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.
The third season of Get Smart had to make due with little to no help from every major writer during the series’ first two years. While Buck Henry left for a movie career (following his own sitcom flop — more soon), Arnie Rosen took Burns & Marmer to Carol Burnett, Caruso & Gardner were working on pilots, and Leonard Stern was preoccupied, with Arne Sultan, on Talent Associates’ latest darling, He & She. In their place came a handful of competent scribes, including Burns & Allen’s Norman Paul and I Love Lucy’s Jess Oppenheimer, a great writer who stepped in as producer but exited after a mere five episodes, with his brief stint providing confirmation that not everyone could write for Get Smart and its very specific story needs: funny notions that honor the premise and reinforce its satire. However, there’s a tendency now to blame Three’s erosion of quality on these changes, and though, yes, a less consistent tonal imprint widens the disparity between the hits and misses, Stern and Sultan actually will return at the top of the fourth season with an implicit “righting the ship” goal… and the quality continues to drop. So, Get Smart may be better with certain writers (who understand its needs better than others), but its issues transcend them. In fact, we’ve already diagnosed the problem; Get Smart is “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.” Get Smart struggles here because of both “its concept, which instinctively undermines the sanctity of character — their believability — in order to maintain 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.”
In other words, as the premise’s novelty wears and the show exhausts new ways to parody spy tropes/conventions, Three is not able to fall back on strong characterizations that could yield funny premise-affirming ideas, for despite Two expanding the series’ particulars by adding recurring players (like the great Siegfried), no one is well-defined enough to motivate story — the very thing from which Get Smart determines episodic value. Now, this may seem like a flaw in its premise. It is; Get Smart is built for good ideas explored through plot, and character is nothing but a means to this end, especially with sincerity-corrupting satire as its guiding source of laughs. And yet, if its “means” were better used — i.e. its leads had more pinpointable personalities and tangible quirks — the show could have kept the good comic ideas about spoofable spies flowing longer. Instead, in its efforts to maintain the promised pastiche, it avoids turning to its own internally created givens and keeps relying, like sketch comedy, on external sources of parody… even ones that have little to do with spies. (Three sends up everything from The Fugitive to Viva Zapata!) But of course, this misunderstands the series’ identity, for unless Max is being used to lampoon the ubiquitous spy genre, the show’s high concept is not actually being addressed, and we’ve been primed to be disappointed. Sadly, this trend will continue throughout the rest of the run, proving that it’s not the fault of any one writer, but a consequence of exactly what we’re discussing: the premise is inherently limited and scripts don’t alleviate its design flaw through character, which would have been the only possible saving grace… That said, although Three’s diminished capacity for premise-rooted story is why it’s a comedown from One and Two — the gimmicky stunt casting doesn’t help, nor does the comic heightening as a result of these lowered narrative standards — to put it in perspective, it’s still a lot better than Four and Five, for there are some big hits among Three’s misses. To wit, Get Smart won three Emmys in 1968 — for Don Adams, Bruce Bilson’s directing, and the show itself. So, while my criticisms are relative to its past success, my praise is relative to what’s ahead, when it’ll become even harder to satisfy the terms of its premise… But we’re not there yet. In the meantime, I have, as usual, picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s finest.
01) Episode 63: “The Spy Who Met Himself” (Aired: 10/07/67)
KAOS hires imposters to infiltrate CONTROL.
Written by Phil Leslie & Keith Fowler | Directed by Gary Nelson
Though some sources cite this as the season premiere, all contemporary listings suggest that this was the third aired offering — a spy-related plot with Siegfried that capitalizes on the “evil twin” gimmick, which the series never employs more comedically. Okay, the To Tell The Truth parody in the climax may not be as riotous as it was in last year’s “The Man From YENTA,” but the scripting is otherwise tight and the narrative is appropriately premise-affirming for the sparse fall of 1967. (Also, this is one of only five shows with Jess Oppenheimer’s producer credit.)
02) Episode 67: “One Of Our Olives Is Missing” (Aired: 11/04/67)
A country and western singing star swallows a KAOS transmitter.
