It’s all James Bonds’ fault. Actually, Maxwell Smart is equally to blame. While we’re at it, we might as well toss in the Man / Girl from U.N.C.L.E. for their culpability, as well. Thanks to the Cold War, in combination with the rising nuclear tensions between nations, America got all catawampus over spying and espionage a few decades back. In fact, throughout the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the secret agent began taking over most of the media. Matt Helm styled spoofs found funny bones commonality in the pages of Mad Magazine, where Antonio Prohias worked out the black / white realities of the situation with his seminal Spy vs. Spy. Granted, Sean Connery’s suave sophisticate persona was what drove most cinema turnstiles crazy, but an undercover life still fueled many an adolescent imagination.
It’s no surprise then, that ABC tried to tap into the growing interest in covert operations with its silly spy comedy, Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp. That’s right—it was the monkey’s turn to play undercover operative, with hopes that the jokey juxtaposition of spy with simian would create pure cartoonish comedy gold. Now out on DVD from Image Entertainment, a collection of 22 Link episodes argues for the concept’s effectiveness as half-baked hilarity. The set up was simple. Lancelot Link worked for A.P.E., otherwise known as the Agency to Prevent Evil. At his side was girlfriend / fellow agent Mata Hairi, and both answered to bumbling bureau chief Commander Darwin (wink).
Naturally, where there is good, wickedness can’t be far behind. C.H.U.M.P.—the Criminal Headquarters for Underworld Master Plan—run by the ruthless Baron Von Butcher, was constantly bent on destroying A.P.E. and its allies. With talented troublemakers like Creto, Wang Fu, the Duchess, Ali Assa Seen, and Dr. Strangemind on their side, the stage was set for some oddball humor hijinx. But there was more than just primate puns and chimp craziness on tap. Lance and the gang were also part-time rock musicians, and every episode featured our hero and his backup band, the Evolution Revolution, pumping out another bubblegum pop song.
From all outside appearance, Lance Link was just another shallow circus act shifted to the small screen for the pleasure of the pipsqueak demographic. The truth, however, is a little more complicated. This wasn’t just some dumb monkey show. It was created by TV sketch comedy veterans Mike Marmer and Stan Burns, who had worked for such laugh luminaries as Flip Wilson and The Smothers Brothers. They were also part of the pack of writers that helped Mel Brooks bring Get Smart to life. After that show ended its five year run, Marmer and Burns pitched this new program to the networks. They envisioned an hour long variety format, where cartoons would sit comfortably along side the musical numbers, spy stuff, and various comedic blackouts.
The result was something both juvenile and joyous, a clever combination of low brown buffoonery and high brow spoofing. Link is clearly conceived as an extension of Marmer and Burns Smart satire, using the hip tone and geek-inspired gadgetry that always drove the specific genre. Link is more Bogart than Bond, however, his voice a sly imitation of the famous Hollywood heavy. Mata, on the other hand, appears to be pre-dating Edith Bunker in her grating, girlie whine. It’s a voice that only a mother—or in this case, another monkey—could endure. Naturally Darwin is a bit of a British prude, while all the villains are variations on the recognized enemies of Freedom circa 1970. You will hear some politically incorrect voices for Chinese, German and Russian agents, but there is never an intent toward intolerance. This is over the top and dopey, not oppressive and derogatory. Besides, its chimps dressed up like humans? How harmful can that be?
Such seriousness becomes even sillier as the episodes play out. Using a Batman camp approach to its subject matter, and more groan-inducing gags than a Las Vegas lounge act, Link loved to take on current trends and pop culture constants. All throughout the 22 episodes here (actually, there are only 11 full shows—the DVD cuts each one in half to insert the musical numbers) we see riffs on Frankie and Annette (“The Surfing Spy”), westerns (“Bonana”), auto racing (“The Great, Great Race”) and biker gangs (“The Mysterious Motorcycle Menace”). Frequently, we get pure straight ahead farce: “Lone A.P.E.“‘s chicken rustling plot; the sci-fi silliness of “The Reluctant Robot”; the pucker power of ripe citrus in the lemon laced “Sour Taste of Success”.
Yet the majority of Marmer and Burn’s humor lies in biting the spy world directly in the hand that feeds it. All throughout this collection we see jokes made at the expense of espionage givens like ‘the mastery of disguise’ (“The Great Double, Double Cross”) in the connection to a country’s crowned head (“The Royal Foil”) or the involvement of outside scientists or explorers (“Lance of Arabia”). Sure, the stories have been simplified to allow children easier access to the material, but Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp never really played down to its target audience. Instead, it attempted to keep things clever—at least, within a certain set of age bracket limits—sprinkling each show with enough post-preschool humor to keep the tweens entertained.
This is also clear from the inclusion of music into the mix. Lancelot Link was influenced by the success of another pop culture phenomenon—and amazingly enough, it wasn’t The Monkees. No, The Archies, an animated version of the comic book staple, had scored a number one hit with a song from the show, a glorious aural gobstopper entitled “Sugar Sugar”. It was the hit heard round the industry, and before long, every kid vid entry had to have a rock ‘n’ roll dynamic. In Link‘s case, monkeys could be just as easily trained to lip sync as fake act, so out came the psychedelic duds, on came the cute, clever earworms. For many older members of the audience, the music was the most important part of the series, and a few of the tunes—“Sha-La Love You” and “Rollin’ in the Clover” are quite catchy. Image most certainly agrees—the only bonus feature they provide on either disc is an “instant access” menu button, allowing you to play just the songs.
Though definitely dated in its approach to the material, and losing a bit of its laughable luster along the way, Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp still stands as a wonderful reminder of the days when being an operative was the height of considered cool. Looking back, much of the so-called spy chic of the era now looks horribly hackneyed, and downright dumb. At least Marmer and Burns made no bones about their series’ substantial stupidity. It was built into every episode of this clever cult classic. In the world of primate agent provocateurs, Lance is indeed the merry missing Link.