My 5 Favorite…Things About Get Smart (in one episode)

This entry is part of the Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon, hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to check out this blogathon’s complete schedule.

When I was a kid, Get Smart was one show I just didn’t get. With no experience of spy or action genres, I didn’t understand what was being spoofed. In the few minutes I caught here and there, before switching to another channel, I felt mystified and vaguely annoyed.

My attitude changed completely in 1991, when Nick at Night presented a week-long marathon called Maximum Smart. Watching each night, I found the show great fun and surprisingly subversive.

There are many things to love about Get Smart–Don Adams’ approach to comedy, the wacky gadgetry, even the gorgeous cars Max drives in the opening credits. For this post, I focused on five things that I especially enjoy, as seen in Season 2’s “Island of the Darned,” which originally aired November 26, 1966. I picked this episode because it includes my favorite quote from the series (see Number 5); as a good-but-not-great episode, it also provides a good example of some elements that kept Get Smart engaging week in and week out.

1. Action tropes, spoofed

The more you’ve seen of James Bond and other 1960s spy thrillers, the more you can enjoy Get Smart‘s parody of the genre. The show’s spoofs actually go beyond the spy genre to incorporate just about every variety of action cliche that turns up in mid-century entertainment. “Island of the Darned” is based on what TV Tropes calls “Hunting the Most Dangerous Game,” a scenario in which “the villains are hunters and the hero is the prey – the game – in a formalized hunting motif.” The trope is based on the 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell, which has been adapted for film several times. It’s also inspired episodes on TV shows that cross a range of genres, including Star Trek, Bonanza, The Avengers, and (in a tamer form) The Partridge Family.

Hans Hunter is played by Harold Gould, who is probably best known for playing Rhoda Morgenstern's father on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda. His Get Smart role shows a much more youthful and vigorous side of him.

Hans Hunter is played by Harold Gould, who is probably best known for playing Rhoda Morgenstern’s father on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda. His Get Smart role shows a much more youthful and vigorous side of him.

In “Island of the Darned,” KAOS operative Hans Hunter kills a CONTROL agent and has him stuffed and sent to the Chief’s office. Hunter’s goal is to lure Maxwell Smart to his island headquarters; when Max and 99 do show up there, he captures them and then offers a chance at freedom if they can elude his chase across the island until sundown.

2. Amusing Dialogue and Memorable Catchphrases

Get Smart abounds with fun exchanges. Here’s a good example from “Island of the Darned,” as the Chief fills in Hunter’s villainous backstory:

Chief: He was, at various times, a Nazi, a communist, a member of the mafia, and is right now one of the top executives of KAOS.

Max: If there’s anything I hate, it’s a joiner.

Max is also fond of what TV Tropes calls “reverse inflationary dialogue,” in which he begins with a strong statement followed up by increasingly less impressive ones. In this episode, one occurs when Max asks the Chief to send him after Hunter:

Max: Chief, you have to let me go after Hunter. I want to get that madman no matter how dangerous it is. I don’t care if he is one of the world’s greatest killers. I don’t care if he is a master of fiendish torture and death. I want him, Chief. You’ve got to let me have that assignment.

Chief: You’ve got it, Max.

Max: Of course, if you’d rather send someone else…

Chief: It’s all yours.

Max: I mean, I don’t want to force you into anything, Chief.

 Max’s famous “Would you believe?” routine is his ultimate example of reverse inflationary dialogue and represents one of the many catchphrases the show popularized. In this episode it comes just after Hunter captures Max and 99, as Max tries to convince the villain that backup is on the way. Hunter’s only response throughout is increasingly maniacal laughter.

Max: In a very short while, General Crawford and a hundred of his crack paratroopers will come crashing into this landing.

Would you believe J. Edgar Hoover and 10 of his G-men?

How about Tarzan and a couple of his apes?

Bomba the jungle boy?

Some of this episode’s jokes are obvious but still somehow amusing. When Hunter challenges Max to a game of Russian roulette, Max asks if they couldn’t switch to checkers.

