Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re starting 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.
As someone who gets enjoyment from vintage entertainments in large part because of their historical value — how they tell us about the time in which they were first intended for consumption — I appreciate Get Smart for being iconically ’60s. Not only does it boast, like most ’60s comedies, a high-concept premise anchored by a big, unforgettable comic personality, it’s also a trendy Cold War fantasy, engaging in the era’s “spy craze” that was best embodied seriously by the James Bond films, which began in 1962, and comedically by The Pink Panther, released in 1963. However, I must admit that my decision to cover Get Smart was less about the nature or quality of the series itself than the pedigree of the people involved, for aside from being created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry — two talented funnymen whose auteurship is often a major source of contemporary focus — the show starred the hilarious Don Adams, a standup comic who had made the variety show rounds in the ’50s but had recently delighted audiences on the just-cancelled The Bill Dana Show. Additionally, it was executive produced by Mad Libs maker Leonard Stern, a seminal figure on this blog whose credits include classics like The Honeymooners and The Phil Silvers Show, along with forgotten gems like I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster and He & She. We started talking about Stern in last week’s rerun post on The Honeymooners, for an association between these two series reinforces a central truth about Get Smart: all its major creative minds had a background in the comedy-variety world, which sparked a strand of sitcoms that, like sketches, were more enamored of their funny premises (or ideas/story) than by nuanced, well-defined characters. Now, okay, most sitcoms from this decade are in that idea-first category, especially the high-concept ones, but this variety aesthetic is extra obvious with Get Smart, for the winking foundation of its premise is analogous to one of the most common ways humor is found in sketch comedy: from parody. This is what Brooks was offering in his famous movie takeoffs on Sid Caesar’s Your Show Of Shows, what Henry had employed on the U.S. version of the very topical That Was The Week That Was, and what Stern had been conditioned to do with Jackie Gleason’s Bickersons-like The Honeymooners (and then later supplied for Steve Allen’s primetime show, where he first worked with Adams — stay tuned).
Indeed, Get Smart is a parody of the spy genre — that’s how it was conceived, that’s how it is written — and more than just adding high-concept decorations to low-concept structures, like many of these ’60s fantasy shows, this is a beat-by-beat lampoon of an ostentatious story type. Therefore, it has ostentatious story, and derives the majority of its laughs from mocking their attached clichés. Character is but a means to this satirical end, and although, like many of these high-concept efforts, Get Smart offers a brilliant, iconic personality (Adams’ Maxwell Smart), he’s under the thumb of his series’ premise, which drives every script. In other words, seldom does plot exist because of Max or his apparent quirks. Oh, sure, his bumbling may complicate his mission, and it certainly contributes to the show’s humor (with classic catchphrases in tow), but most story only arises out of the premise’s desire to spoof ’60s spy flicks/shows, and Max is subordinate to these prioritized intentions. So, while Get Smart uses its lead for its parodical aims — thereby making him vital (an incompetent buffoon is necessary here) — Max is not leading his show, the comic idea of sending up a genre is, and he has limited depth as a result of this idea-first, sketch-like design. What’s more, this diminished regard for character is even more glaring in the other two regulars: the chief and Agent 99. Both are used only in relation to Max — his boss and his lady partner — and they have scant functionality beyond these structural hooks. I mean, who is 99? She never gets a name, let alone a personality that could be developed for the sake of story or comedy. And even when NBC adds domesticity to the spoofable equation by forcing the two to marry, the new emotional stakes of their relationship never actually give Max’s better half a character. She still only exists for premise/story, but without the definition that would allow her to better serve or motivate it. Thus, Get Smart’s unideal display of character — which hinders the show, especially as it runs out of fresh tropes directly related to the spy element — is why I suggested above that my interest had little do with its nature or quality, for, frankly, I didn’t (and still don’t) think it’s a terrific sitcom. That is, even by the standards of this high-concept premise-led decade, the show is not sustainably crafted — it exists only for a caricatured comic idea, making it little more than a sketch… in sitcom form.
Accordingly, the show lives and dies on the strength of its ideas, and no matter who’s writing them — other notable scribes throughout the years include Arnie Rosen, Arne Sultan, Jess Oppenheimer, Allan Burns, and Chris Hayward — they’re all beholden to the premise, or the ideas that said premise requires. We’ll talk specifically about the series’ trajectory in the weeks ahead, but here I’ll note that none of these great writers is able to break Get Smart out of its chosen parameters; once the figurative well of mockable spy yarns/gags dries up, so does its quality, as their scripts’ use of character is never made to be compensatory — or allowed to be, based on Brooks and Henry’s established standards, where ideas matter most. As such, the best, most spy-spoofing plots unsurprisingly reside in the first two seasons, with a noticeable decline thereafter. And yet, while we often like to attribute this drop to changes at the top — for instance, Brooks’ contributions stop after One, Henry left in the middle of Two, and Stern’s own involvement was spotty, as he added other shows to his roster (some of which we’ll discuss soon) — I believe that had they remained in control (no pun intended), the same problems would have still occurred, for this is what happens to all high-concept shows that subjugate character: they exhaust creative variations on their premise. And like sketch comedy, Get Smart is only as good as the weekly notion sustaining it. That said, one of the tonics to this problem is creating a buffet of possible idea-generators, and Get Smart does exactly this; despite shallow character work, the series’ amplification of peripheral players in a well-built world helps to alleviate the narrative burden of tangible parody. That means, by creating additional good guys like Agent 13 and Larabee, and bad guys like The Claw and Siegfried, Get Smart develops a continuity of drama (and comedy) that reinforces the show’s lampoon of filmed spydom, while instead making a clearer utilization of the series’ own particulars, à la a sitcom, as opposed to its genre-focused conventions, à la a sketch. Now, the writing is never able to surmount the simple fact that its ideas reign supreme (for better and for worse), but it does a decent job of providing support to them — and this also extends to its celebrated technological gadgets, which drove a lot of the series’ appeal in the ’60s, primarily with its younger viewers.
