Monkees vs Macheen: “The Monkees on the Wheel”

“Dolenz’s Four”

“The Monkees on the Wheel” debuted December 11, 1967 and was directed by Jerry Shepard. Shepard was mainly an editor on The Monkees, but he directed “The Monkees Get Out More Dirt.” Episode writer was Coslough Johnson, who wrote “Monkees on the Line” and many more. The episode starts off with a stock footage shot of the Las Vegas strip, and the narrator sets it up [“Submitted for your approval…” – Editor’s Note], “Las Vegas, pleasure capital of the world, where each man seeks the things he loves most.” He repeats the phrase “the things he loves most” a few times, and we see a foreground of a casino. In the background, lecherous Monkees literally chase girls. Mike rubs his hands together as he tries to catch one, and Davy zeros in on a girl’s derriere. It’s pretty darn funny to see, and it sets up a tone that’s bawdier than most episodes. I’m thinking they were going for a Rat Pack, Ocean’s Eleven (1960) vibe on this one, doll-face!

The narrator tells us that some are here to “pursue their greed” and we meet the villains of the week, two gangsters planning a caper. Crooks and gangsters, etc. were the most commonly used opponents of the Monkees. This mini-gang has fixed the roulette wheel to land on 16 red. The Boss (David Astor) gives Biggy (Pepper Davis) instructions on how to win all the money from the casino. He can’t do it himself because he’ll be recognized.

In the main casino, Micky tries to pick up a pretty blonde called Zelda by giving her money for the slot machine. Once again, Micky has poor taste in women: he goes on and on about their endless love while she just wants to win money. When he’s out of coins, she tells him to, “buzz off, Charlie!” and walks away. Micky loses his temper and pulls the handle on the slot machine, winning the jackpot. She runs back to kiss his hand and tell him he has “magic fingers,” interested in him again now that he’s won money. Micky tells the camera, “I thought she only loved me for my money.” This episode is especially cynical. Many of them are and I’ve applauded them for it. In this episode the Monkees are fully participating, instead of being victims of a cynical story line.

Zelda is played by Joy Harmon who we previously saw in “The Picture Frame” as the squeaky-voiced bank teller. If you’ve never seen the film Cool Hand Luke, Harmon has a memorable scene where she washes a car in front of the prisoners. Given the overall girl-ogling tone of this episode, it seems perfectly appropriate to mention it in this recap.

Mike chastises Micky for gambling, “you told me you wouldn’t gamble anymore” while Zelda and Micky pick up the coins. Mike reminds Micky that they need to go play a gig. It’s always nice when they manage to add a line that mentions that the characters are supposed to be musicians. Season two so far hasn’t shown them playing very often as part of the story. Micky absent-mindedly sets his winnings down for a moment on the roulette table, accidentally betting on 16 red.

Biggy missed his chance to place a bet somehow. He gasps when the Manager (I’d call him the dealer but IMDb says “Manager”), Rip Taylor, announces 16 red and Micky wins tons of money. Davy walks up to mention they’re supposed to be rehearsing. Biggy, who looks like a shorter Vic Tayback, tells Micky not to bet and crushes his hand. The three Monkees decide to leave, but Peter comes up and says you should never leave while you’re ahead. That seems like terrible advice but what do I know? I don’t gamble. Biggy tries to place his bet but Peter blocks him, putting Micky’s bet down again. When Micky wins again, the Manager freaks out because he broke the bank.

Back in their room, the gangsters talk about how to get the money back. The Boss tells Biggy to get Della the Decoy. Meanwhile, the Monkees carry Micky’s winnings back to their room on a stretcher. They consider what to spend it on; Mike says they should invest the money in something “worthwhile.” [Nesmith was quite the businessman. – Editor’s Note] There’s a quick montage of Micky, Mike, and Davy picturing hot girls while Peter imagines hugging a stuffed tiger. That was hilarious, and Peter was the only one who got close to his object of desire. Also, could be an allusion to the song, “Cuddly Toy” that’s used later in the episode and the notion of girls as “cuddly toys.”

There’s a knock at the door and Peter lets in Biggy, who’s got a vacuum and poses as the “maintenance man.” Since Davy and Biggy are about the same size, Davy doubts his claim, “Maintenance men don’t come that short.” Peter disagrees that Biggy’s short, “stand up and show him how tall you are.” Of course Biggy comes back with, “I am standing up.”