This week's secret weapon from the CONTROL crime lab is a set of "bazooka butts," grenades disguised as cigarettes. When Max is told that if he fails to release the cigarette in time, it will blow a hole in the back of his head the size of a basketball, he inevitably replies, "Well, that's one way to quit smoking."

This week’s secret weapon from the CONTROL crime lab is a set of “bazooka butts,” grenades disguised as cigarettes. Max is told that if he fails to release the cigarette in time, it will blow a hole in the back of his head the size of a basketball; he inevitably replies, “Well, that’s one way to quit smoking.”

More unexpected is this exchange–it’s not exactly PC by modern standards, but I’m surprised it made it to the air at all in 1966:

Hunter: As you can see, Mr. Smart, my trophy collection includes one of almost every kind of animal…except one. You—a homo sapien.

Max (indignant): Now just a minute, Hunter. I’m as normal as you are.

3. Bureaucratic Inanities

Perhaps because my career history includes time in a government setting, I find myself tickled by the mundane bureaucratic details that bog down the battle between CONTROL and KAOS.

In this episode, the courier delivering the package that contains Agent 27's stuffed body insists on getting a real signature on his form--"The Chief" won't do.

In this episode, the courier delivering the package that contains Agent 27’s stuffed body insists on getting a real signature on his form–“The Chief” won’t do.

I especially enjoy the courier’s parting remarks:

Delivery Man: I’ve delivered a lot of packages in my time, some here to CONTROL and some over to KAOS headquarters, and I’ll tell you this: Crime may not pay, but it sure tips a lot better.

4. Agent 99

Barbara Feldon’s Agent 99 is an admirable example of a smart, hard-working, courageous woman by the standards of the time. American TV was apparently not ready for a true female badass like The Avengers‘ Emma Peel, so 99 spends a lot of time showing off her feminine side. In this episode, she screams when Agent 27’s body is revealed, and during the long outdoor chase scenes, she occasionally whines about her ability to go on (although she does keep going).

As usual, she also spends a lot of time juggling the need to keep Max on track with her wish to protect his ego.

As usual, she also spends a lot of time juggling the need to keep Max on track with her wish to protect his ego.

Still, it’s always clear that 99 is more intelligent and competent than her partner (admittedly, not a high bar). At this episode’s climax, she has to prod him several times before he remembers the existence of the Bazooka butts, the weapon that saves their lives.

We don't get to see much of 99's fun 1960s fashions in this episode, which she spends mostly in a safari suit as she runs through woods and slides down hills. (Actually, that doesn't look much at all like Barbara Feldon sliding down that hill, does it?)

We don’t get to see much of 99’s fun 1960s fashions in this episode, which she spends mostly in a safari suit as she runs through woods and slides down hills. (Actually, that doesn’t look much like Barbara Feldon sliding down that hill, does it?)

5. A Strain of Subversion

My favorite thing about Get Smart is the mildly subversive nature of a show produced at the height of the cold war that made the cold war look ridiculous. Most likely, show co-creators Mel Brooks and Buck Henry set the tone. Brooks explained in 1965, “It’s a show in which you can comment, too. I don’t mean we’re in the broken-wing business. We’re not social workers, but we can do some comment such as you can’t inject in, say, My Three Sons.”

This episode’s script (which Henry had a hand in writing) ends with my favorite exchange from the series. It takes place just after gets blown up.

99: Oh, Max, how terrible.

Max: He deserved it, 99. He was a KAOS killer.

99: Sometimes I wonder if we’re any better, Max.

Max: What are you talking about, 99? We have to shoot and kill and destroy. We represent everything that’s wholesome and good in the world.

We, and the agents, are left with a moment of moral confusion.

We, and the agents, are left to sort out the implications.

This is a pretty bold line for mainstream TV at a time when the Vietnam War was still escalating. (I must not have been the only one who liked the line because it showed up again, in a slightly different form, in the 1989 reunion movie Get Smart, Again!)

I hope this brief celebration of Get Smart whets your appetite to watch the show on MeTV this summer. And I hope you let me know your favorite things about the series!

