The Monkees. To most people the name means a “manufactured” 60s pop group, formed by producers to sell records via a TV show. But that TV show starring Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Davy Jones (RIP) and Peter Tork was actually funny and on par with some great silly/slapstick comedy of our time.
The show featured some great guest stars – Liberace, Ruth Buzzi, Vic Tayback, Julie Newmar, Pat Paulson, Rose Marie, Butch Patrick, and Rip Taylor to name a few. Their landlord played by Henry Corden was famous as the voice of Fred Flintstone and a group of series regulars was consistently strong.
“I think you’re the greatest comic talent since the Marx Brothers. I’ve never missed one of your programs.” — John Lennon
Time magazine contributor James Poniewozik praised the television show, saying that “even if the show was never meant to be more than entertainment and a hit-single generator, we shouldn’t sell The Monkees short. It was far better TV than it had to be; during an era of formulaic domestic sitcoms and wacky comedies, it was a stylistically ambitious show, with a distinctive visual style, absurdist sense of humor and unusual story structure.” The main writers of the majority of the episodes, Gerald Gardner and Dee Caruso, also wrote for Get Smart which displayed a similar style and wackiness
. . .during an era of formulaic domestic sitcoms and wacky comedies, it was a stylistically ambitious show, with a distinctive visual style, absurdist sense of humor and unusual story structure. — James Poniewozik
Season Two: Episode 26. Airdate March 25, 1968. This was the final episode of the series and featured Rip Taylor as the evil wizard Glick who used television to hypnotize people in an attempt to take over the world. He was working with an alien plant creature who used a “sweet smelling smoke” to mellow everyone out. Taylor’s performance is basically improvised and over the top. Like most episodes, this one included the classic “Monkees Romp”, a sped up scene set to Monkees songs which was a precursor to a signature Benny Hill show bit. Rumor has it that there really was a Frodis Room on the Monkees set, where cast and crew would disappear for hours to mellow out. Micky directed the episode and has had a highly successful directing career since. Micky also used the episode to introduce the audience to Tim Buckley, his first national TV appearance, in a video performance at the end. You can watch the full episode below.
Season Two: Episode 16. Aired January 8, 1968. In The Fairytale, the Monkees play multiple roles, including female roles executed in the silly Monty Python style. This show was different from the typical episode, it was set in a single studio and told a single story. Peter was the hero, which was unusual. This was the only episode without a “romp” or musical performance, although it has a great video at the end for “Daily Nightly”using a Moog Synthesizer, the first one to be used in the US. Watch the full episode below.
Season Two: Episode 13. Aired December 4, 1967. The boys try to help Mike’s Aunt defend the family ranch from bad guy cowboys headed by Black Bart. Micky and Peter play The Lone Stranger and Pronto, and the local millionaires are Ben Cartwheel and his boys. Lots of slapstick here. Peter at this point had gone full hippie and refused to use a gun in any of the gunfights. Another running series joke here is where the actors talk to us, the audience. This is one of a number of cowboy-themed stories, all filmed on the same backlot used by so many shows in the sixties. Watch the full episode below.
Season Two: Episode 26. Aired March 11, 1969. The episode opens with a hilarious piece starring Frank Zappa and Mike Nesmith playing each other. Really fun to see Frank improvising and completely relaxed. The episode itself deals with the boys becoming psychic slaves to a fraud mentalist so he can steal their gig. Once again, lots of slapstick, two romps and the boys playing multiple characters. Micky is in the nightclub scene with a two color Fez mustache! And Burgess Meredith as the Penguin is in the final scene as well, which was amazing since Batman was on a competing network at the same time as the Monkees. Watch the full episodes below.
Season Two: Episode 19. Aired January 29, 1968. A feature for Micky and the boys showing some great comic acting alongside Hans Conreid. Micky loses his voice after wishing on a magical Monkees paw and does the majority of the episode visual only. The episode has a personal favorite scene with inkblots -“a bunny and a chicken” – and a Marx Brothers tribute. And Davy falls in love again. There is one scene in particular with Davy and the Indian where it would appear he just came out of the Frodis room.
Season Two: Episode 24.DJ Jerry Blavat hosts a band contest for mixed groups, so Davy has to dress as a girl. Blavat then falls in love with him/her. Meanwhile, Davy falls for a girl from a rival group forced to dress like a boy. Hijinks ensue. The Geator with the Heater, as Jerry is known in Philly, plays his character to the max. He talks too fast, smiles too big, and chews up the scenes he appears in. And Davy is a pretty cute girl.
The Monkees also had some fine acting performances in episodes that were more message than madcap. Three episodes are standouts that truly showcasing their acting.
Season One: Episode 3. Aired September 26, 1966. The boys show Stan Freberg that human creativity beats modern machines when it comes to designing toys. The show includes romps, the boys dressing as women, and a feel good ending. It’s very sweet.
Season Two: Episode 15. Aired December 25, 1967. Butch Patrick plays a rich kid left alone at Christmas, so the boys show him what Christmas spirit is. They take him shopping, buy him a Christmas tree, and try to make him happy. But the boy is so angry that he won’t give in. Until he remembers all the fun he had. There’s a good romp in this one, with the gang playing with cool sixties toys. The episode ends with the Christmas video “Ryu Chiyu” a beautiful a capella vocal performance.
Season Two: Episode 20. Peter sells his soul to the devil for the ability to play the harp. Peter is an outstanding musician and really shines when he plays the harp. The devil is put on trial in an effort to get Peter released from his contract, with a jury of some of the worst criminals in history. But Mike, as he usually does, gives an eloquent speech and turns the tables on Satan. He proves to Peter that the ability to play was always there so the contract was invalid. At the time, they could not use the word “hell” and used “down below” instead..
In total 58 episodes were shown over two seasons, most of which are good for some belly laughs in addition to the music. You can catch the Monkees on FamNet and AntennaTV which are carried on most cable systems. Rhino released a box set of the entire series and numerous variations are available to own. The DVDs even have a feature to watch only the romps.
To many, the Monkees will always be Beatles “wanna be”s. But anyone who is a fan of slapstick, preposterous and over the top sketch comedy can appreciate the Monkees TV show for what it was – genuinely funny.