Monkees Vs. Macheen: “Monkees Chow Mein”

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“If you’re going to steal, steal from yourself”

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Similar to “The Spy Who Came in From the Cool”, “Monkees Chow Mein” compels the Monkees to help out the CIS (a quasi-CIA) against our nation’s cold war enemies. The title indicates that this time the villains are from China rather than Russia. James Frawley directed and Gerald Gardner and Dee Caruso wrote this episode, which aired March 13, 1967. Gardner and Caruso borrowed heavily from one of their other writing gigs, Get Smart, for this one.

The Monkees are eating in a Chinese restaurant, and Peter is packing many leftovers. In the back-room of the restaurant, the villains, Dragonman with his assistants, Toto and Chang discuss their nefarious plans. They’re putting a “secret formula” into fortune cookies; each cookie will contain a different part of the formula to be put together. Spies will sneak the cookies out of the country and give them to their “Asian Masters.”

Joey Forman, who played the title character in “Captain Crocodile,” plays the Dragonman in this one. As far as I know, Forman isn’t Asian, so they’ve got a heavy makeup job on him for the part. Dragonman is a parody of pulp fiction super-villian Fu Manchu, created by British author Sax Rohmer. There was a series of Fu Manchu films produced around this time, from 1965-69, starring British actor Christopher Lee. [Don’t forget the Peter Sellers parody! – Editor] 

Forman underwent a similar makeup process when he played Chinese-Hawaiian detective Harry Hoo, on two episodes of Get Smart, “The Amazing Harry Hoo” (1966) and “Hoo Done It” (1966). Both episodes were written by Gardner and Caruso. Harry Hoo is also a parody of another pulp fiction character, detective Charlie Chan. The villain in “The Amazing Harry Hoo” was another Fu Manchu analog, known as The Claw. In that episode, he has a very similar scheme to the one here in “Chow Mein”: The Claw was sneaking out parts of a secret formula in dry-cleaned shirts.

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Back to the Monkees: Peter (of course) accidentally grabs one of the fortune cookies containing the formula. The restaurant staff and other customers detain him. Peter calls Mike for help and the Monkees manage to get out onto the street, where they hide from their pursuers behind a newspaper. After the spies pass, Peter says, “Boy, those Chinese were sore at us.” Micky responds, “Maybe they thought we were Russians” in an allusion to “The Spy Who Came in from the Cool.”

Davy wonders what they wanted. Mike offers, “You never can tell. Orientals are a curious people.” Agent Modell (Mike Farrell from M*A*S*H) approaches and forces them all into a car at gunpoint. Davy wonders what they want, and Mike points out, “I don’t know. Occidentals are a curious people.” Aside from poking fun at the possible cultural insensitivity of Mike’s previous line, it also evens things up. People from the western or eastern parts of the globe are hard to understand.

At the CIS office, Agent Modell shines a light on the terrified Mike, and Micky and Davy who cling to Mike’s arms. Modell explains they haven’t been kidnapped; they’ve been taken into custody by the CIS for picking up stolen security information [Sure looks like a kidnapping. – Editor]. He’s tough and no-nonsense, in contrast to their cartoony panic. Modell, “You’re frightened, aren’t you? Mike, “Oh, you’re very perceptive.”

Inspector Blount comes in with Peter and clears them, “They’re in a rock n’ roll band!” Blount pulls Modell away to tell them he’s found one fourth of the formula for the Doomsday Bug. There’s a funny sight gag as the Monkees celebrate their freedom behind the two agents. Davy asks about the Doomsday bug. (Davy is a “curious people.”)

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Blount tells the Monkees that Dragonman is a “weirdo” with long hair and strange clothes, inadvertently insulting the Monkees. Embarrassed, he concedes that maybe Dragonman is not that weird. There’s a theme of insults that runs throughout this episode. The Monkees don’t want to help the CIS. As they leave, they back into the intimidating Agent Modell and scare themselves. The stern Modell and daffy Blount seem to be a reverse of the solemn Chief and bumbling Honeywell characters from “The Spy Who Came in from the Cool.”