Next, Della the Decoy walks in the room, dressed in a sexy maid’s costume and the Monkees all go nuts for her. Peter: “Are you the maintenance man too?” Della: “Sure. Don’t you like the way I’m maintained.” The Monkees stumble over each other to try and pick her up. Behind them, Biggy’s making off with the money. Della’s not really a decoy, she’s more like Della the Distraction. Also, we’ve seen the Monkees interested in girls before but it’s usually romantic. We’ve never seen them this out-and-out horny. (Maybe Micky from time to time.) The Monkees make an over-the-top spectacle of being all over Della, instead of acting in character.

Back in the casino, the Manager chews the scenery, going on and on about his aggravation. In every scene that the Manager is in, Rip Taylor hams it up. In contrast, fantastic straight man Dort Clark enters the scene, playing yet another cop (we previously saw him playing cops in “Monkees a la Cart” and “The Picture Frame”). The Manager tells him his story.

The Monkees are still ad-libbing with Della until Davy halts the chaos to let her say her line, but she doesn’t have one. Biggy takes off with the money, and the Monkees realize they’ve been had. They start shouting for the police, who turn up immediately along with the Manager. (Mike sarcastically quips, “What took you so long.) The Policeman tricks Micky into signing a confession and arrests all four Monkees. The Monkees protest that they’re arresting the victim, not the criminal. As they’re led away, there are some unusual close-ups as the Monkees complain about police brutality, etc.

At the police station, the confession is shot with crooked Batman-type angles. The Monkees protest the illegality of this arrest and insist their money was stolen. The Policeman tells them to think of a better story than that, so Mike tells “Jack and the Beanstalk.” This scene (and the entire episode) is reminiscent of the confession scene from “The Picture Frame,” but not as funny. It becomes obvious the Monkees didn’t know the roulette wheel was rigged, so the Manager makes an offer: if they can get the money back in 24 hours he won’t press charges. Our boys are now thoroughly enmeshed in yet another criminal caper.

Back in their room, Mike suggests if they can’t find the crooks, they should get the crooks to find them. Peter suggests, “Why don’t we open a prison?” The other Monkees immediately jump on him for the “stupidity” of that suggestion. But not really; they’re clearly being ‘meta’ and reacting to the stale jokiness of the written dialog. As in the scene with Della, they’re way outside the actual episode and commenting on the story and the writing, not really acting in character to mock Peter. Mike “comes up” with an idea, which we hear as mumble, mumble, rhubarb, rhubarb.

The Monkees enter the casino dressed as gangsters in suits and sunglasses, except Peter who looks more like an accountant. Zelda recognizes Micky but he brushes her off. They step up to the Roulette wheel. Biggy approaches Peter; Micky recognizes him as the hand crusher (but doesn’t recognize him as the Maintenance Man.) Micky disguises his voice; I don’t know what he was going for, but he sounds like Wolfman Jack. He tells Biggy not to bother the Professor (referring to Peter.) Micky identifies himself as the Insidious Strangler and explains his gang is in town for, “Robbery, extortion, and murder.” Mike cuts in “sort of your regular tourist activities.” Except he clearly did NOT say that. It doesn’t match his lips at all and the above line was obviously dubbed in later in Micky’s voice. I can’t read his lips and would love to know what the heck he really said, and why it had to be dubbed over.

Micky identifies Mike as Vicious Killer and says he did two years of solitary confinement, standing on his head. The editors flip a shot of Mike upside down. “The Professor” tells Biggy they’re here to “take over this town and win all the money.” He starts to tell Biggy about his mathematical system, which is almost perfected. Biggy gives him the missing piece: 7+5 equals 12 (not 11). Peter gets excited, “My system is perfect!” Upside down shot of Mike repeating the line “isn’t that dumb.” All of the action above was intercut with shots of Rip Taylor, carrying on behind the roulette table. The Monkee gangsters go see the Boss in his room. Micky has a Three Stooges/James Cagney impression contest with the Boss. I think it’s a draw.

Peter explains his sure-fire gambling “equalization” system by handing Biggy and the Boss each glasses of liquor. Then, Peter does something uncharacteristically savvy: He gets the crooks falling down drunk while he bluffs his way through his “system.” The other three Monkees sit and let the Peter steal the show, cutting in once to ask the audience “Isn’t that dumb?” The crooks pass out and Micky, Mike, and Davy give Peter well-deserved applause. The Monkees look for the money and immediately ruin Peter’s clever plan by setting off an alarm. The Boss drunkenly wakes and decides, “It’s a deal: your system, my money.”

Back in the casino, the fake and real gangsters enter. David Pearl approaches Mike, smacks him in the nose, Three Stooges-style, and says “take this wizard Glick.” Mike tells him he’s not Wizard Glick and Pearl apologizes. He should have smacked Rip Taylor, who was Wizard Glick in the final episode “The Frodis Caper.”