Some of my other posts related to shows on MeTV’s summer schedule:

Gilligan’s Island Game

H.R. Pufnstuf Game

H.R. Pufnstuf and the Best School Library Book Ever

Batman Game

Gomer Pyle Game

Alice: An Appreciation (The Brady Bunch)

Everything is Gray: Five Moral Lessons from Naked City

The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Family Affair Connections, Part 1

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Alice: An Appreciation

“They gave me funny things to do, and I did them funny. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”—Ann B. Davis
(May 3, 1926-June 1, 2014)

Ann_B._Davis_1973

This review is part of the Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to check out this blogathon's complete schedule.

This review is part of the Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to check out this blogathon’s complete schedule.

As a mental exercise, try to imagine someone other than Robert Reed and Florence Henderson playing The Brady Bunch’s parents. As important as those actors were to the show’s success, many others could have probably managed a respectable “wise father” or “concerned mother” role.

Now, picture other children replacing the familiar Brady kids. As appealing as the entire juvenile cast was, 1970s casting agents could surely have supplied other hunky teen boys and All-American girls with “hair of gold” to play what were basically average kids.

It is much harder to envision anyone other than Ann B. Davis wearing Alice Nelson’s blue uniform. She was as central to The Brady Bunch as she was on the show’s opening-titles grid.

Ann B. Davis was irreplaceable.

That’s what made her passing such sad news, even though she had lived a full and seemingly happy, spiritually fulfilled 88 years.

Overnight Success

Few actors have kept their private lives as private as Davis did. All her obituaries outline the same basic facts: She was born in Schenectady, New York, and raised in Erie, Pa. As a child, she caught the performing bug while putting on shows with her twin sister Harriet. Her mother was an amateur actor, and her older brother was a professional dancer who would appear on Broadway. Ann enrolled at the University of Michigan with plans to be a doctor, but soon switched her focus to acting. After graduating and heading to California in 1948, she did theater and nightclub work until getting her big break.

That was her supporting role as Schultzy on The Bob Cummings Show (Love That Bob), for which she would win two Emmys. The show ran from 1955 to 1959 and was a major ratings success, and Davis’ role as Cummings’ lovelorn, plain-Jane assistant brought her fame.

“I was an overnight success at 28,” she said in a 1989 interview. “I began to understand the power of TV. Within five weeks–and I was playing a small part, a supporting part–after the series went on the air I was recognized on the street wherever I went. Very scary!”

The show was never widely syndicated, so it is unfamiliar to most people my age and younger.

As you can see from this clip, Schultzy shares certain qualities with Alice Nelson and other classic TV “old maids,” such as Sally Rogers and Jane Hathaway—a lack of feminine graces combined with desperate, unfulfilled man-hungriness.

All About Alice

As Alice, Davis delivered many self-deprecating punchlines. As a kid, I saw Alice as she presented herself to the audience—plain, overweight, old. Having reached Alice’s age myself, I see things differently, of course, and wonder how Davis felt about her portrayal.

She claimed to take it in stride.

“I know at least a couple hundred glamour gals who are starving in this town. I’d rather be myself and eating,” she said.

Her Brady Bunch role combined a poor self-image and an unflattering costume with corny jokes and broad physical humor. If everyone was doing the hula, Alice would be throwing her back out. If a bucket of paint appeared, Alice would be stepping in it. If someone built a dunk tank in the back yard, Alice was getting wet.

It all added up to a role many actors would have hated. Indeed, Davis’ co-star Robert Reed, went nearly mad with disgust over the show’s scripts. He would fire off multi-page memos to producers about the show’s implausibilities, many of which involved Alice. “Even a laugh machine would balk,” he wrote about typical tag scene.

Davis was different. Like Alice delighting in the dunk tank, she threw herself into her role and made the best of it.

In Growing Up Brady, Barry Williams quotes Producer Lloyd Schwartz on the difference between Davis and Reed: “She’d say, ‘A lot of people worked very hard on this, and maybe it isn’t great, but if that’s the case, they really need me to make it work.’ Opposite attitudes.”

In fact, Davis saw Alice’s wacky predicaments as opportunities for her to shine comedically.