I call Season Two Get Smart’s most ideal due to its cultivation of a unique universe, as “novelty meets knowingness.” In the sophomore year, the premise is still fresh enough to generate worthwhile plots, but the show has settled more into its complete identity, which includes the recurring use of fun characters like Siegfried (Bernie Kopell), who isn’t featured in One, along with all of Max’s famous gizmos (and catchphrases), for which the series is remembered today. However, if Two is the ideal, One is right behind it — it’s no slouch in introducing memorable players (Hymie, Claw, Harry Hoo, Agent 44, Parker), and it may even be the most consistent, as almost all its ideas honor the premise. And while I minimized Brooks’, Henry’s, and Stern’s involvement as it pertains to the show’s later quality, that’s not to say they aren’t instrumental to its early quality. In fact, story editor Henry, in particular, deserves much praise for establishing and routinizing the series’ pronounced comic ethos, which is another crucial part of its identity, as Stern’s guiding focus keeps plot on track — unlike later years, rarely is there an idea that doesn’t fit the show’s interests. As for where Get Smart fits within his oeuvre, although it, like all of Stern’s efforts, displays his New York variety origins, this one is “workplace” and unusually high-concept; most of his shows enjoy low-concept domesticity, relying more on character (as in He & She). Yet, next to The Honeymooners, this is his most lauded — Get Smart got four Emmy nods in 1966 alone! — for it delivers comic ideas that are, in this period, supremely well-rendered (with assistance from first season producer Jay Sandrich), worth studying for a joyful understanding not just of the ’60s, but also of its key architects’ styles, which all blend together, per the premise, for some pitch-perfect and hysterical satire. Ultimately, then, choosing to discuss this series because of its creative forces has revealed, in study, something better: even if Get Smart isn’t a great “sitcom” as I define it, for pure idea-based hilarity in half-hour form, its output in 1965-’66 and 1966-’67 (and even 1967-’68) is strong for what we’ve covered from this era, and I’m glad that its episodes are here. So, finding the samples that best satisfy its premise’s terms — and showcase both the iconic Maxwell Smart and these scribes’ mingled comic flair — is the criteria I’ve set when picking ten entries to exemplify this year’s finest.
01) Episode 1: “Mr. Big” (Aired: 09/18/65)
Max pairs with Agent 99 to thwart Mr. Big’s threat to blow up the Statue of Liberty.
Written by Mel Brooks & Buck Henry | Directed by Howard Morris
Brooks and Henry’s pilot beautifully establishes the series’ premise — with a terrific opening where Max’s iconic shoe phone rings while he’s watching a concert, and a delightful “meet-cute” between 86 and 99. There are plenty of laughs, the pacing is brisk, and even though the show will take time to build out other parts of its identity, this is a great primer for what Get Smart wants to be. Vito Scotti guests. (Also, it’s the only episode in black-and-white.)
02) Episode 2: “Diplomat’s Daughter” (Aired: 09/25/65)
Max tangles with The Claw while trying to protect a beautiful princess.
Written by Gerald Gardner & Dee Caruso | Directed by Paul Bogart
The first script by Gardner and Caruso — two scribes whom Henry had brought over with him from That Was The Week That Was — this installment feels even more like Get Smart than its predecessor, courtesy of many fun gags and the introduction of the series’ first recurring villain, the Craw, err Claw (Leonard Strong), who’ll return for an even better outing below. Also, 99’s jealousy creates an emotional stake that fuels the comedy by giving her a perspective.
03) Episode 10: “Our Man In Leotards” (Aired: 11/20/65)
Max goes undercover to stop a special freezing drug from being used on an ambassador.
Written by Mel Brooks and Gary Belkin | Directed by Richard Donner
There are a lot of solid shows here in Season One, but I’m bumping up “Our Man In Leotards” because, honestly, I wanted to highlight at least one more entry by Brooks, for his influence on Get Smart is almost as seminal as Henry’s in giving the series the imaginative spark that drives all its later successes — and this offering, while also featuring the premise ideally, is a memorable testament to the show’s sense of humor (which, as this script indicates, is often broad). Michael Pate and John Stephenson are among this episode’s many guest performers.
