Thursday, June 16, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #133: Get Smart: "The Impossible Mission" (1968)

Would you believe...that more than forty years later, Get Smart (1965 - 1970) is still pretty damned funny?

This classic TV series from creators Buck Henry and Mel Brooks arrived on American television (first NBC, then CBS) at the height of the James Bond/secret agent craze of the mid-1960s. 

On television, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West and Mission: Impossible ruled the air-waves, and Get Smart was a response to the fad, a situation comedy about the world's dopiest spy: Agent 86, Maxwell Smart (Don Adams) of CONTROL.

Max's job was to battle the evil forces of K.A.O.S., and he did so with his partner, the beautiful and highly capable Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon), plus the latest and strangest gadgets imaginable, including the ubiquitous shoe phone.  

Max's put-upon boss was The Chief (Edward Platt), and Smart also occasionally teamed with Agent 13 (Dave Ketchum), an undercover expert who would hide in the most unusual places -- including filing cabinets and tree trunks -- and Hymie (Dick Gautier), a kindly robot who had escaped from K.A.O.S. control.

To my generation, the oft-repeated gags on Get Smart have become legendary, particularly the shoe phone, and The Cone of Silence.  The latter, as you may recall, was a top-secret device to promote security and secrecy, but which never operated as it was intended.  

Don Adam's catchphrases, many of which originated on an earlier program, The Bill Dana Show (1963 - 1965) are also well known even today: 

"Sorry about that, chief," "Would you believe...," "I asked you not to tell me that!" and, of course,  "missed it by that much..."

My favorite of Max's catchphrases, however is the one that he used frequently to cover his own profound ignorance. 

Whenever Max was confronted with a new and deadly K.A.O.S. gambit, he would feign prior knowledge of it and quip, "Of course, the old poison needle in the phonograph trick," or "the old biplane hidden in the haystack trick."

Get Smart's "The Impossible Mission," which first aired on September 21, 1968, also showcases one of Get Smart's must entertaining proclivities: to parody elements of (then) popular entertainment.  Over the course of the program's five year duration, Smart battled a villain called Dr. Yes, for instance, joined up with bikers in "The Mild One," satirized Britain's The Avengers ("Run, Robot Run,") and so on.  Here, as the title makes plain, Mission: Impossible gets mercilessly riffed.

As the episode commences, Maxwell Smart visits a bus depot to receive his orders from a tape recorder hidden in a locker.  The Chief's recorded voice informs him that his mission is to recover an equation for "Helmunitis" -- a disease that can cause the extinction of the human race -- before "The Leader," a K.A.O.S. mastermind, can acquire it. 

At the end of the message, The Chief dutifully informs Max that the tape recording will self-destruct in five seconds. 

But six seconds later, there is a massive explosion that destroys several lockers. 

Yet the tape recorder is still whole and undamaged,  and it begins to loudly replay the secret message over and over again. 

At a loss, Max stomps on the recorder, to no avail.  Then he bashes it with a stick.  Then, giving up, Max attempts to tuck the still-yammering tape recorder under his jacket and leave the depot unnoticed...

After Max assembles his team, rejecting Alfred E. Newman, Tiny Tim, and the Mona Lisa as prospective candidates (another great riff on another trademark Mission: Impossible scene), he learns from an informant (Jamie Farr) that the equation he seeks will be transmitted over live TV during a nighttime special featuring a band called Herb Talbot and the Tijuana Tin. 

Using a self-playing "computer trumpet," Max infiltrates the musical act, even as 99 joins the show as a chorus singer.  All of the chorus, incidentally, is dressed as Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp.

Soon, Max and 99 are discovered, and the Leader attempts to kill them.  The duo escapes in Little Tramp costumes, and Get Smart suddenly indulges in a lively, fast-motion salute to silent film comedy tradition. 

Before "The Impossible Mission" ends, Max proposes marriage to the love of his life, 99.  They then foil the Leader's plans together and defeat him by using "The old double door deception trick," which is actually pretty nifty, though I doubt Daniel Craig will be using it any time soon.

Finally Max offers a thoughtful requiem for the Leader.  "If only he had used his music for niceness instead of evil."

Yes Max, if only....

Watching Get Smart in 2011, it came as a shock to me just how much contemporary self-reflexive comedies such as The Simpsons or South Park owe this particular series. 