Written by Jess Oppenheimer | Directed by Jess Oppenheimer
Carol Burnett stars in this classic installment as a country and western singing star who accidentally swallows a KAOS transmitter stored in an olive. She’s a riot, and one of the only guests to ever match Don Adams in comic intensity — along with Bernie Kopell (who also appears here — always a plus). And with a script by brief producer Jess Oppenheimer, who had a history writing big, broad comedy for lovable funny ladies, this is a winning combination. However, Burnett is obviously the entry’s main attraction, and while I fully support using other characters beyond Max to corroborate the series’ premise (and even its parody), I think this outing doesn’t prioritize its particulars, revealing that merely being a great writer capable of providing funny ideas for funny people doesn’t automatically make someone the best fit for Get Smart and its own interests. This is a hilarious half hour though — it outshines the season as one of the series’ most memorable, and because the only MVE picks I’ve later regretted came when I didn’t choose the most (favorably) memorable option, I’m selecting this as the year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), indicative of this transitional chapter in the series’ life, where it had to be more aggressive in courting value, especially without much help from its regulars.
03) Episode 75: “The Groovy Guru” (Aired: 01/13/68)
A KAOS disc jockey is using mind control with his teenage audience.
Written by Norman Paul and Burt Nodella | Directed by James Komack
This popular offering, which guest stars Larry Storch as the eponymous Groovy Guru — a lampoon of a rock and roll disk jockey who’s controlling teenage minds with his mindless music — is an example of the year not abandoning its premise entirely, but utilizing satire not specifically related to spy-spoofing… and doing so ostentatiously, with broad gags indicative of the sillier, less logical fare we’ll see more often later (another byproduct of the series’ mounting struggle to find good ideas). Frankly, I can’t claim this as a favorite — I think we enjoy it ironically; it’s more camp than comic — but it’s telling, bold, and not premise-rejecting.
04) Episode 76: “The Little Black Book (I)” (Aired: 01/27/68)
Max’s old army buddy accidentally gets them involved with KAOS.
Written by Phil Hahn & Jack Hanrahan | Directed by James Komack
Don Rickles guest stars in this outstanding two-parter as Max’s old army buddy, who inadvertently gets them mixed up with KAOS when he finds “dates” from Max’s little black book, not knowing said book is a list of KAOS names. As before, Max hiding his identity from someone with whom he has a real emotional connection in his personal life is a fine source of drama and comedy — one the series purposely doesn’t overuse (but could have used a bit more) — and the mechanics of the plot take advantage of the show’s parodical objectives through some of its established elements, like Max’s apartment’s booby traps. Also, there’s some wonderful support — not just from Rickles, but also from James Komack, Mayberry R.F.D.’s Arlene Golonka, and Captain Nice’s Ann Prentiss, sister of He & She’s Paula. And with lots of big laughs in a premise-affirming package, this is an MVE contender — one of the series’ best.
05) Episode 77: “The Little Black Book (II)” (Aired: 02/03/68)
Max and his friend try to retrieve Max’s black book.
Written by Phil Hahn & Jack Hanrahan | Directed by James Komack
This story was expanded into a two-parter during production because of the interplay between the Dons — Adams and Rickles — and the second half sees more “padding,” as CONTROL makes Max’s old friend a temporary agent while they try to recover his little black book of KAOS names. Most of the comedy here is derived from the guys’ Hope/Crosby type interplay (which is explicitly spoofed at one point) and there’s more riffing than plot, so Part II has less dramatic foundation than its predecessor. But it’s still a lot of fun and the guests are laudable; in addition to Rickles, Komack, Golonka, and Prentiss, this half also features Joey Bishop’s Corbett Monica, Joey Forman (not as Harry Hoo), and Ernest Borgnine in a small cameo.
06) Episode 79: “99 Loses CONTROL” (Aired: 02/17/68)
99 falls for an international casino owner who’s also a member of KAOS.