04) Episode 12: “My Nephew The Spy” (Aired: 12/04/65)
Max’s aunt and uncle visit, not knowing that Max is a spy.
Written by Arne Sultan & Marvin Worth | Directed by Bruce Bilson
Although I appreciate Get Smart for trying to avoid the common fantasy trope of the main characters having to hide their identity from others, dimensionalizing Max requires seeing more of his personal life, so when we’re able to meet some family, it’s usually a boon to his character. It can also be very funny, like in this outing (by Steve Allen scribes Sultan and Worth), which also boasts dependable Maudie Prickett and Charles Lane as Max’s unknowing aunt and uncle, to whom he passes off a captured KAOS assassin (Conrad Janis) as an old army buddy.
05) Episode 13: “Aboard The Orient Express” (Aired: 12/11/65)
Max and 99 step in when CONTROL agents are being murdered on the Orient Express.
Written by Robert C. Dennis & Earl Barret | Directed by Frank McDonald
Among the more famous offerings, this installment claims a well-remembered cameo by Johnny Carson. But I like it best for its tight scripting, which uses the ubiquitous train setting for a Murder On The Orient Express parody that works within the series’ necessary spy parameters. Also, this entry premieres Victor French as Agent 44, who always gets the lousy assignments.
06) Episode 19: “Back To The Old Drawing Board” (Aired: 01/29/66)
KAOS tries to kidnap a CONTROL scientist, with the help of robot Hymie.
Written by C.F. L’Amoreaux [alias Gary Clarke] | Directed by Bruce Bilson
Dick Gautier’s Hymie, a humanlike robot created by KAOS, makes his debut in this hysterical outing that’s on the short list for this series’ best, capitalizing on both Get Smart’s spy premise and its fascination with ’60s technology, which is a significant part of its charm. It’s also another show with boffo laughs — my favorite being the mirror routine with Adams and Gautier, who work well together in every episode in which the latter appears, but especially this one.
07) Episode 25: “The Amazing Harry Hoo” (Aired: 03/12/66)
Max gets help from Harry Hoo when a case takes him to San Francisco.
Written by Gerald Gardner & Dee Caruso | Directed by Gary Nelson
Like the Craw, err Claw, Harry Hoo (Joey Forman) is another iconic guest whom I wish the show used more often, for he’s a comic dynamo, allowing the text to ratchet up its satire — he’s a clear Charlie Chan takeoff — while leaning into the lunacy of the performances. As with “Diplomat’s Daughter,” this entry is culturally insensitive by 21st century standards, but it’s a time capsule from a specific time and place, and it’s an unmitigated success by that era’s metrics.
08) Episode 27: “Ship Of Spies (I)” (Aired: 04/02/66)
Max and 99 hop on a freighter to recover stolen plans for a nuclear weapon.
Written by Leonard Stern & Buck Henry | Directed by Bruce Bilson
Henry and Stern are the credited authors of this classic two-parter, the second half of which I’ve chosen as my MVE, even though they really deserve to be spotlighted together as one. After all, they collectively earned an Emmy Award — in 1967 — for writing, and they both operate with the same rewarding idea: Max and 99 are shipboard while hoping to track down a KAOS agent whom they only know by a mysterious clip-clop sound… which is everywhere.
09) Episode 28: “Ship Of Spies (II)” (Aired: 04/09/66)
Max and 99 continue their shipboard mission.
Written by Leonard Stern & Buck Henry | Directed by Bruce Bilson
Part II is my choice for this season’s MVE (Most Valuable Episode), because it not only benefits from the strong story as previously established, it also uses its narrative givens to create some of the funniest gags of the entire series — every scene is a delight, with more from Agent 44 (who’s replaced by 13 hereafter), a fun blunder from 99, a classic bit with deck chairs, a well-choreographed hallway routine, and a memorable turn from Harold J. Stone as the bad guy. If you were to pick any singular outing to represent Get Smart, this would be a good candidate.
10) Episode 30: “The Last One In Is A Rotten Spy” (Aired: 05/07/66)
Max goes undercover to retrieve a list of KAOS agents from a Russian swimmer.
Written by Stan Burns & Mike Marmer | Directed by David Alexander
I seldom see this excursion counted as a fan favorite, but it’s an excellent showcase of Adams’ Maxwell Smart persona (as he’s refined it over the course of this first season), thanks to a script by Burns and Marmer (two scribes with whom Stern had worked on Steve Allen) that emphasizes his efforts, both in the text via catchphrases and in the plot via his bumbling, which complicates and propels the entire story. Also, Alice Ghostley is hilarious as a horny Soviet.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: the formative “School Days,” the performance-led “Too Many Chiefs,” the Brooks-penned “Survival Of The Fattest,” the narratively fun “Dead Spy Scrawls,” and two emotionally interesting outings called “Double Agent” and “Kisses For KAOS.” (Incidentally, I am not a fan of “The Day Smart Turned Chicken”; I think it’s one of the few entries here that lets down Get Smart’s premise.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Get Smart goes to…
“Ship Of Spies (II)”
Come back next week for Season Two! And stay tuned for a new Wildcard!