Back at the Monkee’s house, Mike speculates that the inspector was just trying to scare them into helping. Micky is not so sure.

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The joke in the graphic above was borrowed from the Get Smart episode, “The Diplomat’s Daughter” (1965), written by Gardner and Caruso. Agent Smart and the Chief have the following exchange: Agent Smart: “We just came from the Smithsonian Institute, and we saw the plane, The Spirit of St. Louis.” Chief: “So?” Agent Smart: “Chief, Was Charles Lindbergh Chinese?” Chief: “Of course not!” Agent Smart: “Then, I think we’re being followed.”

Right after the Monkees go to bed, Chang and Toto sneak in to kidnap Peter. They take Mr. Schneider instead, indirectly insulting Peter by mistaking him for a wooden dummy. (And repeating a joke from “Your Friendly Neighborhood Kidnappers.”) After Dragonman scolds them, they return to the Monkees pad and nab Micky. Toto’s in trouble for bringing the wrong one yet again. Toto, “Forgive me master, but all Americans look alike to me.” This punch line was also used in “The Diplomat’s Daughter” when the villain, The Claw, explains to Smart why they kidnapped many blonde women, not just the Princess they wanted, “Unfortunately, Mr. Smart, all Americans look alike to us.” A joke deriving humor from the reversal of the usual stereotype.

Mike, Peter, and Davy go to the CIS to get help. Blount is comically inept at security in this scene. He takes a phone call and fills the caller in on the situation. Mike asks, “Who was that?” Blount enthusiastically replies, “I don’t know!” Blount assures them that they’re in secret headquarters and the enemy has no idea of their location. Yet, he shows no alarm or suspicion when a little boy comes in, takes their picture and runs off. Blount tells them to go home and “put their faith in the CIS.” I really enjoy the actor playing Blount with his energetically goofy performance.

Dragonman and Toto have Micky tied up in their backroom. Dragonman wants Toto to “find the Monkeee, get the cookie and bring the Monkee and the cookie to him.” Toto can’t get it right and Micky further confuses him by repeating it as, “you monk the cookie, cook the Monkee then find the cookie.” It’s similar to the “good and the hoods” bit from “Alias Micky Dolenz.” Toto is played by Gene Dynarski and was also in “Son of a Gypsy” as Zeppo. I know there’s concern about the characters in this episode that are played by non-Asian actors. I want to point out that Chang is played by Kay Shimatsu, who does appear to me to be Asian.

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Chang comes into the restaurant backroom to tell Dragonman that Peter is there. Micky rolls his eyes so hard it must have hurt. Dragonman says: “So, he has fallen into my crutches!” Micky: “You’re crutches?” The Dragonman: “Not my crutches, my crutches!”

This joke was recycled from (you guessed it) “The Diplomat’s Daughter” when The Claw introduces himself to Smart: Claw: “My name is the Craw.” Smart: “The Craw?” Claw: “No, not the Craw, the Craw!” (Here’s a little info on this myth about East Asian people and the r/l pronunciation.)

Back in the restaurant, Peter tries to order food but instead gets a mallet to the head from Toto. Peter cracks me up by stating gravely before he passes out, “No, I don’t think I care for that a bit.”

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Toto proudly drags Peter into Dragonman’s office, now that he’s got the right one. Micky sarcastically says, “Thank heavens, you’ve come!” Micky’s attitude toward Peter, with this and the earlier eye roll, is an insult. He knows Peter didn’t mean to do this, but he’s openly annoyed with him anyway.

Dragonman and his minions resort to torture to get info from Peter and Micky. Toto starts describing red ant torture. Dragonman says, “Stop! I thank you to do your fiendish work. But don’t tell me about it.” Yet another instance of repurposing “The Diplomat’s Daughter” as The Claw says the very same thing to his henchman, Bobo. The line is verbatim so I won’t retype it. (Bobo was played by Lee Kolima who was in two Monkees episodes, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cool” and “The Devil and Peter Tork.”)

Meanwhile, outside the restaurant, Davy and Mike attempt to rescue their pals. They wear lab coats and pose as inspectors from “The Pure Food and Drug Administration.” The boys try and push their way in to “inspect the kitchen” but Chang pushes them back out.