Written by William Raynor & Myles Wilder | Directed by Bruce Bilson
In contrast to our burgeoning awareness of the show’s character deficiencies — and the comic broadening that’s making the stories further disconnected from reality — this installment seeks to be sincerer, as 99 falls for a debonair casino owner (Jacques Bergerac), who, naturally, is an agent of KAOS. But that’s not the only reason Max is concerned… Now, much like we’ll see next year when the leads’ relationship becomes intentionally romantic, their heightened emotional stakes don’t pay off with more story-providing characterizations, which means, an entry such as this supposedly matters more for the characters, but their personas still are not actually pushing the action (or the laughs), and this is foreboding. Also, Bob Hope has a cameo.
07) Episode 82: “Spy, Spy, Birdie” (Aired: 03/09/68)
Max and Siegfried must team up against a man who’s invented silent explosives.
Written by William Raynor & Myles Wilder | Directed by James Komack
Get Smart doubles down on its growing silliness in this popular offering that guest stars Percy Helton as a man who craves silence so much that he makes sound-less explosives and torments both CONTROL and KAOS, specifically Max and Siegfried, who must work together to get to the bottom of things. It’s an amusing idea, and putting two enemies together for a shared cause makes for guaranteed conflict and hahas, especially with Adams and Kopell (and King Moody).
08) Episode 84: “The Hot Line” (Aired: 03/23/68)
The Chief goes undercover as a singing waiter after Max replaces him.
Teleplay by Phil Hahn & Jack Hanrahan | Story by Red Benson | Directed by Gary Nelson
One of the few Get Smart entries to spotlight Ed Platt, “The Hot Line” is notable for both incorporating one of its stars’ natural talents — his singing — and also giving us more of the Chief as a character, proving that if the show had committed to revealing more about its leads, it could have used them more in stories like this, which also acknowledges the premise and allows for thematically essential spy-mocking. John Byner guests and Regis Philbin has a cameo.
09) Episode 85: “Die, Spy” (Aired: 03/30/68)
Max takes along a rookie for a mission that his him posing as an international ping pong champ.
Teleplay by Phil Hahn & Jack Hanrahan | Story by Gerald Gardner & Dee Caruso | Directed by Gary Nelson
An outrageously unsubtle sendup of the iconic ’60s drama I Spy, this installment is a sample of the third year widening its aperture for externally derived satire to compensate for dwindling originality with known spy tropes/conventions. However, because the work being parodied is aesthetically connected to Get Smart’s own spy-based objective, it hits, for the episode — while being more specific about how it’s getting its laughs — is nevertheless still operating within the genre that satisfies its premise. Accordingly, you don’t have to know much of I Spy to enjoy this one, for even though it’s totally driven by mocking I Spy, it also works on Get Smart’s terms. Also, Stu Gilliam is great as the proxy Bill Cosby, Robert Culp’s cameo is a highlight, and there’s a stellar winking joke about network television rivalries (ACB — “the third spy network”).
10) Episode 86: “The Reluctant Redhead” (Aired: 04/06/68)
CONTROL needs help from a civilian to uncover important KAOS documents.
Written by Leonard Stern | Directed by James Komack
Leonard Stern, who remained the credited executive producer throughout this season, makes his only labeled contribution to Three’s roster of scripts with this affable excursion that meets the series’ narrative needs while prioritizing big laughs earned, in large part, by the players — not only Adams’ Max (as usual), but also guests Cesar Romero and Julie Sommars, the latter of whom would go on to star in The Governor And J.J. (more soon…) Noam Pitlik appears as well.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Run, Robot, Run,” which uses Hymie and parodies The Avengers, “The Mysterious Dr. T,” the year’s only Siegfried entry not featured above, and three popular offerings that turn to direct parody of outside works, the Emmy-winning “Maxwell Smart, Private Eye,” which spoofs The Maltese Falcon, “Classification: Dead,” which spoofs D.O.A. (and Run For Your Life), and “The King Lives?,” which spoofs The Prisoner Of Zenda. Also, I’d like to briefly cite three decent shows with funny ideas, “When Good Fellows Get Together,” “That Old Gang Of Mine,” and “Operation Ridiculous,” while singling out “Witness For The Persecution,” for if Ed Platt had appeared as written (he was out a few weeks early in the year), it might have made my list.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Get Smart goes to…
“One Of Our Olives Is Missing”
Come back next week for Season Four! And stay tuned for a new Wildcard!