Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Get Smart

I had forgotten about this show, when I came across the bosed set in the HMV shop just round the corner, and the face of Maxwell Smart brought back memories. It is not surprising that I had forgotten it, because I can't remember reading about this show on the cult TV blogosphere ever. It is also not one mentioned in the books. Which is odd, considering it is very much out of the same world which gave birth to so many of the shows I write about here - The Avengers, Danger Man, and, especially, The Man from UNCLE. Nonethless I must have watched this show before, because I remember it. I have been unable to find UK broadcast dates, but suspect that I was very young, but suspect that it was around the same time that I was a huge fan of Mission Impossible and The Man from UNCLE, and as I remember my younger self loved Get Max equally.
I have a feeling that this show's lack of presence in the TV blogosphere (as surfed my me, that is) is because it is a relative lightweight in comparison to the shows it spoofs. I'm also not at all clear how popular it was at the time or now: there is a website which has obviously been going for years, which includes a plot summary of every episode and a list of merchandise, which usually indicates a really cult TV show. I am therefore at a loss as to why I haven't read about it in the 35-ish years since I last watched it and have had to seek out the information on the internet. I don't want to assume the programme was unpopular (because it got into several series and remakes, etc) but would hypothesise that it may be one of those shows which is neither one thing or the other - I'm particularly thinking of how the introduction of more humorous elements into the third series of The Man from UNCLE alienated the viewers). If you're looking for a comedy, it is just what you want, but its apeing of the spy genre of the time may not have been that popular at the time, and the reason for that unpopularity may simply be that the spy genre was so popular that apeing it was not acceptable. As I say this is a theory and not one I would go the stake for.
It pleases me to announce that Get Smart manages to include every convention of the spy genre of the time. I particularly like the opening sequence, with the convention of the hidden headquarters. It is of course in the nature of the show that all of these conventions are overdone - particularly the gadgets. I love the sheer ridiculousness of so many of the gadgets. Of course this is another thing which may make this show simply too much for some viewers to find funny.
I also particularly like the character of Maxwell Smart. He is a sort of anti-hero to the hero figures of so many of these shows. Bond never drops anything, and with ridiculous nonchalance brings the case to a conclusion, with time to seduce several women along the way. The men from UNCLE work rather harder and of course have differing approaches to the opposite sex, but nonetheless nothing really goes wrong as such. Do these people really never drop anything or walk into a door? I now realise why - it is because all of the accidents have been soaked up by Maxwell Smart on their behalf and so the probability of Bond falling over as he is taking off his socks is minimal. Smart actually fulfills a function in our society, therefore. To put it another way, he is a secret agent who is more like us than the ones in films and TV. In fact he is so like us that he has had to be given this air of ridiculousness so that we always have the luxury of looking at him and thinking he is more accident-prone than we could ever be. Get Smart is therefore the ultimate comfort viewing.
Nor does Smart actually have a sex life, which places him apart from most secret agents (and ensures that my region 2 set of the first series has a PG, or G in Ireland, rating). He would like one, and is surrounded by beautiful women, but I at least feel slightly relieved for these women because we all know that if he got anywhere with them something terrible would happen. His female colleague, 99, remains firmly in the background in a rather unreconstructed way, in common with the series of the time.
So apart from the humour the conventions of the spy genre are actually all present and correct. We have an evil organisation bent on world domination. The men wear suits. The show is wonderfully redolent of the 1960s - I think if you like the sort of ITC shows I have written about here, if you can cope with the humour, you will like Get Smart. The episodes look and feel very much like...well, like Uncle or any ITC series. They are very much studio-bound, which makes for a very controlled and good quality picture, which has also been restored wonderfully. The only thing I don't like about it - although it is in accord with the US TV of the time - is the canned laughter track.
It is not an accolade I think I have given at all recently, but Get Smart definitely gets my rating of Stonking Good Television

13 comments:

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling:

Is this going to be the first of a series?

Get Smart ran for five seasons on two networks: the first four on NBC, then the final one on CBS (a story in itself, if you care to stay the course).

Prime Time TV in the USA was personality-driven, and never more so than in the '60s.

