Monkees Vs. Macheen: “Monkees at the Circus”

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“It’s Great, It’s Terrific, It’s the Best Show on Earth”

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“Monkees at the Circus” is one I do remember watching in syndication in the late ’70s. It features a circus (obviously) , so of course it would make an impression on my five-year-old mind. David Panich, writer of “Monkees vs. Machine,”  also wrote this one. In addition to The Monkees, he also wrote for The Dean Martin Show, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, and The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show to name a few. He died in 1983 at age 59. “Monkees at the Circus” was directed by Bruce Kessler and first aired February 13, 1967. The show starts out with the Monkee-mobile, circus music, and circus stock footage. Our boys walk through a circus tent set, hoping to catch a show but it’s closed.

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They go into the main tent and start playing with paraphernalia in there. The extremely unpleasant (but not evil) Victor starts throwing knives at them. He tells them to leave or he’ll call the police. Micky recycles his “You do and I’ll be sorry” line from “One Man Shy.”

Outside, between the tents, Victor holds a meeting with all the circus players, listing their woes. No one has been coming to the shows, they’re using old equipment, and they haven’t been paid. [This seems like a management/labor dispute – Editor] One of the performers blames the discotheques and rock and roll groups for taking away their audience. Hoo boy. Victor thinks they should quit. Pop, the circus owner, weakly tries to convince them to stay as his pretty young daughter Susan wanders sadly away.  Of course, Davy notices her and shuffles over. She’s worried that her father will lose the circus. Davy promises that everything will be okay or she can “feed him to the lions.” He has no way of being able to keep that promise. Norma Rae … I mean Victor continues to be a rabble-rouser. Davy jumps on stage to convince them to have hope, since there are always ups and downs: The circus is a tradition, the kids will come, etc. The performers like what he has to say.

Back in the tent, the Monkees hang around a costume rack. There’s a repeated reference in this episode whenever Micky sings the theme to Circus Boy, the show he starred in as a child actor. Here’s a bit of him singing it on that show, adorably energetic even then. Susan thanks them for offering to help, and then asks what they do for a living. Why, they’re Brain surgeons! Mike explains, “Except in the summer time, I’m a cotton picker. Sort of a carry-over of skills.” He gives the farm report into Micky’s stethoscope. They forgot to mention that they’re also compulsive liars. 

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Peter picks up the megaphone and transitions us into a scene where The Monkees imagine that they’re circus performers [“folie à quatre”, in other words – Editor]. In their fantasy, Peter is the Ringmaster, Micky’s an abusive lion tamer and Mike is a deadpan lion. Mike swipes the whip and makes Micky do the trick. I love Mike wearing his wool hat with his lion costume. Davy is a trapeze artist, suspending himself by his mouth at an amazing height of… two feet.

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They transition out and overhear Victor presenting Pop and Susan with a petition from the other performers to receive their back pay or else they’ll quit. The Monkees materialize in costumes and  mustaches, pretending to be a trapeze act known as The Flying Mozzarella Brothers “here to save the circus from distress.” The costumes are red leotards with gold tunics, and look like what the Four Martians used in “The Audition.” All of them do “over-zee-top” French accents, except Mike who remains Texan (with an occasional “zee” thrown in.) I enjoy this scene so much. They’re all charming and funny as they sell this scam to Victor. Micky whispers lines to Mike who introduces them as “Amazing, Incredible, Colossal, and Stupendous.” They claim they can cross the high-wire at 500 feet as a human pyramid. Victor is impressed and rushes off to tell the others the good news.

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After Victor and Pop leave, The Monkees dematerialize out of their disguises. Susan is pissed off and points out the obvious: The circus will be in bigger trouble when crowds come to see the non-existent Mozzarella brothers. That’s more lies for The Monkees. The Monkees hang around the real circus performers; a clown, strong man, sword swallower, and a juggler who each express their hope and excitement that the Mozzarella brothers are coming. It dawns on the Monkees what they’ve done. Yeah, they’re not at all in the right here. They’ve certainly screwed over Pop and the entire circus with their shenanigans this time. It’s always enjoyable to see them con bad guys, whether they succeed or fail, but Victor isn’t bad so the structure is re-set here, making an interesting difference in this episode where the Monkees are unintentional jerks.