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Dragonman wants to move up to Chinese ice torture. Micky and Peter are frightened, “Chinese ice torture!” But then they ask, “What is Chinese Ice Torture?” They’re afraid of something they don’t even understand. Misunderstanding is the source of much of the xenophobia they satirize in this episode. Brilliant.

Davy and Mike return to the restaurant to engage in a different ethnic cliché: they pose as Italians wanting pizza, complete with accents and curled mustaches. Chang tells them they don’t make pizza there, so Davy and Mike aim for the kitchen to fix it themselves. Once again, Chang blocks them. I truly enjoy Mike and Davy working together in all these bits.

As Toto conducts the Chinese Ice Torture, Micky breaks down and admits they don’t know anything. They’re a singing group, which they demonstrate with an off-key rendition of “Last Train to Clarksville.” Dragonman is skeptical, “You expect me to believe you make money singing like that?” Micky clarifies, “I didn’t say we made money, I said we sing.”

Outside, Mike and Davy go into a phone booth to change into Monkeemen. The transformation includes putting on, instead of removing, Clark Kent-style glasses. It’s wonderful to see the Monkeemen again.

Dragonman decides to kill Peter and Micky if they have nothing to tell him. But, he offers them a Let’s Make a Deal-style choice to save their lives, There’s four doors, three will reveal sudden death, but the fourth leads to freedom. All they have to do is pick the right door. The bad guys leave them to it. Door one, we don’t see but hear an animal roar. The second door contains our old friend Reptilicus from “I Was a Teenage Monster.” The third reveals a cannon. The fourth door should be a way out, but instead the spies enter and menace Peter and Micky with weapons.

Just in time, the Monkeemen break down the door. An incredulous Dragonman shouts, “The door was open!” Peter and Micky declare, “We’re saved!” The Monkeemen prepare to fight Dragonman and his minions with insults, or as they call it, “psychological warfare.” Davy and Toto circle around each other and do faux martial arts moves.

Davy to Toto: “You’re a nail biter. You’re a nail biter and your mother never, ever loved you.” Toto to Davy: “You are too short. You are too short and you have no ear for music.”

Davy takes this hard, and turns to Mike for help with Toto.

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Toto is wounded, but Dragonman has had enough. He orders Toto to get the formula for the Doomsday bug. Mike fakes them out holding a pretend bug. Davy “takes it” and flings it at them. This brand of psychological warfare works on Toto and Chang. Dragonman orders his men to “get them”. A waiter with a gun prevents the Monkees from escaping.

Time for a romp to “Auntie Grizelda” (Hildebrand/Keller). Lyrically, this is a good one for this episode, since it’s about an unpleasant aunt who dislikes the song’s narrator. The romp makes use of the doors with the Monkees and the spies running in and out of them. Peter, Mike, and Micky carrying some girls through the doors, and a man in a gorilla suit carries Davy. The chase ends up in the restaurant where the Monkees put in earplugs and use the giant gong to stun the bad guys. The CIS agents come in and arrest the spies, who are quivering from the gong.

Tag sequence where the Monkees are hungry and eat more Chinese food in the restaurant. Mike notes, “Gee, I didn’t realize you could get so hungry saving your country” and Davy points out, “I come from England, and I’m hungry.”

Obviously, there was a recycling of dialogue from Get Smart to The Monkees. Interesting that the jokes they chose to repeat were those that satire Hollywood and literary stereotypes of Asian culture. The comedy is subversive and reflects back on US and British paranoia toward other ethnicities, which had been going on since the 19th century and termed “Yellow Peril.”

I do see a notable difference between the two shows. On Get Smart everyone is a straight man for Don Adams and the story follows a standard spy plot. There’s more flexibility on The Monkees and more opportunity to make a statement about relations between different cultures. Possibly even an anti-war statement, given that this was during the Vietnam War, and China was backing North Vietnam. In “Monkees Chow Mein,” there is a parallel between the way the CIS suits view the “long-haired weirdo” counterculture Monkees and the Asian spies, the fear and the distrust. At the end of the day, it’s the “long-haired weirdos” who save the day, not the g-men.