Get Smart confidently bounces from pop-culture allusion to pop-culture allusion with a sly, ingenious sense of fun that is widely emulated.  The gags come at lightning fast speed too, so that even if there's one that can't stick a landing, you're onto the next funny joke before you know it.  The many silly catchphrases serve as our point of identification or foundation in a free-wheeling format that bends and stretches, but never breaks

Yet even with a commendably fast pace and Adams rat-a-tat, staccato delivery (called "glicking," officially), Get Smart remains endearing because Adams and Feldon share a lot of chemistry.  Max fancies himself the world's most suave and debonair secret agent, and 99's tolerant, long suffering reply is universally, "Oh Max..."   Max and 99 (and Adams and Feldon in the respective roles) make for a charming, fun-to-watch couple.

I didn't see the 2008 Get Smart film so I can't comment knowledgeably on it, but I grew up with this version of the material and  so was pleasantly surprised, on recent viewing to see that it has grown up with me, as well.  Get Smart is still fresh and still funny.

So yes, I'm watching Get Smart with my son Joel...and loving it.


  1. Excellent flashback, John! Man, I LOVED this show growing up in the 60s. I never missed it during its run. On occasion when I catch a repeat on cable TV, it really warms and cracks me up. My kids took to the old episodes after we saw the 2008 film adaptation -- which I recommend, btw. Even Mel Brooks thought the filmmakers captured the series well. Still, this wonderful program really was somethin'. Feldon was so damn HOT, too. Hearing that voice and seeing her look to this day can still arouse. Great review of this one, John. Thanks.

  2. Hi le0pard13:

    Thank you for a wonderful comment. Get Smart is another love that we share, I see. I will definitely check out the 2008 film now, based on your recommendation.

    I also absolutely agree with you on the hotness quotient of Barbara Feldon. She was one of my TV "crushes" (along with Grace Lee Whitney and Catherine Schell) when I was growing up. She really does have a fantastic voice too.

    Great comment!


  3. Hi JKM;

    Loved this series. I even remember this episode, though I suspect some of the references would have had to be explained to me at the time. The remake was good though I had problems with some aspects - not the cast! - and there are some classic gags. I remember the wedding ep which came not long after was the highest rated TV show ever at the time.

    It's funny that later Mel Brooks movies like "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" were criticized for aping the "Airplane" style - come on! The dude invented it!

  4. Very fond memories of watching GS eps with my Dad (a big Mel Brooks fan) as a kid. You probably couldn't get away with it today but I still laugh thinking about Max's exchange with "The Claw." Max: The Craw? The Claw: Not the Craw, the Craw....

  5. Hi everybody,

    DLR: I totally agree with you on the merits of Get Smart, and that Mel Brooks was certainly the pioneer of this brand of humor. I also get a kick out Buck Henry's Quark. Wish that had run for five seasons as well.

    indianhoop: I can't believe you brought up the "Claw/Craw" exchange! Awesome. That has to be my son's favorite moment in the entire show, and it's also one of mine. We both crack up whenever we see it, and bicker back and forth with one another, Maxwell Smart-style: "Not the Craw! The CRAW!"

    I guess that's not politically correct as you say, but it's funny as hell.

    Great comments!


  6. Truly a classic in TV comedy. What a cast of supporting characters too. Siegfried, Shtarker, Larabee, Harry Hoo.Just thinking of any Cone of Silence scene still makes me laugh. Feldon should've gotten an Emmy each year for "best put upon sidekick".Loved the Groovy Guru and Schwartz's Island eps. Thanks for the post.

  7. Hi jdigriz,

    I just watched the Groovy Guru, with Larry Storch, this week, and it's a riot. I loved watching 99 go-go dance herself to near-oblivion.

    And I'm glad you also mentioned Siegried and Shtarker, and the remainder of the supporting cast. They all did an amazing job, and it looks like they had a lot of fun as well...

    Great comment,

  8. BTW, I once met Shtarker (Robert "King" Moody). I complimented him on his work in the series, and his work as Ronald McDonald in commercials. He was surprised I recognized him through the McD make-up. I told him it was done purely by his distinctive voice. Nice guy.

  9. Le0pard13:

    Now that is an awesome story! Very cool that you met King Moody. Joel and I always enjoy watching as the frequently victimized "Shhhtarker!" in Get Smart. Saw him in "Spy, Spy Birdie" chasing pigeons this morning...


  10. Anonymous10:28 PM

    Yeah.......the best comedy ever. One particular episode where a KAOS agent runs to a window and proudly tells everybody that he has a car with a safety net waiting downstairs (10 floors maybe...whatever) and he jumps out the window!
    Max races to the window and calmly tells every one (with his thumb and forefinger about 1 inch apart)......."Missed it by that much!"
    Let me tell you........I laughed for a week over that one and it still brings a smile to my face.
    Oh.......and "The Cone of Silence" was always a killer!!! 99's roll of the eyes every time Max said something dumb!
    A show that could never be copied.