The Policeman approaches Micky and explains he can’t take the stolen money without proof. The “Professor” tells the gangsters to bet 24 red. The Boss is in the casino, even though at the beginning he said he would be recognized (as a crook I suppose). Zelda approaches Micky again and keeps bothering him until he gives her money to play with. Unfortunately 24 red wins, even though the Monkees aim to lose so the Manager can recover his money. Peter bets absurd numbers that don’t exist (87 plaid) and continues to win. Zelda identifies Micky as “Magic Fingers,” outing him to the Boss. The Boss orders Biggy to “get them.”

Romp to “The Door into Summer” (Chip Douglas, Bill Martin), from Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. The cast runs around the roulette table. Della the Dish distracts everyone. Davy plays a spinning wheel game and kisses girls. Joy Harmon steals the scenes and looks to be having fun. She pulls all the slot arms, until she gets to Micky. She pumps his arm like he’s a slot machine; Micky grows taller and gives us a lascivious smile. Everyone keeps sneezing over yellow roses that are in the casino. Mike eats the rose petals in a callback gag to “The Picture Frame. The story finishes with the gangster collapsing on the roulette table.

Peter, Mike, and Davy demonstrate the tag sequence, which Mike explains as, “some complete laugh riot at the end of a show.” They demonstrate a “here we go again” tag. Peter and Davy discuss how’ll they’ll never get involved in gambling again and then realize Micky’s missing. Mike cuts in to explain; now they’ll cut over to Micky playing with “the gambling machine.” Micky wins a bunch of slots and he gives his all his money to Della in his hat. He smiles at the camera with his tongue hanging lustfully out as they walk off screen together. While Micky does his thing, there’s these quick-cuts back to Mike, Peter and Davy and Mike saying “and now you cut back to us.” Mike: “And we’re supposed to give a pained look to the camera. Isn’t that funny kids.” Sarcastic laughter. Seems like a fitting way to wrap up this particular episode.

But wait, there’s more! Next is an alternate performance film of “Cuddly Toy” (Harry Nilsson) For this version the Monkees are on stage in vaudeville-inspired striped jackets and straw hats. Davy dances by himself, no Anita Mann this time, while the others play instruments. This is followed by the outtakes from the “Monstrous Monkee Mash” episode, which aired after this episode on January 22, 1968. There are several repeat takes of Mike and Micky in their Werewolf/Mummy costumes trying to get through their dialog. (You can hear James Frawley directing, “Go again.”) Mike can’t say the punch line because he’s laughing so much. On the last one, he finally finishes his sentence and Micky looks confused at the camera.

To me, this episode had a different tone than the others. Some of the jokes were dirtier than usual for a kids show. As a five year old, I wouldn’t have understood it. As a teenager, I loved it for being naughty. It’s also unusual for the amount of fourth-wall breaking. As in “Hillbilly Honeymoon” and “Wild Monkees” they draw a lot of attention to the fact that it is indeed a television show. They reached a point where instead of parodying everything else in Hollywood, they made fun of themselves. The Monkees seem to be rebelling against the format of their very own show when they break down the tag sequence and mock their usual treatment of Peter, etc. They don’t leave the audience out of this; we’re in on the joke. I like this, but I also like it when they’re truly engaged in the story-lines. Fortunately, there were a few more of those episodes left before the series ended.

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: “Monkees à la Carte”

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“If You Can’t Beat ’em, Confuse ’em.”

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I’m really relieved to be past the pilot. For some reason, I found that to be a daunting task. Now we’re on to more fun episodes, like this one where they run into the mafia. Honestly, I always forget about this episode. It blends together with some of the other gangster-related stories. They do run into gun-toting crooks quite a bit: “Monkees in a Ghost Town,” “Your Friendly Neighborhood Kidnappers,” “Alias, Micky Dolenz,” “Monkees on the Wheel,” and “The Picture Frame” all have those types of antagonists. The Monkees live in a violent world, and they (mostly) don’t have any guns.

“Monkees à La Carte” was written by Gerald Gardner & Dee Caruso and Bernie Orenstein, directed by James Frawley and aired for the first time on November 21, 1966. At the start of the story, the Monkees are in an Italian restaurant, sharing a large cliché submarine sandwich. A nice old guy, Pop, is encouraging them to eat. That’s sweet; he hired them to play and he’s also feeding them. The actor playing Pop has an accent that’s hard to understand. A couple of unpleasant-looking men in suits come in and threaten and intimidate Pop into selling the place. Peter helpfully asks, for the benefit of the audience, if they are “hoods.”

