re-visit the fascinating stories Wise and his team uncovered, among them the fact that the mob looked out for Marie (yes, Al Capone, too), she performed during the Flamingo's opening night in Las Vegas in 1946, she served as the first female game show host, and she fought back against one sexual harassment incident in the early 1950s. (Regarding that last story, Marie wrote a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter a few weeks before her death, which you can read here.)
Marie with Frank Sinatra, who she met in the 1940s while they were both playing the Copacabana in New York.
That’s about as much as I’ll say on the film front, because I highly recommend seeing Wait for Your Laugh as opposed to hearing me further extol its virtues. What I will share more of is the Q&A that followed with Van Dyke, Wise, and Harmon moderated by Susan King. Though I sadly had to leave early (read: I was semi-dragged out because I was super late to another engagement), below are a few highlights I caught from the conversation.
A super zoomed in photo of moderator Susan King, Dick Van Dyke, Dan Harmon, and Jason Wise. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
What Dick Van Dyke learned from the film (now)
His answer was in line with mine: he – and apparently the cast of The Dick Van Dyke Show – had no clue Marie knew the mob! Apparently, that never came up in casual conversation. (Some discussion that would have been!)
What Dick Van Dyke learned from the film’s subject (then)
Van Dyke instantly answered comedy timing; Marie would always remind him to “wait for your laugh,” he recollected. He thought he knew a bit about funny business before starting The Dick Van Dyke Show, but “I didn’t know squat!” the star exclaimed. “It was like going to school with those two,” he warmly recalled of working alongside Marie and Morey Amsterdam.
Jason Wise on Rose Marie
Wise’s aim was to do something different and find someone who could talk about a wide range of subjects while still being relevant. Well, when he met Marie, a 30-year-old trapped in an older body, Wise claimed, he just couldn’t believe his luck. He enthused:
It’s a crazy thing to think that Rose Marie is one of maybe two vaudvillians left in the world, and to think that you have someone who started then and did voiceover for a computer graphic animation Garfield a few years ago, you have a very strange thing: basically, you can trace the entire ingestion of all the ways we’ve ingested all of our entertainment through one human, and to be honest, thank God it ends up being a woman.
Cue: rapturous applause. Wise still seemed flabbergasted that he and his team were even able to make the film in the first place and praised how unafraid and fearless the nonagenarian was – even after 25 hours of interviews.
Baby Rose Marie, who had a mature singing voice even when she was young, in the early 1930s.
How The Dick Van Dyke Show came about
When Marie was cast in the show and heard the title, she quipped: “What’s a Dick Van Dyke?” Everyone else wondered the same thing, Van Dyke joked. According to the star, it was actually creator Carl Reiner’s wife Estelle who suggested the idea of Reiner writing about himself and what he knew, which is how the show was born – and why he feels that it's so believable. As for casting, Reiner spotted Van Dyke in Bye Bye Birdie on Broadway and from there gave him the “greatest chance of my life,” Van Dyke affirmed. While Reiner got his way and ended the show after 5 years, Van Dyke admits that he would still be at it, stating: “I never had so much fun in my life."
Writers vs. home life on the show
As mentioned in the film, Marie originally thought the show only focused on the writers; she was actually upset when she found out more emphasis would be given to Rob’s (Van Dyke) home life. Harmon agreed with Marie, comically telling Van Dyke the attention should have remained on the writers: “The family became amazing because it got subsumed, frankly, by the workplace stuff. I mean, I’m biased, but that’s when the show hit high gear, when your family got absorbed by your work.”
Work (Amsterdam, Richard Deacon, and Marie) mixed with home (Mary Tyler Moore).
Yeah, The Dick Van Dyke Show set sounds like it was pretty awesome
Per Van Dyke, Amsterdam used to liken work to going to a party every morning - it was an absolute madhouse, but loads of fun. Apparently, nothing Reiner wrote was set in stone; while the cast rehearsed and rewrote dialogue all week, in the end everything was very loose, almost like an improv group, Van Dyke described, and everyone gelled because they knew each other so well. Van Dyke added that Reiner didn’t care how crazy things got, as long as they were ultimately credible and believable… even if they manifested from scenarios dreamt while under the influence in a dentist’s chair, which Van Dyke attributed some ideas to.
Did anyone at the time realize how groundbreaking Sally, as a female TV writer, was?
Wise asked Van Dyke this question a few times and finally got a firm answer: no. According to Van Dyke, Sally was based on Selma Diamond, a female comedy writer and actress who was nominated for an Emmy for writing for Caesar’s Hour in 1956. Though he concurred that she definitely broke ground, Van Dyke attested that she was also treated just like one of the guys. He said they were all proud of the series and knew it was good, but no one thought it would go down as a cultural icon, and there was no discussion of either the show or Sally being progressive during its initial run.
Harmon didn’t spare a chance to extol Marie’s impact and how she empowered young women to realize that they too could have a career like Sally’s. He certainly was influenced by the show, including its meta approach and the fact that they had a gender balanced writer’s room. Somewhere along the line we regressed, he conceded.
Another type of inspiration: Marie performing with 4 Girls 4, an act she toured with for 8 years during the 1970s and 1980s to surprisingly enormous success, featuring Rosemary Clooney, Helen O'Connell, Marie, and Margaret Whiting.
Wait for Your Laugh’s love story
Wise initially didn’t know Marie’s life yielded such a beautiful love story, too. In fact, early on he was just excited to be telling a mob story! (Alas, he didn’t know there would be little footage to use on that front.) Luckily, his wife tracked down a copy of Marie’s hard-to-find memoir Hold the Roses and informed Wise of Marie’s life with her husband. They initially went back and forth – he insisted it was a mob tale, she asserted it was a love story – but when he began to discern the movie's deep heart and soul, he realized that came from Bobby Guy, Marie’s husband, and he knew his wife was right.
Though Guy died rather young (in 1964, at the age of 48), the movie supplies a few glimpses of him and a sense of how much he adored his wife, showcased through all the Super 8 home movie footage included. In fact, so many films he shot were incorporated into the picture that Guy is actually listed as a cameraman in the credits!
Marie and husband Bobby Guy in the 1940s.
Van Dyke, who knew Guy, chimed in to reiterate just how strong Marie was (Guy died before the show’s fifth season) and how she made it through the final episodes “like a pro” despite being absolutely devastated. Wait for Your Laugh offers some proof of this by way of an episode of The Johnny Carson Show that Marie appeared on not long before her husband passed away, which was a lost episode of the show… until Wise and company lifted up a couch in Marie’s home. There, they discovered the only surviving copy of the game show Marie hosted and this Carson episode. In typical Marie fashion, she had a retort at the ready when Wise inquired how it got there:
Marie: What's the shape of a film reel?
Marie (dryly): It rolled, dummy.
For more info on Wait for Your Laugh, including screening locations, visit the film’s website, here.
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