Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! I’m really scraping the bottom of the figurative barrel here, vamping until our Laverne & Shirley coverage is ready, but I do believe the subject of this post will be additive to my upcoming piece on Garry Marshall’s style, which, as we’ll see, is not only idea-led, but gimmicky and surprisingly character-subjugating too. So, this week, I’m looking (briefly) at an example of his ethos: Me And The Chimp, a 13-episode single-cam head-scratcher that starred Ted Bessell and Anita Gillette, with Scott Kolden and Kami Cotler, as a family living with a chimp named Buttons. It aired in early 1972 on CBS and was the first onscreen collaboration between creator/producer Garry Marshall and Thomas L. Miller (whose company, with Eddie Milkis, would produce Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, etc.).
Like Happy Days, Me And The Chimp is a low-concept sitcom with a gimmick — not nostalgia, but an odd pet — which usurps character as the guiding focus, creating a very basic idea-driven apparatus. Yet this one is especially confining. Let’s compare it to another gimmicky animal show: Mister Ed (1961-1966). While Ed’s ability to communicate with us makes it possible to ascribe personal choices that allow him to function as something of a character, Buttons, despite being a more intelligent creature, does not reliably display decision-making skills that would enable him to exist in story as a conscious propellant. (The same is true of babies — regular readers know how I feel about sitcoms that rely too heavily on tots; this is a big reason!) Accordingly, the chimp isn’t really a character; he’s a gimmick — the high-concept engine of a low-concept vehicle — the conflict the actual characters have to contend with in templated plot (as opposed to inspiring it themselves). And while that’s unideal, none of this is compensatingly fun or clever either, even by the standards of this type of show. That is, The Hathaways (1961-1962) has a similar premise — a suburban couple raising monkeys — but it’s clearly a parody of the domestic sitcom subgenre, with the primates standing in as proxy children. Thus, even though its setup ensures that The Hathaways is always going to be silly and gimmicky and one-joke (and, trust me, it’s rotten too), at least there’s a sketch-like sense of satire being comedically exploited, with the human characters intentionally existing as typical for that purpose. In this case, the one-joke situational concept provides the same weekly story — a monkey causes trouble for a middle-class family man, who is bland and boring and undefined like everyone else, because narratively and comedically, the humans are designed to be peripheral — only now it’s without the parodical bent that could actually make such banality funny.
As a result, Me And The Chimp is more than just an idea-driven series with a gimmicky premise, it’s a particularly bad version of one, devoid of comic thought or invention, and with no character (the most important element in all sitcoms, no matter how idea-led) to show for it. Now, all of Marshall’s forthcoming efforts, especially those we’ll be discussing, are significantly better and more worth watching… but many of these attributes, to a less dire extent, will still apply — specifically with regard to character. That’s something to keep in mind… And in the meantime, here’s the premiere episode of Me And The Chimp, “Mike’s Day With Buttons.” It was written by Garry Marshall, directed by Alan Rafkin, and first aired by CBS on January 13, 1972. (Oh, and the great Reta Shaw guests — her scene is easily the highlight.) Enjoy!
Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more sitcom fun!