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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: “Son Of A Gypsy”

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“Everybody Wants to be in Showbiz!”

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“Son of a Gypsy” was written by the team of Gerald Gardner & Dee Caruso and Treva Silverman. I really do enjoy the ones that Silverman wrote. The story is about a gig gone wrong, but it is also a wildly improbable, high adventure territory as their opponents in this episode are a group of larger than life gypsies who really like to murder and steal. The story isn’t about any of the Monkees in particular and they work together in funny and entertaining ways to get out of trouble. “Son of a Gypsy” was directed by James Frawley and aired the day after Christmas, December 26, 1966. Weird huh? I guess back then TV didn’t go into reruns on the holidays.

To start, the Monkees are waiting in the hallway where they’ve just auditioned to play a party. Their competition is a gypsy music band: a mother and her four sons. Both groups fervently hope to get the job, but Madame Rantha comes out and announces The Monkees have it. The gypsies are furious, but not just about the loss of the gig. Maria and her sons were hoping to get the job so they could steal the Maltese Vulture, which is the episode’s MacGuffin and a clever homage to the 1941 film, The Maltese Falcon. I remember taking film studies class in college and watching this Humphrey Bogart film. This is when I learned what a MacGuffin was – a plot device that the characters pursue that’s not important to the overall story.

Maria and Co. have invited the Monkees out to their camp to show them there are “no hard feelings” for the Monkees taking their would-be gig. Against their better judgment (except Peter), the Monkees accept their offer. Maria welcomes the Monkees and gives them gypsy clothes and boar’s tooth necklaces for “luck.” She has each son take a Monkee separately on a tour of the camp, so it’s a nice parallel that there are four sons and four Monkees. I wanted to mention the son’s names: Marco, Rocco, Zeppo, and Kiko. Zeppo was the name of a member of the comedy act The Marx Brothers and the other three names certainly sound like they could be Marx Brother’s names; that’s a nice homage.

Rocco, played by Vic Tayback who was also in “Your Friendly Neighborhood Kidnappers” and “Art, For Monkees Sake” takes Micky to read his tea leaves. Micky, maybe learning from the plot of “Too Many Girls,” says he doesn’t believe in it. Rocco tells Micky his leaves say he is soon to be unconscious and Micky passes out from the drugged tea. Like I said about “Too Many Girls”, it’s easy to predict the future, if you create it. Marco, played by Vincent Beck, who played very similar characters in “Royal Flush,” and “The Card Carrying Red Shoes,” is paired with Davy. He terrifies Davy with a knife-throwing bit. Peter gets tied up by Kiko and a female who dance around him and wrap him up with scarves. Meanwhile, Zeppo wants to use Phrenology to read the bumps on Mike’s head. No bumps on his head? No problem! Zeppo hits him with a mallet and he collapses. It’s so polite the way Mike apologizes for not having bumps.  

The Monkees are now Maria’s prisoners, and she wants them to steal the Maltese Vulture for her. Micky insists they are not thieves. Maria is actually pretty scary. She threatens to let her sons, especially the very keen Marco, torture the Monkees. Watching this as a five-year-old kid, I believed she would kill the Monkees. To emphasize this point, the camera keeps showing a hot poker on the fire. The Monkees go into a fantasy about being tortured which involves stretching Davy on the rack. It leads to a great site gag and a spin on their favorite “I am standing up” joke about the diminutive Davy.

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Marco gets out the poker to use on them until Mike, giving a deep, faux-macho line-reading, agrees to steal the vulture. He asks the others how his performance was, and they say he was good. Sort of breaking the fourth wall, but not necessarily; it could work in character. The gypsies joyfully leap up and embrace and untie the Monkees; Maria kissing Davy’s face. Hilariously, Vic Tayback picks up and carries Micky. The only one not happy is Marco, who’s bummed he won’t be torturing anyone with a hot poker [Somewhat disturbing – Editor].

Maria shows them the map of the location of the Maltese Vulture in the house where they’ll be playing the party. Maria inquires about how they will steal the Maltese Vulture. As they do in “Monkees a La Carte,” the Monkees start drawing all over her map, each with their own “plan.”