And while she didn’t take herself too seriously, she cared enough about her role to create a mental backstory for her character that explains Alice’s single-minded devotion to the Brady family.

In the post-Brady years, the show wasn’t a millstone around Davis’ neck as it was for so many of her co-stars. Shortly after it ended, she became a born-again Christian and curtailed her show business career.

“It’s amazing, but at the age of 47 my life suddenly got to the good part,” she told Australia’s Courier-Mail in 1989. “I thought I had had the good part, but it’s as if the Lord had said, ‘Let’s give this kid everything the world has to offer, then make her a better offer and see what happens.’ Am I happy? Oh, boy!”

She spent many years living in an Episcopalian religious community, first in Denver and then in Ambridge. Pa. She worked with a mission helping homeless people and traveled the country talking to church groups. Eventually, she settled in San Antonio, Texas, with retired Episcopal bishop William Frey and his family.

A born trouper, she never completely gave up acting; she did a great deal of regional theater and showed up for almost every Brady reunion. (One critic, panning A Very Brady Christmas, called Alice “the only real-looking character in the whole fairy story.”)

She also compiled a Brady Bunch cookbook in 1994, while admitting that cooking and child care were not really part of her skill set.

She looked back on her Brady experience with fondness.

“Wouldn’t we all love to have belonged to a perfect family, with brothers and sisters to lean on and where every problem is solved in 23 minutes?” she said.

(And it’s not as though she were incapable of looking back on past work with a critical eye. Speaking of the Cummings show, she once told The Times of London: “Comedy like that gets dated pretty fast, especially since it’s anti-feminist.”)

Lovable

In the early 1990s, when Brady nostalgia was at its height, many experts advanced theories about the show’s appeal to Generation X. My college sociology textbook even explored the subject.

To me, the answer has always been simple: Creator Sherwood Schwartz created a world as a child would wish it to be—a world of good-natured siblings, goofy fun, and people who rally around to solve your every problem.

Blogger Hank Stuever summed it up beautifully in The Washington Post this week, but I disagree with his assertion about Alice’s role in this child-centered utopia: “The entire premise of the show seemed to acknowledge, at least in subtext, that Alice was filling the need that Carol Brady could not fill. It’s the great unspoken truth of The Brady Bunch, particularly in retrospect: Ann B. Davis was the better mother.”

From my perspective, Mike and Carol were definitely the parents, but Alice was something even better: A cross between an adult and a friend. She would join in your sack race, bake your cookies, dress up as a pilgrim for your home movie, and clean your room—and she would do it all with a smile.

Everyone has parents, but a child can only dream of having an Alice.

And no one but Ann B. Davis could have brought this dream to life in such an endearing way.

“I think I’m lovable,” she once said. “That’s the gift God gave me.”

Lovable. And irreplaceable.

Some Alice Favorites

I must admit that the Alice-centric episodes of The Brady Bunch don’t rank among my favorites. Playing tough “Sergeant Emma” was probably fun for Davis, but none of the Brady double-role episodes work for me. And “Alice’s September Song,” about Alice’s shady old flame Mark Millard, bored me as a child and saddens me now.

I much prefer Alice as a cheerful supporting presence in a typical episode. Here are two quintessential Alice moments, when she gets involved with the kids and pays the price with her dignity.

Alice could be supportive as well as silly. My favorite Alice moment, by far, is her scene with Jan in “Lost Locket, Found Locket.”

I do like getting to see a different side of Alice now and then, such as when she turns on the charm for a surprisingly lascivious Jackie Coogan.

Other Ann B. Davis Sightings

In the late 1970s, Davis did some commercials that played on her Brady image (although, in the second example, they use the name of her Bob Cummings Show character).

Davis had a few small film roles in the 1960s. You can catch a glimpse of her here in the Rock Hudson-Doris Day film Lover Come Back.

Did any single 1960s TV stars NOT appear on The Dating Game? This is cringe-worthy viewing, but Davis is a good sport.

You can see more of Ann B. Davis in action during MeTV’s 3-hour tribute marathon this Sunday, June 8, at 12 p.m. EDT.