The hoods do some very familiar shtick. Fuselli, the leader, throws a coin up, and Rocco, the henchmen tosses him a new one when he drops it. This echoes the entrance of Micky and Peter in “Monkees in a Ghost Town,” when they were pretending to be Big Man and Spider, and Spider hands the Big Man a coin to toss up. I was aware this was a homage to classic Hollywood gangster films, but wasn’t sure of any specific one. The pop culture-savvy group members of the Monkee Magic group suggested George Raft as the coin-tossing Guino Rinaldo in Scarface (1932).

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The new owners fire the Monkees, and Davy confronts the larger one, Rocco, telling him to pick on someone his own size. Rocco’s about a foot taller than Davy, and he points out there is no one his size. I’m already impressed with Davy for standing up to this giant, and then he gets even braver: When Rocco pulls a gun, Davy brushes it aside and tells him, “You’re pretty tough with a gun in your hand.” Rocco punches him and knocks Davy and all the other Monkees back.

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Since Pop is an underdog and a rare older adult that is kind to them, the Monkees have to help him out. Back at the pad, they have a meeting to discuss that. Mike has his gavel and wants suggestions from the “floor” about dealing with Fuselli, leading to a gag where Peter listens to the floor, the wall, and the ceiling. Davy, I guess dizzy from being hit (see the cute band-aid?), has lost his earlier bravery and thinks the gangsters are too tough. Mike’s already decided that they’re going to help Pop and ignores Davy’s protests that there wasn’t a vote. I love that they end the meeting by throwing papers all over the place, and I wish we could end meetings like this at work.

The Monkees go back to Pop’s former restaurant and ask Rocco for their jobs back. Rocco hires them to wait tables since they “work cheap.” The other Monkees stick this job on Peter. This sets up the main theme in this episode: sticking Peter with everything. Peter auditions, successfully carrying large stacks of plates across the restaurant. In the kitchen, Peter lets go of the tray, which hovers (if you look close, you can see wires) for a few seconds, and then falls.

The Monkees are all in waiter’s uniforms, lined up for inspection. Fuselli shows them how they deal with people they don’t like by cuing Rocco to slap Peter. Micky gets in Fuselli’s face to show him how the Monkees treat people they don’t like, After an intimidating glare from Fuselli, Micky also slaps Peter. Peter wants to know what he did to deserve that.

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That was such a cartoon violence moment. It’s more fun to see an aggressive, obnoxious character get knocked around, rather than a laid back, passive personality like Peter.

Fuselli lists their jobs: Chefs, dishwashers, musicians, hat check girl, cooks, cigarette girls. Well, we know they can dress as girls so, okay Fuselli. Now it’s time for a kitchen romp to “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” (Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart). This is another good plot-relevant romp. They run around the kitchen mostly; cooking, juggling plates, playing sides of meat like guitars, and dropping stuff. Don’t miss Peter sneezing on the salt shakers. Maybe he was hoping to make Fuselli and Rocco very sick? Mike gets tangled in spaghetti, and this was the same shot used in Success Story (shot later but aired earlier). The best part of this is Peter’s struggles with the pizza dough. He tosses it up and it doesn’t come down, so he gets a gun and tries to shoot it down.

Since their antics aren’t working, they go to the police station where they meet with the Inspector who is very intense, and possibly insane. The actor is hilarious, flipping emotional temperature in a split-second. He tells them they are dealing with part of the Syndicate, and “The Only members of the syndicate we’ve captured belonged to the Purple Flower Gang. But, we got all four of them!” Mike asks, “How’d you do that?”

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The Inspector tells them they must connect Fuselli to the violent Syndicate. Micky says they’re violent too, and attempts to demonstrate on Peter again, but Peter evades him and they all run out. I’m glad Peter got away from him that time. Peter is my hero in this episode, he takes all the abuse and does all the work. It occurs to me that in most of the other episodes I’ve looked at for these posts so far, Peter hasn’t been given much to do. The character in previous episodes is good for a few sight gags, or to say humorously clueless lines but generally Mike or Micky do most of the useful things. This is an ensemble episode with all the Monkees working together to defeat a common enemy, but Peter is the standout, stand-up guy. And he’s STILL performing the best sight gags and lines.

The Monkees attempt to get fingerprints is foiled by Fuselli wearing gloves, and their plan to record an incriminating conversation is ruined by the usually mechanically adept Micky screwing up with the tape recorder. (A common problem for the Monkees, see Davy in “Royal Flush“) Next, they go for breaking and destroying. They sneak into the office, in bandit masks, planning to use explosives to blow open the safe. Instead, they blow up the desk and scramble to replace it with the still intact safe. Micky looks at the camera and assures me, “They’ll never know the difference.”