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See, because Charlton Heston played Michelangelo in the 1965 film, The Agony and the Ecstasy. That joke sounds funny, even when I didn’t know that. Maria tells them she’ll be keeping Peter as a hostage and they’ll take Marco, dressed in one of their matching blue Monkees shirts, to help with the robbery. Seems like a fair trade.

The Monkees play “Let’s Dance On” (Boyce/Hart) at the party while daffy Madame Rantha scurries happily around her guests. Marco goes off to check on the guards outside the room where the Vulture is kept, so the Monkees take the chance to find some help. They try Madame Rantha, but she’s clueless. Micky goes out into the crowd and tries to enlist the help of a party guest, played by episode director James Frawley. Frawley’s slightly confused facial expressions are terrific as he listens to Micky. He almost looks like he understands, until he suddenly starts speaking Yugoslavian (or faux Yugoslavian, I’m not sure.) Similar to “Monkee See, Monkee Die,” Micky has once again tried to get aid from someone who doesn’t speak English.

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By the way, I notice Micky drinking the champagne. There’s always some vague notion about the ages of The Monkees. The actors were old enough to drink (except Davy) but in “The Monkees Watch Their Feet” for instance, the writers refer to The Monkees as teenagers.

Mike and Davy meanwhile, have gone the absurdist route. They decide to throw a message in a bottle out the window. An unseen hand gives them back two cents deposit. Thank you, Thing.

Marco marks (pun!) the two guards stationed outside the room with the Vulture. This sets off the funniest sequence in this episode: The bits where they try to steal the Vulture. While Marco stays on stage to “play,” The Monkees sneak off into the hallway and peek around the corner.

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Davy will break into the safe, if Mike and Micky distract the guards. First, Micky pretends to rob Mike. Mike plays scared in the flattest delivery possible: “Help, help. Robbery. Who is this masked man, anyway? Help, help gun. Oh, terror, terror burglar. Burglar, help. Help, help. Wallet, mine, His now.” The guards? Unimpressed. On attempt two, the boys execute an obviously fake fight with boxing gloves. Last, they light matches and shout, “Fire! Fire!” and then drop them on the ground. THAT gets the guards to move, pointing out the hallway trashcan that says “Keep Our City Clean.” The Guard asks, “Can’t you guys read?” Micky explains, “Uh, no. We’re musicians.” With that, Davy has managed to sneak into the room.

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Davy has a big black bag from somewhere. The score accompanying Davy’s actions is this cool, James Bond style riff. I love the incidental music in this entire episode, this and the Romani-style strings used for the scene’s at Maria’s camp. The music is credited to Stu Phillips.

Back to Davy, who goes to the picture where the safe is and under it is…a painting of a safe. With this, and all the other surreal gags from this segment, Davy breaks the fourth wall and looks at us in disbelief. When he gets to the real safe, he pulls an impossible assortment of items out of his bag: bolt cutters, a sledge hammer, a live rabbit, and the little dynamite plunger. He blows up the wrong thing in the room, just like “Monkees a la Carte.” It’s less funny when they just repeat the gag, as opposed to the cool variation in the earlier scene. The explosion draws the attention of the guard, who only takes a cursory look and says it’s okay. Davy gets a stethoscope to listen to the safe and  hears “Last Train to Clarksville,” then puts on a pair of gloves and finds he has another set of hands!

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He doesn’t get too far before Madame Rantha comes in to show her friend the Vulture. Micky and Mike follow behind them. Micky uses that sputtering voice from  “One Man Shy” and tries to create a distraction. More importantly, what is Mike doing to the women? He’s behind them, touching and sniffing both Rantha and her friend’s hair while they ignore him completely. Micky’s acting is so entertaining; I missed this weird Mike business in past viewings.