Get Smart had been kicking around the networks for several years, with different leading men attached, any of whom would have made a different Maxwell Smart.
Don Adams was a popular stand-up comic, with whom NBC had a 'development deal': they were looking for any kind of property to use him in - sitcom, variety, anything at all.
Adams had just come off a season in a supporting role on a sitcom that starred Bill Dana, a writer-comic who played "Jose Jiminez", a sweet guy who reacted to crazier characters around him.
"Jose" was a hotel bellhop; Adams's "Byron Glick" was the house detective, loud, pushy, and inept.
As a standup, Adams always played this type of character; one of his bits was a takeoff on '30s movie whodunits, doing a vocal spoof of William Powell as Philo Vance - which became the basis for the "Smart" voice.
These were the pieces that NBC had available to put into place in 1965, that ultimately turned into Get Smart.

From your piece, I'm inferring that you're looking at Smart in original broadcast order. If that's your route, I won't throw spoilers at you; over five years, Smart evolved into something subtly different than it started out to be.
Over time, Don Adams moderated Smart's voice into something closer to his own, making the character more likable. Agent 99, Barbara Feldon, became gradually more important to the show as a kind of romantic interest for Smart (anything further I could tell you would be a spoiler).
As it evolved, Get Smart moved into parody and satire: many episodes each season were spoofs of classic movies ( a major enthusiasm of Adams) as well as popular TV series of the time.
There were also satirical episodes showing spies as having common workday problems at work and home, something you didn't see on other spy shows; how much of this would play in the UK - well, you'd know more about that than I would.
The writing staff came from comedy rather than crime fiction; many of the regular writers were old friends of Adams's from his standup days, who saw to it that many of his catch phrases found their way into the scripts ("Sorry about that ...", "Would you believe ...?", "Missed it by that much...", etc.).
I was in high school in 1965; Get Smart was big with teenagers, mainly for the catch phrases. I was also a budding movie buff, and Smart serviced that as well, with many Major Gets as guest stars (you'll see that if you stay the course here).

On other sites I visit, this is "More Than You Want To Know".
That said, if you have any questions about any of this, I am at the ready.
Have Fun!

John said...

Thank you for this, Mike. This wasn't planned as the first of a series but if I get into it - and from your description of later episodes it sounds as if they may contain enough meat for a blog post each - it may become it!

joppy said...

I remember seeing this in the UK, IIRC it was an early evening slot but I could be wrong. In my memory it occupies the same type of niche that a programme called "The Adventures of Hiram Holiday" seemed to be. This is worth seeking out if possible. It was based on a book by Paul Gallico, and covered the adventures of a mild, glasses wearing American who got into various scrapes on a trip to Europe (the book was set pre-WW2,I can't remember the date of the TV show), and Hiram always seemed to have developed a the particular skill required for that weeks escapade (i.e. world class fencer).

John said...

Thank you for commenting and sending me off after another TV series! I'm glad I haven't imagined seeing this before.

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling (and recalling ...):

I started the first comment by talking about "personality-driven TV"; as that applied to Get Smart, what got it on the air was Don Adams as its star.

In 1956, this was the case with Hiram Holliday.
NBC had a "talent hold" contract with Wally Cox, who had starred several years before in Mister Peepers, which had been a sitcom hit on the network.

I don't know how well-known Wally Cox was in the UK, then or ever, but in '50s US TV, he was just this side of a cult figure; short, slightly built, very soft-spoken, someone who reacted to the more colorful supporting characters that surrounded him.
In Mister Peepers, Cox played a high school science teacher, surrounded by more forceful types who led him around. One of these was his best friend Harvey Weskit, which turned out to be Tony Randall's breakthrough TV role - but that's another story ...

After Peepers ran its course, NBC wanted Wally Cox in another weekly show ASAP.
An NBC suit brought in the Paul Gallico "Halliday" stories, obviously thinking that putting the diminutive Cox in a comic adventure show would be sure-fire.
That didn't quite happen: NBC slotted Halliday opposite Disneyland on ABC, which, as Cox observed in a later interview, " ... was very large at the time ..."

I've got a handful of the Halliday episodes on fuzzy bootleg DVDs.
Interesting thing about this is that for being a little guy, Cox was somewhat of a frustrated athlete; in some of the shows, he apparently does his own stuntwork.
In one show, Hiram Halliday has to carry his unconscious sidekick Joel out of the surf to the beach, fireman-style, across his shoulders. Joel was played by an actor named Ainslie Pryor, who was both taller and much heavier than Wally Cox was; fuzzy as the picture is, you can tell that no stuntmen are being used.

I've gone into such excruciating detail about all this because The Adventures Of Hiram Halliday is very hard to find, even in the "collector's market" (aka bootlegs) in the USA. My guess would be that it would be an even tougher find in the UK (if I'm wrong, I'd love to know about it ...).

Awaiting your next inquiry ...




John said...