Fuselli holds a meeting with the Syndicate, which gives the Monkees an opportunity to help the police arrest them all at once. Out in the dining area, the Syndicate introduces themselves, including a female gangster, Big Flora. Peter gets into it and offers his own introduction, and he really deserves the applause they give him.

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The Monkees want to stay and listen to get the goods on the Syndicate but Fuselli gives them the boot and breaks out the big map, used to divide up the city among the Syndicate members. The Monkees re-enter disguised as the Purple Flower Gang, looking fabulous in cool gangster suits with white flowers in the buttonholes and fake mustaches. Flora questions the flower color, but Micky covers this in his gruff “gangster” voice.

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Peter slips up and says they’re hungry, so now they have to also be the waiters to serve themselves food on Fuselli’s orders. In the kitchen they “choose” to see who will go get the Inspector, but end up just making Peter go. Of course they do.

At the police station, Peter is immediately arrested as part of the Purple Flower gang. He protests that his flower is white, but crazy inspector offers a call-back gag, “Don’t try to kid me, I know how tough it is to find purple flowers.” They put him under hot lights, and shake him down, then play nice and offer him coffee. He enjoys the attention and being fed. Truly, the police are treating Peter better than the other Monkees do in this episode. Peter takes credit for every criminal activity including the sinking of the Lusitania, the Great Train Robbery etc.

At the restaurant, Micky, Davy, and Mike run back and forth, quick-changing costumes from crooks to waiters as the meeting continues. The Syndicate members continue to fight over Fuselli’s map. Mike and Davy turn it into a giant game of tic-tac-toe. The chaos-loving Monkees start tearing up the map and handing out the pieces of paper. Davy stuffs some of the map into a gang member’s mouth. As the crooks start fighting, Micky and Davy shake hands on a job well done and look at us knowingly. This is one of their favorite maneuvers, delaying the antagonists by creating chaos and confusing them.

One hood says this room isn’t big enough for all of them, so the Purple Flower gang volunteers to split. The real gangsters start pulling out guns and shooting. Under the table the Monkees agree they’d better do something. Micky stands up to stop the proceedings and calls a cute young woman in a fur coat to the scene.

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Thank you, James Frawley. Or the writers, or whoever came up with that. That was a really well-placed use of a unexpected, unrelated joke.

The shooting continues. Micky pops up behind the shoulders of various bad guys and tries to get them to stop: “Five people should be able to get along!” (Bang!) “Four people should be able to get along.” That was a funny, dark joke. This is a weird, bloodless bloodbath as bodies drop on the table but no blood effects are used. The gangsters are disposable, and their faux-dramatic deaths are played for humor, they’re not deaths we feel in anyway. Under the tables, Davy and Mike coolly ignore all the chaos and gunfire and continue to play tic-tac-toe. Every crook is dead, and the Monkees are not at all bothered. They got out of the situation by letting the adversaries destroy themselves.

Peter brought the police, hurray! But no, as the Monkees, still dressed as the Purple Flower Gang, are the last men standing, the Inspector arrests them. More of “Stepping Stone” is heard with some footage from other episodes, the most relevant being the bits of them walking around the cell in Ghost Town, playing with the flood lights from “I’ve Got a Little Song Here” mixed with the prison break bit from the pilot.

They don’t show us how they straightened things out with the inspector. Maybe Pop helped, because here he is, in his restaurant saying “Play for me boys, play like you used to.” The performance is separately shot footage of “She” (Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart) with the band in grey suits and a blue background. They do some interesting angles, with Mike blurry in the foreground and the focus on Micky, who is singing. On a shallow note, Micky looks very handsome. Shots of the band are mixed in with some old black and white footage of women in bathing suits and circus performers, and other footage of people dancing. I don’t get the relevance.

Maybe I won’t forget about this one next time. There were many funny lines and this must hold the record for the most deaths in a Monkees episode. There are other violent episodes for sure. In “Everywhere a Sheik, Sheik,” a character dies on screen from poisoned meat. Many more bullets are fired in “Hillbilly Honeymoon” but we never see bodies. When we see the thugs in “Your Friendly Neighborhood Kidnappers” they are putting a guy’s feet in cement, so surely he’s about to be a corpse. Something about dark humor like this always appeals to me. On a show like The Monkees, it’s even better because it’s unexpected. It’s one of the things that keeps me coming back to the show as an adult, laughing at things that, most of the time, we’re expected to take seriously.

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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.