Micky tells Rantha she can see a flaw in the Vulture if she holds it up to “the midnight.” Midnight brings panic as that’s when Peter will be killed, so Davy steps out, grabs the Vulture and tosses it down to Maria. The gang all have their knives on Peter, so he looks up and says “thank you” when he catches it. His relieved expression and tone of voice are priceless. Madame Rantha thinks they’re the thieves of course, so she has Peter brought in and arrested. The gypsies and The Monkees are now all in the ballroom. Maria says, you can tell Peter’s a thief, it’s written all over him.

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Madame is grateful to Maria and asks what she can do in return? Maria wants the Vulture, so she grabs it and runs. This leads to a romp set to “I’m a Believer” (Neil Diamond). Monkees and gypsies run around, fight and play football. It’s a lot like the “Dance, Monkees Dance” romp with The Smoothies. The gypsies stand in line while the Monkees launch various attacks, and the guards and party guests do nothing. The gypsies pick-pocket the guests. The guards finally pull guns on the gypsies.

The Monkees performance footage edited into this romp is the “Too Many Girls” footage of the same song, with the four of them in the ivory Monkees shirts. That makes a trio of colors for Monkees shirts in “Son of a Gypsy”; red at the beginning, blue at the party, and ivory here. Also, I really dig “I’m a Believer,” but after hearing it for four episodes in a row, I’m glad to be done with it for the next one coming up. (The producers never envisioned some nut obsessively writing about these shows and watching them over and over fifty years later, I’m sure.)

Maria and sons have decided that showbiz is easier than thievery and will go the route of Bessy and her boys from “Monkees in a Ghost Town.” Maria: “Yes, you boys have showed us that my boys can make a faster dollar in show business.” Marco adds, “And with as little talent, too.” I don’t know why they’re allowed to just leave, but when they do, they’ve taken Mike’s watch, Micky’s wallet and Peter. Peter is just a more sweet-natured version of Marco, does she really need two of those?

A note about the ballroom where this party takes place, this was an often used set on The Monkees. The same space was used in: “Royal Flush” as The Ritz Swank Hotel ballroom, “Monkee See, Monkee Die” as the parlor, the discotheque in “The Spy Who Came In From The Cool,” Pop’s restaurant in “Monkees a la Carte,” Renaldo’s Dance Au Go-Go school in “Dance, Monkee, Dance”, a banquet hall in “The Case Of The Missing Monkee”, a bandstand in Dr. Mendoza’s castle for “I Was A Teenage Monster,” the throne room in “The Prince And The Paupers”, a TV show set in “Captain Crocodile,” the banquet room for “Monkees A La Mode,” a hotel suite in “Everywhere A Sheik Sheik,” an art museum in “Art For Monkee’s Sake,” a gambling casino in “The Monkees On The Wheel,” a department store in “The Monkees Christmas Show,” the setting for The Secretary’s narration in “The Monkees Watch Their Feet,” a nightclub in “The Monkees Paw,” and “The Monkees Blow Their Minds,” and the stage in the KXIW-TV studio for a Rock-a-thon Contest in “Some Like It Lukewarm.” Shout out to The Monkees Film and TV Vault for help with that list.

And a note about the gypsies: I’m well aware that The Monkees writers frequently dealt in cultural stereotypes. Romani (or Gypsy) people were characterized in fiction as associated with occult powers, such as fortune telling, and thievery and cunning as well as having passionate temperaments. Obviously not realistic depictions of Romani people. However, The Monkees were satirizing old movies and TV shows, not real people. Throughout the series, cultural stereotypes are used in “Monkees Chow Mein,” “It’s a Nice Place to Visit,” “Everywhere a Sheik, Sheik” and others. If these were being written today, my guess is that it would be done with more awareness and sensitivity [If written today, these examples would only be used to ridicule the culturally “insensitive” – Editor]. Even if they still chose to use the broadest characterizations, there would be a knowing, meta-nod to it, I imagine. However, all comedy somewhere is offending someone. If comedy isn’t risking offense, it’s probably not very funny. “Cultural Appropriation” wasn’t something on people’s minds at the time.

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And finally, I guess everyone is really loving the new Monkees album as much as I am? I really like the title track and “Me and Magdalena.” Who would have thought 50 years later we’d be enjoying such a cool new album?

Dedicated to the memory of Muhammad Ali (1942-2016)

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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.