Sorry about that, Chief.
By Paul Mavis
When I recently had a chance to binge-watch a bunch of Get Smart episodes, from the NBC smash hit’s 1965 debut season, truth be told, in one lump bunch it became a bit of a strain…until I learned to stop worrying and love the series all over again.
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The premise of Get Smart is surprisingly simple (considering the many permutations the show could have taken with spy spoof genre). Don Adams plays Agent 86, Maxwell Smart, the fumbling, bumbling, mentally-challenged spy for CONTROL, an ultra-secret U.S. spy organization. Despite Smart’s general incompetence in almost all endeavors (including the most prosaic, like opening a door correctly or walking across a room), he still manages to be the top agent for the organization, and the one that is always called on by the Chief for particularly dangerous assignments.
The Chief (Edward Platt) appears to be on the brink of a perpetual nervous breakdown because of Smart’s ineptitude, but that doesn’t stop him from re-assigning Smart time and time again—who, despite his bumblings, somehow manages to get the job done. Aiding Smart in his assignments is Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon), a sweet, tall, sexy secret agent who loves Smart (although he continually rejects her advances). She futilely tries to keep Smart on track during their dangerous missions, many of them aimed against CONTROL’s arch enemy, KAOS, a criminal spy organization which sports equally incompetent spies.
1965. James Bond mania is literally sweeping the world in a saturation marketing frenzy that would not be equaled in the global pop culture until George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise. The release of the third Bond film, Goldfinger, in December of 1964, had broken world box office records, and the upcoming December, 1965 release of the fourth in the series, Thunderball—still the single biggest grosser in the series (adjusted for inflation)—was driving Bond fanatics insane with anticipation. In that summer of 1965, the Bond producers re-released double features of the two earlier Bond films, creating even more hype for the upcoming Thunderball. James Bond would never be any bigger as a pop culture icon than at that moment in history.
And of course, that kind of mass adulation for anything brings out the smart-asses of the world who see a bloated target ripe for pricking. Which brings us to prickers Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. Brooks, a former Borscht Belt tummler, writer for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, and creator of the Academy Award-winning short subject, The Critic, teamed up with Henry, an Ivy-League satirist, hoaxster (for several years he claimed to be G. Clifford Prout, the president of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals), and writer and performer on such shows as The New Steve Allen Show and the American version That Was the Week That Was, to create NBC’s Get Smart, a spoof of the Bond films, along with some Pink Panther Inspector Clouseau thrown in—as well as a direct jab at NBC’s increasingly popular (and somewhat spoofy) The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which had premiered the previous year. Tom Poston (later of Newhart fame) was originally sought to play secret agent Maxwell Smart, but stand-up comedian Don Adams, who had made an impression with NBC executives as the confused hotel detective Byron Glick in The Bill Dana Show, was already under contract with NBC and was slotted into the role.
RELATED | More 1960s TV reviews
I’ve written many times before about 1960s TV’s penchant—particularly its sitcoms—for keeping elements of a “show status quo” for the duration of a particular series’ run. “Change” was anathema to network executives who wanted to provide a repeatable experience week in and week out for viewers who wanted simple entertainment. “Shaking up” an audience was about the last thing a network wanted when comfort was the name of the game in the mid-60s TV land. As a result, some of those shows seen today can seem repetitive and rote, particularly over the course of their multiple season runs (Hogan’s Heroes—even though I still love it—would probably be the litmus test for this theory). And with entire seasons and series of these old shows coming out on DVD and streaming, the experience of watching episodes one after the other, like popping peanuts into your mouth, can accentuate that déjà vu feeling even more. Even when these shows ran “constantly” in syndication…you had to wait a whole day before you could watch just one more episode. No longer.
That being said, Get Smart is repetitive—but not any more so than a lot of other series from that era. During my binge, after the first ten or so episodes went down, and the initial “newness” wore off, I started to feel, not unlike other fans of the series, that the show was repeating itself, perhaps excessively. However, taking a cue from my youngest daughter (who was dying laughing at the silliness of Maxwell Smart’s world…but who got distracted after a couple of episodes), I took a break and made it a point to watch just two episodes a day. Problem solved. Get Smart is hilarious…as long as you give it some breathing room in between.
It doesn’t hurt to watch Get Smart with a kid, either, because they seem zeroed-in on the show’s innate appeal: the child-like antics of Maxwell Smart. Of course, the jokes themselves are intended for adults, with most of them, I’m sure, flying right over the heads of younger viewers (I love it in Weekend Vampire, where Smart, after inquiring about buying the haunted mansion, and being told about the many horrors associated with it, asks one last question: “Is it near a school?”). So why is it that they like the series so much?
But it’s more than just funny physical gags: Maxwell Smart is a child in almost every respect. He’s one of the few adult characters on a TV sitcom that children can actually feel superior to—even kids who don’t know their way around the adult world yet couldn’t possibly screw up as badly as Maxwell Smart does on a weekly basis. When Max gets yelled at by his “father” the Chief for doing something incredibly stupid, every kid can understand that situation. Indeed, Smart is often like a child totally lost in a grown-up world…only this grown-up world is as backward as Smart is. His enemies at KAOS are just as incompetent as CONTROL, and his “parent,” the Chief, isn’t at all as savvy as most parents are to their own child’s failings (the best “unspoken” gag in the whole series is straight-faced Edward Platt maintaining absolute sincerity when re-assigning Max to missions, week after week, when we know Max is totally incompetent).
