Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week we’re continuing our coverage on the best of Get Smart (1965-1969, NBC; 1969-1970, CBS), available in full on DVD and Amazon Prime.
Get Smart stars DON ADAMS as Maxwell Smart, BARBARA FELDON as Agent 99, and EDWARD PLATT as the Chief.
Last week we saw how Get Smart was aligned with the idea-driven form of situation comedy, where the comedic premise — in this case, a parodical one — matters more than the characters within it. In this design, success is most dependent on having good ideas — comic storylines that reinforce the intended satire within the bounds of a high concept. Unfortunately, the shelf life of a series like this is unavoidably brief unless there are regulars who can both support said high concept and eventually propel comic storylines that meet its demands, and Get Smart is never fully able to rise to this occasion. That’s due both to its concept, which instinctively undermines the sanctity of character — their believability — in order to prioritize the spoof (which narrows their capacities for motivated story), and its execution, for even when the show is at its peak, its intentions are relatively shortsighted, reaching for the outstanding comic plot or hilariously tongue-in-cheek gag, instead of cultivating the well-defined personalities that scripts are going to need when the novelty of the premise is gone and the original ideas directly related to satirizing a genre are no longer in fresh supply. So, Season Two, which I already called the show’s “most ideal,” obviously doesn’t set up what the later years need in order to thrive (and is therefore not immune to these criticisms). However, it nevertheless is the most promising — and this is not only because it’s another example of the common “novelty meets knowingness” principle, where the premise is still fresh enough to generate worthwhile plots but the show has settled more into its complete identity, solidifying an evident consistency with its characters, particularly Max, and the elements that drive his humor (like catchphrases and gadgets). It’s also because of what we mentioned before — although Get Smart isn’t supplying a way for its regulars to better motivate story, it’s finding other idea-generators that alleviate the burden of direct parody by making “a clearer utilization of the series’ own particulars, à la a sitcom, as opposed to its genre-focused conventions, à la a sketch.” I’m referring both to previously established recurring players like Hymie and Harry Hoo, as well as characters who debut here in Two — including the series’ strongest figure outside of Maxwell Smart: Siegfried, the fumbling KAOS agent portrayed by the ubiquitous Bernie Kopell in his most seminal sitcom role.
KAOS’ Siegfried’s broad but clear comic persona creates a continuity of character that kindles hilarious story and also, because of his relationship to CONTROL’s Smart, satisfies the spy-spoofing requirement. Two uses him the most of any season and naturally benefits the most from his presence — suggesting an awareness of the sitcom’s need for identifiable, plot-inspiring elements that can also uphold the premise while being independent of some explicit narrative or trope-based takeoffs, which are finite. This looks intentional, as Two seeks to craft more tangibles beyond its regulars and Siegfried, like Agent 13 (a replacement for 44), Starker, Charlie Watkins, Carlson, and the Admiral. Accordingly, the second season of the sketch-like Get Smart is closer to a sitcom than any other, and even though its character work remains shallow (primarily with its leads), its recognition of needed support and their corresponding potential is obviously positive, especially when married to generally solid ideas. I say generally because, actually, One is more successful on this front, with few episodic narratives that don’t fit the concept’s parameters, while Two has more stories that have to leave the spy genre to find parody — a trend that becomes more common ahead — and it’s not as fulfilling, delineating the hits and misses more forcefully. Fortunately, the baseline of quality is still strong (the “novelty” remains potent), and the aforementioned crusade towards a more unique world-building via specific “givens” is compensatory. As for what’s behind the change, I don’t look at Buck Henry’s departure as story editor two-thirds through Two as crucial (at least not now), for he’s succeeded by former Steve Allen scribe Arne Sultan, and there’s no perceptible dip. Rather, I think the diminished involvement of executive producer Leonard Stern, whose attention was split this year between other Talent Associates comedies, may be more instructive, for he’s been described as the person who best understood Get Smart’s narrative needs. New producer Arnie Rosen, a Phil Silvers vet, is certainly adept, but for a show that requires such particular ideas, it makes sense that even his would be hit and miss. That said, for all the reasons previously discussed, Two (for which Don Adams won an Emmy) is still the most ideal, and the ten episodes I have picked to exemplify its finest are just as strong as, if not more than, One’s.
