“They Just Won’t Stop with the Social Commentary”
“Monkee vs. Machine”, directed by Monkees creator Robert Rafelson, aired September 26, 1966 on NBC and was written by David Panich who wrote “Monstrous Monkees Mash” and “Monkees at the Circus.” This is one of my favorites because of its unusual storyline. It’s cited on the Chaos and Control: The Critique of Computation in American Commercial Media (1950-1980) website in the “Humanistic Critique” section along with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, Dr. Strangelove, and other movies and television shows from 1957-1977. The author of this essay, Steve Anderson, postulates that Hollywood stories at that time compared machines to humans frequently, addressing questions of how people compare to computers. The general conclusion of these shows and movies always seemed to be that people come out ahead in any comparison because humans have feelings and are capable of independent thought.
This story starts out when Mr. Babbitt demands his rent again. After checking the want ads, the others send Peter off to get a job at a toy company; a job he is perfect for because it requires no training or experience. Peter interviews with a computer, the DJ61, a machine which, by all rights, should not have a personality, but does (indeed a humorless, inflexible one). DJ61 can’t understand the emotional, nervous Peter at all and thinks Peter is a woman named as “Nit Wit.” Peter is upset and asks why he can’t talk to a live person but the unsympathetic (dare I say machine-like) secretary boots him out. His application is rejected. The Monkees vs. Machine score in my head is Monkees: 0, Machine: 1.
Before I go on with the story, I have to note that when I saw this recently on IFC, their version goes straight into the credits, and then starts with the first scene. My DVD version has the first two scenes with the Monkees in their house and then Peter going to the interview, right up to the point where the secretary shuts him in with the DJ61, and then the credits. I surmise they flipped things around for the syndicated version that IFC is using.
Now it’s Mike’s turn to take a crack at the job and the DJ61—armed with information from Peter. He enters the interview and takes over. I love it when he does that. The supposedly unemotional computer sure does get flustered when Mike (in true Captain Kirk fashion) turns the DJ61’s questions back on it, and starts punching its buttons. The true machine enters in the person of Daggart, the company executive. Stan Freberg played Daggart, and he was a damn funny man. I have a vague memory of listening to his “John and Marsha” routine, which Youtube helps me to revive. Freberg’s comic skills really drive this episode. Daggart tells us the computer declared Mike a genius. Mike Nesmith pulls off this adorably proud, yet embarrassed, expression. Mike’s genius destruction of the Machine makes the score Monkees: 1, Machine: 1.
Daggart is impressed by Mike’s ability to outwit one of his machines, so he takes him to the company owner, JB Guggins, played by Severn Darden, and declares that he’s hiring Mike on the spot. Guggins lets Daggart and his computers do all the thinking for him, and he agrees to whatever Daggart says. Note the picture of Guggins’ father and company founder behind the desk, which is clearly also Severn Darden with hilarious hair.
Daggart then takes Mike around to meet the rest of his staff, who turn out to be computers with human names. These are Daggart’s children, and when Mike starts poking at them, Daggart gives him a “Don’t do that.” The only human member of his staff is Harper, an old man who designs toys by hand. Pop Harper has made a flexible toy that can be bent into any shape, which he shows to Mike. Daggart scoffs at him, telling him he’s part of “yesterday” and tells Mike he’s only keeping Harper around because Guggins’ father promised him a job for life. Harper looks dejected at Daggart’s attitude towards him, and Mike is sympathetic. Daggart leaves with disembodied “boos” accompanying him off screen. The new score is Monkees: 1, Machine: 2.
Back at the Monkee’s pad, Mike is not as happy as he should be about his new job. Is Mike sad because he really thinks Harper made a wonderful toy, or because Harper is the underdog? We like the Monkees because they are underdogs themselves, and always defenders of the same. The others try to cheer Mike up with the romp of “Saturday’s Child” (David Gates), where they play with some kids on the beach. They get along great with the kids because they are big kids themselves. This gives Mike the idea to help Harper by sending the other Monkees into the factory as “children” for the play tests. (It amuses me that Mike and Micky call each other “babe” in this scene.)
In a bit that would not look out of place in a Kids In The Hall sketch, Daggart coordinates play testing sessions to show Guggins how well the computer-designed toys will sell to kids. Monkees in Mommy-and-child drag in various combinations attend the sessions and wreak Monkee-style havoc. The kids quickly get bored and toys get destroyed. Daggart responds with temper tantrums and many rounds of “Don’t do that.” Clearly he should be kept far, far away from children. In the DVD commentary for this episode, Peter Tork mentioned that Stan Freburg wasn’t scripted to tear the shelves down, he improvised that. In the office with Guggins, Daggart tries to pretend the machines knew this would happen, calling it planned obsolescence. Mike explains the play tests are going badly because “building in some happiness” should be part of making toys and machines aren’t capable of that. Daggart has lost control and it’s now Monkees: 2, Machine: 2.
Daggart finally gets wise and realizes Peter is not a little boy and Micky’s no lady. He rips the blonde wig off Micky’s head (the same wig that Davy was using when it was his turn to be a Mommy). Then again, Daggart’s not that wise, because he disrobes an actual Mom to prove she’s also a man, for some reason going for the skirt and not the hair. I speculate that this gag was borrowed in the Austin Powers International Man of Mystery movie with Mike Meyers beating up Basil Exposition’s mother and shouting “She’s a man, baby!” Daggart is furious and fires everyone. With that, my count is Monkees: 2, Machine: 3.
The Monkees and Harper go back to the Monkees pad and mope. They try to throw away Harper’s flexible toy but it keeps coming back in the window because it’s now shaped like a boomerang. The Monkees and Harper take this to Guggins and convince him a toy that always comes back will sell and make kids happy. Daggart is not convinced because to him nothing can be good if it wasn’t made by a machine. Guggins does his own thinking for once, not letting Daggart’s machines do it for him this time. It might have been a bigger victory if Daggart had seen the error of his ways, but that was never going to happen and wouldn’t have “rung true” if the writers had tried to pull that. Guggins promotes Harper and fires Daggart who storms off with a “bah, humbug.” For this the Monkees get another point, making it a tie, Monkees: 3 Machine: 3.
Tag sequence where Mike brings home the DJ69 computer to help them figure what kind of job they could get to help make a little extra money. A “Last Train to Clarksville” (Tommy Boyce/Bobby Hart) romp gives them career suggestions such as a construction worker, fireman, and farmer (the farm footage is from the “Never Look a Gift Horse” episode.) Mike gives several incredulous looks to the camera, not buying what the DJ69 is selling. As we know, the Village People would not emasculate the pop culture for another nine years.
Great episode. One I can watch again and again. The points about the differences between something built by data and analytics vs. something made from the heart are all made in a very funny and entertaining way, though I could live without Mike’s moralizing at the end of the episode. The final score is a tie, as Daggart pointed out: you can’t stop the rise of the machine. Remember 20 years ago, when we all weren’t walking around with cell phones? Machines are great if we’re not ruled by them. Daggart would prefer to leave the creative task of designing toys to computers, since they can’t really make mistakes, and they can’t complain. But Daggart himself is full of negative characteristics of human behavior: violence, close-mindedness, and arrogance. Maybe this is why he sees the machines as superior.
by Bronwyn Knox
Every couple of weeks, “Monkees vs. Macheen” examines the crazy, spirited, Ben Franks-type world of the Pre-Fab Four: David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork alias The Monkees.