Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Comfort TV Walks Into a Psychiatrist’s Office…

Rob Petrie: What do you think, Phil?
Psychatrist: What do you think?
Rob: Well, I... I thought I'd come over here and find out what you think.
Psychiatrist: What I think doesn't matter. It's what you think.
Rob: Well, what I think you think?
Psychiatrist: No, what you think you think.
Rob: I don't know what to think.

--“The Brave and the Backache” (1964)

As this exchange from The Dick Van Dyke Show illustrates, perhaps no other profession has been more lampooned by the Comfort TV era than that of psychiatrist. 

Was this merely an example of irony in humor, to make therapists as addled as their patients? Perhaps – but I would suggest that more people were dubious about this entire discipline of medical science in the 1950s-1970s, and these shows reflected that belief that all this head-shrinking stuff was a bunch of double talk and hooey.

Today, when half the world is in therapy for something, television has responded accordingly with more sympathetic portrayals (The Sopranos, Huff, Private Practice).

As with so many other elements of classic TV, there was predictability to encounters with psychiatrists. Once a story headed in that direction, savvy viewers figured they could look forward to scenes built around at least one of these two experiments.

The Ink Blot Test
Is this still part of the therapist’s arsenal, or has it been undermined by decades of sitcoms in which everyone looked at a blotch of black ink and saw something pornographic? To F Troop’s Corporal Agarn it was “a beautiful Indian girl in a short skirt bending over a campfire,” to which Roaring Chicken responds, “I like your ink blot better than mine.”

On The Golden Girls, Dorothy interpreted an ink blot as “John Forsythe lying naked in a pool of honey.” And after a psychiatrist questions why Maxwell Smart thought every blot was a couple hugging or kissing, Max responds, “You’re the one with the dirty pictures.”

That Girl built an entire episode around ink blots. In “There’s Nothing to Be Afraid of But Freud Himself,” Donald interviews an Italian psychiatrist who has developed a more accurate way to use them to identify personality traits. Ann thinks one of them looks like a spider, and discovers that means she is stubborn, argumentative and impulsive. When Don hesitates to question that verdict it almost ends their relationship.

And here’s a photo of the psychiatrist. Certainly looks trustworthy to me. 

The Word Association Test
“I’ll say a word, and you say the first word that pops into your head.”
The most famous TV example of this is a Saturday Night Live sketch with Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor that can’t be quoted here. 

But it also dates as far back as Gilligan’s Island and The Donna Reed Show, when Mary uses it on her friends and is dismayed to find that the word most associated with her is “wholesome.”

Once again, the comic potential in such scenes is abundant, as when Cousin Itt takes the test on The Addams Family:

Mortimer Phelps: [to Itt] Now I'll say a word and you say whatever pops into your mind. Uh... bird.
Gomez: Vulture.
Morticia: Molting.
Gomez: Mating.
Morticia: Nesting.
Gomez: Billing.
Morticia: Cooing.
Gomez: Lips.
Morticia: Red.
Gomez: Kiss me!
Mortimer Phelps: Please! Now, I will not tolerate any more interruptions.
Gomez: Really, old man, you don't understand true love when you see it.

In season three of Bewitched, Endora conjures up Sigmund Freud to settle a fight between Samantha and Darren in “I’d Rather Twitch Than Fight,” while Larry and Louise Tate offer the services of their psychiatrist for the same reason. 

When the two doctors meet, their disagreement about the root of the argument almost results in a fistfight. Think of it – two learned men trusted with helping a couple to avoid conflict threaten to beat each other up. Once again, psychiatry does not fare well.

Comfort TV’s most prominent headshrinker was Dr. (“dur”) Bob Hartley on The Bob Newhart Show (until Frasier Crane, but he practiced mostly in a later TV era). Bob was a psychologist, not a psychiatrist, though that distinction was irrelevant to those tuning in on Saturday nights in the 1970s. 

We never saw Dr. Hartley delve very deeply into his patients’ problems, though obviously that was not the point of the show. Was he good at his job? Considering he was still seeing Mr. Carlin and Mr. Peterson after six years, one suspects whatever he tried wasn’t working.

Dr. Alfred Bellows on I Dream of Jeannie was a psychiatrist, though you’d also occasionally see him conducting physical exams. The show’s best recurring gag would have Bellows enter a room just after Jeannie caused some chaos, leaving poor Tony to explain why it’s snowing over his house, or why there were circus animals in his living room.

In season four’s “Dr. Bellows Goes Sane,” Bellows compiles three years of such bizarre incidents into a dossier presented to General Peterson. Upon reading it, he decides it is Bellows who is ready for a padded cell. The doctor is fired, and replaced by another psychiatrist (wonderfully played by the equally batty Joe Flynn).

And while it wasn’t commonly referred to in the series, Dr. Zachary Smith on Lost in Space was an intergalactic doctor of environmental psychology. Again, not exactly a role model for the profession. 

Was there any Comfort TV shrink you’d trust with your mental health? I’d nominate Dr. Sidney Freedman, who made occasional visits to the 4077 on M*A*S*H. As played by Allan Arbus, his most famous quote was “Ladies and gentlemen, take my advice…pull down your pants and slide on the ice.”
But when the series turned serious, as when Hawkeye was on the verge of a breakdown, or a wounded soldier believed he was Jesus, Sidney brought them safely back to reality, as awful as that wartime reality was.

And to think we haven’t even covered the TV sub-trope of sinister psychiatrists, like the one that transferred Steed and Mrs. Peel’s consciousness into two enemy agents in “Who’s Who?” (The Avengers). Something to save for another time.

1 comment:

  1. Terrific article as usual, David! Are there any Comfort TV shrinks I'd be comfortable with? Well, I always look at the two programs that were spinoffs from existing medical series: "Breaking Point" from "Ben Casey," and "The Eleventh Hour" from "Dr. Kildare." Coming as they did in the early '60s, I think they really were an attempt to erase some of the stigma surrounding psychiatry and analysis by treating the victims with compassion and understanding rather than anger and scorn, and by explaining to both the characters in the show and the viewers at home that these people are struggling with unseen illness.

    With that, I'd completely trust Dr. Raymer (Eduard Franz) and Dr. Thompson (Paul Richards) on "Breaking Point." Although my wife and I joke whenever we see a movie or TV show with a really wacked-out person that "They need to see Dr. Thompson," my first choice would probably be Dr. Raymer, partly because he's older and more experienced, partly because I really like the dignified performance of Franz.

    I'd also trust Dr. Corder, played by the wonderful Herbert Lom in the British series "The Human Jungle," who sometimes has to go the tough-love route, but is totally devoted to the care of his patients, and determined to get at the heart of the problem regardless of the roadblocks thrown up by family, friends, employers, or the patients themselves.

    Really great think piece! (No pun intended...)