01) Episode 31: “Anatomy Of A Lover” (Aired: 09/17/66)
After refusing to dismantle Hymie, Max hides him away in his apartment.
Written by C.F. L’Amoreaux [alias Gary Clarke] | Directed by Bruce Bilson
Dick Gautier returns twice this year as humanlike robot Hymie, showcasing both the series’ technological bent, which speaks to its era-based sex appeal, and the benefit of sustaining characters for suggesting story. This is the better of his two shows, and though I can’t say it’s stronger than his debut, which was more capable of using elements of direct narrative parody to achieve the series’ desired satire (i.e., the primary benchmark that Get Smart establishes for success), there are a lot of laughs that reinforce the premise and do so with known characters, the sitcom’s most effective tool. (Also, King Moody appears, pre-Starker.)
02) Episode 33: “A Spy For A Spy” (Aired: 10/01/66)
CONTROL and KAOS keep kidnapping each other’s agents.
Written by Stan Burns & Mike Marmer | Directed by Bruce Bilson
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “A Spy For A Spy” maybe deserves this honor for no other reason than because it boasts the smartest thing that Get Smart ever does outside of its pilot: it introduces Siegfried, played by the material-elevating Bernie Kopell (who was appearing at the same time on the more character-forward That Girl, but with far less of a comic characterization). Beyond what we discussed above about his presence representing a character-based emotional continuity that also sparks premise-affirming story, Siegfried is a cartoonish antagonist from KAOS who’s not dissimilar to CONTROL’s Smart in terms of goofiness, thereby extending the series’ tonal absurdity and ratcheting up its outrageous comedy. However, this outing would be a winner without him — its pronounced narrative structure, with room for comic centerpieces, is a beautiful display of Get Smart’s storytelling in this era, worthy enough of being lauded as a classic. (Also, Stacy Keach Sr.’s Carlson debuts.)
03) Episode 38: “Hoo Done It” (Aired: 11/05/66)
Max and Harry Hoo try to solve a murder in a tropical hotel.
Written by Gerald Gardner & Dee Caruso | Directed by Gary Nelson
Again, the show turns back to a previously established character and profits from the continuity that his inclusion provides, and while, just as with Hymie above, I can’t pretend this second (and final) appearance of the culturally insensitive (by today’s standards) Harry Hoo, as portrayed by Joey Forman, is better than his debut, it’s still a funny one, utilizing an obvious sendup of Agatha Christie’s classic And Then There Were None that stretches the spy-spoofing objective a bit, but nevertheless works decently within it. (The entry also winks at Run For Your Life.)
04) Episode 39: “Rub-A-Dub-Dub… Three Spies In A Sub” (Aired: 11/12/66)
Max and 99 are captured by Siegfried on a KAOS submarine.
Written by Stan Burns & Mike Marmer | Directed by Bruce Bilson
Siegfried’s second appearance this season (of five) offers another display of his hilarious characterization, expertly played by Kopell, and actually does a better job of minimizing the emphasis that his first installment placed on the narrative structure. In other words, less of the comedy here comes from the premise and its construction, and more is motivated by his persona itself. So, while this isn’t the best of his outings — there are funnier — it’s still very much a winner and proof of his precise value. (Note: Adam-12‘s William Boyett appears.)
05) Episode 48: “Cutback At CONTROL” (Aired: 01/21/67)
Max pretends to join KAOS after cutbacks at CONTROL.
Written by Gerald Gardner & Dee Caruso | Directed by Earl Bellamy
This entry is a wonderful example of how the series’ creation of its own universe — its people, places, and things — can inspire story that reduces the need for overt parody based on established properties, instead allowing the premise to be projected through more reliable, durable, and unique sources. Here, our understanding of the relationship between the exaggerated KAOS and CONTROL — and Siegfried and Smart as their ambassadors — fuels the plot and its comedy. It’s not exactly a character-driven scenario, but it utilizes the particulars of Get Smart, honoring the high-concept premise through low-concept ideas.