Hmmm Wally Cox looks familiar - perhaps I've seen him in a film. Although I'd never heard of Hiram Holliday and I think it unlikely it's been shown here...

Joseph C McGuire said...

This program was a first season wonder like Batman 66. It had a pretty big audience the first season. Number 12 in the ratings. Filled with the aforementioned catch phrases it was the talk of the season. It also won a handful of deserved Emmies. Like all First season wonders the huge audience faded. So I wouldn't call it call it exactly Cult TV. But became kind a Cult TV to kids who grew up with it.

I bought the first season and enjoyed it. I bought the second season and stopped watching it because it just was more of the same for my grown up mind. Maybe I'll finish it maybe not. I will say that the last season on CBS was horrible even in my then young mind.

Joseph McGuire

John said...

Thank you for commenting, Joseph.
Yes, I can see one season would have been enough. My own recollection is I found it screamingly funny as a child, so perhaps it managed to aim for the wrong audience...

G.G. said...

I think it's fair to say that the first couple of seasons were the most popular because spies and secret agents were so incredibly popular. The show kept going beyond that, outliving almost everything that it parodied, because Don Adams was himself so popular that people were tuning in for his antics and catchphrases. It becomes more of a workplace romance comedy in seasons four and five.

Interestingly, I think Get Smart is the only show to have made new material for four networks. The original ran on NBC and CBS, there was a revival movie on ABC in 1989ish, and then a seven episode sequel built around their son, played by Andy Dick, on Fox.

John said...

And you wouldn't believe how complicated that made it to buy the show I vaguely remembered!

joppy said...

Re your comment about Hiram Holiday being hard to find. I must have watched it in the UK on its original (only) airing in the UK, as at that time only my Gran had a TV in the family, and we all trooped round hers to watch various favourites. Including, for my father, War At Sea, a series by 'Monty' on his part in the war, and a series by General Horrocks on similar things. As you can guess, my dad had gone through the war in the Navy, and anything about it had to be seen.

John said...

Thank you for commenting, Joppy. I think I've located some now. Did you see the show Pathfinders?

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling (Deep Background Dept.):

I went back and reread the original post, as well as some of the other comments, and it occurs to me that no one has mentioned Leonard Stern, who was Get Smart's principal showrunner (that's the term we use in the USA these days) for its entire run.

Stern was a comedy writer in TV from the '50s onward; that's where he met Don Adams, who was a frequent guest on Steve Allen's various shows.
As with many of his fellows, Stern got into producing comedy series; his first was I'm Dickens - He's Fenster in 1962, which didn't quite catch on; lately, it's attained a kind of cult status (one factor in this was that Stan Laurel said in an interview that it was his favorite TV series).
After a few more false starts, Stern hooked up with Mel Brooks and Buck Henry and came up with Get Smart in 1965. When Smart became a breakout hit, it also became Leonard Stern's "calling card" credit, enabling him to sell shows to the US networks for a number of years afterward.
Around 1971, Leonard Stern switched his focus from sitcoms to long-form comedy-mysteries.
The first of these was the biggest success: McMillan And Wife, which gave Rock Hudson his beachhead in TV (and prolonged his career by at least a decade).
Back to Get Smart: this was where Stern partnered up with Talent Associates, which was fronted by David Susskind, but actually run by Daniel Melnick, who did the day-to-day production work. Stern and Melnick were behind all the various Stern shows from Get Smart up to the end of their production careers.
If you watch enough Get Smarts, you'll hear "Melnick" pop up as a character name fairly frequently, as well as on Stern's other shows; it's an old Hollywood custom to call your friends out this way.

In my first comment I mentioned that Get Smart had a number of Major Gets as guest stars.
Some were well-known comedians, coming from Stern's years as a gag writer; others included some pretty well-known film stars, coming from Don Adams's status as perhaps the #1 movie buff in the business.
One example, from Smart's fourth season:
Adams had become golfing buddies with James Caan, who was just about to break through in features.
An upcoming Smart was a spoof of Prisoner Of Zenda, with Adams doing his Ronald Colman imitation.
The villain was "Rupert of Rathskeller", who at two points in the story got into swordplay with Adams; Caan had never done this sort of thing onscreen, and really wanted to, and so he talked Adams into giving him the part - on condition that he not be billed by his own name (that was likely his agent's idea).
So, if you see this episode, this is how the credits read:

Special Guest Star
RUPERT OF RATHSKELLER
as Himself


That's one example; there are a few others ...

Any thing else, before we wrap this up?