I know what you’re thinking: “Chim chimerney chim chim cheroo!”.

Or maybe “Evurrybuddy’s ‘appy win Mahry Poppun’s izintown.”

Or if you’re really young, “Diagnosis Murder”.

But go with me on this, because Dick van Dyke is one of my favourite performers.

Most people wouldn’t think of van Dyke as a slapstick comedian. We’re used to seeing him in very naturalistic TV and film roles. But when you have a good look at his career, in particular The Dick van Dyke Show, you can see that he comes from the classic tradition of slapstick clowns. So in this blog, I’m going to highlight a few of the techniques that he cleverly transfers from circus to sitcom.

On close inspection, van Dyke’s physical style is similar to Jacques Tati – both use their height and long limbs to accentuate normal movement. Both shorten their trousers – and van Dyke even shortens his sleeves – to emphasise movement at their physical extremes. This is a classic clowning trick – just think of a circus clown with white gloves, short trousers, stripey tights and large shoes. These are all designed to exaggerate the movement of the limbs. Dick van Dyke does it too – but with long thin smart shoes and and an ill fitting stylish suit.

Another great trick that van Dyke uses is body isolations. (What’s that now?!) He will often only animate his legs and keep his upper body very still and upright. This contrast of movement and stillness makes for a very funny image. (Think of John Cleese’s silly walk – or even the moonwalk.)

He uses his physicality to punctuate routines and highlight points when he wants you laugh. He uses his long neck particularly well –  sticking it out when pulling a funny face to create a character. By seemingly detaching his whole head from the rest of him – he can snap in and out of the funny face character by pulling his neck back and forth. (Try it! It’s great fun!)

I can’t think of many other performers who execute a physical snap change as well as Dick van Dyke. The best example of this is his drunk routine in the first episode of the Dick van Dyke Show, “The Sick Boy and The Sitter”.

The routine begins at about 19mins 55secs:

Overall then, I think it is his sharpness that really allows van Dyke to bring old fashioned physical comedy into a modern looking show. Audiences love to watch his clean, physical skill and the sharpness of the movement is surprising and funny.

Unlike many who have tried and failed to use slapstick in modern shows, van Dyke’s physical comedy is either dressed up as an “act” (like the routine above) – or, when part of the real story, it is believable and rooted in the character’s emotions.

For all these reasons Dick van Dyke is the perfect modern physical comedian.


Contrasting movement in different parts of the body is funny!

Sharp change is funny!

Physical comedy should be consistent with the rest of the show – or clearly flagged up as “an act”.

We want New Slapstick is a resource for everyone involved in visual comedy of any kind.

We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here:



5 thoughts on “Performer Analysis: Dick Van Dyke

  1. Good stuff. I still think his greatest moments are in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which was basically a 2 hour showcase of his many talents, from the ‘old bamboo’ dance routine, the Toot Sweet duet, to pretending to be a life-sized puppet. Did you know he’s a 3D computer graphic artist now too and computer modelled Chitty for the DVD release? The man’s a genius.

  2. Really great analysis! I just discovered your website as I’m really interested in physical comedy. I’m actually an animator but the info you’re covering is extremely informative for what I do as well. Thanks a lot and keep up the great work!

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