06) Episode 49: “The Man From YENTA” (Aired: 01/28/67)
CONTROL works with Israel’s YENTA to protect an Arab prince.
Written by Arne Sultan | Directed by Bruce Bilson
If there’s any sample that reiterates the series’ sketch-like campaign for parody, and confirms that, because of this design and its proclaimed interests, no matter what it does with the characters, the comic ideas sustaining individual episodes are ultimately going to determine success, it would be this uproarious offering by Arne Sultan, for it’s got a narrative built to specifically play with Jewish stereotypes, deriving some of the year’s biggest hahas through this joyful lampooning. And with gags like the To Tell The Truth bit as an extension of that need to mock, this is a riotous half hour that only doubles down on this series’ idea-based and idea-focused nature. He & She’s Alan Oppenheimer (Murray Mouse) guests — and is hysterical.
07) Episode 55: “How To Succeed In The Spy Business Without Really Trying” (Aired: 03/11/67)
Siegfried pretends that he wants to defect to CONTROL.
Written by Mike Marmer | Directed by Gary Nelson
With Siegfried pretending to join the ranks of CONTROL, this is essentially a narrative inverse of the above “Cutback At CONTROL,” but one more dependent on its characterizations than the comic idea of the organizations and their run-of-the-mill operations. That is, it’s one of the year’s most successful entries because of its marvelous use of the characters — not just Siegfried, but also his second in command, Shtarker, or Starker, played by King Moody, who is introduced here and is further proof that the series is consciously building out its cast.
08) Episode 58: “A Man Called Smart (I)” (Aired: 04/08/67)
Max needs information from a KAOS informant to save the country’s water supply.
Written by Leonard Stern | Directed by Earl Bellamy
Season Two ends with a three-part finale written by its executive producer, the great Leonard Stern, who once considered this story for a feature film that got yanked out of development several times. My analysis of Stern’s narrative import to the season is evidenced, in large part, by this trio, which boasts a tight plot that totally honors the series’ premise and its specifically spy-mocking interests, along with a pitch-perfect understanding of the Maxwell Smart character and the kind of comedy (some of it slapstick) that his persona can capably propel. No other outing here adheres to our perception of Get Smart like this three-parter, and this stellar first part especially, which is the most consistently hilarious from start to finish.
09) Episode 59: “A Man Called Smart (II)” (Aired: 04/15/67)
CONTROL’s 91-year-old first chief is called back into service.
Written by Leonard Stern | Directed by Earl Bellamy
William Schallert makes his debut in the middle of this trilogy as the doddering Admiral Hargrade, CONTROL’s first chief who’s now in his nineties. There’s a lot of comedy from his simple involvement and it’s a welcome source that, again, fits the premise but isn’t beholden to some conceptual satire rooted only in burlesquing the spy genre. Although a little goes a long way (given his heightened characterization), he’s a figure who could have been used more. (Also, Maxine Stuart appears, as does Howard Caine, who actually guests in all three parts.)
10) Episode 60: “A Man Called Smart (III)” (Aired: 04/22/67)
Max and 99’s mission takes them to a Hollywood studio.
Written by Leonard Stern | Directed by Earl Bellamy
Dedicating three slots to one continuous story is something that I seldom do here, for typically I don’t have the extra room to spare, but this trilogy by Stern deserves to be spotlighted in full because even though, for instance, this part is the weakest of the trio (the Hollywood climax is less satisfying than the other comic centerpieces in the earlier two), each half hour works and is a cut above the majority of this season, courtesy of the in-character (and in-series) writing. (Oh, and future He & She regular Kenneth Mars appears, not long before that series’ premiere…)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “It Takes One To Know One,” which is the year’s second appearance of Hymie, “Someone Down Here Hates Me,” the only entry here with Siegfried that’s not highlighted above, and “Pussycats Galore,” which has a sexy and very ’60s (Playboy era) premise. Of equal relevance but lesser quality are “Strike While The Agent Is Hot,” which enjoys mocking the CONTROL agency by depicting it as a typical organization, “The Only Way To Die,” which has higher emotional stakes, and “The Decoy,” which was co-written by Leonard Stern’s old partner, Sydney Zelinka. I’ll also cite the somewhat popular “Casablanca” for its memorable aesthetic and musical moments.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Get Smart goes to…
“A Spy For A Spy”
Come back next week for Season Three! And stay tuned for a new Wildcard!