The Monkees try to save the day by practicing on the tight rope while Susan nervously looks on. (Donna Baccala, who plays Susan, is really beautiful.) The best part of this is Peter and Mike on the high wire with balancing poles, walking through each other and looking at back in surprise. Micky is off screen shouting, “go back, go back.” Susan is not impressed and asks what they’re going to do. Micky says, “Well for our first act, we could get out of town. (nervous laugh.) A joke. Get it? Little joke, about that big.” Also a recycled joke, this time from “Dance, Monkee Dance.” Susan says they should tell the truth. Davy starts by confessing to her that they are rock-n-roll singers.

Victor overhears this part. He calls the other performers over and tells them about the Monkees lies. He’s presumptuously states that they’ve never even been on a Trapeze. He outs them as rock-n-rollers (the horror!) and says he’s leaving. The Monkees decide to go before they ARE fed to the lions. The performers glare at them and then pack and prepare to leave. Davy looks back in guilt as Susan cries.

Davy gets the others to stop and at least try to cheer Susan up. They dress as clowns and do a little act that’s also a romp to “Sometime in the Morning” (Gerry Goffin, Carole King). They should have done this to begin with. Playing music and being funny, THAT’s how they can help. The performance footage from this romp is used in “Monkee Mother” as well. They look very handsome in that footage. The circus players stop their packing, look on, and enjoy the show. They tell the Monkees they look like “real show folks” and want to perform with the Monkees after all. That was a really nice moment. Something about the circus performers not being terribly “actor-like” and The Monkees getting honest appreciation, worked for me.

Real-Show-Folks

More stock-footage of a circus, leading into Pop as the Ringmaster announcing Victor featuring Susan as his living target. Victor doesn’t come out, which shouldn’t be a surprise since he made his feelings clear. Davy decides to draw Victor out by impersonating him, taking a shot at Victor’s ego.  Peter puts an apple on her head and Davy throws the knife before he finishes, “Don’t worry folks, I’ve got plenty more knives.” Victor comes out and takes the knives. He should kick Davy’s ass for risking Susan’s life, but he doesn’t. Instead, he performs his act to the sound of the crowd’s cheers.

Pop talks to Davy about how well it’s going and declares that the problem was that people just hadn’t seen a circus in so long. I’m not sure this makes sense; they’ve gotten an audience under false pretenses, and the audience doesn’t mind? I suppose the idea is, if they just get butts in the seats, the people will be so charmed they’ll fall in love with the circus again, but it’s not all that clearly conveyed by the writing. Anyway, Pop tells The Monkees they’re going on next. After a little panic, they realize that they’re going on just to play music. The “playing” is recycled footage of “She” (Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart) that was used in “Monkees a la Carte,” with the band in gray suits in front of a blue background. Cut in with shots of the circus cast dancing. Susan and Pop really get down.  It’s not the worst idea in the world, combining a circus with Rock-n-Roll. [“You wanted the best and you got the best!” – Editor] They did it with The Jim Rose Circus and Lollapalooza, though I suppose that was more of a sideshow to the music.

Tag sequence where Susan is making out with Davy to “thank” him. The small clown comes up to hand Davy a giant key to remember them by. The strong man gives Peter the giant bar bell since he was able to toss it around earlier, but now he can’t hold it up at all. The sword swallower gives Mike his sword to practice with, then he totally freaks Mike out by getting it stuck in his own throat. The juggler gives Micky her unicycle, pins, and a bucket so he can have his own act should the discotheques close down. Micky pedals himself into the ladder, right next to where David and Susan continue to make out.

Circus-Performers

There are a lot of nice ideas in this episode. It’s an “old meets new and both learn from each other” type of story. The Monkees are actually the “evil” since they represent a phenomenon that’s taking away from the tradition of the circus, at least according to the episode.  If circuses were waning in popularity in the 1960s, they started to come back again in the 1970s (and as Davy says there are always ups and downs). The Monkees were able to help in the end, and the circus performers no longer hated and feared musicians. It’s a very sweet episode, although not as funny and missing the subversive humor that I love from The Monkees. And really, two of the funniest lines were recycled from other episodes. I would put this one in the sentimental and traditional sitcom category, like “Monkee Mother” and “Success Story.”

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Dedicated to the memory of the funny and talented Gene Wilder (1933-2016)

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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.

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Monkees vs. Macheen: “Monkee vs. Machine” (What?)

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“They Just Won’t Stop with the Social Commentary”

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“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.

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This story starts out when Mr. Babbit demands his rent again, and Peter is sent 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 plays 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 declares 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.

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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 video 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.

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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 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 is not made by a machine. Guggins does his own thinking, not letting Daggart’s machines do it for him for the first 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.

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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) video 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 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 a 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. Hmm.

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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.