Max’s childish insistence on having things his way (his petulant demand to engage “The Cone of Silence” when it obviously doesn’t work, is priceless no matter how many times the series uses it) is immediately recognizable to any child. Even the actor himself, Don Adams, with his slight, smallish stature, carefully-cut, close-fitting suits, and conservatively-styled, closely-cropped little-boy haircut, looks like a child at times in medium and long shots (especially next to the statuesque Feldon). The world of Get Smart is a child’s world, filled with fantastical, improbable rules and regulations, presided over by a petulant, indulged, incompetent—and oblivious—little boy (what further proof does one need that Max is a typical five-year-old boy than his insistence on utterly ignoring the sexual advances of beauty Feldon?).
As for adult viewers, they can enjoy Get Smart for its playful spoofing of the spy genre, although to be fair, the writers of the show didn’t have all that far to go in 1965, sending up that particular genre. There were quite a few literary critics who thought Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels were send-ups to begin with, barely concealed parodies of more lurid pulp fiction like the Mickey Spillane Mike Hammer novels. And by the time Goldfinger came out, with its own hero, James Bond, incredulously replying in the film, “You’re joking!” to Q’s assertion that his Aston Martin had an ejector seat, the Bond films were already operating as pure fantasy burlesques of the more traditional espionage films. TV had already gotten in on the spy lampoon act, as well, with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. send-up, ironically on NBC.
So Get Smart wasn’t first, nor did it depend exclusively on satirizing the spy genre to get laughs. Indeed, watching Get Smart again after all these years, I was struck much more by the “suburban sitcom” elements of the show which flew over my head as a kid (when Max’s spy gear like his totally cool/utterly hilarious shoe phone cornered my attention). All of the gags aimed at the working Joes out in the audience—spies bitching about coffee breaks and accumulated vacation time, about punching in at CONTROL’s time clock, about the cost of supplies like secret agent paper and ink, about the crummy working conditions, especially for Agent 44—are far funnier (and timeless) than the gags aimed specifically at the spy genre (and therefore, limited by their 1965 context).
A viewer not versed in the codes of spy movie semiology might not get the relevance of a character like “The Craw,” but who doesn’t ruefully understand the Chief’s indignant outrage when he sees how much vacation time his opposite number gets? Indeed, as the series wore on, it became even more suburban sitcom, Bewitched-like, with Max and 99 getting married, having kids, while the Chief acted like Larry Tate (there’s even a dog here—a 60s sitcom necessity—in the form of Fang, the cowardly canine CONTROL agent). Max’s surreal world of bumbling spies and ridiculous, outsized gags was really no different than Samantha Steven’s universe of eccentric witches and “popping” in and out gags.
Scripts and format considerations aside, not enough can be said about the performers Don Adams, Barbara Feldon and Edward Platt. With a show like Get Smart, chemistry between actors is everything. If one element of that trio was out of whack, the whole exercise would fall like a soufflé in a cannon factory. Watching Adams again here, I was amazed at how restrained he was in the face of almost certain “mugging desire.” So much of the broad Get Smart would seem to invite a lesser performer right into the arms of overkill, but Adams plays it straight for the most part—and he’s far funnier for that shrewd effort. Even with that high-pitched nasal twang (said to be based in part on William Powell), Adams goes for deadpan more than the balcony, and he’s hilarious.
Feldon, on the other hand, is quite loosey goosey, with a flirtatious, almost kooky energy to her scenes—an energy that contrasts powerfully with that throaty, sultry voice of hers. Not coming off at all like her counterparts Cathy Gale or Emma Peel over on The Avengers, she has a sweet, All-American girl quality to her, married to an innately funny demeanor, that’s a dynamite combination. She’s a real “re-discovery” here, and it’s a shame she couldn’t find something post-Get Smart to match her unique appeal.
And of course Edward Platt does inspired work as the straight man of the piece, playing it for real in every scene, never suggesting he might “corpse” (something that Feldon often does openly—and charmingly). In Max’s childlike world, the seriously frustrated Chief is absolutely necessary to ground the comedy, and Platt is expert at being funny while resolutely not trying to be funny. A special mention must go out to Dick Gautier as Hymie the robot, first introduced this season in the Back to the Old Drawing Board episode. Gautier has the impossible task of trying to take a character that cannot show emotion of any kind, and make him funny…which he does effortlessly. When Don Adams comes up to Hymie, offering his hand and saying, “Shake!” and Gautier starts to spasm like he’s having a seizure, it may be the funniest moment in the entire first season.
Positioned on NBC’s relatively stable family-friendly Saturday night, Get Smart benefited from two younger demo lead-ins: Flipper at 8pm (the 29th most popular show on TV that 1965-1966 season), and I Dream of Jeannie at 8:30pm (27th). Get Smart had no competition over on CBS with their Peter Falk attorney series, The Trials of O’Brien, but ABC did offer a challenge with The Lawrence Welk Show, which garnered an impressive 19th Nielsen slot for the year. Get Smart bested that rating, though, earning its series’ high of 12th most popular show on television, its first time out.