Thanks for covering this series. I figure the best remaining episodes are mostly in next season, as S4 has the wedding & S5 the twins.
Is “Casablanca” the episode that features The Chief as a waiter singing “Alouette” w/ clues for Max? I remember moments more than episodes of this series, and that was a funny moment for me.
Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.
The episode you’re thinking of is Season Three’s “The Hot Line.”
Stay tuned for my thoughts on the last three seasons!
Bernie Kopell seemed to be around a lot in this era. He was also on “Bewitched” as the horny, old apothecary. I have always enjoyed him and his roles. His “Love Boat” role was the longest but from an acting stand point not as memorable. My wife and I are enjoying him on “That Girl”. I guess he is retired now but would like to see him pop up in something today.
Hi, Smitty! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Kopell is still working — he actually has a recurring role right now on a new CBS sitcom called B POSITIVE!
I will have to check B Positive out. I do not watch many of the new sitcoms on today. Thanks Jackson for letting me know that.
You are spot on about how dependent on gags this show really was.
I’ll give a couple of examples from Part 2 of A Man Called Smart. Max is taken away at gunpoint by a enemy female agent. The Chief is supposed to tail him, but gets stuck in a phone booth. To escape tails, Max, the female agent, and other agents change cars repeatedly, always getting in smaller cars, to the point where people have their feet sticking out the window. Finally the female agent takes Max back into a building, where she’s apprehended by The Chief, who’s just gotten out of the phone booth. The enemy agent simply took Max back into the building they originally left!
Later, Max and The Chief are trying to free 99 from a kidnapper. Max knocks on the apartment door, says “Hey, it’s me”, the kidnapper opens the door and is knocked out by Max. Max explains that it worked because “everybody knows somebody.”
Now, as you have well pointed out, neither of these sequences is based on character. Max himself is called “incompetent” by myself and others, but his level of ability tends to change depending on the requirements of the scene or joke. The former sequence I described isn’t based on character either, it’s based on the viewer watching prior, similar programs or movies and laughing at the parody and ridiculousness.
There are shows, comedies if not sitcoms, that went even further than Get Smart! Mel Brooks’ other show, the unsuccessful When Things Were Rotten (again featuring Bernie Kopell), included anachronistic material. That show probably wouldn’t have lasted, and it was likely closer to Police Squad/The Naked Gun territory than Get Smart! ever ventured.
Get Smart! matched the in-universe commitment of Batman 1966. Batman, like When Things Were Rotten, avoided the character issues of Get Smart by using characters that were already well established elsewhere, with little further world building necessary. The in-universe commitment likely helped Get Smart last as long as it did, because the show could be viewed on multiple levels.
Get Smart was not specifically based on James Bond, but created a generalized spy universe based on the material out there at the time. IMO there is not a lot of strong character work in the dramatic versions of that genre. I don’t know if someone could have done a more character based spy sitcom, but I think it would have been farther afield from other successes than Get Smart was, and most successful shows are a different riff on something that’s already worked.
Hi, jayz755! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Right, GET SMART is an idea-driven high-concept sitcom with a parodic premise that undermines the sanctity of character in its narrow pursuit of the obedient comic notion, which is largely based on externally predicated satire. That’s fine when the good ideas are rolling in, but not so fine when they aren’t.
However, yes, it is possible to offer a more character-forward spy sitcom. In addition to the examples I cited for you last week about how this show could have better developed its leads’ personalities and/or relationships so that they could shoulder more of the narrative burden but maintain the comic premise in weekly plot, a spy sitcom didn’t have to be so satirical.
In fact, one wasn’t. Stay tuned…