[2 June 2008]
Editor’s note: This review was originally published reviewing the “The Complete Collection” version.
The current wave of super-smart, laugh-trackless TV comedies—The Office, the late-lamented Arrested Development, Scrubs and Curb Your Enthusiasm—seemed to have their genesis in the best sitcoms of the ‘90s: Seinfeld and The Simpsons. Seinfeld was better written and cheekier than TV comedy had ever been, and The Simpsons, cloaked in animation, was effortlessly literate and allusive. Reaching back just a little further, Gary Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show was near perfect: clever, subtle, and hilarious without making you feel you were being conned into laughing.
Comedy fans of slightly greater vintage, however, might trace this lineage back to the most powerfully hilarious sitcom of the ‘60s: Get Smart. In production from 1965 through 1970, the showed aired 138 half-hour episodes, first on NBC (1965-69), then on CBS (1969-70). Now the whole inspired shebang is out on DVD for the first time in a luxurious box set from HBO Films and Time-Life.
It is simply a feast, inspiring both nostalgia and respect for how ahead of its time this groundbreaking parody truly was.
Get Smart was a canny parody of the spy stories that were so popular in the ‘60s—think James Bond, think The Man from U.N.C.L.E., think The Avengers and I Spy. Agent Maxwell Smart works for CONTROL, a CIA-like agency locked in battle for world order with KAOS, its vaguely Eastern European counterpart. Smart is bumbling but winning, paired always with his seductive but intelligent love interest, Agent 99. But of course it wasn’t really about the story—it was about the jokes. Don Adams originated the character, pointedly confident yet frequently puzzled, as a hotel detective on The Bill Dana Show, and then writers Mel Brooks and Buck Henry—two of the funniest guys ever to think of a one-liner—set him into a comic world of foolish spy gadgets (the “shoe phone”, The Cone of Silence), mock sinister adversaries, absurd co-agents (“Fang”, a CONTROL spy-dog, Hymie, a spy-robot), and hilarious running gags.
But what makes Get Smart more than just another funny show from another era is its unwitting role as a precursor to the best shows of today.
First, Get Smart was one of the first self-aware TV shows; a show that kind of knows (or admits) that it is a “show”. While never reaching the wink-at-the-camera level of The Office, Maxwell Smart and his crew clearly do not operate as if they are in a realistic world. Though most episodes climax with a scene that is straight—the moment where Max and 99 finally use their guns in some pro forma chase to get the bad guy—the set up and the tag are self-conscious set pieces of humor. In other words, even back in 1965 Get Smart seemed nothing like Bewitched or I Love Lucy. Its closest cousin back then was Hogan’s Heroes, the sitcom absurdly and unrealistically set in a Nazi POW camp, but Get Smart was always a more direct spin on a known genre. You laughed at it because it was funny, but you also laughed at it because you and those on the show both knew that most spy shows were ridiculous. In short, before Letterman became a talk show that spoofed talk shows, Get Smart was a knowing genre spoof.
Get Smart was also somewhat anarchic. Not many mainstream TV shows from the ‘60s actually reflected the times at all, what with all those network suits and all that money riding on selling every commercial. But Get Smart reflected the antic Jewish wit of Mel Brooks (trained by writing for Sid Caesar’s skit-a-rific “Your Show of Shows”) and Buck Henry (who would go on to write the screenplay for The Graduate and host Saturday Night Live 10 times). Brooks and Henry are career outsiders who managed to find an inside track, and Get Smart reflects their deft touch—the ability to crack up Middle American while also—can it be?—mocking the security apparatus of the US government.
In Max as embodied by Don Adams, Henry and Brooks created a classic nebbish hero. One central running gag in the show is the fact that sophisticated, smart, gutsy Agent 99 (played by the drolly gorgeous Barbara Feldon) is in love with Max, though he doesn’t know it. She bails him out of trouble time and again but lets him take all the credit—a nearly-feminist heroine who goes for Max against the odds. Adams, with his piercing voice (he would go on to a huge career in cartoon voices) and rubber face balanced by a trim haircut and nice suits, twists the James Bond image astutely. Strength and anger are for the dogs—Smart is all about humor and cunning. A generation of wisenheimers, Mad Magazine readers, and Woody Allen fans were raised on the antics of Maxwell Smart.
But today, the character looks even more astute. The whole generation of currently dominant movie comedians seems drawn in the Smart mold. Will Ferrell’s characters—oblivious yet sympathetic, self-centered but charming—are Smart. Ben Stiller has clearly internalized the lessons of the show—turning out humor that holds the self-serious up to the light. (You can almost imagine a young Don Adams starring in Zoolander.) Steve Carrel, Stephen Colbert, and their Daily Show brethren—with their establishment haircuts allowing them to mock power from a position of faux-power—are Maxwell Smart, each and every one.
Get Smart was not a classic “three camera sitcom” in the mold of I Love Lucy or All in the Family or Everybody Loves Raymond. Get Smart was filmed like a movie or dramatic TV show, as was, again, the style. It felt deliberate and dense—not like a chuckle-filled visit with the Cleavers. A short 21-minutes delivered in spades: satire, gunplay, one-liners, even a little sex. Like a really good pop song, each episode hits like a tiny comic symphony.
Most of all, Get Smart was, uh . . . smart. While Max was more than capable of bumping into walls and getting his nose stuck in a closing door, the humor of Get Smart was mainly verbal. Max’s many catch phrases made the show a staple of both cocktail party and playground banter during the show’s run. But, better than a Saturday Night Live staple like “We’re two wild and crazy guys!”, the Smart catch phrases were gags of verbal. When fooled in some way, for example, Max would frequently intone: “The old ________ trick!” But you never knew how it would come out, to wit: “The old Professor Peter Peckinpah all purpose anti-personnel Peckinpah pocket pistol under the toupee trick. That’s the third time I’ve fallen for it this month!” OK, Get Smart was smart but silly. But then again, how many TV sitcoms have punning titles?
The silliness was often right on target. The world is threatened by murderous bananas? Max runs into a “Groovy Guru”? A two-part episode, “The Not So Great Escape” in which Max must bust out of a KAOS P.O.W. camp in New Jersey”? If these notions crack you up, if they seem not only funny but also tuned into the times and pointing a finger at the ridiculous in the world, then you really have nothing better to do with your money.